Having a PhD can open up many different career options if you know where to look and how to sell the skills that you have gained through your PhD. It is important to really think about the next step as it can sometimes be hard to see beyond the obvious routes such as an academic career. An academic career could be the perfect choice for some PhD students but it will depend on a number of different factors.
Where do I start?
It is a good idea to think about what you want out of your career. What does success look like for you? For some this will be about making a difference, for others it may be about status or money, for others it may be about flexibility and work-life balance. For most, there will be more than one factor that will be important and it is vital to know what the priorities are for you so that you can ask the right questions about a potential career route. There are some tools and exercises that can help you to think about these things (for example, Career Anchors) and your careers service will be able to help you with resources or with careers advice/coaching.
How do I find out what the options are?
Read on to find examples of potential jobs but also talk to colleagues about other researchers who have worked in your department to find out what they have gone on to do. You may also find some useful contacts whom you could speak with to find out what a job is really like. Talk to your careers service and search for information online such as on jobs.ac.uk where you can read job descriptions and person profiles to get an idea of what different jobs are like.
So what kinds of jobs can you get with a PhD?
Let’s split them into categories:
The most obvious route is probably academia where traditionally you would start with one or two postdoctoral positions before applying for a fellowship or lectureship to become an independent academic. This can be a rewarding career for those who have the right combination of ideas, skills and tenacity. There can also be an element of luck involved in terms of being in the right place at the right time with the research idea that someone wants to fund.
There are other slightly different paths within academia that you could look at too. For instance, if you have done any teaching during your PhD and have enjoyed it, you could look at a teaching-focused role. Many universities now have teaching-focused career pathways which you can follow. In certain disciplines, it is possible to move more towards research management or managing a lab but these kinds of roles are less common and may be described as academic or professional services roles depending on the field and institution.
If you are interested in an academic career, talk to your supervisor(s) and others that you work with to find out more. Ask them for feedback on which areas you might need to develop further and where your experience would work well for exploring this possibility. You can also read case studies and job profiles online. Think about which aspects of your current work you enjoy and which areas are less appealing and see how these fit with what you find out.
Using your research skills in another sector
There are other organisations where you can use your knowledge of research design, analysis and communication. Depending on your discipline, there may be some obvious private sector companies that do research and development in your field. It should be possible to find out information about these online and through those you already work with. There may even be some active industry collaborations with some of the research groups in your department or a colleague may know someone who works for one whom you could talk to.
There are many charities that undertake research work too. You may find a charity that is specifically related to your field or one that has a personal connection or interest for you. Have a think about topics that might interest you and look online for charities which may align with these or search on third sector recruitment websites for job adverts. Government organisations also need researchers and there may be one that has particular relevance to your field. Examples include the Environment Agency, the Forestry Commission and the Ministry of Defence. Research institutes are another place to look for research-focused roles – you may be aware of some which are particularly relevant to your field.
Managing clinical trials is another area which requires research expertise. Many clinical trials are conducted at universities and so if this is related to your field you may have some experience or you may be able to ask for some within your faculty or department. Clinical trials are also carried out elsewhere such as the National Health Service and you could transfer your experience of research design and methodology to this type of research.
Using your technical expertise
You may really enjoy doing the technical or practical work in your PhD but are less interested in the other aspects. You could look at more technical roles within a university or, depending on your field, there may be other applications for your technical expertise such as roles managing core facilities in a research institute. With biomedical lab experience, you could work in hospital labs and you could become an expert within a specific field and work with clinicians to determine the right diagnostic tools to use for specific patients.
Using your communication skills and experience
Perhaps you are less interested in the technical side of things but you enjoy the communication aspects of the role and talking or writing about your research. There are many communication-related roles where a PhD will be invaluable. You could work in public engagement either within a university or another organisation such as a museum or government organisation. There are lots of these roles around. Your public engagement office at your institution may be a good starting point to find out more.
If you enjoy writing you could look at scientific or technical writing. It is a broad field, ranging from writing about research for the public in the general media or specialised magazines, through to writing journal articles, textbooks or technical manuals for experts in the field to read. There is plenty of information online about this and your careers service should also be able to point you in the right direction if this interests you.
Other Higher Education (HE) roles
There are many people working within universities who have PhDs but are not working as academics. It is worth having a look at an organisational structure chart and asking some questions about what different departments do. Some roles may specifically ask for a PhD or value a candidate who has one. Even those that don’t specifically require a PhD may value your knowledge of working within HE and your understanding of the influences and pressures in the sector. We have covered some examples above but here are some other departments you could work in:
-Research office roles cover a huge range of areas including research development, overseeing the institutional REF submission, research strategy, research contracts, research ethics and supporting academics to develop their research commercially.
-Researcher Development teams design, organise and run training courses, events and development progammes for postgraduate and/or postdoctoral researchers. Many of these professionals will have started off in research themselves, giving them an insight into what researchers need and how they might like to be supported. This kind of work can develop into supporting more senior academics with their development too.
-Academic/Education Development teams support academics with developing teaching skills, particularly those in new lectureship roles or researchers who are teaching for the first time. They may also get involved in individual, departmental or institutional developments in teaching approaches/methods. Some of these roles are classed as academic, others are professional services.
Jobs in organisations allied to HE
There are several organisations that work with or support HE in various ways. Your specific knowledge of research and/or the way that HE works could be a real asset in these. Some examples include UK Research and Innovation, Advance HE, HESA, Higher Education Funding Council for England and Vitae. You can find more information about what they do and possible roles on their websites.
Retrain in something different
You may not have enjoyed research at all or just fancy a complete change. There are various professions where a research background or PhD can be an asset, either within the job itself or for the purposes of applying. Some examples where you would need to undertake an element of retraining could be:
Medicine – research experience is valued on your CV and elements of research work such as clinical audit are expected as you progress your career.
Law – a particularly interesting route for someone with a PhD could be patent law where your technical and communication skills would be very valuable.
Teaching – your well-developed knowledge of your field and possibly experience teaching students will be valuable here.
As you can see there are many different options and this is by no means an exhaustive list. It is important therefore to narrow down what you are looking for from your career, what you enjoy doing and what you are good at. This will help you to draw up a short-list of options to explore. Do as much research as you can into these roles, talk to people, and try to get some work experience, where relevant, to get a feel for the role. Look at job descriptions and adverts and start to think about how you would sell your skills. Vitae’s Researcher Development Framework is a really useful tool to help you think about this. All this will be good preparation for the application and selection processes ahead. Good luck
- 10 Career Paths for PhDs
- Transferable skills from your PhD
- Career Planning for PhDs
- Your PhD Journey – Top Tips