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Studies in Higher Education
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PhD holders entering non-academic workplaces:
organisational culture shock
I. Skakni , K. Inouye & L. McAlpine
To cite this article: I. Skakni , K. Inouye & L. McAlpine (2021): PhD holders entering non-
academic workplaces: organisational culture shock, Studies in Higher Education, DOI:
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2021.1876650
Published online: 20 Jan 2021.
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PhD holders entering non-academic workplaces: organisational
, K. Inouye
and L. McAlpine
Department of Educational Science, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK;
Division of Research and Innovation,
University of Applied Sciences and Arts Western Switzerland, Delémont, Switzerland;
Department of Education,
University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
This paper addresses the subjective experiences of PhD holders from
Switzerland and the UK who pursue careers beyond academia. Drawing
on the concepts of organisational culture and culture shock, we
examined the challenges that characterise this passage from academia
to non-academic workplaces. With an exploratory aim, we analysed 32
semi-structured interviews conducted with PhDs engaged in non-
academic careers in private, public, or parapublic sectors for ten years
or less. It emerged that, when they entered non-academic workplaces,
half of our participants devoted a large portion of their time and energy
to understanding a new organisational culture, including their
workplaces’daily functioning, the values shared within their
organisations, and the statuses to which they were assigned. This
puzzling experience, which we deﬁne as organisational culture shock,
was reported more frequently by those who entered non-academic
workplaces directly after the PhD and those with little or no work
experiences prior to the PhD. These ﬁndings contribute to the ongoing
global conversation about how to prepare PhDs for careers beyond
PhD holders; non-academic
culture; academic culture;
Whereas the joys and challenges of doctoral journeys have been documented widely over the last
few decades, the literature about life after the PhD remains scarce, especially in non-academic
sectors (McAlpine and Amundsen 2016). However, a vast majority of PhDs now ﬁnd themselves in
non-academic positions –whether intentionally or not (Vitae 2016). For instance, in Canada and
the United States, less than 25% of PhDs can expect to obtain a tenure track position during their
time in the labour market (Etmanski, Walters, and Zarifa 2017; Hayter and Parker 2019). In Europe,
the proportion of PhDs who work in research or teaching positions in academia remains approxi-
mately 40% in Finland (Aarresaari Network 2020), 30% in Belgium (Boosten et al. 2014), 30% in
the Netherlands (Auriol, Misu, and Freeman 2013), 19% in the UK (Vitae 2016), and 34% in Switzer-
land (FSO 2018). This global situation has raised concerns regarding how adequately to prepare PhDs
for careers beyond academia (Broms and de Fine Licht 2019). Yet, most doctoral programmes still
aim to prepare candidates for academic careers (Gardner and Doore 2020), and many doctoral stu-
dents continue to see academic careers as their primary choice (Skakni et al. 2019; St Clair et al. 2017).
However, PhDs are becoming more aware of their career options and, increasingly, are searching
for non-academic positions (Etmanski 2019) within and outside of universities. In the latter case, the
© 2021 Society for Research into Higher Education
CONTACT I. Skakni email@example.com Department of Educational Research, Lancaster University, County South,
Lancaster LA1 4YD, UK
STUDIES IN HIGHER EDUCATION
labour market –whether it involves national/international science systems, governments, or industry
–is not always prepared for this growing supply of highly qualiﬁed workers (Kobayashi 2011).
Outside of academia, PhDs are sometimes perceived as overqualiﬁed (Gokhberg, Meissner and
Shmatko 2017; Di Paolo and Mañé 2016) and some employers remain sceptical about hiring them
(Edge and Munro 2015; Hayter and Parker 2019). However, a PhD in engineering or the natural
sciences tends to be valued more highly outside of academia than a PhD in the humanities and
social sciences (Boosten et al. 2014). In both cases, PhDs are unlikely to return to academia after
leaving (Schwabe 2011). Two main issues appear here. On one side, doctoral students and postdoc-
toral researchers must be better informed about existing non-academic careers, including those in
universities, and better supported in preparing for these types of careers (Hayter and Parker 2019;
McAlpine and Amundsen 2016). On the other side, the need exists to promote PhDs’competencies
amongst employers outside of academia (Edge and Munro 2015).
