How people with non-technical PhDs can find careers in IT

Many philosophers, philologists, and poets have found enjoyable, stable, well-paid employment in the technology industry, where their skills and intelligence are valued far more highly than in academia. How did these people do it, and can you do it too? Hortensii member Joshua Gross, who has extensive experience both in academia and in the technology industry, has prepared this how-to guide for Humanities and Social Sciences PhDs interested in working in this fast-growing, lucrative field. This information is applicable primarily to the US job market.


My PhD is in the Humanities, Social Sciences, or Another Nontechnical Field: Can I Get a Job in the Technology Industry?

Yes. Academia is working hard to produce more computer science (CS) and information technology (IT) graduates every year, but the professional technology world (called IT, or rarely R&D) is still hungry for new employees; demand exceeds supply. At some point we have all pondered leaving academia, wondering what might come next. Can those two things align? Even if you don’t have a degree in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics)? Again, yes. In fact, this is article is not geared toward those in CS or other STEM areas; I’ll try to handle that in a different article.

Before you object that you don’t have the skills, let me say I entered the technology industry with a BA in English and History. Yes, I had some (mostly self-taught) technology skills, but I hardly spent four years studying computer science. I started during the dot-com bubble, but IT hiring needs right now actually outstrip those of the late nineties. It’s not just software companies seeking these employees; every business relies heavily on computers. There are even jobs at non-profits, if that is important to you.

I would be very interested in hearing from anyone interested in pursuing this kind of work (my email is gross dot joshua dot b at gmail dot com). Connect with me on Linkedn, too (note the article when you send the link request); my network may be of some use to you. I will gladly offer what advice and help I can, and I am gathering data for a possibly more substantive article supported by experiences of PhDs interested in the transition. I also have connections with professionals (all PhDs who abandoned academia) who offer everything from job counseling to resume and cover letter services (which I have used); these people charge, but I have gotten my money’s worth.

Another thing to consider, beyond the need for IT workers and the good pay, is that the jobs are challenging, interesting, growth oriented, and rewarding. You will be limited only by your potential, interest, and work; Carly Fiorina started as a secretary at Hewlett Packard and went on to become the CEO. My own rise was less meteoric, but I still managed to go from university computer lab attendee to the top levels of software development over less than a decade.

The supposedly wonderful employment benefits of academia (for those of us who are even eligible for them) are not usually as good as those in IT. Beyond good and affordable health insurance, a standard package includes dental and vision insurance (why on earth is vision insurance unavailable in academia of all places?), employer contributions to retirement (sometimes dependent on company performance and often with a waiting period), and generous (for the US) paid time off (sick days, holidays, and vacation, sometimes rolled up together). Also add intangibles like internal and external training, a relaxed work environment, and often flexible scheduling. Some companies (not all, and no company does all of it) really go further to keep their employees happy, productive, and rewarded: free coffee, snacks, and meals; telecommuting and flex scheduling; bonuses and stock grants; onsite day-care and other services; even unlimited sick time (I have had this) and unlimited vacation time (I have not had this). The one downside is that any company can have a bad quarter or year, and sometimes these things don’t happen or go away for a while. The good news about that is when you are tired of one company, you can freely move on to another, usually in the same geographical areas. I have never held a job (excluding grad school) for more than two years; in IT, this was rewarded (higher pay, etc.), whereas in academia it’s a cause for concern. Layoffs do happen in IT, but frankly, they happen in all industries, even in academia (recent eliminations of departments show that not even tenured faculty are safe).

You do not need another degree, although for all of these careers, that is an option offered by not-for-profit and for-profit institutions. If the basic answer to the question of how to get a job in IT was “get a degree”, this article wouldn’t really be necessary. A large proportion of IT comes from outside of CS, and/or like me, only earned degrees in the field after working in it professionally for a few years. You’ll need to do some learning; the degree-granting organizations help with this and may offer crucial placement skills, and not all degrees are four years of work (but before you spend any money, find out about placement services and placement rates). My goal is to show you the different routes into the career you want, noting the costs and time.

For each career, I am going to try to accomplish a few goals: first, tell you about the career, second, tell you how you can/might be able to learn and even get credentialed for that career, and third, tell you how to get your foot in the door and find your first job (after which subsequent jobs are easier to get). I’ll also talk about what to do if you are still in school to prepare yourself for this kind of work (even if you want to think of it as a backup).

