Congratulations, Doctor; academic work is NOT your only option. If you’ve just completed your PhD, the grass may be greener outside the university gates. In this post, we offer advice and guidance for those thinking of leaving academic after a PhD.
The Dream of a Life in Academia
Whatever inspired you when you began your PhD, it’s possible you were also romanced by an ideal of life after graduation: becoming a lecturer, the publication of your work, and an office with bookshelves and a view over campus.
The path seemed obvious. You got the teaching experience under your belt and defended your work. Your supervisor even hinted at your academic future. But now, the reality hits: there is no career path. You’re in an empty field, and there isn’t even a signpost.
The Truth About the Academic Job Market
Once the glow of passing your doctorate has faded, a mental and financial low-point follows for many students. You question your experience, teaching skills, ability to ‘network’, and worst of all, the quality of your research. When your home institution doesn’t offer a post-doc, you end up skimming the job boards. No one is hiring in your discipline. It’s hard not to feel slighted.
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Most Graduates with a PhD Leave Academia After A PhD
At this point, let the facts reassure you. A 2017 report by the European Science Foundation found that over 70% of PhD holders leave academia within 3.5 years of graduating in the UK. The majority move into industry, start their own business, or pursue work in other sectors such as non-profit and government.
In fact, there are very compelling reasons to take the skills you’ve gained and promptly switch direction.
The Instability of Academic Careers
Working in academia is not a secure career. Many post-doc opportunities are short-term prospects, and academic work could mean up-rooting every couple of years. You’ll also have to be willing to compete for new funding sources and projects all the time, or risk ending up back in that same empty field.
In this 2020 study, only one in ten academic staff members expressed satisfaction with the managerial culture within their institutions. High levels of stress and insecurity were reported.
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Work-Life Balance and Remuneration
A lot of PhD students have other responsibilities in life besides their research. You might have children, a partner, or elderly relatives, which makes early-career academia tough to navigate. Furthermore, the financial rewards may not be very competitive or fair. This report by the University and College Union discusses the higher education sector’s reliance on short-term contracts that offer no protection for staff. Nearly 50% of the UK’s university teaching staff work on casual contracts, often in an arrangement similar to zero-hours. When the Covid 19 pandemic hit, the UK press reported that many lecturers were among the first to be made redundant
Opportunities Outside Academia After A PhD
With financial security so hard to come by in academia, after years of hard work, why wouldn’t you ask yourself if you deserve a better deal?
Psychologically, leaving academia is not always an easy transition, but the rewards for doing so could be excellent, so it’s always worth preparing yourself to make a leap.
In certain sectors, like the creative industries, lecturers with industry experience and professional contacts are very sought after. Universities that value high teaching standards and student employability may offer you a way back into academia, if you really can’t stay away.
Feel Good About Your Transferable Skills
Don’t make the common mistake of thinking you’re only an expert in one niche. Anyone who completes a PhD is an expert learner. You can apply this ability, and many more, to new things.
Look at this list of transferable skills:
- Communication (writing skills and oral presentation)
- Decision making and problem-solving
- Organisation of information
- Project management
- The ability to learn quickly
- Data analysis
These are all attributes that employers are looking for, and your PhD experience probably demonstrates that you have all of these qualities and talents.
Transferable skills should be foremost in your mind as you tailor your CV. This advice from Forbes is true at any stage in your career, but it’s particularly relevant when moving across industries, or leaving academia.
Have Encouraging Conversations
It’s crucial to have conversations about your future career with people other than your supervisor. If possible, speak to a careers advisor. Chat to former PhD students who’ve set up successful freelance careers, or who work in industry.
Don’t discuss your career with someone who doesn’t understand the value of the broader experience you’ve gained. However thick-skinned you are, your self-confidence can take a knock if you listen to people saying you’ve ‘wasted your time’, or ‘made yourself over-qualified’.
Searching for Opportunities
Some industries, including finance, pharmaceuticals, and consultancy, run PhD entry-level programmes, but you should also look at the wider range of graduate jobs and schemes. Your transferable skills make you a strong candidate for these roles, regardless of whether or not a PhD is a prerequisite.
The University of Manchester Careers Service shares this comprehensive list of graduate job search links.
Publish your CV on Linkedin early, and start building your connections with other professionals.
If you’re stuck thinking you’ve researched your way into a corner, step back and reframe your experience. A talent for learning is something you’ll take with you wherever you go. Seeing your abilities make a difference in the ‘real world’ might be a breath of fresh air.
After completing my doctorate in 2017, I would have jumped at a junior lecturer role, but not being able to relocate really limited my chances. A friend graduating alongside me did find work, but he had to move his young family overseas not once, but twice, in as many years. Another friend is scraping a living on a flimsy contract from a top university. Her teaching responsibilities are crushing.
As for me, I had a security blanket in the form of a small, part-time job. I’d been there a year already, but I felt undervalued. With a doctorate in my pocket, I made the decision to quit. Just one month later, I started The PhD Proofreaders. Now, five years on, my business has grown to the point that I can be as busy as I want to be, and I can work wherever I like. I never say ‘never’, but at the moment I have no plans to return to academia.
If you’re standing where I was five years ago, my advice is to keep an open mind, and hold your head up high.
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