Making the right move after your PhD

Am I ever going to find a job?
Am I ever going to find a job?

Today I’ve submitted the final corrections for my thesis. It’s been the last step on a long journey towards the doctoral degree. And what a journey it has been!

Looking back I am extremely grateful and glad that I had the chance to go through with it, despite numerous obstacles and doubts on the way, which, I am sure, will be most familiar to many PhD students out there.

It’s not a secret that our kind faces its own challenges: false expectations, inadequate supervision, financial issues, competitive environments, the downward spiral of academic careers and lack of information about alternatives are just a few of them. For me the biggest concern in the last two years was probably the question what I would do after my PhD. Again, no surprise.

Most of the PhD students I know spend more time worrying about their future than doing active research. During the last year of my project, this was the one topic that dominated all conversations with my science friends in similar positions. For all of us who were happy to do what an achieved PhD is supposed to do in academia, a post-doc, the situation was fine. I myself had offers with attached funding for post-doc positions. Most of my colleagues who started out with me and wanted to stay in academia managed to do so and were offered positions or at least managed to get funding for a year. The bottleneck, as we know, hardly affects PhD students who are fresh out of the lab. At least not in the UK and if a position away from the highly ranked elite-unis is acceptable for the researcher. Although some say it would be better if it did.

Good news: You’ve got a PhD? Yes, you can stay in academia. For a while.

The bottleneck. Taken from the Royal Society Report 2010 titled "The Scientific Century securing our future prosperity"
The academic bottleneck. Taken from the Royal Society Report 2010 titled “The Scientific Century securing our future prosperity”

But what if you don’t want to stay in academia? If you have noticed you don’t particularly enjoy lab work? Or you’ve come to believe that a post-doc hardly is the dream job you imagined it to be.

If you’re bothered about low salary, short-term “contracts”, hardly any supervision, career guidance or skills training (except for what you teach yourself during your research of course), lack of higher academic positions, stress about financial issues, grant applications, paper submissions, being scooped by the competition or colleagues and so on. Can anyone be blamed for losing the passion for science over the sudden realisation that years of work and the sacrifice of one’s social life have been rewarded with… exactly… a paper rejection, health issues and overall reduced employability. And the major discovery that seemed so close in the beginning is also still outstanding.

It doesn’t mean you’re dumb or inadequate as a researcher, it just means you’ve bought into a risky job and luck wasn’t on your side. They tell us: perhaps you’ve been on the verge of a discovery but didn’t have the intellectual capacity to identify it as such. Let’s be honest: there are probably more scientists who just make up their amazing data than those who miss out on great findings right in front of them. Of course I’m just speculating here – but this touches on another common issue with current research: its getting more and more fraudulent and seemingly selects for selfish, reckless and deceitful behaviour.

I’m not saying doing a post-doc is generally a bad idea, but it might not be the right move for everyone. From what I see especially those people seem to excel in academia who enjoy to focus their energy on details and strive for specialisation. Researchers who identify a little, novel niche for themselves and then get really good at gaining the expertise in said niche can go a long way in a prolific career.

My own trouble with research was that everything sparked my enthusiasm. I could get excited over new findings in neuroscience, cancer and stem cell research as well as environmental biology. I constantly worried about missing out if I didn’t keep reading everything. That kind of demeanor can certainly be considered a waste of time if you’re supposed to study a population of skin immune cells. Sounds familiar? Then chances are an academic post-doc might not bring you happiness ever after.

Don’t got for it just because it’s the easiest thing to do and funding – at that stage – is still comparatively easy to acquire.

Smart, well-organised and motivated people are needed in many places. And academia certainly isn’t everything – it shouldn’t become our identity to such an extent that we can’t see the world outside anymore. But since many graduates never had a non-university job in their life they don’t know what they miss out on. They only identify themselves as part of the academic workforce and when that future is threatened despair is looming ahead.

What if our skills were actually highly sought-after in other fields? With that kind of education don’t we owe it to ourselves and our future employers to jump into the cold water and find out on what scale we can really contribute?

PhD students – what are we good at?

Why should anyone hire us? We don’t bring a lot of qualifications into the “real world”. We lack business skills, we lack experience, we’re old and loud-mouthed, know-it-all egocentrics, we demand way too high starting salaries, we’ve lived in the academic bubble for years and – seriously – we’re sometimes difficult to talk to with all that academic jargon.

Thank god there’s a but. We actually come with a lot of skills, but we’ve never learnt to sell them to employers. During my first years as a PhD student we didn’t really have any additional programmes that would have prepared us for a life after (that is, a life not dedicated to a post-doc). Thankfully this is changing, as universities realise they won’t be able to employ 96% of the workforce they’re training on a long-term basis. Funnily enough we just had the first session ever about Research Training and Development in our lab today – it came 6 months too late for me. Still, it wasn’t even necessary – thanks to the most important skill that our PhD provides us with: we know how to look for information. We can gain all the knowledge we need. We know how to extract the instructions that matter from everything that moves, speaks, writes or sings in our environment.

Besides, we’re amazingly self-directed. We come up with a new idea, pursue it independently and learn whether it’s worth the effort, meanwhile finding creative approaches to all the obstacles that block our view until we find the truth. Many of us even possess the ethical fortitude to admit they were wrong if the data indicates so. We never know what the final outcome will be but we’ll work until we find out.

In comparison, the search for a job or even a career switch is almost trivial. We’ve got all the skills we need: we identify possible job ideas by reading through the literature, talking to people (in those jobs and around them), perhaps even have a sneak preview in some internship if we can get it. We find out about the qualifications that are necessary for each job, we learn what the recruiters want to see and then we go for it. We admit if our first idea was wrong and the job we selected is unsuitable (even if it is a post-doc). Then we try again. And if there is something that a PhD student can learn it’s how to write fantastic CVs and cover letters that will grab the attention of the recruiter. Admittedly, this is something where university career service centers can be helpful – also take the chance to make use of business courses or any postgraduate career fairs that your university hosts. Talk to people and learn all they know – but instead of interrogating them about their latest diabetes research you ask about their job. It’s up to you to identify and make use of all the available opportunities. And there are many more within our reach than for undergrads or people without university degrees, so there really is no need to moan and condemn the decision to ever pursue a PhD.

By the way: if you are in need of even more cheering up, read this great article about 7 Advantages PhDs Have Over Other Job Candidates. It’s true and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

According to several books (Tyler Cowen: Average is Over; Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee: The second machine age) technology is changing the labor market. People with advanced cognitive skills who can augment machines are expected to be among the most successful employees in the future. The thinking and technical skills you learn during a PhD – at least in some fields – can give you the right tools to do well in the modern workforce. Some of the mentioned soft skills are already being recognised as economy values and highly sought-after, for instance in consulting or management positions. For other jobs, particularly in industry and pharma, you will need to add certain qualifications before you can get started. But in many cases these can be acquired within several months or a year and do not require financial suicide but merely patience and persistence. It always helps to have your ideal dream job idea right in front of you – and then pursue it as you would pursue a scientific discovery. You will get there in the end.

Read the next section of this article: What other job opportunities are there besides academic research?

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