Starting Out

Learning skills, gaining credentials, and getting your first job are three separate problems. Much of this can be learned through reading and practice, but then you have to convince someone you really can do the job, so you’ll need to follow up your learning with networking and building concrete examples of your skills.

To learn material, use free resources when you can; MOOCs (massively online open courses) are great tools. Google is your friend, as is Stack Overflow, a community of technologists who are very active in helping one another. Sometimes it’s worth investing in a face-to-face education, particularly in programming; the prices might sound scary, but consider the years and dollars you’ve invested in a degree that didn’t get you a (steady, well-paying) job. Always ask about placement services and rates, and ask about scholarships; some of the programs have scholarships, typically for women and minorities.

You will need to network. I’m an introvert and find this challenging at times, but it’s necessary. The first places to network are professional organizations and user groups. You know professional organizations already. User groups are devoted to a technology, like Linux, .NET, or Java, or to a type of work, like business analysis. Most of the participants are working professionals who want to advance their skills and socialize around the tools they work with. In big cities, there are also groups for professional women and minorities in technology fields, and they are supportive and even eager to recruit. All of these groups have mailing lists, some devoted exclusively to jobs.

Another place to network is a HackerSpace. HackerSpaces are independent workspaces where technologists get together to learn, play with, and teach new technologies, so these can be great places to learn something new and network at the same time. The HackerSpace general approach is to be free, but I’ve heard of small charges for materials. San Francisco even has a women-only Hackerspace. As you might guess, user groups and HackerSpaces are more prevalent and more active in urban areas. Both user groups and HackerSpaces are important for technical jobs; for nontechnical jobs like tech writer and business analyst, they still can be good networking opportunities, but programs and presentations might not be interesting to you.

If you are still near your university or near a city, attend job fairs. Universities generally welcome graduates; in fact, if you are near a large university, they usually advertise their job fairs on the career center website and usually don’t check ID, so even if you’ve never attended the school, just show up bright and shiny with a leather portfolio and stack of resumes. There are also regular job fairs in large metropolitan areas that are open to the public. There are two kinds of business representatives at job fairs: HR and actual worker bees. Try hard to get in front of the worker bees and show them what you can do.

A Few General Thoughts on Non-Academic Jobs

The toughest thing about IT is getting your first job. You should search for jobs on sites like Dice and Monster, and on sites for specific companies, but don’t rely solely on this. Unlike academic hires, applicant pools in IT are readily ignored in favor of someone’s friend or former colleague, often because the applicant pool is too large to really be of use. Most IT hires (and this is generally true outside of academia) are done through personal and professional networks. I’ll cover how to build a network for specific jobs, but you should be on LinkedIn now. As in now. Go. Do it.

Once you are ready for an active job search, which might range from a couple of weeks of learning online to years (should you go the route of an additional degree), it will take a while to get a job. Even if you follow every recommendation I offer, that isn’t going to change. My best-case scenario had me employed within a week, and my worst case, in the dot-com burst, was six months, but that was during a particularly cruel time and I had been laid off. It’s always easier to get another job when you have a job.

As you build your professional network, ask for informational interviews. One somewhat hidden technique is to call recruiting professionals and firms (they can be found online). Ask for informational interviews from them, too. Be persistent. These are people who earn their living by placing talented people into good jobs, and let’s face it, you have the proven ability to impress with your intelligence. For some careers, this will be more successful than for others.

With some exceptions for big companies, IT job searches are local. Most entry-level jobs will not consider candidates who are not in the immediate area, and on the rare occasion that they will, they will often not cover travel expenses for an interview. There also aren’t interview festivals like MLA. This can be a good thing: you can pick where you want to live, locate there, and not have to move around if you want to change jobs. Jobs are more plentiful in metro areas, but you have to have the financial means to set yourself up somewhere and live for a while conducting a job search. This is much easier (and cheaper) in, say, St. Louis than it is in NYC.

