by Dr. Catherine Armstrong
This article focuses on a difficult time in every academic's career: what to do immediately after getting a PhD.
Congratulations, you have had your viva and your PhD has been awarded, it feels as though you are at the end of a huge journey. However, it is also a time of uncertain futures. There are many paths open to you and decisions made at this stage could shape the pattern of your life over the next thirty or forty years so it is vital to take time to consider all your options. Here are some suggestions on how to cope.
While doing your postgraduate work perhaps you decided that going into an academic career based at a university was not for you. You might want to leave your subject and scholarly study behind for ever. This doesn't mean that the skills and knowledge you have acquired in the last seven or so years of study are irrelevant to your future.
You now have to show employers how adaptable you are. Finding a job is challenging, especially if you have gone straight through from school to postgraduate work without years out and have little actual work experience. So, you have to sell your skills by tailoring them to a particular job. You may not know it, but your PhD means that you are:
- self- driven
- a great time keeper
- able to do sustained project design and development
and that you can:
- work within a team
- communicate your ideas at a high level to your peers
- perhaps even manage small budgets
These skills are vital in the workplace of whichever industry and role you decide to go into.
You will also have an intimate knowledge of the university sector itself so do consider going into a non-academic role at universities; there is a huge variety of these and there are several articles on this site that explain in more detail how to pursue them. However the commercial sector is increasingly welcoming such highly educated staff so if that attracts you then chances are you will be able to land a great job.
Teaching at your institution
If you have decided to stay in academia it can be challenging to make the transition from student to member of staff, but many scholars do find that their institution is able to offer them part time teaching while they find a more permanent academic position. It is a good option because you will be familiar with the department and the way things are done and perhaps will already have teaching experience there and so will have less to prepare initially. Because people there know you they are more likely to help you to makeup a portfolio career, for example doing some teaching while working for a permanent member of staff as a research assistant.
On the down side staying at the same institution can be restrictive for your career. It will mean that your range of experience is narrower; you will only know how things work at that one institution and you will only have experience of teaching on a limited number of courses. It is also easy to get into a comfort zone, which is hard to get out of, because it is hard to break out of familiar territory and set off on something new.
If it doesn't look as though a more permanent and secure job is going to come up at your institution any time soon, it is worth making the break to move the next step up the career ladder.
Part-time temporary teaching elsewhere
If there are no full-time, permanent positions around then it's worth looking for part time work in other universities. Your supervisor can help with this because academics often contact each other looking for temporary staff to help out for short periods of time, and often these positions are not advertised publicly if they are to be hourly paid. You may have responsibility for only one unit or class but it will still allow you to present a broader CV to future employers and you will learn a great deal from working with new colleagues and seeing how administrative and management matters work at a different institution.
Taking on roles such as this one can result in practical difficulties such as travelling to and from another institution, often at some distance from your home. It can seem as though you are spending a lot of money getting this job and earning very little, but it will pay off in the end in terms of career development even though financially it may not be hugely beneficial and may actually be somewhat challenging.
Of course if you can get a postdoctoral research fellowship somewhere this is an ideal first job: it gives you the chance to boost the research and publications side of your CV while working alongside researchers at the top of their game. It also gives you some measure of financial security, for a few years at least.
However, post-doctoral fellowships are extremely competitive sometimes with hundreds of applicants from across the world applying for one position. Junior Research Fellowships (JRFs) at Oxford and Cambridge regularly come up but these are the most difficult to get as they are the most sought after.
If you had external funding for your PhD and have had a flawless record of submitting your PhD on time, and already have some publications to your name then you have more chance of being considered. If you and your supervisor have been experts at networking then you also might stand a good chance at this stage. If the researcher seeking a postdoc knows you and your work then he or she is more likely to give the position to you than someone approaching them totally out of the blue. If you are able to travel a long way to get this position and will even consider moving overseas then this also improves your chances.
If your aim is to win a postdoc position then it's important to have a ‘plan B' as well. It might take you months of waiting before you do land that position.
CV building for the future
Having finished your PhD and passed the viva the last thing you want to do is immediately get down to more research. It used to be possible to take a break after your PhD before coming back to it with fresh eyes later. However, in today's competitive climate that really isn't the case.
You need to start work on publications and future plans straight away. Perhaps your PhD would make a great book; if so, start looking around for publishers immediately. If not, then think about breaking it down into articles or smaller reports. You also need to think about going to conferences to keep your research profile high.
Being successful at this stage of your career is all about having the drive to push forward even during times when you may be struggling financially or when permanent, secure jobs are not available. Realistically it may take you several years before you land that dream job and so don't let those years slip by while being unproductive. Make sure you can show an employer that you have been building your CV, doing research, publishing and developing your teaching portfolio, even while maybe struggling to make ends meet.