Previous research has examined the primary factors guiding PhDs when they choose employment
sectors (Hayter and Parker 2019; McAlpine and Amundsen 2018; Seo et al. 2020) and the inﬂuence of
the labour markets’characteristics on their preferences (Bloch, Graversen, and Pedersen 2015). For
PhDs who plan to work in academia, the intellectual challenge and degree of independence of a pos-
ition are often of great importance (Bloch, Graversen, and Pedersen 2015). In contrast, those opting
for non-academic positions more often consider job stability and ﬁnancial aspects (Sauermann and
Roach 2014). Yet, the initial choice of employment sector seems to inﬂuence subsequent career tra-
jectories strongly, as the skills and expertise developed in many non-academic sectors are not always
transferable between the sectors (Pedersen 2014). Previous research has explored the competencies
developed throughout doctoral studies (Burt 2017; Mowbray and Halse 2010) and those that are
transferable to non-academic positions (Blickley et al. 2013; Milos 2019). In this regard, several
studies have highlighted the possible mismatches between the skills and expertise of PhDs and
the needs or expectations of employers outside of academia (Barnacle et al. 2019; Ghosh and
Grassi 2017; Haapakorpi 2017). Some researchers have examined the role of PhDs’networks in
their job search (Germain-Alamartine et al. 2020) and their job satisfaction (Sinche et al. 2017; Van
Weijden et al. 2016). Finally, few studies have focused on the challenges for academic researchers
of transitioning from one national academic context to another (e.g. Chung 2018). However, the
challenges of entering non-academic sectors are an angle that researchers are just beginning to
embrace (e.g. Guerin 2020; Vitae 2016). This paper contributes to this emerging conversation by
focusing on the subjective experiences of PhDs from Switzerland and the UK who pursue careers
beyond academia. The exploratory research question was the following: What are the challenges
that PhD holders face when entering non-academic workplaces?
This study draws on the concepts of organisational culture (Schein 1984) and culture shock (Ward,
Furnham, and Bochner 2005). We broadly deﬁne organisational culture as a set of shared beliefs,
values, and attitudes that shape and are shaped by individual and collective actions within organis-
ations and that reﬂect underlying assumptions about social reality (Alvesson 2012). Thus, every
organisation has its own formal and informal functioning that includes taken-for-granted ways to
perform work and assess productivity, as well as speciﬁc modes of communication. Organisational
cultures also manifest through hierarchical structures with related statuses, entitlements, and obli-
gations, which inﬂuence relationships amongst colleagues and overall workplace functioning
(Maher 2020). Organisational cultures with their related values, that is, perceived desirable aspects
of work and work conditions (Masdonati et al. 2016), are communicated, taught, and transferred
to newcomers. Hence, the shared interpretation of daily practices is at the core of organisational cul-
tures, which occurs at the cognitive and emotional levels, and then concretely translates into beha-
viours (Alvesson 2012; Schein 1984). Becoming a member of an organisation is therefore not merely
about acquiring formal and technical information but also about adopting or accepting its culture,
2I. SKAKNI ET AL.
which implies the development of a deﬁnition of oneself that is in line with the attributes and values
someone perceives about the organisation (Ashforth, Harrison, and Corley 2008).
From this perspective, academia is understood as a speciﬁc work environment with its own organ-
isational culture. In this regard, universities have been traditionally described as ‘organised anarchies’
(Cohen, March, and Olsen 1972) characterised by competing interests, objectives and outcomes
(Teferra 2014). Thus, and although the last decade’s reforms have led universities to adopt more
managerial and bureaucratic practices (Maassen and Stensaker 2019), universities’formal/informal
functioning and hierarchical structures tend to diﬀer from those in non-academic organisations,
which translate through unique working approaches and modes of interaction (Musselin 2007;
Teferra 2014). For instance, whereas academia’s formal rules and procedures do impose some con-
straints (e.g. tenure rules), they have little eﬀect on academics’work content and do not necessarily
encourage cooperation. As highlighted by Musselin (2007), in very few other workplaces is it
common to be unaware of what the colleague in the next oﬃce is doing and to experience such
little inﬂuence of colleagues’activities on one’s own tasks. Furthermore, academic cultures
support hierarchical power weakly (Musselin 2007). Indeed, academic leaders, who generally are
elected by their peers, have minimal inﬂuence on the nature of their colleagues’work; academic
staﬀremain autonomous in deﬁning and developing their own activities (Musselin 2007). Generally
employed as individual experts, academics tend to identify more with their discipline and their pro-
fession –academic researcher –than with their institution or department (McMurray and Scott 2013;
Thus, during the time they spend in academic departments and research institutes, doctoral stu-
dents are socialised into this unique organisational culture, including the work approaches and
modes of interaction that are taken for granted, as well as the obligations and privileges that are
associated with each status. At the same time, through what Gardner and Doore (2020) call a
process of professionalisation, doctoral students develop senses of self as members of the researcher
profession in their ﬁelds, internalising the values and norms of their ﬁeld of disciplinary practice, and
exhibiting these values and norms through their behaviour.
