Post-PhD career paths
What you plan to do post-PhD is something to think about once your thesis is finished, isn’t it? Wrong! It’s time to think about it NOW.
If you are about to finish, it’s time to start actively pursuing your next step. Even if you still have some time to go, thinking about your future is advised.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our day-to-day lives, and is It is now more important than ever to think ahead and see how you can start building a career that fulfils you, in a world that has been turned upside down.
Before we explore how COVID-19 has changed the process of landing a position after your PhD, let’s take stock of the typical post-PhD career paths. There are plenty of options at https://www.jobs.ac.uk/ to explore. If you prefer to analyse the data, check out the 2017 career tracking survey of doctorate holders from the European Science Foundation.
You may think that staying in academia is the most logical and only possible step after your PhD, but it is not your only option. And whilst an academic career in the UK or abroad is extremely rewarding, it can also be particularly challenging. The ESF survey confirms that a post-doc is the next step after the PhD for 56.2% of the respondents, but in the UK, 70.1% of PhD holders will have transitioned out of academia within 3.5 years after graduation, and 0.45% of PhD graduates become full professors. In short, what is considered a “traditional” academic career post-PhD is no longer the most common or only option – so don’t be afraid to think outside the ivory tower. A PhD teaches invaluable transferable skills that prepare you for a variety of non-academic roles.
Your options in industry are broad as well. You could work in a company in your field, but you could also put your analytical skills to work as a business consultant. Within a single company, the type of positions for which you could apply is broader than you may think: from technical positions, to R&D (research and development), to administration-oriented positions.
You could become a policy-maker, work for a government institution in a more technical position, or become the person who translates science into policy. Well-trained scientists are crucial in the government, and this career path serves society directly.
When you decide to become an entrepreneur, you have many options. You can work as an independent subcontractor, a technical translator, manuscript editor, own an internet-based business, start your own company and become an industry player, work as an independent science journalist, as I have.
If you feel your current work and industry are not aligned with what makes your heart sing, then identify how you will transition to something new, and carve your path into the career you desire. Intentionality is key here. You may need to learn new skills, or start part-time at first, but there’s always a road ahead.
COVID-19 and the job searching process
Pre-COVID-19 you may have talked to companies at networking events during an international congress to get an idea of your options. Now that conferences are virtual until further notice, you need to learn to network digitally. A Zoom session with 300 people can be difficult to navigate. Attend events that are designed to allow for networking – events with breakout rooms, or with separate simultaneous networking sessions around specific topics. After having a chat in such a session, make sure you reach out by email or through LinkedIn to follow up with the conversation.
The best way to land a job is still through warm leads. Talk to your supervisor, your friends, family, recently graduated PhD students, and anybody who wants to hear it, about the current stage of your PhD, and when you will be entering the job market. Exchange ideas, ask for introductions and use these conversations to draft your game.
In the digital sphere, take advantage of the jobs by email service of jobs.ac.uk. By signing up to the service, you get an overview of openings that may be of your interest in your specific sector, on a daily basis. Even if you’re not actively searching for a job yet, consider signing up so you get a better idea of the important players in your field.
If your university has training for final-year PhD students to help you navigate the job market, take advantage of this opportunity. If the trainers have done their homework, they will be able to give you their best advice on landing a job during this pandemic, and their recent exit interviews may already have given them unique insights in what works particularly well.
Remote work opportunities
If we’ve learned one thing in 2020, it is that remote work does not mean you’re on the sofa all day watching Netflix. Universities went virtual overnight, and professors still managed to get content to their students. Doctors worked with telehealth applications. Employers have learned that a good employee is not somebody who needs to be sitting in a cubicle all day – and we’re just scratching the surface of what remote work has made possible for us. Think about how you would be able to use remote work tools in your post-PhD career, and how this option could change your day-to-day life and location.
What hasn’t changed
The most important part in landing a job after your PhD has not changed; only the tools and mechanics have been impacted by the pandemic. Remember to get your CV in order (with different CVs for different types of jobs you may be targeting), work on your visibility, and practice for interviews. Before you apply for any position, do your homework:
- assess the current situation and map the challenges and opportunities,
- identify your unique skills and strengths,
- ask yourself questions about what you want your post-PhD life to look like and then evaluate which types of positions are aligned with your desired lifestyle, and
- dare to think big and in terms of the legacy and impact you want to create with your work.
When you land an interview, even though it is through a videoconference, communicate clearly what you bring to the table for an employer and what you desire from your employer. Don’t let this pandemic stand in the way of negotiating a good position.
COVID-19 has changed our daily lives and how we work, but it has also opened up opportunities for more flexible and remote work. The job-seeking process looks different from what it was before and uses more technological tools, but the important conversations you have with yourself and with possible future employers still will be centred around how you can contribute to the company and how you want to have an impact on the world with your career.