Job interviews outside of academia are much less stressful in my opinion. It’s rare to be interviewed by multiple people at the same time. You generally won’t be asked to conduct a presentation; it’s all question and answer. Often you’ll be interviewed by HR first; this is usually an attempt to gauge whether you are a good “fit” for the corporate culture (which might not be the culture of the IT department). Look up “behavioral interviewing”. This can act as a screening round to determine if you even meet the hiring manager; it’s not unusual to have multiple rounds of interviews, separated by days or weeks. I’ve had IT interviews run most of a day, but that’s rare; two hours is more typical.

You do need to present yourself professionally, so wear a suit (some women wear dresses), remove any facial jewellery, and maybe this isn’t the best time for bright pink hair. No tattoos should show. HR will generally be dressed well, but when you get to the technical department, don’t be surprised if you are being interviewed by a scruffy person dressed in shorts and a t-shirt. IT workers are notoriously casual. There are even companies where wearing a suit will disqualify you for the job; but this is rare and is such a “gotcha” that it’s not worth worrying about.

Your resume will be read before your cover letter. Many companies use software to scan for keywords, so make sure your resume and cover letter hit the exact same keywords used in the posting. One neat technique is to use Wordle to see what keywords get used the most. The annoying thing is that your resume will have to please the software they use to scan, then HR, and then the hiring manager; it’s tough to do with one document. The ratio of applications to interviews is large, and while the ratio of interviews to offers is much smaller, it’s not as small as academia, where only a few will make it to campus.

Everyone who interviews you is going to give input on your hiring, but the final decision is usually made by one person: the hiring manager. I’ve heard of hiring managers even asking office staff, like the receptionist, for input, so how you comport yourself is important. This goes back to that nebulous concept of being a good “fit”. If you are made an offer, you will generally be expected to decide within a week, and expected to start somewhere between two and four weeks later. Salary is usually negotiable (and some companies lowball their first offers), vacation can be negotiable (sometimes I’ve gotten an extra week), and this is when to discuss flex time and telecommuting. I’ve seen writers suggest negotiating a slew of other things, but I have never succeeded; I tried to get employers to lower my salary to pay for my MS coursework (and thus save taxes), but never had this work.

There’s probably going to be bias against you for having a PhD, but you’ll never know that directly, so don’t worry about it. Expect to get asked why you are leaving academia. While we on the inside are very aware of the disproportion between job seekers and jobs in academia, the general public is not, and “I can’t find a job in my field” is not really a good answer. A much better answer is something like: I believe that [fill in the career] is a wonderful opportunity to use and grow my skills in my career as a [fill in the job], and [fill in the company] is so great a fit for me because [fill in something you learned about what the company does]. You will obviously need to research the company, but unfortunately, you usually won’t be able to research the hiring manager or department (although Glassdoor has lots of insider info, but it’s unverified) as you would in academia.

Do not be afraid to apply for and take an internship! These are (paid) chances to get inside a company and get that critical first professional experience, and for companies these are low-risk trial periods. Companies generally want and have high rates of converting interns to full-time employees. You can continue to job hunt while you have an internship, and if you get an offer, you can take it or use it as leverage to get out of the internship and into a full time position with the internship company. Most interns are undergrads who haven’t finished their degrees yet, but what do you care?

Identify Your Existing Relevant Skills for Resume Preparation

Don’t forget that you are already a highly skilled professional. There’s a model in the IT world called the “T-shaped professional”. The base of the T is deep technical skills, and the cross of the T is broad soft skills. You probably have many of the soft skills nailed, although there is a bit of a jargon switch: communication (oral and written), teamwork (collaboration), working under supervision, working independently, conducting effective meetings (teaching), evaluating the work of others (reviewing and grading), and conflict resolution.

You have some deep technical skills, but a) they need tuning, and b) you’ll need others. You know how to conduct research, which is crucial, but your research methods may not match up with those needed for a specific career. Social science methods dominate the professional world: surveys, focus groups, interviews, observation, and quantitative data analysis. Intertextuality, not so much.

The additional tech skills you will need depend on the career you want, and I’ll cover those skills under each separate section. You aren’t going to build these skills in a week, but it won’t take forever, and again, you don’t need another degree.

Help Desk

At the basic level of IT are help desk staff, sometimes called technology support or computer support. They are the ones who walk around offices fixing email or Word or printers. Learning these skills can be done quite quickly, and there is inexpensive and useful certification.