Based on the preceding, the passage from academia to non-academic sectors is seen as a tran-
sition from one organisational culture to another. To examine the challenges of this passage, we
mobilised the concept of culture shock (Ward, Furnham, and Bochner 2005), which broadly refers
to psychological reactions to unfamiliar environments. Applied to organisational contexts, culture
shock refers to a puzzling experience in which individuals suddenly realise that others do not
share their perspectives, behaviours, or understanding of their work environments. When experien-
cing such organisational culture shock, the person is destabilised or upset regarding the new work-
place’sorganisational culture: they perceive a clash between this new culture and the former one, or
they struggle to understand or adapt to the new organisation’s functioning. The intensity of these
feelings or diﬃculties may vary, depending on the person and context. Reactions can range from
being surprised or astonished about some aspects of the new organisational culture or ﬁnding
these aspects hard to understand –at the lowest level of intensity –to being unable to accept or
comply with some rules, norms, or expectations –at the highest level of intensity.
Ward and colleagues (2005) emphasise that, as an active process of dealing with change, culture
shock typically occurs during the ﬁrst year of a cross-cultural transition. They distinguish three closely
intertwined components of culture shock: aﬀect, behaviour, and cognition. The aﬀective component
of culture shock corresponds to the negative emotions aroused when someone is exposed suddenly
to a new environment and becomes overwhelmed by it. Typical aﬀective responses include con-
fusion, anxiety, perplexity, and indignation. Some people also experience disillusionment or
regret, sometimes along with an ‘intense desire to be elsewhere’(Ward, Furnham, and Bochner
2005, 270). The behavioural component refers to the idea that the rules, norms, and assumptions
that regulate social interactions vary across (organisational) cultures. A newcomer in an unfamiliar
organisational environment is likely to need time to understand or adapt to its tacit functioning,
which can lead to misunderstandings and make them less eﬀective in their work. The cognitive
STUDIES IN HIGHER EDUCATION 3
component refers to the idea that cultures are based on shared meanings. In organisational contexts,
it refers, for instance, to situations in which someone realises that others do not share their under-
standing of how their work should be done. By challenging people’sdeﬁnition of social reality,
culture shock may induce diﬃculty in understanding their status in the new organisational
context, while potentially impacting their own self-perceptions.
PhD holders from Switzerland and the UK
were recruited through a snowball strategy from October
2018 to January 2020. First, we contacted research participants from a previous study (Skakni et al.
2019), and then, we used our personal networks, as well as LinkedIn and Twitter. All of the partici-
pants recruited were pursuing non-academic careers in private, public, or parapublic sectors for ten
years or less. The main inclusion criteria were having completed a PhD (a) in the UK or Switzerland,
whether still living there or not, or (b) abroad and currently working in one of these countries. This
convenience sampling strategy was chosen because this very speciﬁc population can be particularly
diﬃcult to reach.
The overall sample consisted of 32 participants (Switzerland = 16; UK = 16): 12 males and 20 females
with a median age between 36 and 40 years old. Amongst them, 22 did their PhD in the humanities
or social sciences (HSS) and 10 in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Half of them
had graduated within the ﬁve previous years (n= 16). Only a few of them had work experiences
outside academia before their PhDs (n= 6). Their current positions were mostly in the private (n=
14) and public (n= 11) sectors, with a few in the parapublic (n= 7). For this paper, while the analysis
was conducted on the 32 participants’accounts, we focus on unexpected ﬁndings that emerged
from a subsample of 16 participants (Switzerland = 10; UK = 6 / female = 8; male = 8) who reported
organisational culture shock experiences. Their characteristics are presented in Table 1.
Semi-structured interviews were conducted with the 32 participants. Prior to the interviews, they
completed a brief online survey, including demographics and questions about their current work
sectors and positions. The interviews lasted between one hour and two and a half hours and
covered the following topics: (1) career preparation, (2) experiences of job hunting, (3) responsibil-
ities and tasks performed weekly, (4) competencies developed during the PhD still useful in the par-
ticipants’current positions, (5) competencies they had to develop once in non-academic positions,
and (6) satisfaction with their current positions. We assessed this tool with the ﬁrst ﬁve participants in
both countries, made adjustments when needed, and then continued data collection.
This exploratory study was conducted with an interpretive stance, which focuses on the participants’
experiences and perspectives (Willis, Jost and Nilakanta 2007). We, the three authors, analysed the
data through a procedure inspired by the consensual qualitative research approach (Hill 2012).
