‘I need direction!’ How research questions can focus your post-PhD job hunt beyond academia

‘Approach your [job] search as you would a research question -with curiosity, close reading skills, an eye for patterns, and perseverance.’

Dr Katina Rogers

Few people embraced virtual lockdown life like my mum. She got into Tai Chi classes on Zoom, a National Gallery podcast, and even found her way onto Rory Stewart’s Twitter feed. That was before the dreaded red light lit up on her broadband router. ‘That signal is in and out like a fiddler’s elbow!’ she lamented in her weekly phone call.

This is where I became useful. I scanned some consumer review sites, did a price compare, checked coverage and came up with a shortlist of new providers. ‘How did you get so good at researching?’ she asked. Good question mother. I don’t know, I just… did. I struggled to verbalise what exactly I was ‘good at’ that made me an effective researcher, so I appreciate how difficult it can be to:

  1. Articulate the ‘transferable skills’ we’ve gained from our research experience; and
  2. Consciously apply these research-related skills to other parts of life.

Point 2 is where the post-PhD job hunt comes in. ‘You can – and should – apply your research skills to the job search itself’ says Katina Rogers (2020: 106) . I absolutely agree, especially when it comes to getting to grips with the job market beyond academia. I also agree with her recommendation to approach the job search like a research question. But HOW can we do this? I’m going to stick my neck out and say that a useful place to start is by formulating questions to direct our job research, like we do our academic research. Let me explain…

This idea came to me after revisiting Harriet Churchill and Teela Sanders’ Getting your PhD (2007), which notes that when it comes to research:

‘without a formulated and feasible set of questions you risk:

– Feeling overwhelmed by your research […]
– Feeling unclear about what you are doing and where you are heading […]

Churchill & Sanders (2007: 35)

Feeling overwhelmed, you say? Unclear and directionless? At this point, the repressed literature scholar in me started to spot some suspicious similarities between the vocabulary used to describe both question-less research and scattergun job hunts.

That said, not all research questions are ‘good’ research questions. So, first we should consider any questions currently driving our job hunt, and whether these questions are useful or counterproductive. For example, here are some of the unhelpful job-hunt-research questions that I often hear from researchers:

  • Vague questions based on terms that require further definition, for example ‘what type of job is best for me?’ What does ‘best’ mean here? How can ‘best’ be measured? This type of question needs breaking down further if it’s going to give you useful scope and direction.
  • Questions that make untested assumptions. For example ‘what jobs can I do with my PhD in X subject?’ This question seems to assume that there is a finite list of jobs that lead on from a PhD in your subject. Such a list might sound like a panacea if you’re struggling to determine your options; the reality, however, is often far more rich and complex than such a list would allow. You deserve better.
  • Questions that are too specific. For example, ‘What jobs require a Sociology PhD, will let me spend more than 50% of my time doing research, are based in the charity sector and are located in Norfolk?’ Not only could very specific questions like this accidentally rule out other interesting options (e.g. roles in agencies to whom charities outsource their research); they might also mean that you end up looking for something that isn’t there (e.g. Norfolk is by no means the epicentre of the UK’s charitable sector. Sorry, Norfolk).

So, how can we compose more useful research questions to give direction to our job hunt? Well, we don’t (or at least, shouldn’t) pluck research questions from the air. Most decent research questions arise from either:

  1. An experience that we have
  2. Preliminary research or into a broader area

We can take these ‘preliminary study’ methods, then, and adapt them to help formulate research questions to focus our job search.

1) Questions based on our experiences

In the research world, an example of this could be a teacher who frequently encounters bureaucratic barriers in their work to address attainment gaps. This lived experience might lead them to formulate a research question to tackle this, for example: ‘What are the main institutional factors affecting teachers’ implementations of initiatives to address the impact of social deprivation on achievement in UK secondary schools?’