My instinct is to tell you not to bother. Even with the right credentials, I doubt anyone will hire you once they see your PhD. Help desk is one of the few places in IT where not everyone even has a bachelor’s degree, so you might not be seen as a good fit. Also, help desk generally offers few opportunities for advancement, and it is very much a service industry. Working help desk while you are still a student is an exception; I’ll talk about that when I get to the still-in-school section.

That said, it is a chance to break into technology, and even if direct promotion isn’t possible, a job will help gain experience and grow your network. Also, there are a lot of jobs, even outside of major metro areas. I would recommend A+ certification, but don’t spend $2,000 on a class. The test is about $200, so get a book and self-study; after the GRE, this will not seem hard. It wouldn’t hurt to take apart a desktop computer if you happen to have one handy (and then put it back together, of course); learning everything from a book will leave you a little imbalanced. You can buy a cheap PC desktop on eBay. Sometimes HackerSpaces and even community education have programs to teach you computer hardware basics.

My first real (post bachelor’s degree) job was on a help desk, and I left after two weeks. The job was with an investment bank, and was essentially temp work. A couple of days after I started, I was offered a permanent job making more money, and in a specialized support field with advancement possibilities. The bank countered with a full-time permanent job making $4K more, and I turned them down. I saw that there was no likely path for advancement.

Tech Writer

Perhaps the most common tech job for non-STEM PhD is technical writer. Tech writers typically write user documentation, but sometimes they write business proposals and research reports. Most of the tech writers I’ve known have been fairly computer-savvy, but none have had formal training in IT or CS.

The biggest challenge with technical writing is that your audience will no longer be at the top of the bell curve. Tech writing has to be clear and straightforward, and it leaves little room for subtlety. My favorite tech doc book is The Nurnberg Funnel, but even at an academic library you’ll need to get this through inter-library loan. This book thoroughly explains what users actually need in order to effectively use computer hardware and software; it’s an old book but has aged well.

On top of mastering the writing technique, you will also need to learn some technology (almost all of which you can get on a free trial), particularly desktop publishing software (like FrameMaker), PowerPoint, Photoshop (just basics), building web pages (use Dreamweaver or an online tool), HTML (hypertext markup language, the basic language of the world wide web), CSS (cascading style sheets, used to format and lay out HTML), and SEO (search engine optimization). Buy an account with a hosting service (more later) and build a portfolio using WordPress, a CMS (content management system, a tool for containing and presenting documentation), even if it’s of practice work, and consider building a social media presence (Twitter, Instagram, and a blog, which can be done right in WordPress). Of course, you are already on LinkedIn. You are, right? Good. All of this can be learned online, although user groups and books can be a big help.

Tech writing jobs are regularly posted to job boards, and you should look there. In addition, there are several professional associations, some of which have regional chapters that have networking events. The one I know best is the Society for Technical Communication (STC). They offer a discounted membership for students and recent graduates.

Business Analyst

Another highly relevant job for a PhD is business analyst (BA), sometimes called a requirements engineer. These are the people who study business problems, write down detailed specifications of what software would need to do, and work with programmers to help them understand the business problem. Being a BA is great for a PhD: it’s a research and writing job. If you have skills in gathering human data through observation, interviews, surveys, or focus groups, they will help. Statistics is another very useful tool. You don’t need any specific technology skills, but you will need to learn about how software development projects run.

Business analysts (BAs) come from many different fields and typically learn on the job. There are two parts to a being a BA: knowing a domain and having BA skills. Depending on your field of study, you might already be a SME (subject matter expert), also called a domain expert, on some function of some businesses; if not, you might pick one or two target industries (financial services and healthcare are a growing fields) and hit the books (and MOOCs). You’ll need to learn about different ways to document and present requirements, such as use cases and story cards. You should also learn about different software development processes (also called the software development life cycle), including RUP (Rational Unified Process, a commercial version of Unified Process) and agile methods like XP and Scrum, which stress very lightweight documentation. As with technical writing, all of this can be learned online.

There are recognized industry certifications in business analysis (and project management), but these are for experienced professionals with thousands of hours of experience (a typical work year is counted as 2,000 hours) and often require expensive professional development coursework. This route is probably a dead end.

