Name: Peta Baxter
Master’s degree: Research Master Language & Communication at Tilburg University
PhD degree: Social sciences at Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour
Current position: Consultant at Van Dam & Oosterbaan
When I started my PhD I was convinced academia was my future. Once I started, though, I quickly (within the first year) realised that while there were aspects of academia I did enjoy, a lot of them I did not. I am very result-oriented, which is tough when doing academic research because the results take a long time to arrive, sometimes years. I also realised I wanted to feel like I was making more of a direct impact on society through my work. Most importantly, I really wanted to do more teamwork, at a faster pace.
When I realised I did not want to pursue an academic career, I decided to use the time during the PhD to work on determining what kind of career would suit me, and “buffing up” my CV for it. This led me to becoming a board member for Promovendi Netwerk Nederland. I was in charge of the portfolio of career opportunities after a PhD, so this was the perfect context to figure out more about what I wanted for myself, and help others along the way. It did not take long for me to discover consultancy, which is the path I then set my eyes on.
Finishing a PhD knowing you are planning on leaving science has its good and bad sides. It can be difficult to find motivation, as you sometimes wonder why you don’t just stop. For me, my work environment (by colleagues) and my extrinsic motivation (the added value of a PhD for my future career) were enough to keep me on track, and I finished my PhD within my contract. The positive side of knowing you will leave science is that it takes away a lot of the pressure, for publications for example. I did publish my papers, but I never felt the pressure to do so because it would not impact my future career. I think realising that doing a PhD would have an added value working in the industry also motivated me. Some consultancy companies particularly like PhD-holders because they know they are generally analytical, fast-thinking people. On top of that, the data handling skills I acquired are very sought after at the moment.
The biggest uncertainty I faced, though, was feeling confident enough to actually apply for jobs in the industry. Some people had no interest in me as a potential employee, stating that I had “no work experience, only studying”. This sort of misconception can be hard to deal with. However, there are many companies who understand that a lot of our skills are easily transferable. I see this almost every day in my current job.
I was extremely active in looking for what type of company I might want to work at. Many people know of the “big 5” consultancy companies, but I was curious about those beyond that. I took part in career management courses, actively sought contact with people in relevant positions via LinkedIn, partook in a masterclass (for PhD graduates!) at a consultancy company, and talked with many people. I realised that even though I wanted to work in the industry, I also wanted to remain active in the public sector. This helped funnel my search, and is how I found Van Dam & Oosterbaan.
I love how fast-paced my life has become. It’s more stressful, sure, but I am rarely bored. I also love the fact that my work now has a very direct impact on society, and that the projects I work on are so varied. I still use a lot of my research skills, though in a less applied way than during my PhD. Every new project I start working on requires me to (quickly) learn about the topic. This means reading, summarising, and abstracting facts and information. The company I work at aims to help organisations do more with their data and work in a data-driven way. This means I also (descriptively) analyse data, and then translate findings into various reports. While the research aspect is less in-depth than during my PhD, I recognise parts of the research cycle in my work and definitely use many of the same skills, though at a much more practical level.
Start early with your (personal) search process. Take your time getting to know what you want and don’t want in a job, and what type of company might suit you. Also don’t feel the pressure to follow the “standard academic path”. Really think about what you like doing and whether academia is the only environment in which you can do that. There are countless job types that you’ve likely never heard of out there! Network a lot, get out of your comfort zone and try talking to people who have positions you might envy. In general, I found that people like sharing their experience and that grabbing a coffee for 15 minutes is usually not a problem. I always say, an informed decision is better than a conformed one. Make sure that whatever you choose to do after your PhD, you have carefully compared your options. You never know what lies ahead of you!