Drawing on a thematic analysis, we examined the 32 interview transcripts to deﬁne the challenges
that marked participants’passage into non-academic workplaces. Using the qualitative software
MAXQDA 18, we followed an iterative six-step process.
4I. SKAKNI ET AL.
Table 1. Subsample characteristics.
Pseudo Gender Age PhD ﬁeld Career goal Years from graduation Work sector Years spent in non-academic positions
Frances F36–40 HSS Academic 10 Private 5
Felicity F36–40 HSS Academic 7 Public 6
Adrian M31–35 HSS Non-academic 6 Public 6½ **
Amy F26–30 HSS Academic 4 Public 4
Brenda F26–30 HSS Non-academic 2 Public 2½ **
Jim M36–40 HSS Academic Less than a year Public 5 X
Jeremy M36–40 STEM Academic 8 Private Less than a year
James M41–45 HSS Non-academic 6 Public 10 X
Béatrice F36–40 HSS Non-academic 6 Para-public 6
Helena F36–40 STEM Non-academic 6 Private 5
Timothy M31–35 STEM Non-academic 5 Private 5
William M36–40 HSS Academic 4 Para-public/High ed* 4
Alexander M31–35 HSS No clear goal 2 Public 2
Alicia F36–40 HSS No clear goal 1 Para-public/High ed* 2 X
Elizabeth F26–30 HSS Non-academic 1 Para-public/High ed* 2 X
Colin M26–30 HSS Non-academic Less than a year Private Less than a year
*Part-time contract as lecturer.
**First non-academic position started 6 months before their thesis defence.
STUDIES IN HIGHER EDUCATION 5
(1) We created low-inference case summaries for each participant, including their demographic
characteristics and career trajectories, as well as an overview of their answers to the interview
(2) Focusing on the UK data, we selected two cases as starting points for our analysis. We individu-
ally reviewed the two cases, returning as needed to the data, to generate individual themes
related to their respective academic and work experiences and trajectories. Then, we discussed
the emerging themes to create a collective understanding.
(3) We used the agreed themes to analyse all participants’transcripts. Some themes associated with
the challenges of entering non-academic workplaces emerged from the data, although this was
not one of the topics covered in the interviews.
(4) The ﬁrst author individually continued the cross-case analysis of the 32 participants, seeking indi-
vidual themes and cross-case patterns regarding their subjective experiences of entering non-
academic workplaces. Overall, 16 participants reported challenges. Three broad themes
emerged regarding the nature of these challenges, which were closely related to organisational
cultures. These themes are presented in the ﬁndings section.
(5) At a more abstract level of analysis, we examined the intensity of the challenges reported by the
16 participants, notably as expressed in emotions or feelings (e.g. ‘I was surprised’;‘it shocked
me’), using the culture shock concept as the main code and its three components (aﬀect, behav-
iour and cognitions) as the subcodes. To every coded excerpt was then attributed a degree of
intensity using another subcode category: ‘low-intensity’or ‘high-intensity’experiences.
(6) Team discussions followed, to make adjustments as needed and to reﬁne the code deﬁnitions.
These deﬁnitions were then submitted to an ‘external auditor’(Hill 2012), a researcher with
expertise on career transitions. We made supplementary ﬁne-tuning adjustments based on
Entering non-academic workplaces: what challenges?
Our analysis revealed that, when entering non-academic sectors, half of the 32 participants experi-
enced challenges related to three dimensions of their workplaces that are deeply rooted in organ-
isational cultures: (1) daily functioning of the workplace, (2) organisation’s values, and (3) statuses
within the organisation. We understand these challenges as organisational culture shocks (OCS),
because they refer to experiences in which participants realised that their understanding of their
work and workplace were not shared within their organisation.
In both countries, participants who made this transition more than ﬁve years before reported an
overall positive experience of some low-intensity OCS experiences (e.g. having been destabilised by
some rules at the beginning). In contrast, those who graduated or entered non-academic sectors
within the two previous years tended to report more high-intensity OCS experiences (e.g. struggling
to adopt certain practices in their workplace). Some of them –especially those who still had a foot in
academia –explicitly indicated a willingness to return to academia or an intention to quit their
current positions. They also had ﬁrm interests in academic careers when they started their PhDs
and/or presented more linear academic paths (i.e. no previous work experiences before starting a
PhD) than those who did not report high-intensity OCS experiences. The overall participants’OCS
experiences are presented in the following.
