Three PhDs, three non-academic jobs…


September 17, 2012 by researchertransitions

I’ve been on holiday over the last week, so only just getting back into work mode (first day back tomorrow, then its all go until Christmas!) However, I met up with couple of friends from the PhD on Saturday, and we ended up talking about work rather a lot and how our career attempts were going. While we’d all had a variety of jobs, none of us had ever really embarked on a career until after the PhD, so our chat on Saturday, over one year since I started my job, and over two years after they had finished the PhD, was an interesting time to take stock.

One of my friends applied for a number of graduate schemes as she came to the end of her PhD. She was very organised and was determined to have a good job lined up when the PhD was finished. She worked hard on her applications and to pass application tests. In the end she was offered more than one job, but chose the NHS management graduate scheme –  This is a two or two and half year programme open to all graduates with a minimum of a 2:2. It involves doing postgraduate study over the two years whilst you work, so is not for those who are fed up of studying. There are HR, General, Finance and Health Informatics streams.  My friend took the HR option and it seems to have been a good choice for her. She has been very successful in interviews since finishing the scheme and is just settling into her second post-scheme role.  She works a couple of hours beyond her official 9-5.30 regularly, but seems to accept this.  She misses the control over her own time during the PhD, but otherwise seems happy with her choice. She would like to study more, but her chosen topics would be related to her new role rather than her former historical academic interests. Since hers seems to be a success story, I am hoping she will come and speak at one of the ‘Careers for Researchers’ events my colleague and I are organising at work.

My other friend was also keen to do more research but similarly wanted it to be related to her new career – she said she enjoyed spending her time on projects that had more immediate ‘real-world’ application than her former television studies.  She started out working as a copywriter after the PhD but this wasn’t her ideal career and she eventually found her current role, working as a consultant for a semiotics advertising firm. This job meant she could apply some of her academic training in cultural studies to a commercial environment, helping companies analyse the cultural codes created by their brand and the environments in which they sell. She enjoys this work this but gets most satisfaction from working with public sector clients rather than corporate partners.

My own job is related to my PhD experience in that I am a careers adviser working primarily with PhD students and researchers. This has been an ideal shift, as I found towards the end of my studies I was becoming more interested in the process of writing a PhD and the relationship of the researcher to the world outside of academia, than in the topic I was researching. I had sought careers advice and started to look for non-academic jobs a year or so before I was likely to finish my PhD, although my approach was a bit haphazard. I had two broad interests – working in a non-academic HE role, or in community arts. When I saw my current role advertised and began to get excited at the possibility, I researched the role, including speaking with and getting advice from people in similar roles at my own university. Like my friends, I can see myself doing research in the future related to my new career, although I also like to keep a toe in my own academic arts/media/politics interests when I have chance and, as discussed in the last post, might try to find time to publish!

My friends and I chatted about how the academic staff in our department always assumed that we would apply for academic jobs.  This was largely true, although thankfully, it was never suggested that people who didn’t were failures. My supervisors kept mentioning postdoc and teaching opportunities, but had allowed me to do an internship in my third year and were very supportive when I ended up applying for non-academic jobs.

Our department also were keen to make sure we developed other skills. We were encouraged to attend, present at, and organise conferences as soon as we started the PhD (or even during our Masters). Our Head of Graduate Studies tried to make skills training compulsory and, while some would have preferred to manage their own training schedule, I think this emphasis on skills training was largely beneficial. While some courses were better than others,  most of us honed a few transferable skills such as presentation or proofreading skills.  We were also encouraged to teach.  Most full-time students taught at least one semester during their PhD, and many of us two or three.  Furthermore, we had to attend weekly term time seminars where we would have read 25 pages of one person’s PhD in advance and would question and comment on the piece both verbally and in written annotations.  Each student (and a few volunteer staff) were in the hot seat once a year. This definitely improved my critical reading/writing skills, my ability to articulate complex thoughts in front of my peers and defend and explain my ideas, a skill which carries over to meetings in the non-academic world (although I still get a bit nervous when I am required to speak in front of a large group of colleagues!)

So all in all, although we weren’t necessarily headed towards non-academic careers, our PhD experience gave us enough skills to make that transition. I am grateful to have been in a large PhD cohort with a structured graduate programme and am glad I took advantage of the opportunities available.

Having said that, I see a lot of PhD students and researchers now who have been much more isolated and not had so much support, but still have gained a lot of skills throughout their PhD experience. Once they identify them, learn where else they can be used, and articulate them successfully, they are a significant step closer to transitioning into a non-academic career.  But more about that another time…


2 thoughts on “Three PhDs, three non-academic jobs…

  1. Darren says:

    Interesting that you point out the notion that ‘not staying in academia can be interpreted as failure’. I think it’s true that there can be this portrayal sometimes – and it’s absolute nonsense. Industry can often be far more stimulating and challenging – and there is more money of course!

    • Thanks for your comment. Sorry for the very late response, it turns out I’m a terrible blogger and abandoned it for months!

      I moved out of academia and am very happy with my choice, plus I was lucky enough to have a support network around me to help me make that transition and congratulate me when I got a non-academic job. Its a shame that I still hear from early career researchers that their environment is not so supportive and they have to keep plans to move out of academia a secret! Hopefully we can change this culture bit by bit.

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