Career Opportunities after the PhD

Eva Lantsoght
7 Apr ’16

While you might read the title of this post as something that has "after the PhD" in it, and you might think that is a problem to address once you have the date of your defense in your planning, it is never too early to start thinking about what you want to do after you graduate.

In the months around my PhD defense, I have blogged extensively about my experiences in finding a job, and I've tried to make the voices of others, who made other decisions, heard as well. I also got interviewed about it.

In today's post, I will go through the different career options you have. By now, you will already realize that not every PhD student continues on in academia. People with PhDs are needed at different places in society, and your academic skills prepare you for a wide array of challenges. And of course, prepare well for your job interview, for the job you are actually interviewing for.

So let's look at the different options and paths that you could walk upon finishing your PhD:

1. Academia: post-doc

Landing a post-doc position is maybe the most traditional step in academia. Post-doc contracts have varying lengths (between 1 year and 4 years, typically). One option is to stay at the institution where you got your PhD, and get a continuation project on what you did for your PhD. You can use the years of your post-doc then to publish the work you did during your PhD and grow your research network.

2. Academia: faculty position

Some people skip the postdoc step and land a faculty position right away. If you become a faculty member on a tenure-track program, fresh out of graduate school, you might be in a slightly disadvantaged position, because you don't have the post-doc years to up your publications. Typically, as a young faculty member, you will spend quite some time on teaching.

You might be thinking of landing a faculty position at the institution where you obtained your PhD, and you might know that the number of openings are very limited. However, if this is the career path you are seeking, and you are willing to make a move and become an academic nomad, then you might find that other parts of the world are desperate to hire people with a PhD title to join their faculty. Developing countries are a good bet for this option. John Laprise wrote about his experiences in the Gulf in a previous post.

3. Academia: adjunct position

Adjunct positions are other non tenure-track positions at universities. While some universities abuse their adjunct faculty and overload them with educational responsibilities, other institutions treat their adjunct faculty as they are supposed to be treated: faculty members who deliver valuable contributions and have opted not to pursue tenure and the title of full professor.

4. Academia: teaching at an undergraduate institution

In the Netherlands and Belgium, undergraduate institutions are called "Hogeschool": these institutions only deliver undergraduate degrees, and carry out shorter research projects that have a direct application into the industry. In other parts of the world, you find similar systems at institutions that are mostly teaching-oriented colleges.

These institutions need people with PhDs to make up their teaching staff and carry out practical research. The ties between the industry and these institutions are typically more direct than at larger, older universities.

5. Industry: your field of specialization

Joining a company in your field of specialization (in my case, that would be anything from a bridge design company to a large contractor) is an option. While some people tend to treat the PhD as a useless extra degree, and a waste of time (you could have gained practical experience in this time period!), most companies do agree that employees with a PhD bring additional value to the company, and can be set to tackle more complex problems or to put their highly refined skill set to work.

6. Industry: adviser to policy makers

The link between the researchers and the policy makers is a person who is familiar with the technical literature and recent research, and at the same time can communicate these results to policy makers and politicians to assist them in their choices. We want to carry out research to make this world a better place, but we also want our research to be actually put in practice. For this step, consultants to policy makers come into play.

7. Industry: business consultant

You might have a PhD in neuroscience, thinking business is nothing for you, but large consultancy firms hire graduates with a PhD from all different fields. If you know how to manage large amounts of data, these companies will be looking out for you. If you want to get acquainted with the work of these companies, you can typically join them for a weekend in which you are challenged to solve a business case.

8. Industry: become an entrepreneur

Why not start your own company and turn your research into a marketable product? In Delft, there is Yes!Delft to help you get started with your project, and other universities have similar initiatives.

You can also start a company that is not immediately related with your PhD research. PhD graduates start companies acting as professional proofreaders, as technical translators, as independent researchers and as career- and/or research-advisers to PhD students. Check out the interview I did with Dr. Ryder on this topic.C

For more on transitioning to industry, read this guest post of Dr. Chris Humphrey. Read here for 7 tips to transition to the industry. I also conducted an interview on finding employment out of academia.

9. Government

You could be actually doing the research (academic jobs), you could be the link (nr. 6: adviser to policy makers), or you could decide to go in public service and use your knowledge in a government institutions. You could be working at one of the ministries, where your understanding of complex problems helps making informed choices. In transportation, for example, a good understanding of a complex transportation system is necessary to make the right choices (remember that research has shown that building more roads only leads to more traffic and does not solve complex traffic problems). Or you could use your keen mind to work your way up in a political party and serve your country as -eventually, hopefully- a minister. Belgium's former prime minister, who is praised for steering the country through the Euro-crisis, holds a PhD in Chemistry.

10. Science communication and science journalism

Do you enjoy explaining your friends and family what are the broader implications of your work? A career in science communication or science journalism might be for you. Universities need science communicators, who are the link between the researchers and the broader public. Newspapers and magazines rely on science journalists to keep up with recent publications, and turn these into a lighter and clearer read, focusing on the impact on the world around us.

11. Whatever you wish

You have the power to build your own career. You don't need to make one single choice (academia or industry), and stick with it for the rest of your life. You will make a number of job and career changes throughout your life. Pursue your interests. Follow your nose. Enjoy the ride. Build a career, as Dr. Kelly explains in this interview.

To learn more about how to do the necessary soul-seeking to find what you want to do, check out this post. As I explained here, it's not up to me to tell you what is the "best" job (hint: it's different for everybody anyway).

Discover your future career path

Did you know that approximately 70% of PhDs and 80% of postdocs in the Netherlands pursue non-academic career paths? Discover your options with our Career Navigator! Read personal stories from other researchers and learn from their career steps and experiences.

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