In the Trailblazers Beyond the Tenure Track series, current Princeton graduate students interview graduate alumni pursuing a range of careers beyond the tenure track. Collectively, these stories help graduate students develop a vision of the journey ahead by exploring the experiences of trailblazers who have gone before them.
I’m currently a Policy Advisor in the British Civil Service based in London, UK. I graduated from Princeton in 2019 with a Ph.D. in Classics – my topic was Ancient Greek inscriptions and whether they align with canonical narratives surrounding the origin of democracy in the fifth century BC.
Laying the groundwork
I didn’t necessarily know that when I started my Ph.D. I wanted to go into academia. I absolutely loved my Ph.D. and my overall time at Princeton. But I knew (like many others) that the academic route was a difficult career path to take. So, I went in with an already healthy amount of skepticism about following this trajectory after graduation!
Still, there was the heavy expectation that the tenure track was the correct path for us to take. In fact, in the Classics department we didn’t talk much about what people did after their Ph.D. unless it was in academia – it was the expected route for all us. I felt a bit like the odd one out at Princeton and like many grad students, kept my interest in careers outside of academia largely to myself.
Around my third year, after I finished generals, I began to think seriously about what other things I could do. I started registering my interest in a career outside of academia, particularly through having conversations with the Center for Career Development about specific routes. When I was interacting with them, one of the really amazing things they did was helping me to define what I was good at – although I still didn’t know exactly what I would do after. I think it is important for grad students to realize that career services can really help you - people just don’t realize how many resources are available.
The moment that changed everything
My path radically changed when I was searching for non-academic jobs both online and through talking to people. I almost completely randomly happened upon an internship at the Cabinet Office in London. They have a specific route just for PhDs, one which helps to take their skillset and apply it in a policy setting. I always thought that the Civil Service was interesting, although I was never wedded to the idea. But getting that concrete experience made me realize how much I loved it and wanted to pursue the option.
At this point, I cannot express enough just how amazing Amy Pszczolkowski was. It was only because of her help that we managed to get funding from Princeton to actually support me (outside of my stipend) for this three-month internship. Now I know that this opportunity is actually regularly available – the Graduate School will help place you somewhere and financially support you to the same value as your stipend. Originally, I thought to myself that this would be highly unlikely – it wasn’t so much funding as much as it was getting Princeton to pay my stipend for longer. Plus, it wasn’t advertised back then, although I knew that there was a growing awareness that the Grad students needed help to find experience outside of the track.
Life outside academia
A series of very fortunate events led me to where I am now. I found the GradFUTURES Fellowship, loved it, and came back in a full-time role after I graduated. What’s more, I found that it was very similar to academia in many ways. Especially in the Civil Service, the range of options for jobs is absolutely massive – so there are plenty of advantages for starting your career here.
I absolutely love what I do. I don’t necessarily expect to be in the Civil Service forever, but if I wanted to go into something like consultancy I would be in a much better place. My work is very similar to consultancy, and the doors are open to these kinds of transitions.
Plus, life is way less stressful because I work and then I can switch off. You don’t realize the toll it takes on you having to motivate yourself the whole time. When you’re in a job what you are being asked to do is often very varied. It is quite a change from the monotony of writing – when it’s just the same thing, day in, day out. I have a much better work/life balance, and many parts of my job are now much more like a form of personal development.
Best advice for graduate students
If you are intending on not pursuing academia, then it is very useful to take a step back from your PhD before you finish. I was lucky - once I defended my PhD I came back in a full-time role from my internship. Much better than leaping off of the cliff after having finished!
A PhD can be very useful in a non-academic job, but it often takes a bit of time in an organization until you see exactly how it is useful. It is not precisely connected in terms of content to your PhD specifically. But having done an internship just for post-PhDs, you realize how many research roles there are. Policymaking is actually very academic, and you need a similar skillset to thrive.
I would also say that from day one, you need a bit of a mindset change. Engage with GradFUTURES and the [Center for Career Development] earlier, especially routes into experiential opportunities and internships. Don’t think that your skills aren’t transferable and that all you can do are jobs close to academia. But you need help to get the guidance to explore internships to realize that all that stuff is perfectly possible. For some jobs you might enter at a more junior level, and that can be a bit disconcerting to be working with people younger than you. People feel a bit awkward getting work experience at an older age. I was quite fortunate to have ended up in a job where this didn’t matter so much, as I got a bit of paranoia that I would be too old in comparison. But even if you did have to do this, the reality is that you will move up quite quickly.
Lastly, it is important to establish an actual network of people outside of academia who can help you. This is key and something that graduate students often neglect.
I would end by emphasizing how grateful I am to Amy and the Graduate School for helping to organize the financial support for me during my critical internship in the Civil Service. Many graduate students get the sense that they are being overlooked, which is a shame because they are often just unaware of the resources which are available to them. I hope this can contribute to them seeing what incredible opportunities the Graduate School provides everyone who was in my position.
This interview has been edited for clarity.