Academia is just one of many job opportunities for PhDs

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There’s an old saying – ‘when one door closes, another one opens’. I always saw academia as first and foremost a big opportunity – particularly for someone like me, being the first person in my family to go to university. Higher study offered me the chance to learn more, to develop my knowledge and skills, while at the same time doing good work (teaching and research). After my Master’s degree, I took the opportunity to do a PhD and a post-doctoral fellowship, both funded by British Academy grants.

From the perspective of a post-doc researcher, a permanent academic job obviously looks like a good opportunity to take. In my own case, I was well-qualified and I had a strong track record in the profession already. So over the course of my post-doc I applied for many lecturing posts, and was interviewed five times at UK universities. Each time I was unfortunately unsuccessful and the post went to another candidate. As I neared the end of my post-doc, academic employment began to look less and less like a good opportunity for me, and more and more like a dead end.

In response, I began to look elsewhere for options, and private companies in the newly-emerging field of e-learning caught my eye. Here was another whole field of opportunity – offering not just job security, but also a much higher salary and the chance to join an innovative industry. After my fifth academic interview rejection, I embraced my newly-found opportunity, and I left academia to work for an e-learning company, building web-based training courses. This initial switch led on to my subsequent career as a people manager, project manager and consultant.

Reflecting on all this, I feel that it’s healthier to approach your career planning in terms of relative opportunities, rather than as your single-minded passion or vocation (as we’re often encouraged to do). I appreciate that employers want you to display your passion for, and commitment to, their line of work. That said, it’s important that your commitment doesn’t slide over into self-sacrifice and exploitation, causing you to end up working for less than you’re really worth.

That’s to my mind where I personally drew the line – I refused to take up part-time teaching in order to stay in the academic game. I recognised that what we might call the ‘centre of gravity’ of opportunity had shifted in my life, following those five unsuccessful interviews. Realistically, with some previously open doors now closed shut, academia no longer held the same level of opportunity as it once did for me.

So I encourage you to reflect on where your present career opportunities lie – has the boat sailed on academia for you too? That can be hard to acknowledge at first, I know. But it’s in your best interests to take a step back and review the balance of opportunities as they’re panning out.

And maybe you’ll conclude that you need to switch your job search to look at roles outside of academia too. If you do, we’re here for you – a whole community of doctoral graduates working in fulfilling careers, and who are sharing their guidance and experience with you. Do check out my resources page for more details of all the books, websites and podcasts that are available to support your transition into a new career.