Here, you’re looking to your own experience for clues about what interests you and where your priorities and values lie. So, the way to adapt this approach to formulating questions to guide your job hunt is to get reflective. Do you have any existing work/ voluntary/ other experiences? If so, what did you enjoy about them? What parts of the work did you gravitate towards? What kind of work place and team were you part of, and how did you find this? Knowing that you’ve gained satisfaction from certain types of work activities or environments before can help you formulate questions to continue these themes. For example:

‘What types of jobs involve planning and organising events?’
This type of question focuses on a type of work activity that you enjoy. It could lead you to: browsing job profiles to find those involving the activity(ies) you’ve chosen; searching job boards attached to sectors you are interested in to see which roles include that activity (e.g. event organisation) in their job descriptions; or searching for that activity (e.g. ‘event organisation’ or ‘event management’) on LinkedIn and selecting ‘people,’ to show up real-life professionals who perform that activity regularly. Don’t forget to also ask yourself what it is about these activities that you enjoy, as we did a few posts ago.

‘What types of jobs will mean I get to do a lot of work in active teams?’
This type of question focuses on a work ‘structure’ or environment that you enjoy. The steps above can help you with this too, but it can also be useful to have a conversation with the named person on the job advert to check how much of your time might be spent working in teams/ working independently/ working on clients’ sites/ being office-based etc., depending on your preferences. If there’s no obvious contact named, then chatting to people who already work in similar roles can give you an idea about what to expect.

‘What types of jobs will let me use my quantitative and data analysis skills on a regular basis?’
This type of question focuses on certain skills or ‘bits of yourself’ that you want to use regularly in your work. Next, turn these skills into search terms. Let’s take ‘data mining’ as an example; stick that into the LinkedIn search bar, select ‘people,’ then look for people whose search result mentions ‘Skills: data mining.’ Chances are, whatever job they do will be something that lets them apply this skill in their work.

2) Questions based on preliminary research

Another way to formulate a research question is through initial research into a broad topic. Here, we examine what other scholars have done around this topic to identify which aspects interest us and where the current ‘gaps’ are.

If you’re looking to transition beyond academia, therefore, it helps to investigate what other people have ‘done’ in this ‘field.’ Your initial research questions here might be something like ‘What are some of the most common things people with a PhD in my subject area have gone on to do?’ or ‘What strategies have other PhD graduates used to focus their job hunt beyond academia?’ or even ‘What patterns can I find in the career choices of people with similar values and skills to me?’ Your sources for preliminary research could be:

  • Case studies of people with PhDs who have made the transition from academia to different sectors. Not only can this give you ideas around how they managed their transition; it also gives you a bank of ‘real-life’ suggestions of types of work that might follow a PhD. There are some great PhD-specific case study resources focused on this, including Research Careers and the University of Sheffield’s ‘VISTA’ profiles.
  • Podcasts that share stories of PhD graduates who have moved into a variety of work sectors. ‘PhD Career Stories‘ describes itself as here ‘for people interested in career possibilities after a PhD,’ whilst ‘Papa PhD’ covers PhD career stories plus broader job hunting issues like networking and mental health.
  • ‘Warm contacts,’ i.e. people to whom you are already connected. This could be people who completed their PhDs in your department before you did, or other people with your subject background and shared interests. What have they gone on to do, and how did they find it?

Just as Churchill and Sanders describe how gaining an ‘overview’ of existing work in your broad academic field can help you to develop an ‘understanding of the […] dominant approaches’ taken within it (36), so can the research outlined above help you to understand, and borrow from, the ‘dominant approaches’ that others have taken to execute their job hunt beyond academia.

Let’s conclude then with two important things that all this rumination so far shows us about our job-hunt-research-questions:

  1. Unlike PhD research question(s), the questions you use to guide your career and job-hunt research don’t have to be original! It’s likely that people have asked very similar questions before, so why duplicate effort? Some of the strategies above can help you to find such people and see how what you can learn from their approaches.
  2. Research questions are often fluid. After all, how many people don’t at least tweak their research question(s) a little during the course of a PhD? It’s common to refine a research question as you learn more about your field and get feedback from others. It’s normal for this to happen with your career-related research questions too, and for these investigations to take you in unanticipated directions: directions you may never have found without some initial exploratory research questions to help give you some method within the madness.

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