Boost your job prospects by attending campus careers events for PhDs

Since 2009 I’ve had the pleasure of getting out on the road, sharing the story of my own career change with audiences of researchers and academics. I’ve made a successful transition from a PhD in Medieval Studies, into a career in business, project management and consultancy. I love telling my story and helping PhDs with their own career thinking.

Let’s face it, it’s easy to get closeted away just doing your research, and not put parallel effort into your career planning during your PhD. But sometimes you need to get out of the library or the lab and take advantage of ‘hire education’ events on campus. What are some of the benefits of attending? To my mind they’re invaluable for:

  • Raising your awareness of careers paths outside of higher education
  • Showing you how it was done – bringing career change to life
  • Picking up tips on the individual steps of the career change process
  • Helping you discuss non-academic career options with your peers and supervisors

Remember, once you’ve graduated, you’ll have to pay for any further career support you need. So look out for speakers appearing on campus, and make the time to attend while they’re still accessible to you.

If you haven’t attended a live careers event before, read the 3 case studies below to learn more about what goes on. These examples are all taken from events I’ve spoken at during 2017. Please do drop me a note if you’re interested in booking me to speak to researchers at your university.

 1. A careers workshop organised by your graduate school

On 8 February 2017 I was the guest of the Graduate School at Brunel University London, running a morning careers workshop for a mixed audience of PhDs and post-docs. In this workshop on ‘Opportunities and tools for researchers wishing to work outside of academia’, I covered the following topics in depth:

  • Identifying your transferable skills
  • Having a clear focus for your career change
  • How to communicate your value to employers outside academia
  • Tools and resources for career changers

I got a lovely email the next day from the organiser, who said that she’d bumped into some of the attendees that morning and they were still talking about the workshop! So look out for careers events organised by your university careers service or graduate school.

2. A careers talk organised by your professional association

On 3 February 2017 I was the guest of the Irish Association of Professional Historians at the National Library in Dublin, speaking to an audience of historians about career paths outside of academia. Afterwards I held a careers clinic where I helped 12 of the attendees improve their CVs. I was so impressed by the calibre of these folks, many of whom were pursuing PhDs as well as having full time jobs elsewhere. If you belong to a professional association, why not ask them to put on a live careers event for members?

3. A careers conference organised by researchers

On 16 March 2017 I was a guest speaker at the Researching our Futures conference, which was organised by a group of researchers at the University of Newcastle. The organisers deserve huge credit for their initiative and the excellent line up of speakers they assembled. My talk was on ‘Promoting your skills as a researcher’, covering identifying the transferable skills you’re acquired as a researcher, and translating these skills into language employers can understand. We did some practical exercises based on these themes during my session.

If you’d like to get hold of the slides for my talk on ‘How to translate your skills into language employers can understand’, you can sign up for my email newsletter and I’ll send you a link to download the slide deck.

Planning a career change after your PhD? About time …


For many PhDs, switching careers is a pretty big change. Decades spent in education and now you want to take your passions and transferable skills outside of academia?! To make this leap, you’re going to need a decent run-up.

Much like how an athlete trains ahead of a race, if you’re aiming to land a new job in the next six months to a year, you need to be blocking out dedicated time in your weekly calendar for careers-related work. This can be tricky while you’re completing your PhD, but it’s vital for making a smooth transition. For instance, I started my own exit preparations around six months before my post-doc came to an end, enabling me to land a job outside academia before my funding ran out.

Think about it: if you were preparing for an exam, you wouldn’t leave everything to the last minute, or revise in the odd evening here and there, would you? You’d make a revision schedule and revise all of the material thoroughly ahead of the exam. That’s how we got here in the first place after all!

So put a recurring careers slot into your schedule or diary today. One hour twice a week is a good start for developing that powerful resume and persuasive letter of application. You can ramp it up as you start to apply for jobs and get interviews. If you’re super-organised and already invest a chunk of your time in careers work, what hints and tips can you share, or is there something you’re stuck on? Send me a message.

You can’t climb a ladder that’s run out of rungs

You can't climb a ladder that's run out of rungs

As intelligent people we’re expected to do well. It’s actually fantastic that we have such a supportive network around us: all the people who care about us and take an interest in our success. When we were starting out, they set high expectations for us. They created the conditions to help us flourish and reach our full potential. We can feel blessed by that.

But there’s an important difference between encouragement to do your best, and subtle peer pressure to do a particular thing. Of course, in the minds of those giving the encouragement, there’s often no distinction. So for a researcher on a fixed-term contract (PhD or post-doc), doing your best means taking the next step on the academic career ladder, doesn’t it?

‘You’re going to be applying for lectureships/professorships, aren’t you? After all that studying? You’d make a great professor’

This is the weight of expectation we face in graduate school, from our well-meaning advisors, family and peers. Maybe we also place this expectation on ourselves, as we’re the kind of person who instinctively strives to reach the next rung on the ladder. Count how many exams, courses, awards and qualifications you’ve racked up over the past twenty years …

It comes as a shock to many doctoral researchers to find out that the academic career ladder has run out of rungs. The number of newly-minted doctoral graduates vastly outweighs the number of academic vacancies (no one is managing the intakes of PhD programmes according to supply and demand principles). Unfortunately, you’re not going to magisterially ascend to a lectureship or professorship in your local university town once you graduate!

Instead, you’ll need figure out how you’re going to make a living in today’s complex and competitive job market. As you approach the end of your doctorate, it’s time to clear your head and take some tough career decisions, free of assumption, expectation or wishful thinking. Do I choose academia or another sector? Do I stay within my discipline or market my transferable skills? What’s my Plan B, in case my Plan A doesn’t work out?

Here are some insights and links to help you navigate today’s challenging job market, post-PhD:

  1. It’s easy to assume that most researchers stay on in H.E., because in a university you’re surrounded by academics with PhDs. In fact, outside of H.E., doctoral graduates are flourishing in a wide range of careers.
  2. The majority of researchers are now finding employment outside of H.E. after their PhD. In the UK only 19% of doctoral graduates are in a university research role three-and-a-half years later, and only 22% in H.E. teaching and lecturing, according to a Vitae study.
  3. Early career researchers in the UK are having to get by on one short-term teaching contract after another, rather than the lofty ideal of going straight from PhD to lecturer after graduation.
  4. In the U.S. non-tenure-track faculty on temporary teaching contracts are getting stuck on very low levels of pay, with poor job security and little chance to develop their careers.

Take action now: Share these statistics and stories with those who have your best interests at heart. Be prepared to challenge their expectations of what you’re going to do next. Make your own choices based on the facts. Explain that you want a job that offers you full, rewarding employment with decent career progression. This may mean your best option is a lateral move into a profession beyond H.E. Or in other words: when you run out of rungs, you need to find another ladder!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on how the weight of other people’s expectations has affected you in the past, or is affecting you now – you can message me, or get in touch via Twitter or Facebook.