Daily functioning of the workplace
The most recurrent OCS experiences reported by participants from both countries (N= 13) were
related to the daily functioning of their workplaces. These challenges refer to participants’percep-
tions of (1) time management and schedules, (2) task performance, (3) modes of collaboration,
and (4) quality and productivity criteria within their organisations.
6I. SKAKNI ET AL.
Time management and schedules. Some participants reported being surprised or struggling with
strict schedules or a lack of freedom in managing their time and organising their work compared to
when they were in academia. That was the case of Elizabeth (Switzerland), who expressed her per-
plexity towards the strict system used at her workplace to control employees’work hours.
Doing a PhD was a great opportunity to work at your own pace. Nobody checks what you’ve done at the end of
the day; it’s up to you to decide when you stop. […] Here I have to write down, in a software programme, what
time I arrive, what time I take my break …they do check-ups and so on, so to me it’s something very oppressive.
(Elizabeth, PhD in Psychology, Manager, parapublic)
Tasks performance. Most participants reported that, when entering non-academic workplaces, they
had to adapt to new tasks and working methods. This period was destabilising for some, as they had
to relearn completely certain tasks they used to perform. This was especially the case with communi-
cation tasks, as explained by Felicity (UK).
The writing style is so diﬀerent […] I was well-trained in presenting all the evidence, giving a detailed argument
and a balanced conclusion, whereas pretty much everything I do [now] has to have a very clear conclusion,
which is often not backed up by the most robust evidence […] I had to get really used to writing impactful
short things that did what they needed to do, and that was really hard. (Felicity, PhD in humanities, Head of
Strategic Partnerships, parapublic)
The experience of Colin (Switzerland) illustrates how misunderstandings may arise from both sides
(newcomer and colleagues/managers) when the perception of how the work should be done is not
[…] the academic culture I came in with was a bit of a UFO culture to them. On my ﬁrst mission, at one point, my
boss asked me, ‘What have you been doing for the last three days’? I said, ‘Well, I have read’! And there was a
great moment of silence. She didn’t know what I was talking about. For me, it was pretty obvious because we
were doing a review of an ecosystem of innovations, so of course we must read what researchers in the ﬁeld
have written! […] And she was like …challenged. She said, ‘For me, it’s a black hole those three days, I don’t
understand what you did’(Colin, PhD in sociology, Consultant, private)
Modes of collaboration. Several participants talked about the importance of collaborative skills in
non-academic settings, which, in their opinion, diﬀers from what is expected in academia. The fol-
lowing quote from Amy (UK) illustrates that those for whom the years spent in academia were
mainly a lonely experience often needed to learn to work collaboratively when entering non-aca-
During my PhD, I worked a lot on my own. […] I didn’t really work with anybody, like in collaboration. You never
work on your own in a company, so that has been lacking. I still work much better on my own than in a team. I’m
still a lot more productive on my own than in a team, but that’s not very productive for the company because, a
lot of the times, the job requires you to work with many other people, from many other teams. So, I think that
skill, I have to learn on the job. (Amy, PhD in psychology, Senior Analyst, public)
Jeremy (Switzerland), who was used to working in teams, highlighted that, after leaving academia,
his usual mode of collaboration was challenged.
The group dynamic is really diﬀerent […] Doing research in academia is quite lonely. Even if, by choice, we do a
study with several people, fairly quickly we’ll have to agree on who is the ﬁrst author and who does the bulk of
the work. But here […]we’re about ten potential ﬁrst authors. (Jeremy, PhD in technology, Senior Developer,
Quality and productivity criteria. Beyond the tasks, some participants were surprised by what was
expected from them in terms of quality and productivity. In the following excerpt, Béatrice (Switzer-
land) recalled a situation when her line manager encouraged her to be less of a perfectionist in
writing reports, a habit Béatrice had considered an asset so far:
I was always late with my reports and at one point I was completely overwhelmed. [My line manager] was like,
‘You spend too much time on that. I give you permission to lower the quality’. From there, it went better! I put
STUDIES IN HIGHER EDUCATION 7
less pressure on myself for quality, and rather, I challenged myself to go faster. (Béatrice, PhD in psychology,
In a similar vein, Timothy (Switzerland) explained the cognitive process he went through to come to
an understanding of his organisation’s expectations.
