What jobs can I do after my PhD? How to ‘map’ your options, with real examples

‘The bad news is there’s no comprehensive list of jobs you can get after a PhD in X. That’s also the good news: you can move into a vast array of exciting, meaningful careers.’

Jen Polk, PhD: Founder of From PhD to Life

I have a (PhD careers) dream.

My first TV memory as a child was Bertha. Bertha was an anthropomorphic machine that, when fed component parts, could fashion them into any item imaginable. Pop in the ingredients… and out came something whole and perfectly formed.

My dream is to create a Bertha… for PhD career planning.

In would go the details of your research topic, your interests and all your other academic and extra-curricular gubbins, and out would come a lovely shiny list of the perfect career options for you that are guaranteed to hire someone with a PhD in your field.

Sadly, the closest Bertha ever came to making anything so useful was a windmill-shaped money box, and it would appear, as Jen Polk’s opening quote suggests, that the Guaranteed Post-PhD Careers List just isn’t out there.

But why?! ‘Because it isn’t’ is a response that helps no-one, perpetuating the air of exclusive, impenetrable mystery that can shroud post-PhD careers beyond academia. So, let’s first look into why such a list is so tough to pin down, by deconstructing some of the unhelpful search terms we might use to try to find it.

1) Searching for ‘PhD X jobs’, e.g. ‘PhD History jobs’ or ‘PhD Psychology jobs’: Result? Perennially disappointing. This is mainly because many jobs beyond academia that you can do/ might enjoy don’t explicitly ask for a PhD. So, there’s a mismatch here between the search terms you’re using to find jobs, and the terms that employers are using to identify candidates. Take my job as a Postgraduate Careers Adviser. When the hiring panel were listing the qualities and experience that would best prove that an applicant would be good at the job, ‘English Literature PhD’ is unlikely to have made their list. But ‘advisory experience,’ ‘coaching skills’ and ‘understanding of the PhD process?’ Much more likely to be up there.

That said, in some sectors like pharmaceuticals and other industry R&D, there’s a more natural segue from PhD to industry; the things you’ll do in the role are likely to be similar to what you did in your PhD. As a result, the PhD is more likely to be viewed as reliable evidence that you can do the job, and hence employers in these fields are more likely to ask for it. Beyond these industries, however, employers may not necessarily ‘get’ what a PhD entails and what it makes you good at. Hence, they’re less likely to understand how completion of a PhD would act as evidence that you can do the job, and therefore are much less likely to ask for one.

Also, only around 1.4% of the UK population have a doctorate, so employers might feel they would be seriously restricting their potential hiring pool were they to make a PhD a requirement to apply.

2) Searching for ‘PhD employers’: status? It’s complicated. In one UK survey of 104 organisations, 6% said that they ‘very clearly’ hire people with doctorates and actively target them (sometimes offering separate entry streams) (Hooley & Rubio 2010: 2). 25% showed a ‘strong interest’ in recruiting doctoral graduates, but didn’t quite have the streamlined systems to do so. The largest group (47%) showed ‘some’ interest in doctoral graduates, but usually just considered them alongside other types of graduates. Finally, 22% showed ‘no marked interest’ in hiring candidates with doctorates.

In other words, some employers target PhDs, some don’t, and others are somewhere in-between. Just because an employer doesn’t specifically target PhD graduates doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t welcome them to apply (as the 47% group suggests), but you’re unlikely to find a PhD in their person specifications. Another complicating factor is the fact that people with PhDs may be concentrated in one specific team or part of a company, making them more difficult to ‘find.’ Hence, a search for ‘PhD employers’ may not give you much to go on.

If this is the case, how do we find these exciting and meaningful careers that Polk promises are out there? Well… we need to come up with our own search terms that will help us to map out where we could go.

Here’s one way to think this through… and if you weren’t already having enough of an identity crisis, I’m going to ask you to split yourself into three.


1) Your specialism(s)

In a nutshell, this is your PhD thesis topic and any sub-specialisms within that. For instance, if your PhD looks at signal processing techniques to reduce the noise emissions from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, i.e. drones), then your specialisms are likely to be things like signal processing and UAV engineering. So think: what is your PhD topic, and what specialisms and sub-specialisms are within that?

Your next task is to think about what types of employers might be interested in those specialisms. This is likely to be academic research departments, labs, or other research institutes in your field. It might also be some specific areas of industry (whatever ‘industry’ means in your field, e.g. including things like cultural and creative industries, not just engineering or manufacturing) that could ‘use’ your specialism in developing and improving products, processes or experiences.