There is a professional association for BAs, the International Institute of Business Analysis. I don’t know much about them, because they launched in 2003, as I was about to leave the profession. However, they have over 14,000 members, which is more than twice that of the much-older STC. Local chapters would be great places to network. My friends and colleagues who have been BAs come from all over, and many fell into business analysis. This often happened because they connected with and impressed someone recruiting for one of these jobs.

Software Development/Software Engineer/Programmer

Software development is primarily what I did for eight years. These are people who write and test software code for everything from video games to web applications to desktop software like Word. This is, without a doubt, the most creative type of work in technology. Good developers are more than just programmers; they’re people who build virtual worlds of interconnected concepts synchronized to solve tricky problems. Unlike help desk, there is a lot of room for advancement and an open mind about relatively unusual qualifications. However, many people don’t like programming. There is a lot of interaction with other people, but you will spend a fair bit of time with your head down, puzzling through problems in what amounts to a foreign language or two.

Before you make the decision to plunk down $15,000 and/or six months to four years of hard work, you want to know if this is for you. There’s an easy test (there’s actually good research that this is effective). Download Scratch, which is a free programming environment that allows you to write code or use visual tools to construct interactive programs. Then start going through Scratch tutorials. You might fall in love, or you might waste an evening. Don’t be intimidated; I did this with teachers (who typically had a high school education) and students in rural Haiti; all they had were the computers and some basic tutorials translated in Haitian Creole.

However, Scratch won’t get you a job. For web development, I would start by learning basic command line interaction in Linux, a free operating system. There are inexpensive web hosting sites that will give you all of the software you need. Then you’ll need to learn JavaScript, HTML5, CSS, XML, and how to use relational databases, using SQL. It would be useful to add Ruby on Rails. This is why schools like Flatiron and General Assembly exist; this isn’t stuff you’re going to learn overnight. You can do it all through online tutorials, but even a motivated, autodidact, self-directed, and overeducated person will struggle.

If you want to be a programmer, you can see have a lot to learn, and you might find you love it (I did). There are a few different places to go to learn, each with its advantages and costs. I’ll start from (roughly) cheapest and slowest and move to fastest and most expensive. The software development industry has a huge bias toward people who have at least a bachelor’s degree, although what that degree is in is less important than having the degree.

You can learn a lot on Khan Academy, Code Academy, and other free services; however, they don’t issue any kind of real credential or offer job placement services. You will eventually need to go beyond what they teach, but there are plenty of resources that will teach you more advanced topics, if slightly less structured and possibly of lower quality than the more sophisticated learning sites. If you go this route, your portfolio becomes even more critical, so try building stuff on your own that goes beyond what you learn in the tutorials.

Given the preference for bachelor’s degrees, the temptation to return for another 4-year degree may seem the obvious choice, but it is hardly a quick path to a job, and not usually necessary. At some universities, you can get into a master’s degree program with roughly three semesters of (reasonably hard) preparation work at the undergraduate level, giving you the opportunity to finish with an MS in CS or a related field in less than four years (but not much less). An MS will generally improve your job hunting and give you a boost in salary. Public school tuition typically ranges from $3,000 to $6,000 a semester. There are many scholarship programs at both undergrad and grad levels, especially for women and minorities. The university should hold regular job fairs for internships and full time jobs, and have a career center that can tell you about placement statistics. I know from experience that there are many companies that regularly want to conduct on-campus information sessions and interviews, but some schools don’t give them the opportunity. I know very little about online and/or for-profit schools; I have never attended or taught at one, and never even saw a resume from anyone who attended one.

Community colleges often offer really good programs. These programs generally fall into two categories: stand-alone programs and transfer-preparation programs. The stand alone programs usually lead to some kind of certificate or an Associate of Applied Science degree; for years I have watched students from these programs (who don’t also have a prior bachelor’s degree) struggle to get jobs, but as it’s just an additional degree for you, your experience will be different. I have definitely seen career-changers launch IT careers from these programs. The transfer-prep programs are often 2+2 degrees, offering two years of community college coursework and programmatic transfer to a local (usually public) university for the final two years of a CS degree. Community college tuition can be very cheap (even as low as $100/credit), but even with overloads and summer coursework, it will probably take 18 months to complete either kind of program. Community colleges have career centers, but they’re generally preparation centers that teach resume writing and interview preparation. Companies generally don’t actively recruit developers from community colleges.