At the beginning, I was very lost in the details like, ‘Oh, I don’t have this data, my result won’t be robust’.[…]It
took me maybe a year during which my managers were telling me, ‘You’re not doing a PhD! Of course, we’re
here to provide a solution or an answer based on a reasoning that is robust, but we’re also here to make
money’. (Timothy, PhD in economics, Associate Director, private)
The second category of OCS experiences related to the organisation’s values as perceived by the par-
ticipants (N= 6). Challenges in this category speak to what they consider important in their work and
work conditions, including: (1) meaning of work, (2) work attitude, (3) commitment to work, and (4)
Purpose of work. For these participants, entering non-academic workplaces triggered a reﬂection
upon the purpose they attach to work in general. Some of them admitted that they were missing the
passion that often comes with the research profession. As expressed by Amy (UK), part of the chal-
lenge seems also to lie in the necessity of embracing a diﬀerent mindset towards work:
My PhD was very theoretical, so I have this love of just discussing a topic at a theoretical level and just for the
sake of it […] But nobody cares about that in a company. Nobody wants to just philosophise about the merits of
an algorithm …All they care about is how are the results going to impact the business, just tell me that, and
that’s all I need to know. And that’s not really the mindset I developed during the PhD. (Amy, PhD in psychology,
Senior Analyst, public)
Work attitude. Some of them realised that certain attitudes that were taken-for-granted in academia
were not acceptable anymore. It was the case of Adrian (UK), who had to learn new ways of inter-
acting with non-academic colleagues.
When I’m handling academics in working groups, I know that I can be a lot less deferential to them …and
actually be far more critical, as long as you’re doing so in a way where they feel that you are an expert in
that area and you’re making a valid point […] But when you’re dealing with civil servants or politicians, that
kind of behaviour is just not something that would be considered acceptable. Learning that kind of tact and
diplomacy is not something that you gain, I think, from a PhD. (Adrian, PhD in social sciences, Deputy Head
of Policy, public)
Commitment to work. Others highlighted a clash between the degrees of personal commitment
expected in academia compared to the norm in their non-academic workplace. For some, expec-
tations from their organisations were greater than what they had experienced in academia (e.g.
long hours of work, travelling abroad every week). Others, like Frances (UK), were astonished by
their colleagues’reactions regarding what they consider normal commitment to work:
[…] that was another thing that shocked me. I was always surrounded by—if I was going to the lab at three
o’clock in the morning to collect a time-point, that was normal for me. It was normal for everybody around
me. If you have to come on weekends here the people around you are like, ‘Oh, poor thing’. (Frances, PhD in
science, Manager, private)
Work ethics. Finally, some talked about their perceptions of a lack of rigour in the way research or
other tasks were performed in their non-academic workplaces. For instance, William (Switzerland)
shared his indignation regarding what he perceived to be sloppy analytical procedures:
They provided me with some Excel ﬁles saying, ‘Look at what you can do with that’. I asked, ‘What are the
hypotheses?’I was thinking in a very traditional academic way: What are the hypotheses? What are the variables?
They were like, ‘Well, there are so many variables. Try to ﬁnd those that can be combined and write something
about it’. What? This is not the way I understand research! (William, PhD in psychology, Research Associate,
8I. SKAKNI ET AL.
Statuses within the organisation
The third category of OCS experiences related to participants’statuses within the organisations (N=
5). These challenges refer to their perception of the duties, obligations, and entitlements that come
with their positions, including (1) one’s place in the hierarchical structure, (2) one’s degree of auton-
omy, and (3) recognition of their expertise.
Hierarchical structure. One’s place in the hierarchical structure was a recurring concern amongst
these participants. As explained by Alicia (Switzerland), for someone who has been trained as an aca-
demic researcher, ﬁguring out what status they are assigned in their non-academic organisations
and what obligations and privileges are associated with this status can be tricky:
They organised colloquia, where each time a researcher presented his work. I spontaneously said to my boss, ‘I
would be happy to present my tools and the resources I’ve developed!’But I felt he wasn’t willing. Afterwards, I
understood that it was only the big bosses, basically, the great doctors, who were presenting their work! […]
That was, I think, the biggest shock for me! (Alicia, PhD in psychology, Clinical Psychologist, parapublic)
Degree of autonomy. Some talked about the limited degree of autonomy they were given in their
current position compared to what they had experienced in academia (e.g. requirement to obtain
approval at diﬀerent levels of the hierarchy before implementing new ideas). For James (Switzer-
land), lack of autonomy manifested more subtly through disregard of his personal views in favour
of the privileged stance within his organisation. In the following, he explains that he had to learn
to write reports in conformity with his organisation’s line of thought:
[…] you don’t defend your ideas as you have learned to do by doing research. On that, I was quickly put in my
place. The people I [work] with are elected oﬃcials; they’re not specialists as I am. But even though you suggest
something coherent, that you’re convinced of, there might be a decision that is made “above”. Even if it’s not
right, you must accept it. (James, PhD in public administration, Senior Manager, public)
Recognition of expertise. Some of these participants also deplored struggling to get their expertise
recognised in their workplaces. They admitted missing the privileged period that represented the
doctoral years, which allowed them to work on a highly focused subject and ultimately be regarded
as an expert. That was the case for Jeremy (Switzerland).
