The afterlife of the party

After three to fours years of intense study in a narrow subject field, it’s easy to become blinkered about the future and forget about the ‘real world’. But before you know it, the post-viva champagne has been drunk, the dark recesses of your desk have been cleared, and the PhD stipend has been spent. What next?!

In a recent survey, a quarter of Bristol Earth Science PhD students had no idea about what they wanted to do after they graduated. This isn’t unusual. Although we spend a lot of time strenuously denying it, I think that at least some PhD students would concede that doing a PhD involves an element of suspending the inevitable decision about a career path. The same applies to post-doctoral research. For some, it’s active decision, whereas for others it’s the simplest solution to bridge the yawning chasm between the good bits of a PhD and the rest of your life.

From pillar to post-doc?
Taken from the brilliant (copyright Jorge Cham).

The traditional view is that doing a PhD is training for research career, with a post-doc being the natural forward progression; however, many PhD students have valid qualms about staying on in academia. Commonly voiced concerns include lack of job security, having to rely on short-term contracts, the prospect of relocating every few years and the difficulty of getting a permanent position. It’s not surprising that the majority PhD students are pondering a career outside of university research.

One big pro in favour of doing a post-doc is that at least your PhD counts for something. For those with an Earth Sciences PhD, the reality is that unless it’s directly applicable to industry (e.g. oil and gas exploration), you’re no better qualified on paper than somebody with only a first degree (and for a lot of engineering or environmental positions, worse off than somebody who has an MSc in a relevant subject). The brutal truth is that you know a lot about a little. For some PhD graduates, this is a bitter pill to swallow.

A PhD doesn’t entitle you to much, except perhaps a more lurid gown at graduation.

But don’t despair! The key to getting a dream job outside of academia is all about how you sell yourself and your research. Doing a PhD has undoubtedly enriched you with many skills which will be attractive to prospective employer. Team-working, problem-solving, time management, critical thinking, negotiating, presenting: you name it, you’ve almost certainly aced it during the course of your project. Not only will this be music to prospective employers’ ears, but your progression is likely to be faster than those who come straight out of undergraduate studies. There is also a perception that post-PhD involves a do or die decision…stay in academia or leave forever. Whilst it’s certainly harder to rejoin the academic ranks after a few years out, it is by no means impossible, especially if your job includes some industrial or applied research.

Whatever your opinions on a future career, it’s well worth thinking about it at least a year in advance of your intended PhD hand-in date. If you do want to stay on in academia, now is the time to begin networking, meeting people at conferences and putting feelers out for any opportunities that might arise (movement of research groups, recently awarded grants, etc.). If you want a ‘real job’, start by going to careers events and jobs fairs, take a look at graduate schemes, and try to get some contacts in the companies you would consider applying to. If you have literally no idea, start by making a list of what you don’t want to do. You’ll be surprised how useful this is! Why not take a look at some alumni profiles to see where Bristol PhD graduates go?

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First destinations of Earth Science PhD graduates 2009 – 2012. Data source: University of Bristol Careers Service

Most of all, don’t be afraid to talk to people (and your supervisor) about your job hunt. Sometimes contacts and ideas can come from unexpected places. You never know where that conversation in the pub might lead…

Useful general links

  • Prospects – objective advice tailored to your degree. Make this your first port of call if you know nothing about what you want to do.
  • University of Bristol Careers Service – organises lots of PhD specific events and workshops for all career paths
  • Vitae – “champions the professional and career development of postgraduate researchers”. Responsible for various UK-wide careers events and workshops. Lots of good advice on here too.
  • LinkedIn – if you haven’t already got a profile, consider making one (and doing a good job of it). Useful for making company contacts and job alerts.

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About Charly Stamper

I’m an ex-experimental petrologist.
I used to make pretend volcanoes; now I work in renewable energy

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