So You Don’t Know What You Want To Do Next?

You are not alone! I suspect that most PhD students are uncertain, and if they think they know, it is probably because they assume, without necessarily considering the question at any length, that they will just continue on the academic conveyer belt. A few will, but the overwhelming majority will, sooner or later, leave the world they have grown familiar with. But what do PhD students know about the world beyond academia? What should they know and what information should be put in their way? Too often the assumption is made that if students aren’t aiming for academia they are aiming for industrial research, so give them a placement in an appropriate (and usually large) company and they will learn all they need to learn beyond the purely academic. Life, of course, isn’t like that, and it’s a very short-sighted view both of what students might wish to learn about and what destinations they might want to explore, probably largely driven by senior academics who haven’t much of an idea themselves about the motley world of work that surrounds us. (This is a point also made in this week’s Times Higher Education by Colin Blakemore.) It’s a world which can undoubtedly utilise scientific training, but often in more indirect ways than pure research.

This week I spoke at an event organised by Philip Moriarty, in his capacity as Chair of the IOP’s Nanoscale Physics and Technology Group. Now anyone who has read some of the comment chains between Philip and me on previous posts will know we don’t always see eye to eye, but when it comes to careers we clearly both share a belief that very often students are let down by the quality of information and experience they gain during their PhDs. The event was entitled So you have a PhD in Nanoscience? What now? and it offered students an opportunity to find out, first-hand, from those who have relatively recently received their doctorates what their jobs were like, what they wished they’d known during their doctorates, what skills they used or needed and – perhaps most importantly – how they’d ended up where they are now. They also heard from me (clearly not a recent graduate) and IOPP’s Margaret Harris, who has recently written on this same subject and who also succinctly articulated the problem: on average only 0.45% of PhDs go on to become professors, based on the Royal Society’s 2010 The Scientific Century Report  (see its Figure 1.6, which is as stark a picture of career destinations as any PhD student is likely to want to see).

After Margaret and I had given brief formal talks, the recent PhD’s (panellists let’s call them) each had about 5 minutes to talk about their career paths and experiences, before the students were split up into small groups who rotated round the room, quizzing each of the recent PhDs in turn. This format offered the students the chance to ask those burning questions about decisions, skills and the relevance of the PhD to later life individually. As I sat in on different groups, it became clear it was a format that worked well in extracting the kind of insight a careers advisor might be less well placed to provide.

I came away with some overarching impressions, although I only participated in the morning session, when all the panellists came from industry (the afternoon session had 5 academics and additional messages may have come across from them). First and foremost, none of the panellists seemed to have set out to be where they are now but had, by various mixtures of luck, serendipity, stumbling around and moving on ended up in a position which they felt suited them at the moment. One had completely retrained as a lawyer now specialising in IP issues, but the other 4 had perhaps moved once or twice post PhD (and possibly also after a postdoc or two) to find something that they felt really fitted them. Luck featured quite heavily in career paths, an topic I’ve discussed before.

In my own talk I highlighted those questions individuals should ask themselves as they progress that the Athena Forum identified as crucial:

  •  Are you on the right career path?
  •   Are you ready for the next step?
  •   How’s your life/work balance?
  •   Why do you enjoy what you do?
  •   What are your strengths?
  •   What motivates you?
  •   What is your next step?
  •   What skills and experience do you need?
  •   How can you gain these?
  •   Where can you go for objective guidance?

But although these were echoed and embedded in what the panellists said, they tended to be formulated in rather more personal ways, and complemented by other questions:

  • Are you driven and passionate?– if you don’t feel like that about research, don’t attempt to stay.
  • How much do you value job security?
  • How much do you value job security?
  • Do you need deadlines?
  • Do you find the focus of your PhD too narrow for your interests?

Emphasis was also put on how to ‘sell’ yourself when applying for jobs, both in covering letters and at interview, highlighting the importance of thinking through what your skills are and how they are relevant to the job in hand. Many skills are transferable, even if initially performed with a narrow focus during your PhD, but need to be translated into relevant language. This might mean using broad-brush language with phrases such as analytical skills, programming, team-working, oral communication etc rather than the nitty-gritty detail (at least until asked at interview). But it also requires an ability to stand back and give the context of why you are doing what you are doing, how it fits into a bigger picture of whatever field you’re in, and not assume its importance is so obvious it doesn’t needed to be stated.