On the academic side, find out where the departments and institutes are that are undertaking research linked to your specialisms. Elsewhere, use your specialisms as search terms for a ‘people search’ on LinkedIn to show up other people with these specialisms to see where they work and what they do. Similarly, a general LinkedIn search for these terms might show up companies or organisations that work within these fields, or groups where you could go nosying at how group members are applying their specialism to their work.


2) Your ‘themes’

‘Themes’ are more general areas with which your specialism links in. For example, our drone engineer above links into the broader themes of technology development, electronic engineering, and also physics. For someone whose PhD looked at the philosophy of human emotions, their themes could be mental health, well-being, and ethics. Another person with a PhD focused on the underachievement of a certain cohort in compulsory education would have themes like educational research, access to education, equality and diversity, and educational design.

Again, your next job is to think about types of work linked to these themes, or types of employers that might be interested in your engagement with these themes. Use your themes as search terms to locate possible employers or jobs, ranging from things like ‘technology R&D companies,’ to looking up charities or professional bodies associated with your themes (e.g. mental health charities for person 2), to identifying consultancies that advise on issues within these themes (e.g. educational consultancy for our third candidate).

3) Your… ‘other bits’ (?!)

Yes, vague I know… but there’s a reason for that. This is where you think about your broader skills (including your research methods and techniques), but also your interests and experience beyond the PhD. Skills or interests picked up through doing additional courses and projects, volunteering, previous work experience, activism… rule nothing out!

Examples

To show how this tripartite model can help to uncover some of the ‘exciting and meaningful’ careers that Polk suggests can follow a PhD, let’s look at how it worked for our three example PhD grads (based on real researchers I’ve worked with):

Person 1:

Specialism(s)ThemesOther bits
Signal processing; UAV engineeringTechnology development; electrical engineering; physics/ STEMCommunication skills; highly creative; media interests; public engagement experience; podcast production; coding
Academic research groups/ centres, e.g.:
UAV Technology & Sensing research group at Liverpool John Moores University

Telecommunications Institutes e.g. in Leipzig, Germany
Roles in relevant professional bodies and societies e.g. Institute of Physics, Royal Society

Research & Development, e.g. defence industry, telecomms, technology

Teaching physics & engineering
Science communication

Science media & journalism, e.g. working for Nature in media, editing etc.

Software engineering

What I like about this example is that it shows how the options linked to your three ‘parts’ don’t have to be mutually exclusive. This person ended up combining their links to technology development with their interest in the media, and went on to work in R&D for a broadcasting company. Mapping things out visually like this can therefore also help you spot potential ‘overlaps’ that could point you to opportunities that might bring two or more of your specialisms, themes or interests together.

Person 2:

Specialism(s)ThemesOther bits
Rationality of human emotions (philosophy)Mental health; well-being; ethicsStrong interpersonal skills; qualitative research methods; consultancy skills gained from a summer school; coding (free course)
Academic research groups/ centres, e.g.:
Emotions and Development Group at UCL
Relevant charities and societies (e.g. MIND – awareness-raising and education around mental health)

Other mental health, e.g. counselling & psychotherapy

Teaching, e.g. religion & ethics
Social research (e.g. government department)

Consulting

Software development and engineering via coding experience

Person 2 is interesting because they found their next step by leveraging external training. After gaining a free student place on a novice coding course outside of their university, they discovered a love for coding and used this training (plus a few more self-taught courses) to move into software engineering. The moral of their story? Don’t discount your ‘bits on the side’ for giving you clues to your preferences, and useful skills that you can leverage in the job market!

Person 3:

Specialism(s)ThemesOther bits
Conceptualisations of the underachievement of boys at age 16 in UK state educationEducational research; access to education; gender; educational design; compulsory educationEvent organisation & admin experience in HE; interviewing; skills working with/ engaging young people and families
Academic research groups/ departments

Specialist research institutes
Research, policy or other roles in charities linked to themes (e.g. education, supporting young people)

Educational policy or research in central/ local government or Think Tanks e.g. Education Policy Institute

Educational consultancy

Equality & diversity roles
Outreach, widening participation, access and recruitment roles in higher education

Youth & community work

Mentoring and educational support

Event management


Person 3’s transition beyond academia was a bit more ‘obvious’ than our previous two case studies. They wanted to apply their educational knowledge and interests to real-world impact, so took a role in educational policy working on equal access to education projects.

So, we didn’t quite find our PhD careers Bertha… but I hope this tripartite model provides some kind of framework to throw your ‘parts’ into and see what options come out. Or, if you’re struggling to map out yourself, draw up what these tables might look like for other people: friends or peers with similar backgrounds to you who have already started their post-PhD work. It may not give you the magic ‘list’ that Polk refers to, but it could help you to uncover some of the possibilities.

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