It’s kind of upsetting because I was close to the professorship. I have nearly a thousand citations […] Here, they
have no awareness of it. Absolutely no idea …and then you have to prove everything again. (Jeremy, PhD in
technology, Senior Developer, private)
This study examined the challenges experienced by PhD holders from Switzerland and the UK who
have made the passage from academia to non-academic workplaces. Its main contribution lies in the
chosen framework, which draws on the concepts of organisational culture and culture shock. On the
one hand, this framework permitted an examination of the core issue as a passage from one organ-
isational culture to another. On the other hand, it allowed deﬁnition of the multifaceted challenges
encountered by PhDs as organisational culture shocks (OCS), which are situations in which they
realised that their understanding of their work and workplaces were not shared by others (Ward,
Furnham, and Bochner 2005). These OCS experiences were especially prevalent amongst those
who had moved directly from the doctorate to non-academic positions and/or had not had any
non-academic work experiences before their doctoral studies.
The most frequently recurring OCS experiences related to the daily functioning of the workplace.In
line with some of the conclusions in Vitae’s(2016) report, our ﬁndings show that, when entering non-
academic workplaces, most participants found themselves in what they perceived as highly struc-
tured and controlling environments compared to what they have experienced in academia (Musselin
2007). While adapting to new tasks and working methods, some of them reported a destabilising
period during which they had to completely relearn certain tasks they had been accustomed to per-
forming (e.g. written communication). As previously documented, some participants felt unprepared
STUDIES IN HIGHER EDUCATION 9
for the strong collaborative skills that they were expected to perform (Sinche et al. 2017). Some of
them also struggled to adapt to quality and productivity criteria that were, generally, more prag-
matic and results-oriented than those in academia.
The second category of OCS experiences related to the organisations’values. Entering non-aca-
demic workplaces triggered, in some participants, reﬂection upon what was important to them in
their work and what purpose they attribute to work in general. Our ﬁndings suggest this passage
may involve ‘leaving the research culture behind’(Vitae 2016) and, thereby adapting to a mindset
towards work that diﬀers from that developed throughout doctoral studies. Therefore, some partici-
pants realised that certain attitudes that were taken for granted in academia (e.g. the common prac-
tice of casting a critical eye on peers’work) were not acceptable in non-academic sectors and that
the degree of commitment to work considered as normal remains a matter of organisational stan-
dards. Others were shocked by what they perceived as unethical work practices.
The third category of OCS experiences related to participants’statuses within their organisations.
Some of them took time to determine what status they were assigned in their organisation’s hierar-
chy and what obligations and privileges were associated with this status. In line with Teferra’s(2014)
analysis, they sometimes perceived a lack of autonomy in their work, relative to academia. As found
in previous research, some participants also reported a strong sense of disillusionment owing to the
loss of their researcher status or a lack of recognition of their expertise within their non-academic
organisations (Vitae 2016).
Overall, these ﬁndings are consistent with Gardner and Doore’s(2020) observation that, when
PhDs have been socialised mainly to the researcher profession and strictly within the walls of a uni-
versity, their integration into non-academic workplaces can be challenging. Our ﬁndings also echo
the studies that highlight mismatches between the needs and expectations of non-academic
employers and PhDs’expertise and skills (Di Paolo and Mañé 2016; Sinche et al. 2017). As we
observed amongst our participants, such mismatches tend to reduce PhDs’satisfaction at work in
general, especially regarding working time ﬂexibility, working conditions, and peer recognition.
Our study complements these ﬁndings by further revealing challenges related to participants’
work values and statuses within their organisation (Ward, Furnham, and Bochner 2005), the stakes
of which go beyond the daily functioning of workplaces.