Finally, the dreaded word GUILT was mentioned. I heard one student ask a panellist point blank if they felt guilty at having quit academia. The answer came back a swift no. How have we, as a community, reached a point where guilt is the predominant emotion when anyone is considering not staying in research, when the truth is we have a crying need for well-informed scientists in so many other spheres? Becoming an MP may be a particularly unusual choice for a PhD scientist, although my own MP Julian Huppert shows it can be done and I believe the country would certainly benefit from more scientifically literate Members of Parliament. But there are other places for the scientifically-minded to get involved with policy, places such as the Civil Service and think-tanks. What about scientific journalism or the media more generally? Teaching at every level from Primary to FE? Banking and other types of financial services have, of course, long been seen as a destination of choice, because of the importance of quantitative skills and critical thinking when it comes to making money (for yourself or others). Technical sales and instrumental application work, technical programming and scientific publishing, all these offer different possibilities in which to use a PhD in science in ways beyond pure research. So why is guilt the predominant emotion when people look at such jobs? Something needs to be done to eradicate this guilt and encourage students to appreciate how valuable the skills they’ve learned during their PhD are in an incredibly broad and diverse range of jobs. But that requires them to let go of the minutiae of their current projects and see the bigger picture.

I know that Philip Moriarty is keen to see this sort of event be run again in the future. It is obvious that it is not just the nanoscience community who can benefit from it, and the enthusiasm the students manifested during the day for the opportunities offered demonstrate that many groups would profit from a similar ‘hands-on’ sort of day, when those already in gainful employment share their wisdom and experiences with those anxiously pondering the future.

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8 Responses to So You Don’t Know What You Want To Do Next?

  1. Laurence Cox says:

    Juian Huppert is rather an exceptional case. He did replace David Howarth, also a Cambridge don, and in the same election Evan Harris lost OXWAB (which also must have had a pretty high academic content amongst the electorate). I suspect that it would be much harder for a scientist to succeed in most Parliamentary constituencies. Perhaps the best chance is in list elections where the selectorate (being all members of the same Party) is better placed to give a scientist the high ranking needed to ensure success in the ensuing election. Sharon Bowles MEP, who was a Chartered Patent Attorney before becoming an MEP in 2005, is a good example of this.

  2. cromercrox says:

    I still don’t know what to do when I grow up.

  3. This sort of informal “hear it from the horse’s mouth” event is exactly the kind of thing which quite a lot of universities and Careers Services, run for their PhDs & post-doc researchers – it’s a great format. However, the big problem is getting the researchers to even think about turning up. We’ve been running our Pathways event at the University of Manchester for 6 years now and though we get ~500 PhDs each year who turn up to listen to 60-70 former PhDs, now in either academic or non-academic careers, that’s a small proportion of the 3,500 PhDs registered and an even tinier proportion of our post-docs.

    We hear occasional horror stories of researchers having to sneak out of labs so supervisors don’t realise they are attending, but more commonly, researchers either say they don’t know it’s taking place (they’re told regularly about the event, from PhD induction onwards), don’t think it will be relevant to their specific career issues (not realising that many researchers find themselves in the same boat), or don’t acknowledge that they need to think about their careers until they fall off the cliff of their viva or end of post-doc contract.

    However, for those who do attend, it gets consistently good feedback and we’re now seeing it come full circle, with those who attended during their PhDs or post-doc contracts, returning to talk about “what happened next”. I’d recommend this kind of event highly, either for those thinking of running one, or if you’re a researcher who’d like to attend one – try asking your own university/careers service, who may have one ready-made for you.

  4. Alasdair Taylor (@AWTaylor83) says:

    I helped organise a conference for young chemists at the University of Nottingham last summer- It wasn’t aimed specifically at careers and whilst PhD students made up over half the attendees, there was a lot of discussion between students and delegates from other sectors about what they could do after a PhD. In particular, we had a session of speakers talking about Education and Outreach, which was better attended than the more standard academic talks. Feedback suggested that those in academia really valued an opportunity to hear about types of work outside the normal realms of their research/studies.

    When the organising committee fed back to the Royal Society of Chemistry, the events main sponsors, we got a lot of interest from other society members. We are hopeful that in the future the event will become a big date in the calendar as it provides a different and beneficial way of bringing together young chemists from across multiple disciplines and career.

  5. Ursula Martin says:

    Dear Athene

    I just fell over this report which while not entirely germane to UK grad students, being mostly American and corporate, nonetheless has some good points.
    “A roadmap for a successful career and a meaningful life for high potential corporate women leaders”

    And a Christmas thank you for continuing to do everything you do, and finding time to share your thoughts with us all as well. One of these days I will find the time to start a blog, but that would mean even less time to read every else’s far more interesting ones!


  6. Pingback: From science PhD to careers outside academia: what might help? | Code for Life

  7. Jamie Salcedo says:

    I knew what I DIDN’T want to do a year before I finished my masters, sadly. My younger sister (who is honestly loads smarter than me) knew shew wanted to be a forensic toxicologist , so she powered through everything and is looking for where she’s going to go for her doctorate.I’m proud of her clear direction.

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