By Matthew Jamieson
In the months before began my PhD I worked in a shopping centre in the suiting department. During this time I would tell my colleagues I would soon be a doctor (though not a proper one) and, being mostly undergraduates, they seemed suitably impressed that I was embarking on what was presumably quite a professional career. This reaction made me feel like I knew where I was going. I was an executive academic, with shiny shoes and wearing a slim fit shirt and tie.
In stark contrast to those heady days I am now in my final year, working from home wearing old jeans and an omnipresent sweater. I don’t know where I’ll be in a year and it’s time to figure it out. I’m surrounded by fellow PhD students who have the same issue – what do you do after a PhD? (in fact when I typed ‘what do you do after’ into Google, ‘a PhD’ is 5th, only just behind ‘steaming your face’ so this is up there with blackheads as an issue for humanity. . .). Anyway, what better way to find out which avenues to explore than to research it for a blog article!
The answer depends on what discipline you are working in. In most you can decide to move into the applied version of that discipline (e.g., psychology PhD graduates might consider applying for the diploma in clinical psychology) or into industry (for example computing science graduates often go into the gaming or software development industry). The skills you’ve gained from a PhD are likely to be relevant in most jobs. Even changing route completely is desirable for some.
If you decide to go into research then one problem you have to face is the pyramid structure of higher education. While it is difficult enough to get a PhD in the first place, there are considerably more PhD positions than post docs and it’s a highly competitive world out there.
To obtain a post doc (the most common step to a lectureship) publications are key. However, some research areas allow you to publish more than others (depending on factors like which journals you submit to and what participant groups you are recruiting). So when applying for post docs it can be good to work on other areas that can improve an application such as research experience, publications in other areas (e.g., blogging!) and developing your skills (e.g. working in research teams, ethics applications, recruiting, programming or statistics). Having a scheduled VIVA date can also improve your chances of getting an advertised post doc.
Many researchers I have met during my PhD have continued to work for their supervisor in some capacity after their PhD, in the absence of post doc funding. This can be a good idea to get further publications and experience although there are differences of opinions about this in different disciplines. In some ways it can be good to get a fresh perspective and sometimes the supervisor-student relationship may become employer-employee to the detriment of your future development. On the other hand it seems perverse for a University and supervisors to spend time and money training you only to deny you the chance to stay and contribute while also developing research skills. In the end you will have to decide what is best for you, but it can be easier to stay in the same place than make the bold move to another University.
If you have good network links then this will improve your chances of getting a good position doing the research you are passionate about. Having the will to leave the country or continent if necessary is also a bonus. Moving may also give you a broader perspective, which is an increasingly important quality – if you are able to work outside your discipline and build a network with academics from several disciplines then you are much more likely to find work after your PhD and in years to come. Twitter has become a great tool for building a broad network, as well as procrastination!
Once I decided to make this question the topic of my blog I talked to people who have recently completed a PhD. One piece of advice was to keep asking – and to ask people who completed their PhDs and are in the positions you would one day like hold. It was also recommended not to leave it too late – grant applications can take 6-7 months to write and sometimes years for the work to begin. The sooner you come up with ideas or talk to senior academics about funding the better.