Local and national companies offer weeklong courses, at $2,000-5,000, but these are geared toward experienced programmers looking to learn a new language. Having taught these courses, I can tell you that the success rate even for experienced programmers is not high. These usually have no job placement services. I did once hire a student who had only had training from these kinds of courses, but he was unusual, took several courses, spent time developing with his new skills, and came in with a very nice portfolio.

There are relatively new schools like Flatiron and General Assembly that will teach you enough to begin work at an entry level; but the programs aren’t cheap and aren’t a guarantee, although they have job placement services and seem to have excellent placement rates (but ask). The programs are typically full-time, around 12 weeks long, and Flatiron was recently charging $15,000 for its fairly comprehensive web development academy. Add to that cost the cost of living in a city for those three months, and add at least a couple of months for a job search. One note is that they don’t accept everyone; there’s an application followed by an interview, and they want bright, motivated people. I know Flatiron also requires a few weeks worth of prep work before you even begin classes.

Regardless of how you learn, you’ll need to build a portfolio, and as mentioned above, there are inexpensive hosting sites to help. Friends strongly recommend iPage. I don’t know about their sales, but the typical cost is $10-15/month. Make sure they can support all of the software you’re going to be using, and check on policies to transfer domains to another service. Your portfolio should contain examples that show both your technical skill and your creativity. One way to expand your portfolio is through volunteer programs like SocialCoding4Good.

Unless you go for a BS or MS, it’s unlikely that your first job will be under the title of software engineer. Web development has the most jobs and the fewest requirements for entry, but there’s a lot of competition for these jobs. The typical job title is Web Developer or Full Stack Web Developer. If you build a portfolio of neat web apps in the process of learning, you can be competitive. Once you get in, you’ll need to keep learning. I did this and decided to get a credential and chose a regional school that had a very flexible MS program in software engineering (a nearby R1 offered the same degree, but you had to attend classes on alternating Fridays and Saturdays for two years, and I could not guarantee being able to take Fridays off). It took me seven semesters to earn my degree, but I never took summer classes; I just took two courses per semester. I was employed (mostly) throughout the program. Sometimes my employer would pay for my courses, but even when they didn’t, I could afford the expense. Software developers make good money. The additional credential and knowledge undoubtedly helped me move up the ranks professionally.

As noted above, if you go to Flatiron, General Assembly, or a university, you’ll have access to job search resources. If you don’t, you’re on your own, and again, networking with user groups and at HackerSpaces are critical either way. The big professional societies in computing are the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and IEEE Computer Society, each of which has local chapters and topical communities; many of the mailing lists (including SIG lists and job lists) they offer don’t require actual membership. It’s rare that IT workers outside of software development are members of these professional societies, and many (perhaps most) developers aren’t members, either.

Get involved with user groups, HackerSpaces, and professional societies when you start learning; don’t wait until you are experienced. You can try calling recruiters as suggested above, but most won’t take on clients who don’t have prior work experience. As noted above, job fairs are great places to get connected to people.

Beyond a simple portfolio, there are other things that you can do to raise your online profile: get active on Stack Overflow, release some software open source, work on existing open source projects, and use social media to talk about your experiences. Get to know and love Slashdot. Subscribe to Dr. Dobb’s Journal.


Another group of jobs comes under the head of technology administrators. These are people who run and maintain systems, so web administrators manage web servers, email administrators manage email servers, database administrators manage databases, network managers run networks, and systems administrators manage the computers themselves that all of these programs run on. Sometimes, although rarely, these people have risen from the helpdesk ranks, but most start as junior administrators.

Good administrators are highly organized people. They like scripts, processes, procedures, and rulebooks to follow. They like independent problem solving. If this sounds good to you, this might be the right career for you.

Many administrators learn their skills at community colleges, and there are some excellent community college programs that lead to certifications that dominate the commercial software part of this world. You will not be the only person who already has a degree; these programs are popular with career changers. Of course, this path can take two years of work, although that’s not an absolute (overloading and taking courses over summers can shorten that time).

The way that most people train to be administrators is through work in entry-level jobs, augmented with learning at professional training courses. Most of these jobs are at big corporations, and CS and other STEM graduates are the typical targets for recruits. You can definitely apply, but the more experience you have with technology, the better.

