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Posted on 17 May '17

PhD Prospects – Your Future with a Doctorate

You're probably putting a lot of time (and effort) into your PhD search, but have you thought about what comes next? Gaia Cantelli recently completed her doctorate at King's College London. Here, she introduces some of the options available to new PhD graduates.

There’s a lot to think about when considering a PhD: the research you want to pursue, where you want to research it, who with and, of course, how you’ll pay for it. . .

These are all important questions about your PhD. But have you also thought about what you’ll do after your PhD?

After all, a PhD is a big investment, both personally and financially – and you want it to pay off!

You might be lucky enough to win a studentship, or be accepted for a salaried position. Or you might decide to take out a PhD loan.

Either way, you’ll probably ‘earn’ less during your doctorate than you would if you’d found a job immediately after your Masters (or Bachelors).

What’s more, doing a PhD is really hard (but rewarding) work. You’ll want to make sure it pays off in the end!

So, what are your options?

Broadly speaking, there are three main routes you can take after you get your PhD: you can stay in academia, you can work in the private sector related to your field, or you can take up a different job that uses the skills and experience you have gained during your doctorate.

This post takes a closer look at each of them.

#1 Staying in academia – the postdoc

Academia is in many ways the “default” route out of a PhD, but relatively few students go straight from a PhD into a university post.

If you’ve got your sights set on an academic job, your next step will probably be to find a 'postdoc' (post-doctoral project). This will normally be a separate research project in a new lab, or at a new university.

Postdoctoral work is not so different from the last couple of years of your PhD. You’ll be working on area that’s broadly related to your expertise, but will probably be granted more control over the direction of your project.

A postdoc is a great way to develop your interest in your field and explore new techniques or directions. A project like this can even offer the chance to switch fields completely if you find yourself in a creative rut at the end of your PhD!

Most importantly, postdoctoral work provides a pathway into an academic career, whilst doing some of the things you enjoyed as a PhD student.

You will most likely be able to teach classes of undergraduates (or even postgraduates). This can be a big plus if you enjoy teaching – or if your doctorate didn’t give you enough opportunity to gain this kind of professional experience.

Your postdoc may eventually lead to a longer term academic job. Or it might help build up your CV whilst you wait for the right permanent position.

#2 The private sector – industrial research

This option is not necessarily available in all fields. PhD students in the Arts and Humanities don’t normally go into industrial research. (Though they may end up doing broadly similar work in the creative, cultural and heritage industries).

However, Science and Engineering doctorates tend to have both academic and industrial applications.

Companies working in your field need the expertise, skills and training that you can acquire during your PhD.

Industry jobs can be associated with great salaries and benefits – although they tend to offer less creative freedom than academic jobs (where the only real aim is to produce publishable work).

Industry work also tends to be carried out at a more reasonable pace – which can be a great asset to those looking for a more balanced work-life relationship.

Working in industry usually entails taking an increasingly managerial role as you progress, something to take into account if you enjoy managing people and working in a team.

#3 Beyond research – the world is your oyster!

There are endless jobs that recruit PhD graduates – from consulting, to patent law firms, to public policy and writing to. . . more or less anything anything else.

Employers these days are acutely aware that PhD students acquire a huge variety of hard-to-find skills.

After all, PhD programmes select the smartest, hardest working people and sharpen their talents - creating ideal employees for any job that requires intelligence, initiative and problem solving.

So, if a postdoc or a career in industry doesn’t appeal to you, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re making the wrong choice by starting a PhD.

A doctorate opens a lot of doors that have nothing to do with the world of academic research – in many ways, after you graduate the world is your oyster!

Making the decision

These are some of the most familiar pathways taken by PhD graduates. It’s helpful to know about them – and think about them – in advance, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to make a decision yet.

There are many opportunities for you to try out different types of work during a PhD.

Interested in working outside academia? Try taking part in a student-led public policy group, a think-tank or by volunteering as a part-time consultant.

Want to know what academic work is actually like (and what your lecturers do when they aren’t teaching you)? Many PhD programmes will allow you to get involved in grant applications, teaching or journal editing.

Considering working in industry? See if you can find a placement or internship with an appropriate organisation – or find a PhD that incorporates one.

These are all great ways to enrich your time as a PhD student and to find out whether any of these exciting careers are for you.

And when you do come to make a decision, it won’t necessarily be final. Graduates sometimes return to academia after work in related fields. Non-academic opportunities are also very much available for PhD students who work in university research for a while and decide to take a different direction after a few years working as a postdoc.

Career pathways these days are very much flexible and are all about finding ways to showcase your skills!

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Last Updated: 17 May 2017