Three general considerations arise from these ﬁndings, which, we believe, enrich the knowledge
about the challenges of transitioning from academia to non-academic workplaces. First, in line with
Gardner and Doore’s(2020) conclusions, our ﬁndings point out the limits of doctoral students’pro-
fessionalisation process, as it currently takes place within universities. Having been trained mostly as
academic researchers does indeed have an impact on how PhDs view and perform their work and
how they project themselves professionally (Alvesson 2012; Maher 2020). When entering non-aca-
demic workplaces, they ﬁnd themselves working for interests other than their own, generally in
highly hierarchical and multidisciplinary environments (Vitae 2016). Participants reporting such situ-
ations perceived a clash between their new organisational culture and the one that characterises
academia (Ward, Furnham, and Bochner 2005), which is likely to be exacerbated by the fact that,
in universities, academic staﬀare seen as individual experts who deﬁne their work as they wish
(McMurray and Scott 2013). Particularly for those who move directly from the doctorate to non-aca-
demic positions, such a passage may place them at odds with the values, modes of collaboration,
and ethical standards (Masdonati et al. 2016) to which they have been socialised in academia.
Second, our ﬁndings question the notion of ‘transferable skills’, as it is usually addressed in the
case of doctoral students and postdocs. Indeed, as previous research has shown, if some of the scien-
tiﬁc and generic competencies developed through doctoral studies are undoubtedly transferable to
non-academic positions (e.g. innovative thinking, writing skills) (Sinche et al. 2017), our participants’
experiences suggest that they likely must be modulated, if not wholly reinterpreted, once applied in
non-academic positions. Through this process, PhDs ﬁnd themselves questioning taken-for-granted
ways of thinking and behaving they have learnt in academia, which may impact their self-perception
and self-eﬃcacy (Ward, Furnham, and Bochner 2005).
10 I. SKAKNI ET AL.
Third, our ﬁndings highlight the importance for highly qualiﬁed workers, such as PhDs, of
learning how to promote their skills and expertise in a way that speaks to non-academic employ-
ers (Edge and Munro 2015). After a while, most of our participants seem to manage to adapt their
skills and work attitudes in accordance with their new workplace expectations (Ashforth, Harrison,
and Corley 2008). However, beyond this adjustment process, PhDs invest workplaces with unique
expertise that can be highly beneﬁcial in non-academic sectors, but that they sometimes ﬁnd
diﬃcult to put forth. That is eloquently illustrated by the case of Colin, whose manager did
not understand his approach to work. Like most people trained as academic researchers, Colin
was not used to having to justify his working methods (Musselin 2007). It is therefore crucial
to better identify and promote PhDs’approaches to work and skills on which non-academic
organisations can capitalise. Overall, these three considerations prompt the question of the rel-
evance of doctoral programmes that are still designed to prepare candidates for academic
careers (Gardner and Doore 2020; St Clair et al. 2017).
This study oﬀers a rare glimpse into the subjective experiences of PhD holders entering non-aca-
demic workplaces. Our ﬁndings contribute to the ongoing global conversation about how to
prepare them for careers beyond academia. In this regard, by highlighting common challenges
amongst PhDs, our ﬁndings may inform institutional policies and help improve doctoral pro-
grammes in such a way as to enable doctoral students to acquire skills and work approaches that
extend beyond those expected in the world of academic research. It also oﬀers insights for thesis
supervisors, mentors, and advisers involved in the career development of PhDs, regarding the
unique and mostly implicit challenges that non-academic employment sectors can present for
someone who has mainly been trained as an academic researcher. Concrete illustrations of PhDs’
experiences in non-academic workplaces may also help doctoral students and postdocs to
prepare for the shock that some of them are likely to experience.
However, this exploratory study presents some limitations that call for further research. First,
these OCS experiences have emerged from our data: they were spontaneously evoked by half
of our participants, although this topic was not part of the interview protocol. For this reason,
nothing can be said about potential OCS experiences amongst the other half of the sample; it is
therefore diﬃcult to determine the prevalence of this type of experiences among PhDs who
enter non-academic sectors. Second, we did not address the fact that some organisational cul-
tures are likely to be much further removed from academic cultures than others. Third, although
cross-cultural comparisons were above the scope of this study, Switzerland and the UK have
distinctive labour markets in which PhD holders are likely to be perceived and welcomed diﬀer-
ently. Fourth, we did not consider the additional challenges for participants for whom
Switzerland or the UK was a foreign country and, thus, had to adapt to national cultures.
Finally, further research about the pleasant surprises and favourable conditions oﬀered by
several workplaces (Guerin 2020), as well as about employers’perspectives, would provide
insights leading to fuller picture of this increasingly frequent passage from academia to non-
1. The study was conducted in the authors’respective countries for logistical reasons and did not aim to make
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the authors.
STUDIES IN HIGHER EDUCATION 11
This work was supported by a Erasmus+ programme of the European Union under the project ‘Researcher Identity
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