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The current research climate favors the proliferation of many early-career-stage researchers (PhD students, postdocs) who have not enough places to go if they want to stay in academic research (recent Nature article on the issue). The amount of research-based positions in industry is arguably even more limited.

The limited amount of overall positions available make competition fierce and, even when successful, often one needs to be flexible to relocate, including moving to a new country. This all gets increasingly difficult as one becomes older and family, mortgage, etc. start to be parameters in the equations.

Doing a PhD + (one, two, three...) postdoc(s) usually makes you highly specialized in a field/discipline, but also gives you skills that can potentially be very valuable in the general job market: dedication, technical writing, analytical skills, ability to quickly learn new things, possibly proficiency with computers including coding... to name a few. I am however a bit skeptical of how much these abilities are appreciated by the average employer, and there is also the issue of how to adapt to (i.e. how to feel motivated at) a "boring" "normal" job after spending several years in the exciting and challenging world of research.

While I would ideally like to keep doing research, all the points above make me fear that at some point I will just need to seek a job outside academia, and I want to be prepared. My question is for those who have made the transition out of academia or are in senior positions and have witnessed people (un)successfully making it out. How does one pave his way out of academia? What skills are useful to develop in order to have good chances to make a successful transition? What strategies to follow and which behaviors should be avoided?

I work in condensed-matter physics, so answers specifically pertaining to STEM disciplines are particularly welcome.

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    The answer to this will depend on the field. CS PhDs are likely to have some programming skills, English PhDs, maybe not. The kinds of skills that you cultivate in grad school will depend on what kind of job you want when you get out. There are plenty of non-research industry jobs for talented CS (and maybe other STEM) PhDs, but a PhD in Political Science might not qualified for. They might be qualified for policy work, though, where the CS/STEM students are not. – Bill Barth Apr 22 '15 at 23:32
  • @BillBarth I'm in physics, I will add that to the question. – Miguel Apr 22 '15 at 23:39
  • Believe me, jobs in industry can be just as exciting and challenging as in academia. It all depends very much on what you compare. – Stephan Kolassa Apr 23 '15 at 7:18
  • @Miguel: In physics, there are likely large differences between people developing solid state devices, photovoltaic cells, batteries, etc, and people who are doing quantum loop gravity or theoretical particle physics. It all depends on how applied it is what you are doing. – Wolfgang Bangerth Apr 23 '15 at 11:54
  • @WolfgangBangerth I do computational materials modelling. – Miguel Apr 23 '15 at 12:17
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How does one pave his way out of academia?

Ideally you will want to get a non-academic job. You should start listing possible careers which you might consider. Contact friends or former lecturers who have quit academia and learn about what they have done. Maybe get involved in something on the side. For example, a friend of mine, who is now a lecturer at a university, previously did an internship at an investment bank while he was a postdoc in the US. It gave him some credentials for his Plan B, even though he didn't execute it.

It is important to have non-academic connections. Maybe go to some meetup groups in different areas. I got my job while I was a visiting lecturer because one of the profs at the university at which I was working took pity on me and mentioned to a friend of his that I was looking for a job.

What skills are useful to develop in order to have good chances to make a successful transition?

In STEM areas, computing is essential. If you have never coded, learn how by trying a small project. If you have, consider learning more languages. Look at job ads to see what skills they are looking for.

What strategies to follow and which behaviors should be avoided?

It is perfectly possible to work on a Plan B without committing yourself to leaving academia. I've seen a lot of people do this. For example, one of the best graduate students I've ever seen used to attend seminars to brush up on his mathematical finance, in case he needed it. (He never has.)

For me, the biggest obstacle was the sunk cost. All those years of study and the sacrifices made in order to do a PhD in "my" area wasted.

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