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.


A PhD is a fixed-term job, not a passport to a professorship

A PhD is a fixed-term job, not a passport to a professorship

You need to be realistic and honest with yourself about what a PhD is, in pure employment terms. If you’re funded, you’re receiving a salary for X number of years, to produce a given output (your dissertation). Therefore a PhD is what employers call a ‘fixed-term position’: a role that lasts for a set period of time, in order to accomplish a specific piece of work. Once the work is done, the job is done too. Thanks for your help – and bye!

A PhD is definitely not a permanent job in a university, and it does not automatically lead to such a job afterwards. Neither does a post-doctoral fellowship. 

So while some researchers will get permanent jobs in universities, your department or school is under no obligation to hire you or prepare you for a career in academia (or elsewhere). Nor does having a PhD qualification magically lead to ‘something working out’ in academic employment terms in the long run. Therefore I strongly recommend you adopt the following two priorities:

Priority 1: Your first priority as a new researcher is to carry out your programme of academic work and complete your PhD. That’s your job, that’s what your employer has hired you to do (whether a research council or university).

Priority 2: Your second priority, if you are wise, is to undertake a programme of activity that leads you into a prosperous and fulfilling career after your PhD. You’re doing this for yourself, not for your employer.

The trouble is, many researchers assume that achieving the first outcome will also deliver the second outcome. Publishing papers, teaching classes, doing admin, these activities all boost my academic CV and help me get employed, right? This would be a reasonable assumption, if there were a close correlation between the number of doctoral graduates and post-docs, and the number of vacant academic posts.

However, we know this is not the case. There’s actually a massive gulf between the number of doctoral graduates and the number of available positions in academia. In the US for example, more than 100,000 doctoral degrees were awarded between 2005 and 2009, while only 16,000 new professorships were available (more enlightening stats can be found in the article ‘The disposable academic’, published in The Economist magazine).

Worse still, there’s a trend towards ‘under-employment’ in higher education. Many of the entry-level academic jobs on offer today are not the full-time, permanent, salaried posts that people associate with a nice lectureship or professorship. They are temporary posts or ‘adjunctships’ which pay by the hour or by the course. In fact over one third of the academic workforce in the UK is now on a temporary contract, according to a recent report in The Guardian.

So don’t kid yourself. Don’t bury your head in the sand. Recognise your PhD for what it is: a fixed-term research contract, not a passport into a permanent academic career.

If you want to secure a professional job after your PhD, my advice is simple: implement a 2-year career development plan in parallel with your academic efforts. Aim at a career outside of higher education, even if you’re set on becoming an academic or a researcher. With a solid Plan B in your pocket, you’ll have a fall-back plan in case your academic aspirations don’t work out. Or if you’ve already decided on a career beyond academia, you can put your plan A into action while you finalise your dissertation.

You’re welcome to use my five-point plan for conducting a successful job search outside of higher education. Here’s some lovely feedback I’ve had on the plan so far (via Twitter):

Please do message me if you have any questions about the fixed-term employment aspect of a PhD.


The majority of PhDs are switching into careers outside academia

The majority of PhD are switching into careers outside academia

For how much longer will a career outside of higher education (H.E.) be considered an ‘alternative’ career for PhDs? After all, a 2010 UK study by Vitae showed that only 22% of doctoral graduates were working in H.E. teaching or lecturing roles three-and-a-half years after graduating, with only 19% in H.E. research. With the majority of PhDs switching into other professions these days, there’s a huge demand from researchers for careers advice about making the transition.

So here’s my 5-point plan for conducting a successful job search outside of H.E., pulling together for the first time many of the individual posts published here on Jobs on Toast:

Step 1: Discover your transferable skills
I made my transition out of academia when the internet was starting to go mainstream (the late nineties). I could see that technology companies weren’t just hiring techies, they were hiring trainers, designers, marketeers and analysts as well.

So that’s where I put my focus in the last few months of my post-doc: I worked out all the transferable skills I’d gained during my PhD and post-doc. I knew I could design training courses; build websites; write great proposals to win money; work well under pressure; understand new concepts quickly and communicate them; and work well in teams.

I took all these skills and I built a new CV (also known as a résumé) around them. Out went my academic publications: in came my list of skills. Using my new CV I landed an interview at a start-up company which built e-learning courses for clients. I was offered a job as a content analyst and subsequently became an e-learning course designer.

So start by making a list of your transferable skills, and compare it with the list in my post on the 20+ transferable skills of PhDs.

Step 2: Decide which path to take
As mentioned above, my job search focused on non-technical roles at technology companies. If you need inspiration for your own search, there are hundreds of online profiles of PhDs who’ve pursued careers outside academia. Start with the fantastic website PhDs At Work, or download my free resource guide listing my top 10 post-PhD interview websites.

As you’re browsing, note down any roles you find interesting and challenging. Put these keywords into a search engine to find out more. Who’s hiring? What skills and experience do you need – and already have – for these roles?

Make a clear decision about your target employment sector before moving on to the next step.

Step 3: Get the right experience
As a researcher, one of your biggest challenges is going to be a lack of direct work experience. That said, if you start early enough, you do have time to gain relevant experience. Here are five ways to gain work experience:

1. Freelancing / self-employment
2. Become an assistant, for instance at a publisher
3. Start consulting
4. Get an internship at a relevant company
5. Explore Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (in the UK)

For more details see my post on 5 work experience options for PhDs and post-docs. Aim to gain at least two periods of work experience in the target sector you identified in Step 1.

Step 4: Create your professional brand
As mentioned above, employers want to recruit roles like analysts, project managers, consultants, communication experts and marketing gurus. When applying for jobs, you need to market yourself in a way that closely matches what employers are looking for. So don’t lead with your PhD: instead, market yourself as a professional ______ with a PhD. Fill in the blank: are you a professional scientist, educator, writer or zoo nutritionist?!

Use this approach to develop a persuasive cover letter and CV. Put your new job title at the top of your CV and list your transferable skills underneath. Include the time spent on your PhD in the ‘Experience’ section, describing your role as ‘research manager’ or ‘freelance researcher’ for instance. Include a statement about your publications as an overall achievement, rather than listing them individually.

Step 5: Tell a great story
The job interview is often the most daunting part of the job search for PhDs, since you’re venturing into an unfamiliar environment in order to sell yourself. To present yourself confidently, you should develop a strong story to explain your career change. For instance, ‘as a professional zoo nutritionist, I’m looking to secure my first permanent role in a zoo, bringing a wealth of insight and practical experience gained during my research, and two work placements at …’

Use this format to develop the story of your own transition. Practice introducing yourself, explaining where you want to work and why, and back this up by reference to your skills and work experience. For more advice, see my post on How to tell a great story about your transition out of academia.

Pushing at an open door?
The good news is that employers want the skills and experience that PhDs have. A 2009 UK Vitae survey of 104 employers found that 73% would welcome more applications from doctoral graduates, and nearly a third are already actively targeting them. So forget about alternative careers … welcome to the mainstream! To make a smooth transition into work after your PhD, start job hunting in the penultimate year of your research and follow my five-point plan. Use all the great resources online and remember to take advantage of careers advice offered by your university too.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about making the transition into a career outside academia – you can message me, or get in touch via Twitter or Facebook.