How to Market Yourself as a Social Scientist in the Private Sector

By Anders Wallace

What Can You Do?

Earning a PhD in the social sciences is often considered a precursor to entering the professoriate. Most social scientists have traditionally worked in higher educational institutions, teaching and researching. In reality, skills you’ve acquired in your PhD training prepare you for success in a range of non-academic fields across sectors as diverse as business, applied research, nonprofit organizations, public relations agencies, government agencies, advocacy, teaching, international organizations, health, market research, and private corporations.

As business coach Simon Sinek puts it, “start with why.” Why do you want to change your career path? There are many reasons why you might wish to consider working outside academia. These can include a greater variety of opportunities; more flexibility in living location; higher pay; stronger upward mobility; a more team-oriented workplace; and different opportunities to make an impact. Working in the private sector can allow you to pursue a curiosity less shaped by the tenure-driven professional consensus in the academy. In addition, you may find that after writing your dissertation you wish to learn something altogether new and different.

Before starting your search, it’s often useful to take 20 minutes to brainstorm your reasons why. But don’t stop there! Also think about your skills, and write them down on paper. Then, reframe these as transferable skills, as competencies and abilities that enable you to add value across a range of fields of work. This will also give you the opportunity to take a step back from the intricate engagements and theoretical nuances of your dissertation, and learn how to speak about the value of your work to society at large. (Many of these skills, you’ll find, are relevant not only to social scientists but also to fields in the humanities and hard sciences.)


Why You Are Already Placed for Success

Often, people assume that social scientists and entrepreneurs represent two different personality types. In fact, both groups may share a lot in common, including creative thinking. As Philip Black, President of the Houston-based Urban Business Initiative, remarks: “an entrepreneur creates a business from a dream in the same manner that a painter creates a masterpiece from a canvas and tubes of paint.”

Today’s economy is increasingly international. Workforces and markets are increasingly diverse. There is increasing emphasis on participatory management and decision making. As the world we live in becomes increasingly globalized—crisscrossed by overlapping flows of people, goods, services, information, and power vectors—the holistic view that social scientists acquire is increasingly in demand to forge a deeper understanding of social behaviors and motivations.

What are some of the transferable skills you may already have? Social scientists are careful observers of human beings and their behaviors, values, beliefs, and built environments. This requires attention to detail; good record-keeping and project evaluation skills; an eye for patterns; a view of context; strong oral and written communication; an ability to develop targeted research tools; and a curious mind capable of inductive and deductive reasoning about the causes and implications of social dynamics.

In addition, you’re most likely good at some of these things:

  • Communicating effectively with people from a variety of backgrounds, cultures, and places. In the workplace, this includes consumers, donors, clients, shareholders, internal staff and team members.
  • Avoiding preconceptions, understanding a diversity of multicultural perspectives, and recognizing the views of both mainstreams and outliers of a social phenomenon.
  • Gathering, integrating, and synthesizing data through qualitative and quantitative modes of inquiry.
  • Empathizing with people, which tends to make social scientists into excellent mediators, negotiators, and conflict managers who can increase efficiency.
  • Applying for and administering grants, which gives you skills in project management, adhering to (and improvising within) detailed budgets, and financial prioritization.
  • Grasping the big picture and demonstrating leadership qualities.

What about personal aptitude? In developing and testing workable hypotheses, both social scientists and entrepreneurs must learn the rigors of practice, iteration, and the confidence to face criticism. Both groups understand people, social systems and values, as well as the challenging realities of project management. Success in both endeavors requires an ability to analyze data—as well as often dense written materials—with a critical eye to identify key content, constraints, and opportunities for critique and innovation.

In this way, social scientists represent the perfect complement to engineers and designers, because they understand how and why people value their experiences in everyday life. As possibilities for technological and economic innovation accelerate and increasingly disrupt legacy industries around the world, social scientists are uniquely suited to become members of interdisciplinary work teams. They can solve important social problems, thinking creatively to highlight opportunities for change, innovation, and growth. They can do so by understanding how global changes affect local communities, and how best to adapt to these changes.

To sum up, businesses increasingly find that margins of profit are found through deeply understanding the needs, desires, habits, beliefs, and hidden assumptions of their consumer groups. Social scientists can help assess and adapt workgroup practices, product designs, environments or project strategies in a rapidly changing market. They can analyze product usage, consumer mindset, brand appeal, research data, and donor motivation. For these reasons, social scientists can also organize and manage large, complex projects with stakeholders representing a range of interests.


How Do You Make the Transition?

Being a social scientist who bridges the divide between academia and consulting is, according to Dr. Grant McCracken, “an exercise in improv. If one thing doesn’t work, you try another.”

As I mentioned at the start, it’s important to do some career self-evaluation. Consider scheduling an appointment with our office [link] to take the MBTI test, or the Gallup StrengthsFinder. These tools can help you highlight your strengths and abilities in ways that can help you identify a good choice for a new career.

Second, it’s important to learn to be comfortable with improvisation. Social scientists, fortunately, are generally able to thrive and embrace diversity, which includes living in unexpected places and interacting with strangers. As consultant and anthropologist Grant McCracken writes, “I like planning. I like order. But you get used to the ad hocery. In point of fact, you never say ‘no’ to anything. (First, because you can’t afford to and, second, because you don’t know what you don’t know—the project that sounds odd and unpromising might open up a new vista.)”

Third, you’ll need to maximize your strengths and find creative ways to make up your deficits. While you come into the workplace with formidable powers of pattern-recognition, you’ll have to embrace the fact that your skills in social and cultural interpretation are only one part of the larger business proposition in the private sector. That, according to McCracken, is now your job: “to see how many and how much of the other bodies and paradigms of knowledge out there you can master.”

Above all, it’s important to learn to speak plainly about what you know. McCracken puts it bluntly: “a lot of the language in [social science]…shows the learning, the seriousness, the sheer braininess of the speaker. But the price of this theater is high. We make it more difficult to talk to people outside the field.”

To practice these skills, be sure to read our blog posts about re-branding yourself, professional networking, and how to do an informational interview.

And finally, attend the Post Grad (Center) event on May 4th to practice your new pitch, network, and learn about non-academic careers! RSVP here.


Further Reading:

American Anthropological Association. “Anthropology for Businesses: How Hiring an Anthropologist Will Make Your Firm More Competitive in the New Economy.” Retrieved from

Hochwald, Lambeth. “How Unconventional Majors Can Help You Thrive in Entrepreneurship.” In Entrepreneur. Published on 8/28/2013. Retrieved from

McCracken, Grant. “How to Be a Self-Supporting Anthropologist.” In The University of Chicago Magazine. Published on 5.22.2014. Retrieved from

Sinek, Simon. 2011. Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. London: Portfolio.