A PhD will bring you a lot of credibility in the nonacademic world. It can also raise a lot of questions, which is why you'll need to be ready to explain your PhD come interview time. This is the first in a series of posts designed to help you prepare for these challenging questions.
Why did you do a PhD? This will likely be the first PhD-related question your potential nonacademic employers will have when they sit down with you for the first time. Many interviewers will ask you this question out of genuine interest, wondering why a person would devote 5+ years of her or his life to studying. Wasn’t college enough? And why a PhD instead of a master’s? Some interviewers will also be interested to learn why you chose one discipline over another, say sociology instead of political science or anthropology instead of history. The underlying question will also often be Why aren’t you pursuing an academic career?
It’s important to keep your answer focused, positive, and truthful. Instead of explaining how you enrolled in your program with the intention of becoming a professor, talk briefly about your love for your field of study and your desire to become a content expert. Then shift gears and talk about how you knew early on that pursuing a PhD would allow you to acquire high-level analytical skills that could be applied in a variety of ways, in or out of academia. If it’s true that you were never fully wedded to the idea of becoming a professor, then say that too.
I chose to pursue a PhD in English out of sheer love for the subject, especially for medieval literature. Not many people have the opportunity to pursue a passion in this way, and doing so was something that I believed would be both personally fulfilling and valuable for my professional life. I initially applied to programs unsure whether or not I would become a professor, but I did know that any of the top programs would provide some of the best possible training in research, writing, and critical thinking—valuable skills that would benefit me regardless of the career path I ultimately chose.
This answer is effective for two reasons: it’s honest in its expression of love for the field of study and it emphasizes the way in which the PhD program trained the applicant in the necessary skill sets to excel in the real world. You will score even more points if you can link the skills you acquired in your PhD program to more specific skills you know the employer seeks, instead of the more generic (but still important) “research, writing, and critical thinking skills.” Also, if it so happens that your academic discipline is directly related to the industry or field that you’re exploring, feel free to elaborate a bit more on those connections.