PhDs don’t last forever. Know your options. Start now – Part I

A final year PhD student got in touch with me recently to get some advice about career options outside academia. She wants a career in science communications. Having been through similar circumstances myself, I’m able to relate to her experience. And I know there are thousands of other PhD students in the same situation. Even though I’m currently working in science policy, I was able to share my own experience that should help her get started. Here’s my own scientific experience (Part I) – and my advice to her (Part II). If you aren’t interested in my experience, jump straight to my advice in Part II.

When I finished my Bachelor’s degree, I didn’t know what to do next. My situation wasn’t unique – I was in the same boat as thousands of other graduates, who also had no idea about what the future holds for them. Whilst most of my friends, went on to get a job in various sectors, I decided to buy some more time to figure out what I wanted to do next. So I stayed in academia, and I did a Master’s by research.

As twelve months whizzed past in the lab, my Master’s ended. I still didn’t have a clue about what I wanted to become when I finally “grow up”. So I did the only thing I knew at the time. I applied to do a PhD, got a scholarship and embarked on doctoral research that took over four years to complete. Surely those five and a half years would’ve been enough for me to decide on my next career move, right? Wrong. Still not knowing what to do, guess what I did next? Yes, I carried on doing research, taking up a three-year-long Postdoctoral position.

After accidentally stumbling into the world of research, I was still at it almost a decade later. I was reasonably successful for someone on that rung of the academic ladder. There were further opportunities for me to go to the US or Belgium and carry on in research. These were great prospects that could’ve opened up several academic doors for me. But I finally wrapped up my career in research at the end of 2016, early 2017. (end of academia is a smudgy, blurred line that drags on for a few months or years – I had quite a clean end by comparison to many!).

My decision to quit was aided by my responsibility and commitment to my family. I was no longer a carefree, young boy that went up to Leeds to do a PhD. I got married during the process. And I know from my own and friends’ experiences, that moving abroad with a partner is problematic. From visa complications to financial challenges, there are several obstacles to moving overseas with a partner. If I took up those positions abroad, I would have to deal with all these.

And for what? Another temporary, three-year contract? Had I accepted, there was a good chance that I would end up in the same situation – out of contract, unemployed, broke, clueless. I asked myself some difficult questions: do I put my risky career ahead of my partner, who could have a stable job? The answer was no. I walked away.

After leaving, I was stuck in a long limbo that saw me unemployed for nine months. Why? Because the academic bubble blinded my eyes; I still couldn’t see a clear career path. I was a fish out of the water. All I knew was academia – I had been in education for over a quarter of a century.

I knew that some PhD graduates went into marketing and sales of lab reagents and equipment, others went onto work in industries. All I knew was that I definitely didn’t want to work in marketing and probably didn’t want to work in the industry labs either. Apart from that, I didn’t know much else about my options outside the world of academia.

Don’t get me wrong; I loved my time in research. I had the best time doing research. My supervisors were amazing, my colleagues are still my friends and will most likely remain so for the rest of my life. If I had a magic time machine, I would still choose the same career path. But only up to a certain point – I would’ve quit after my PhD.

Quitting research is hard when you are stuck in a research bubble with little exposure to the world outside academia. For PhD students, it’s important to be aware of different opportunities and career options, which allows you to use your knowledge and be successful.

Carry on reading the rest of the blog in Part II.

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