Have you completed your PhD? Congratulations! This is a great achievement. You are part of the world’s 1% of the population with a PhD (Coldron, 2022).
If not, maybe, you are thinking about doing a PhD and are considering if it is the right step for you. If you are looking into your future career, asking yourself what you want to do afterwards is important.
So… what happens after a PhD? What could your next adventure be? Would you like to stay in academia? Would you like to try other paths?
Although the most common direction for PhD graduates is academia, it is not the only one.
- Only 30% of PhD graduates end up in academia three years on (HEPI, 2020)
- Other graduates transition into industry, the public or charity sectors, education or become entrepreneurs (University of Toronto, 2016).
It is up to your interests and the opportunities you take to make your talents shine. In this blog, we touch on three paths: a postdoc, working in industry and becoming an entrepreneur. Consider these options if the next stage of your career is still unclear.
Career paths after a PhD
What is it?
The most common milestone in an academic career after a PhD is doing a postdoc. This is a period in which you are expected to manage your own career development. In what sense? Well, you should be proactive and take steps to become an independent researcher (KU Leuven, 2022). This includes:
- setting up and managing a research project to achieve certain objectives
- sharing your expertise with others through teaching, supervising and outreach activities
- taking part in effective collaborations
During a postdoc you can develop the skills to design, develop, implement and adapt an extensive research project. This can be a project proposed by you or you can support an existing project or research group. The project can be small or large-scale, in which case you will also gain coordination skills.
You are encouraged to create and extend a network of researchers and industrial partners. A way to do this is by participating in (international) multi-stakeholder projects or research stays abroad. Besides travelling, staying abroad can enhance your professional profile and enrich the scientific community you are part of. Other tasks you should be mindful of, if you choose to stay in academia, are writing papers as well as editing and submitting grant or funding applications.
The teaching requirements during the postdoc will vary depending on the institution you are working at. In some cases, teaching is not compulsory. In other cases, you are expected to teach a certain number of hours and balance it with your research time. Whichever the case, it is always advisable to carry out some teaching, grading or tutoring; this will enhance your CV, build up your experience and reinforce your knowledge.
As a postdoc, you should get support from a senior academic who will play the role of “host” and offer guidance. Be mindful of who you choose to work with. Is that person an expert in your field of interest? Are they interested in your project? Are you interested in their project or research group? Are your working styles compatible? As in the case of the PhD, having a good relationship with your supervisor can boost your research and even your career.
Is a Postdoc for you?
Go for it if you want to stay in academia and if you want to become an independent scientist.
How do you know if you want to be a scientist? Well, getting involved in academia can occur in different ways. For example, some people use the PhD or the postdoc as means to advance their career since they can move to different countries and meet different networks where they find better opportunities. In other situations, good students working closely with a professor or research group can be offered the opportunity to stay for longer projects doing a postdoc.
Alternatively, there are people who have always wanted to do research. In this case, a postdoc might be the best course of action since it allows you to consolidate your research skills and gain more experience. Just remember that a postdoc is for a short period of time, usually a couple of years, and afterwards, you might be competing for funding often. If financial stability is a priority for you, consider your options carefully.
During the postdoc, you become aware of your capabilities and you realise how you can employ the skills you learned during the PhD for a personal project.
Dr Jonathan J Huerta y Munive, Postdoc at the University of Copenhagen
Transition to Industry
What are the options for a PhD graduate in the industry?
Positions for PhDs in the industry largely depend on the field of the PhD, and what skills and interests you cultivated. For example, PhDs in arts and humanities can be a good fit for the publishing industry, digital marketing, NGOs, charities or civil services. Moreover, STEM PhDs can find a place in pharmaceuticals, data science, consultancy, industrial chemistry, aeronautics, finance, or even software engineering, among others (Bennett, 2022).
Is a path in industry for you?
The industry has a faster pace and is a different environment than academia. If you want a change of lifestyle, then working in industry might be for you. Another advantage is that in industry, contracts tend to be longer than a postdoc, which provides more financial stability.
How can I transition to industry?
If you want to make the change from academia to the industry you must focus on your strengths. During the PhD, you gained many skills that are highly transferable to the industry. Here are some of the top transferable skills you gain from a PhD (Lantsoght, 2022):
- Writing: After writing a thesis (and possibly journal papers or even blogs), your writing skills have been trained to be clear and concise. This comes in handy when reporting to someone, managing a team or for written communication in general.
- Presenting: If during the PhD you presented your research to many audiences, you now have practice in translating complex information and insights into accessible language and format. Use this skill to express your thoughts clearly according to your audience and influence others, for example when building relationships with stakeholders.
