By Ian MacNeill |
A twice weekly fever dream tells me that there is much more of my PhD behind me than in front of me. My submission date is not so much looming on the horizon as staring me in the face. So, with that mildly terrifying thought in mind, I am beginning to think about what happens next. While to this point most of my post-PhD thoughts have centred on which pub I’ll go to directly after I have submitted (and maybe get a tattoo), it’s time to get serious.
Now, I’m aware that there are, of course, any number of things that people might choose to do after they have finished – for some this might be a time to go travelling, or perhaps you have decided that you want to be a fire warden in the backwoods of western Oregon – but, for simplicity sake, this blog looks at the two most common options for doctoral graduates: to continue with an academic career or take up a non-academic option.
Before I go any further, I think it worth reflecting on something. While there is a lot written about the poor working conditions and diminishing career prospects that we can expect as PhD graduates, the thought to keep in the back of your mind is that the experience of doing a PhD has equipped us all with a range of transferable and sought-after skills which make us good candidates for a range of employers.
The Academic Route
For those of you with your heart set on working away in a characterful office, complete with worn red leather chair and accessed via a charming quadrangle, the first step on the academic rung is often as a post-doctoral fellow. Fellowships are generally contracted posts for a determined length of time which are ether looking for a researcher to join an existing research project or fellowship awards which you have applied for and are awarded to fund your own research. If a fellowship is an option you are considering, then there are a couple of things to bear in mind.
Firstly, even a brief perusal of academic recruitment sites indicates that the number of post-doctoral fellowships are significantly outnumbered by PhD studentships and the application for them can be extremely competitive, sometimes with hundreds of applicants from across the world applying for one position. Secondly, if you are applying for your own funding it might be worth having a ‘plan B’, or a stopgap option, as the application process for these can take a long time with you facing months of waiting before you do land that position.
At this point it is also worth thinking about whether you want an academic career that is research or teaching focused. If you want to teach after you finish your PhD then it would be wise to gain at least some experience of doing so while studying as many entry level posts will expect you to have experience of tutoring or supporting undergraduates and accessing this experience can be difficult once you have left an institution.
A last point about a career in academia is that this doesn’t mean that you can only be a researcher, a lecturer, or a mix of the two, as there is a wealth of job opportunities within universities available. A good example might be as a student recruitment officer who, as universities increasingly compete with one another for students, occupy an increasingly important role in the higher education sector.
The Non-academic Career Route
It surprised me to read that most PhD graduates end up working outside of academia. Where people go varies by discipline. For example, a large proportion of science graduates go on to have a career in business and finance, while many humanities or social science graduates find themselves teaching in secondary schools.
Wherever you end up, the most important thing to keep in mind is that although you will have developed a range of skills during your PhD many of these will not necessarily be obvious to some employers, so you will have to explain this clearly and demonstrate how your knowledge and expertise will benefit them. For instance, and this is by no means an exhaustive list, by finishing a doctorate (more or less on time) you will have acquired and demonstrated: the ability to self-motivate; project management skills; written and oral communication skills; budget management; technical skills such as expertise in a laboratory or facilitating focus groups; engaging with a range of stakeholders; creative thinking; and problem solving and analytic skills.
The Importance of Networking
Regardless of whether you choose an academic or non-academic career, networking can be a vital part of the job-hunting process and widening your professional network should be something you focus on during your PhD. Building a network of contacts can help you to lean about ‘hidden’ job vacancies and possibly gain relevant work experience in your chosen field. Some simple tips when either at networking event or meeting someone on a 1-1 basis are: properly introduce yourself; share your passion; smile when talking to people; avoid hijacking the conversation; and, most importantly, remember to follow up.
Ian is a Publicity Editor with Pubs and Pubs. He is currently in the final year of his PhD. You can find him on Twitter at: IanAlexanderMac