Why Do a PhD? Benefits and Career Directions
Are you thinking about a PhD as the next stage in your educational and professional development? It’s an exciting road to travel with many potential benefits and opportunities. But you have to earn it first so considering what’s involved is important.
It’s best to find out as much as possible about not only what you can expect during the PhD process but also what will be expected of you. Will the commitments in terms of time, effort and money prove worthwhile? Identifying the pros and cons will help you to weigh up whether this is the right step for you.
The on-going impacts of COVID -19 have to be taken into account. Not only have teaching and learning practices altered in Higher Education but so have ways of working and connecting with each other as technological change advances more rapidly. Sudden shifts and uncertainties mean that flexibility must be factored into any PhD planning, such as supervision or research having to be carried out online.
This article will outline possible career paths and prospects that can follow on from having a PhD as well as the benefits during the process.
First of all ask yourself- Is a PhD right for me?
Do some self-assessment:
- what your educational experiences and achievements are up to now
- identify what you liked and disliked
- what you were good/skilled at, what you found difficult
Talk to others
Whilst there is no ‘typical’ PhD experience as everyone’s paths differ, it’s helpful to talk to those who have done or are doing a PhD about what is involved. You can make contacts through networks and online forums and find out more about their experience. Read articles and other relevant documents including university publications plus online sources. There is a wide range of websites offering case studies of career stories from what people have done with their PhD.
What parts of doing a PhD appeal to you?
It could be spending time in libraries and archives, fieldwork and interviews, running experiments, analysing data, problem-solving, creative thinking, writing and communicating your findings to others. It’s just as important to ask yourself which parts of it don’t appeal and consider how you would handle those aspects.
Once you’ve done this assessment you can think more about what a PhD might lead to.
Benefits of the PhD experience
The skills you gain and improve during a PhD are transferable and applicable to a wide range of careers. Prospective employers look for those with experience of doing research and a PhD is a research-based degree. What you researched might be directly related to jobs you apply for but it doesn’t need to be: it’s the fact that you have research experience that counts.
Employers also look for those with good written and spoken communication skills (online and face to face) and who can plan and deliver presentations. These could be for team meetings, conferences or sales pitches. Whilst doing a PhD, you will be networking not just within your university but in other areas. In recent years, networking skills have become more important in the work environment. Having networking experience, whether it’s ‘working the room’ at a conference or meeting or attending an online event will boost your potential and help you stand out.
You can develop your networks by attending conferences, talks and other events apart from regular contact with other students and tutors. These may be online given COVID restrictions but opportunities for face- to- face events have increased in the second half of 2021. These contacts can provide useful support and also share work opportunities. There are many online study and research forums that can help you through your PhD and also offer opportunities for finding work whilst you are studying and post-graduation. Some of these online forums may be arranging small-scale physical meet-ups.
Considering Career Possibilities
Whilst a PhD is often seen as professional training for academia, this is just one possibility. In the UK less than half of PhD graduates become academics and this figure can lower in other countries.
As with any career ambitions, assessment of all that is involved. Academics are expected to do much more than research, teach and supervise students.
If this is what you’re aiming for, start preparing by taking up opportunities for part-time teaching that might fit into your schedule. This is valuable work experience even if you later decide not to go into academia.
There are many options in the professions, business and management, public sector and more. From small and local, to large and global, many companies and institutions seek highly qualified personnel. 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). The vast majority of companies in the UK are SMEs and offer excellent career progression opportunities.
Different employment sectors have their specific features but increasingly overlap as economic, technological and political changes come into play. Whilst we can distinguish the public and private sectors these have shown degrees of convergence in recent years.
These typically involve prolonged training and formal qualifications such as accountancy, civil service, law and medicine. Having a PhD is considered to be indicative of professional development but additional training may be required for your chosen area.
This category encompasses all forms of working for yourself, whether setting up a small business by yourself or with others, doing consultancy work or a mix of these.
The self-employed account for around 15% of the labour force in the UK.
There are possibilities of freelance working within academia as well as in other areas, by packaging and selling your expertise and skills. The advantages include being ‘your own boss’, taking on work you choose and being free of the 9 to 5 routine.
There are also challenges, with responsibilities for legal compliance and taxation. There may be long working hours without the ‘cushion’ of secure monthly income and paid holidays.
In the past decade, digital entrepreneurship has rapidly expanded with new start-ups coming online all the time. This trend has increased over the past 18 months as more people lost jobs and decided to set up their own businesses from home.
It’s likely that the gig economy will continue to develop and you may consider if you want to enter this as a sole proprietor or as an employee if self-employment is not your preferred career route.
This includes charities, NGOs and community interest companies. As in other sectors, some are small and local whilst others are global, eg. Oxfam. NGOs might focus on one area or multiple parts of the world but a specific theme such as human rights or the environment. There are openings at different levels and whilst they may rely on volunteers they do have paid positions in fund-raising, advocacy, administration, marketing and management.
The skills and experience gained by a PhD graduate can certainly be applied elsewhere, particularly if you keep an open mind and your eyes on the jobs market from the early days of your doctoral journey. You can upgrade your employability profile by networking and taking advantage of your university’s employability support and opportunities including gaining some work experience. This is always a big bonus and increasingly required by employers.