The aforementioned fast professional training courses are run by for-profit companies. Courses are usually a week long and again cost from $2,000-5,000 dollars; they’re expensive in part because it’s almost always a company paying. For most administrator skills, multiple courses are necessary. Many prepare you for certification exams, but these exams are a) tough (requiring further independent study), and b) further costs (a couple hundred dollars a shot, and you’ll probably need several, and may fail one or more). The worst part is that you often won’t have access to the software outside of that expensive coursework.

If you want to learn on your own, here’s where open-source software (OSS) comes in. These are programs where the source code, the written instructions that make the application, is distributed freely. The applications are free as in “free speech”, not necessarily free as in “free beer”. They usually are free as in “free beer”, but exceptions exist (such as RedHat Linux). Certifications aren’t a big deal in the OSS world, and there’s no need to pay for expensive coursework, although you’ll have to do a lot of work on your own. OSS is just as crucial to many business operations as commercial software.

Find a PC (it can be old) and install Ubuntu (your first task is to figure out what that is and how to install it, but the process is well documented). Then set up software that interests you. Install Jakarta, which is a free web server. Install MySQL, which is a free database. Install WordPress or Drupal, which are free content management systems. None of this will be frustration-free, and your patience is a good indicator of whether or not this field is right for you.

Getting your first job will be tough, but not impossible. Many admins have degrees in CS, but CS doesn’t really train them for this job; they just get exposed to the knowledge in the process of doing their coursework, and some decide they really love it. Many admins are people who started messing around with this software just as you can. You can build a site that people can access, much like a portfolio. Another possibility is to get experience as a volunteer through programs like VolunteerMatch, CatchAFire, or Team4Tech. There are paying jobs, usually part time, for administrators working with nonprofits; you can look for these at

While there is a lot of software beyond Linux, Linux user groups are the best place to build your network, learn, and get help solving problems on all things OSS. Unlike professional organizations, Linux user groups are completely independent of one another. They’re generally free. Linux is such popular software that there are user groups in unexpected places.

Technology Consultant

Another career is technology consultant at a big consulting firm (small consulting companies expect skills and experience, so ignore those). These are people employed by companies like Accenture who generally come into a business, for a period ranging from two weeks to multiple years, to design and implement some service the company needs, but needs outside experts for. I worked for one of these companies for two years, and left only because I wanted to be in the dot-com world. Management consulting (often done by the same companies) is an entirely different subject, and not on topic for this post.

The secret of many big technology consulting firms is that most of their consultants start out with little (if any) prior experience with what they are consulting on, save intensive training from the consulting firm itself. The project is sold by a trained salesperson or partner. The sale is based upon the reputation of the company, not of the individual consultant. Junior consultants are always supervised by more experienced consultants and are taught and given support, but the firm will expect you to work hard learn quickly.

What kind of work will you do? It depends, and it’s likely to change over time. You might be installing, configuring, and managing software (see the section on Administrators above). You might be working with Enterprise Resource Planner (ERP) software; these are big, expensive software packages that allow businesses to administer everything from payroll to manufacturing. You might end up in software development (see above), and you might end up a business analyst (see above). During my time, I wrote software, managed a database, and was supposed to spend six months in Japan installing new computers and software. I had little to no experience with any of this when I started.

Technology consulting for a big company is one of the few jobs where applying by submitting a resume actually can turn into an interview offer. Accenture has a neat system where, if you know someone at Accenture, you can submit a resume and cover letter for recommendation by the person you know. These firms tend to hire recent graduates (at the bachelor and master and sometimes doctoral levels) from STEM fields, but obviously one hired me with my BA in English, and we regularly got PhD applicants. The long-standing big names are the aforementioned Accenture, along with PwC, Deloitte, KPMG, Cap Gemini, and Ernst & Young.

You would be looking for an entry-level position, but all have well-structured career paths. Some caveats: consultants work long hours (I typically worked 50-60 hour weeks, but I know a management consultant who has worked 80+ hour weeks for 20 years), and often travel full-time (as in, never spending a week at home). I did not travel, which I would have liked to have done, but got great experience. Attrition is fairly high; many leave because they don’t like the work or hours, and the general policy is that you will be reviewed yearly and given a raise or shown the door, based on your performance. Some of these firms are still (at least nominally) partnerships, and a career can lead to an offer of partnership, but the number of people who make it that far are few. The good news, though, is that having one of these companies on your resume is something like attending an Ivy; I left my job over a decade ago, and still get contacts from recruiters looking for alumni of the company.


