Talking To Phd Students About Non-Academic Career Options

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Once upon a time, earning a PhD was seen primarily as a route into an academic career. Today, however, there is talk of a PhD “oversupply,” and there is also international competition for academic jobs. In addition, those pursuing professional doctorates quite often have different personal goals, and higher salaries can be quite an attraction. 

Indeed, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, less than one in five PhD holders in the UK work in academia—a statistic that may surprise some students!

As an academic, however, you are one of that 20 percent, and that can leave you at a disadvantage when it comes to speaking to students about getting into other fields of work.

Start by finding out where past postdocs from your department have gone. This information may be collected already, but if not, it needs to be. Are there particular employers locally, nationally or internationally that routinely or frequently take on newly minted PhDs? Are there any particular career trajectories that illustrate potential new directions for current students? 

Science careers.

More PhDs work in science than in academia, but not always in the roles that an outsider in that world might expert. There are, of course, scientific researchers working for drug companies and in all forms of design and manufacture, but other PhDs (who may not themselves have a science or medicine doctorate) find roles in research project management, communicating research results and publishing.

The financial side of science research also attracts postdocs with the right skill set, as does managing research teams and corporate divisions.

Legal, social and technical careers.

Many PhD-earners go to work in the top tier of local authorities, national governments, the NHS, overseas development, think-tanks, social research companies, charities or the high-tech sector. Again, the topic of the former student’s dissertation isn’t always the deciding factor: it’s their transferable skills, such as the ability to coordinate large projects, seek the views of service users, carry out complex research tasks, and write up results that matter.

The take-away message for advisers.

If you are advising students, the obvious message is to show them concrete examples of non-academic careers that are within their grasp. Making direct links with potential employers, bringing in speakers, and arranging for internships and visits is important.

Students also need time, space and advice to prepare for a wider job market after graduation. They should have the support they need to prepare CVs and portfolios that make their skills and aptitudes visible. Techniques like data visualisation and multimedia research outputs can help them ensure that non-academics will understand the work they have done as research students, and the potential applications for it within organisations outside the university.

As students present their work at conferences, they should be encouraged to make potential career contacts with non-academic research partners, such as companies, charities and government departments. Additional work may be needed to research these potential employers, and this could be the topic of research student seminar sessions and career events. Also, many postgrads are self-employed these days, so developing skills for entrepreneurship is another important direction for staff charged with enhancing outcomes.

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