PhDs are just for academics, right? Wrong! While having a PhD is almost always a must for progressing along the academic career trajectory, this is not their only purpose! The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) published a report in 2020 on career ambitions of PhD students and found that although 2/3rds of PhD students want a career in academic research, only 30% stay in academia 3 years on. So, career paths are ever changing, there is no linear trajectory for a lot of us, and it’s well worth considering what is out there for you beyond academia too. But how do you go about this, where do you look and what are you even looking for? In today’s blog I am going to answer just that!
Firstly, it’s important to understand the benefits that a PhD has when it comes to job applications. Essentially, if executed well, your PhD can act as a training programme whereby you are gaining a load of relevant research and practical skills that are useful for your expert area. As a PhD student, you know how to find answers – you are highly trained in identifying problems and finding solutions to those problems. You developed your research proposal, and I’m sure it changed along the way in response to those inevitable hurdles! Not only this, if you are on a funded programme, this shows that you have demonstrated to your research team and funders that you as a researcher are worth their time and money. Your PhD shows determination, resilience, that you’re not afraid of rejection or uncertainty, and that you have the ability to produce novel, interesting and PhD worthy findings.
So, all things considered, where should you look should you want to explore the idea of careers outside of academia? All universities have careers service departments, and this could be your first port of call. They will provide one-to-one advice based on your needs and help direct you based on your personal interests. Typically, you can book appointments or look out for careers events. You can also lean on these services for advice on how to find work experience or vacancies, write applications, improve interview technique and even how to optimise your LinkedIn profile.
You could consider applying for internships, work experience or shadow days. To do this you need to be proactive, and you need to know what it is that you want to explore. My university runs a postgraduate researcher experience scheme which enables PhD students to gain industry experience. I recently utilised this service and applied for an internship with the charity DementiaUK to develop some digital content for their practice development team and their website. However, it was up to applicant to 1) gain an internship host and 2) coordinate the work plan, so even without said schemes, you can still foster these interactions just by reaching out to organisations and seeing what is out there for you.
Having a digital presence can also be a way to identify careers, or in fact have employers identify YOU! This doesn’t need to mean full on influencer by the way; but using social media in the right way can have huge benefits. The first thing an employer will do is search you up. So, posting regular updates on your research, promoting any outputs or conferences you’ve attended, and even engaging with other researchers in your field are all keyways to boost your digital presence and gain some recognition. LinkedIn is a particularly useful site that you can use a tool – think of it as an open, developing, online CV. Once you master this – the recruiters will come pouring in too.
Okay, so now you know where to look, but what exactly are we looking for? Good question! It can be difficult even knowing what opportunities are out there for you, especially if you have been in academia for a long time. I did some searching though (so you don’t have to!) and identified some job ideas (clearly there will be many more that can make use of your research skills) – maybe these will give you just a little inspiration.
Pharmaceuticals – a major UK industry and one that represents a significant opportunity for research and development careers for biochemists, pharmacists and clinical scientists alike. PhD holders are typically employed in more specialised roles based their studies. If you would like to pursue a career in pharmaceuticals, it’s a good idea to establish network connections with firms during your PhD, as this will help you to understand the differences between academic and industry research. A directory of pharmaceutical firms can be found via the following link: www.abpi-careers.org.uk
Consultancy – Specialist consultancy firms offer scope for research, working on behalf of clients from the public or private sector – depending on your own skills and background. Some firms work by combining expertise in a number of disciplines, so this could be a particularly viable career option if you are seeking more collaboration and would like to learn more from other experts.
NGOs and charities – often produce their own research to inform campaigning work and to lobby government. If you are seeking academic research that is more socially and politically engaging, looking for careers in this area may be right for you. Outputs will generally be in the form of briefer reports, with the design of being more in-depth than journalistic reports, but more user friendly than academic journal papers.
Media and broadcasting – behind every radio and TV programme, there is a team of researchers responsible for generating ideas, preparing content, fact checking, liaising with experts and conducting field interviews. The focus of these roles is on generating a programme experience, so the job is highly varied. As expected, competition is high for media jobs – but your PhD can help you to stand out!
Start-ups – the work that you have done during your PhD may have commercial as well as academic value, in which case – setting up a business of your own may be appealing to you. There’s a load of support for entrepreneurs out there, and you’d want to look out for information such as starting a business from intellectual property, managing risk and even profiles of existing start-ups that you may be able to join. Your university may also have a business unit which aids researchers to develop commercial ventures.
(You could also consider teaching…)
While a career in academia can be fulfilling and rewarding, it is not for everyone, and is not for every PhD candidate. It’s important to remember that your PhD is a valuable asset, and one that should liberate you, not limit you. Exploring alternate career options is wise, even if only to reveal that you actually truly prefer pure academia anyway. There’s a load of advice out there, and you need to see what fits you best. The university of Leeds has provided case studies on their website of researchers moving out of academia, highlighting their perspectives and experience – you can check them out too via the following link: https://careerweb.leeds.ac.uk/info/6/work_experience/175/case_studies
Thanks for listening!
Thanks for listening, Hannah!
Hannah Hussain is a PhD Student in Health Economics at The University of Sheffield. As a proud third generation migrant and British-Asian, her career path has been linear and ever evolving, originally qualifying as a Pharmacist in Nottingham, then Health Economics in Birmingham. Her studies have opened a world into Psychology, Mental Health and other areas of health, and with that and personal influences she found her passion for dementia.