User interaction (UI), traditionally called human-computer interaction (HCI), now often called user experiences (UX), is a difficult career to break into. My home lab for my PhD was an HCI lab, but I’m not qualified for this work anymore, as most of the jobs have shifted from HCI to UX. When the jobs were HCI, you needed to be an organized analyst with detailed knowledge of how people use computers and how to assess the quality of the user interaction of a piece of software. In UX, you have to be an excellent designer (e.g., commercial artist) first, and knowing how to actually design, develop, and test user interactions is now less important.

General Assembly offers a UI/UX course, but I rarely see junior openings, and if you aren’t already a decent artist with wicked Photoshop skills, I don’t know how much this program could do for you, and you might be screened out. If you have a year and $60,000 to spare, Carnegie Mellon has a great one-year master’s program in HCI (although it’s very competitive) with an excellent history of placement; many of the students will be recent CS graduates, but they are very open minded about admissions. There are other master’s programs in HCI, but I have not interacted with them or their students.

Project Manager

A final category is project manager. This is often what friends with PhDs have been intrigued by, but most project managers are technologists, programmers and the like, who have been internally promoted, often after taking on project management responsibilities part time. I have never seen a project manager hired with no technology experience.

If You Are Still In School (or Nearby)

The best time to decide that you want to look outside academia for work is as early as possible in your graduate program. Even during your dissertation work, though, you generally can take courses. I know, I know, you’re writing, you don’t have time for classes, but consider this: even if you have to spend another year as a wage-slave grading student papers, it’s worth the time if you can have a fallback position from academia.

Taking introductory computer science courses is a great idea. Sometimes you need your advisor or department chair to sign off on you taking undergraduate courses. I graduated college with precisely one computer science course, but I would recommend you take these: introductory programming, object-oriented programming, and data structures. Introductory CS coursework is not easy and has a high attrition rate, and computer science instructors, from grad students to senior faculty, are often not the most talented educators (but they are improving). Then again, you’re working on a PhD; you are not one who is easily deterred.

Regardless of your field, take statistics. Unfortunately, teaching in statistics departments can be worse than teaching in computer science. I hated my first statistics course; nothing was contextualized or applied, and I think I was more confused by probability at the end of the course than at the beginning. Fortunately, just about everyone in the social sciences and STEM disciplines uses statistics, so there are generally a lot of good statistics educators in other departments. I really learned stats from the communications department. Often statistics is embedded in a program’s research methods coursework, and some departments only allowed their students to take their research methods class, but communications welcomed me.

Another thing to explore at school, especially if you aren’t funded, are student part-time tech jobs, such as working on a help desk, at a computer lab, or even the campus computer store. I got started in a computer lab when I was an undergraduate. I would also recommend getting active in student clubs for technology professionals, typically run out of the computer science department. These are very much like user groups, although many have resources to work with, like HackerSpaces. Many smart hiring managers will use these groups to recruit.

Summing Up

In short, there are opportunities in the tech industry for those who have spent their time studying something esoteric instead of something practical. It’s a growing industry that needs warm bodies (or rather, minds), but it’s also a place where deep and different thought are rewarded. The IT world will challenge you, and reward you for tackling those challenges. You will need to put in effort, but if you carry through, that effort will be rewarded. As noted above, this article is just a primer; feel free to reach out to me!


5 thoughts on “How people with non-technical PhDs can find careers in IT

  1. Pingback: IT as an Employment Home for Wayward PhDs | My Blog

  2. Pingback: Information Technology: The Accidental Career for Ph.Ds | News Leader

  3. Pingback: Published in the Chronicle! | My Blog

  4. Pingback: Information Technology: The Accidental Career for Ph.Ds | My- Tech Lab

  5. I will gladly assist in any way I can. There is an open access (until the end of 2015) section of the journal Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology & Heritage Studies in JSTOR, entitled “FORUM Investing in the Future of the Past: Alternative Careers for Mediterranean Archaeologists” ( in which several of us who have managed Alt-Ac careers have contributed. I trust it is of interest.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s