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Considering non-academic career paths after your PhD

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Considering non-academic career paths after your PhD

It is no secret that career opportunities in academia are highly sought after, positions are limited and competition is tough.

Often, many PhD graduates find they are unable to find satisfactory employment within academia after completing their doctorates, or it takes them a long time to secure a position. If you’re in this situation, take heart. In most cases, it is not that you are not qualified, but simply because there are just so many people applying for a very small number of roles.

Post-doctoral research fellowships and positions can be great opportunities for furthering your research interests and developing your academic reputation, but it is also well known that the post-doc life can often be a very tenuous, unstable one. Positions may be only part-time, or for a fixed term of several years. This means that you need to constantly search and apply for jobs, or move frequently to wherever the jobs are. Be aware that you may not be assured of job stability for many years after graduating.

Unless you are very determined to remain within academia, it is worth considering other career options in non-academic sectors and industries. This article suggests key points to bear in mind as you think about pursuing alternative career paths.

You have more transferable skills than you realise

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the skills you develop during your PhD are useful and relevant only within academia. By conducting in-depth research for a considerable period of time, you will have strongly enhanced many personal development and professional skills too.

For example, you may have strong project management skills from coordinating complex projects within your PhD, excellent time management skills, good team-working capabilities and/or the ability to work independently, critical thinking and analytical skills, strong written and verbal communication, problem-solving abilities, resourcefulness and versatility. These are all qualities that are highly prized in any sector, and stand you in good stead for a variety of roles. 

You’re not “just a PhD researcher”

If you’ve been in academia for many years, it can sometimes be difficult to see yourself as anything but an academic/researcher. Spend some time reflecting upon all your experiences during your PhD and the qualities you have developed as a result.

Remember to include experiences that are not directly related to your PhD. For example, have you organised any events or conferences? Participated in any societies? Done any teaching? All these components add up and make you an individual with a unique set of skills and qualities that go beyond ‘just’ being a PhD student. In corporate terms, this is about building your personal ‘brand’, taking pride in your strengths and having confidence in what you bring to the table in any job, and in any sector.

Bring your research alive elsewhere

If your area of research is something you would still like to pursue, know that there may be other avenues for you to develop that interest. You could consider positions in private research institutes that are not affiliated to any academic bodies, corporate companies that are in need of your expertise in a particular field or, depending on your discipline, even NGOs and charities that have specially dedicated research divisions.

Still love being in education?

If you enjoy being within an academic environment, but post-doctoral positions relevant to you are limited, you could also consider working with the professional or managerial side of higher education. For example, if you have good communications skills and enjoy working with people, you might fit well with a university’s public engagement, communications or marketing teams, where you’ll work to bring the institution’s research out to wider audiences, or liaise with funding bodies to support research projects. Or you may like to work more directly with current or potential students in an advisory capacity, such as in a training or counseling role.

Some doctoral graduates also go on to teach in other capacities, such as in further education colleges, or with lifelong (adult) learning centres. This can be a good option for keeping a foot in education, while continuing to be open to other opportunities in higher education.


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