War of the Worlds: Choosing Your Post-PhD Career

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Much has been written, recently, about career options for PhD graduates. Academia is arguably more competitive than ever, with 100+ applications for each permanent, entry-level lectureship, and universities catching up only slowly, if at all, on what kind of training it takes to make their new generation researchers stand out from that pile of applicants. As many have pointed out, the market outside academia is not necessarily less competitive, and skills training often fails PhDs here, too.

Leaving academia does not guarantee you a job, and neither does sticking with fixed-term contracts for years at end in the hope you will eventually end up first in the queue for that permanent academic post. What has irked me about some of the contributions to the debate are the myths about the world inside and outside of academia on which a surprising number of people still rely and which they continue to perpetuate. While there are by now plenty of helpful, balanced advice pieces out there (see for example here http://theprofessorisin.com/its-ok-to-quit/ and here http://www.escapetheivorytower.com/), too often the argument is that doctoral graduates simply must leave academia if they have any sense at all, or that non-academic careers equate to an admission of failure, and as evidence that a person was never cut out for the academy in the first place (because it takes someone awfully special, which you are not, or so the story goes). Neither argument (if we can really call them that) is helpful to doctoral candidates.

No PhD skills training, be it academic or non-academic, can change the fact that there isn’t a job for every person with a doctoral degree. However, what you can do, and what is arguably your as well as your supervisor’s and your institution’s responsibility, is to put yourself in the best possible position for that time when you hit the job market. Yes, you are a researcher, but it’s unlikely your future job will entail you doing only research, so it’s good to get used to juggling different commitments early.

During your PhD, start thinking about what you feel you want to do afterwards, and don’t do so under the illusion that there’ll only be one option. Take a serious and hard look at academics in your field, how they operate, how much they work, and what kind of tasks are part of their job. Take a look at what kinds of academic positions there are, too. Consider what other sectors and industries there are to which your degree might be suited. If your university isn’t already providing information about and contacts with other sectors, seek them out yourself, either through university staff or directly. If you are unsure what your options might be, start by browsing through all sections of jobs.ac.uk and look at job specifications inside and outside of academia.

I don’t suggest, here, that you’ll be able to cherry pick, but you must determine what kind of job will make you happy – will make those years of doctoral research worthwhile – in order to realistically prepare for it, and those honest, hard considerations should be based on your circumstances and your preferences, not on judgments made by others on a certain kind of career.

Your main concern next to writing a thesis that will pass examination should be:

a) What can I do to determine what kind of job would suit me and for what kind of job I’m qualified?

b) What can I do, during my PhD, to prepare myself for and give myself the best possible chance in that particular job market?

Never think for a moment that your thesis alone qualifies or even entitles you to a job, academic or otherwise. At the same time, be aware that there is more than one option, and it’s up to you decide which one to go after. As you would in your research, make an informed choice, not one based on myths of what academia and “the world outside” are like.


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