- Visualising information: Depending on your research, it is likely that you employed different visualisation techniques for your thesis and presentations. This experience to create and use clear visualisations is useful for reporting, presenting and management.
- Time management: During the PhD, you learn to manage your time and prioritise tasks. You become capable of organising yourself and meeting deadlines. This is very useful for project management and supervising.
- Analytical thinking: Being able to critically analyse a situation and solve complex problems is crucial in research, but also in businesses. Comparing solutions, deciding the best course of action and being able to see the big picture can provide a competitive edge to organisations.
- Autonomy: During the PhD, you learn to be independent and proactive. You do not need someone to tell you what to do next or to give you a set to-do list. Many organisations appreciate it if you do not require a lot of supervision.
- Teamwork: Depending on the nature of your research project, you might have come across teams that required your collaboration. For example, PhDs working in a laboratory or research group need to adapt to different opinions and working habits. These collaborations make you open-minded towards others and capable of creating productive relationships.
- Resilience: The PhD is full of challenges (the lab equipment is not working, the participants of your study are not complying with the activities, your code does not run, your draft is rejected… you name it). As you overcome them, you persist in achieving your goals. Being able to recover from setbacks and coming up with new solutions is useful for business development.
These skills are valued by commercial employers and organisations who look for skilled staff (including the public and charitable sectors). They also set you apart from bachelor’s and master’s students, so make sure you take advantage of them.
Additionally, be mindful of your interests and look for matching positions. Research your potential employers and think about what they are looking for. Is this something you have or need to develop? Do the daily activities appeal to you? Do you like the working culture? You can find useful information about companies on LinkedIn, so we recommend you create and maintain your profile. Here are some tips for optimising your LinkedIn profile.
As a PhD graduate, you become an expert in your field. It might not feel that way since you also become more aware of all you ignore. Yet, you still have more knowledge than most people. You can use this knowledge as a consultant within an organisation or independently. Alternatively, you can create your own business. It can be totally unrelated to your PhD or it can be the result of your research.
Creating a science spin-off company
It might be the case that your PhD research project can be employed to create new technology/drugs/methodologies with potential for commercialisation. In this case, creating a spin-off company might be something you can become interested in. Here is a list of 44 examples of spin-off companies in case you are looking for inspiration.
Is entrepreneurship for you?
Having a PhD does not necessarily mean you have an entrepreneurial profile. Although resilience, patience and the ability to work in teams are traits you can develop, entrepreneurs have to go the extra mile to influence and inspire others, while raising money and building trust and relationships (Domayne-Hayman, 2020). If this is something you enjoy, then it can be a good path for you.
Things to consider
If you are thinking about creating a spin-off company from your research, consider the following points (Domayne-Hayman, 2020):
- Is your idea fit to work in the real world? How can you make it appropriate for fulfilling a market need? Remember to get feedback from potential users in the early stages.
- How are you going to protect your idea? This will help you reassure investors that they will have a competitive advantage.
- Is there any support at your institution for startups? Many universities have hubs or incubation centres.
- Do you have any intellectual property obligations towards your institution? There are many cases in which the University has the intellectual property of research carried out within its boundaries. Revise your conditions.
- Who will be your team? What is your leadership style? Make sure you are compatible with your team.
- Who will fund your enterprise? Do research on the available kinds of investment (from venture capital to angel investors and supporting programmes at your institution)
What do you think? Are any of these three options appealing to you? What do you want to do after your PhD? Let us know in the comments!
Many thanks to our Research Communicator, Phebe Bonilla, for writing this blog post.
- Bennett, Mark (2022) Non-Academic Careers – Jobs for PhD Graduates. Consulted 20th June 2022.
- Coldron, Alice (2022) How Rare (or Common) is it to have a PhD? Consulted 20th June 2022
- Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) (2020) New report shows 67% of PhD students want a career in academic research but only 30% stay in academia three years on. Consulted 21st June 2022.
- KU Leuven (2022) Charter of the postdoctoral researcher and the senior academic host. Consulted 16th June 2022.
- Lantsoght, Eva (2022) Transferable skills from your PhD. Consulted 20th June.
- University of Toronto (2016) 10,000 PhDs Project, School of Graduate Studies. Consulted 21st June 2022.
- Domayne-Hayman, Barbara (2020) The four pillars of a successful science spin-off company, Nature. Career column. Consulted 21st June 2022.
- 44 firms highlighted in The Spinoff Prize 2020, Nature. Consulted 21st June 2022.