PhD Study - What 3 Things Matter Most for Non-Academic Careers? |
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Posted on 23 Jun '22

PhD Study - What 3 Things Matter Most for Non-Academic Careers?

Not all PhD graduates go into academic jobs and it’s worth thinking about how your degree can prepare you for other options. Nick Willhoft did his PhD in Dundee (or, more specifically, little.perusing.certified) and now works as an independent consultant in the Medical Communications (Medcomms) industry. He explains how to increase your chance of reaching the right destination with your career beyond the university, drawing some inspiration from the what3words geolocation service. . .

What are the 3 things you must consider when choosing a PhD? For this exercise to be useful, we need to look at it what happens after your PhD. The PhD being a journey, not a destination. So what is your PhD a journey to?

The truth is, most PhD programmes are no longer a rite of passage to a faculty position. PhDs are, for the majority, a training for careers outside of academia.

The above graph is from an article researching career outcomes for PhDs. It makes it clear that the number of PhDs awarded has been rising far faster than the number of academic positions available for those graduates. It’s easy to be depressed by these findings and the tone in the article is itself reminiscent of a politician’s demands to better prepare prison inmates for the outside world post-release.

So let’s reframe this.

PhDs are a valuable (and sometimes essential) training for a commercial world that is as exhilarating and dynamic as it can be tough and competitive. The Medcomms industry I work in sits in this vortex. It supports the pharmaceutical industry to develop scientific communications strategy, to train healthcare professionals to get better patient outcomes, and to manage the publication and communication of often large and complex datasets. All of these things use the skills you can develop with a PhD.

That professional world is a few years away for most people visiting this site so we can boil this down to three things to consider now. Three things that if you were to end up leaving academia and joining, for example the MedComms industry, you would usefully have considered while choosing your PhD.

Thing 1 – smart people can change your life

The ‘What 3 things’ in my title is an homage to what3words, the geolocation phenomenon that is lighting up the internet. Reducing every square meter of the planet to a three word unique location was a cool idea, dreamed up and marketed by smart people. Long before that idea came to be, I once worked with someone who went on to join the what3words senior team. It was a strategy session for a German pharmaceutical company. I was the MedComms guy, he was the digital guru. He knew nothing about my world but he knew strategy, digital, data and understood people. Mainly though he was smart and a human being to boot. As he spoke all of us in the room learned.

I have worked with, worked for, and hired many really smart people throughout my career and it’s been a joy to absorb their insights, wisdom and humour like a sponge.

The PhD is where that starts. When you meet your supervisor and the team in the lab / department they should inspire you. They know things you don’t, and if they are willing and able to share you will be inspired. Find smart people to work with and to learn from and they will change your life for the better.

Thing 2 – it’s all about the writing

You will learn arcane techniques and master a body of literature that may have little to no direct application in your life after the PhD. But the writing training will travel with you to your grave.

The first time you get a bloodied manuscript draft back, your heart will sink a little. But look for people who will spend the time to help you write, who will support your attendance on writing courses and will take developing your ability to write as an integral part of the PhD training.

Medcomms is one of several modern careers in which you can make a living just writing. But whether or not you want to write full time, the Medcomms world needs you to understand content, and to help specialists around you improve what they do. Whether its words, visuals, video, animations, audio or performing on a stage. Whether it’s for cardiologists, oncology nurses, patients, clients or your own team. You need to write and to understand content.

My PhD supervisor shared many kernels of wisdom, most designed to squeeze a few more days into my six or seven-day work week. On writing he excelled and inspired. Teleology, tautology, chapter / paragraph / sentence structure, word economy, graph structure, and on and on and on.

And not forgetting: “Read everything. You want to write for a living you have to read. Read classics, Sci-Fi, thrillers, pulp, magazines, comics. Read everything and read a lot.”

Such was his cognitive intensity it was inevitable I’d move to Reading at some point (sitting in rods.rate.begin as I type).

Thing 3 – the project matters, but passion matters more

There’s two schools of thought here. One says “yes the thesis topic matters but this is a training and your job is to barrel through it and get a PhD. Then fine-tune your focus thereafter.” The other school of thought says “it’s a miserable way to spend three or four years if the project you are doing isn’t exactly right for you.” Each to their own on that one. But given there is a high chance you will willingly leave academia after its done, ask what will your research tell your future employer about you?

If you are determined to study the nervous system of a snail, go for it. No bad thing there. It will help your pitch to future employers if you are passionate about why your work is important. So listen for that passion from your prospective supervisor. Imagine that job interview where, rather than mumbling dismissively about snails and cold fingers, you can sell the role of snail biology in solving some of the human race’s most intractable clinical issues. By selling your research, you are selling yourself and your ability to contribute to their business.

Nick Willhoft is an independent consultant working in the Medcomms industry. He can be followed on Linkedin musing things MedComms. His PhD work focused on amino acid metabolism in rat skeletal muscle. An area which at the time looked set to solve many of the world’s most intractable clinical issues.

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Last Updated: 23 June 2022