First off let’s just say you probably won’t get a permanent role as a lecturer or academic researcher after your PhD. It’s not to put you off, but the numbers just don’t add up. There is a structural imbalance between the number of PhDs and full-time academic positions. Given that doing a PhD is often seen as professional training for an academic position that seems pretty crazy, right? A recent (2014) Royal Society report * estimated approx. 0.5% of current science PhDs are likely to become full professors and the figures for other disciplines aren’t likely to be much better.
So what are the rest going to do?
When I was completing my degree a member of academic staff asked me what I was doing after graduation. I replied that I was staying on to do a PhD (I’d been offered one at that point). He said “That’s great, you can do anything with a PhD.” That has stuck with me throughout a varied career. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I think he was right “almost”.
First, it’s time to kill off another myth about your PhD.
Unless your future employer works in an area directly related to your research topic, your technical knowledge will be of limited value to them. However, the skills you gain during a PhD ARE valuable and can open a wide range of career opportunities for you.
I don’t have space here to list all the things you could do with a PhD, and lists of possible job titles are pretty boring to read anyway. Instead, here’s what you need to think about when planning for your career, or, (more likely!), just your first job after a PhD.
Use your research skills to find out what your options are.
Research into yourself – What parts of the PhD do you enjoy? Analysing data, communicating your finding to others, problem-solving, thinking creatively. And just as importantly, which parts of it don’t you enjoy? Use this knowledge to inform your job search.
Research into the job market – What roles are available using these skills? Use job sites and other sources of information to see what is out there. You’ve been living in an academic bubble during your degree and PhD. It’s time to pop it and see what else is out there. Think about the types of organisations you could work for: everything from large multinationals, NGOs, charities, local and national government, regulatory bodies and agencies, SMEs (small to medium enterprises with under 250 employees and an annual turnover of less than £40million). The vast majority of companies in the UK are SMEs and offer excellent career progression opportunities.
Research from others – Talk to as many people as you can. Your experience after a PhD is going to be limited, so make use of other people’s experience. Start with your supervisor. Then start talking with other PhD students from your uni or those who have recently left. Then move onto friends from your undergraduate days. Where are they now? What industry or sector are they currently working in? What are they doing? Do they enjoy it? Why? Get in touch and meet in real life or via Skype or Zoom to find out if what they do appeals to you.
Research using the web – There are a whole range of websites offering case studies of career stories from what people have done with a PhD. The Vitae site is a good starting point, offering 150 career stories from researchers, but there are many more out there. Many funding bodies offer case studies of PhDs they have funded too, so check with yours for ideas. Don’t forget Twitter. There is an active #altac and #withaphd community offering ideas and advice.
Don’t be (too) scared.
It’s easy to rule yourself out of applying for a role because you don’t have X or Y, or “industry experience”. In your applications emphasise what you do have (such as the ability to learn quickly on the job), and don’t give them a reason not to interview you. Don’t be paralysed into indecision by assuming that the first role you get after your PhD will define your career forever so you have to get it right. You can switch roles or industries as often as you want to. If it interests you now, go for it, give it a try. Your biggest enemy at the moment is not having much non-academic experience, so get some. Even if it doesn’t work out, you’ll be better placed to move on to try something else.
Whatever you decide, make it your story and your decision.
For more detailed information and ideas read our e-book highlighting 10 of the possible career paths available to you