The information in this section is currently more focussed on the science and engineering disciplines, but there is much of interest to all PhD researchers.
The Careers, Placement and Experience Centre at the University of Reading provides a range of services to its PhD research students. Find out more about how we can help and how to contact us.
Beyond the PhD - arts and humanities
Beyond the PhD offers a rare opportunity to listen to the experiences of people from the University of Reading and across the UK, at different ages and stages of life, who have been through the PhD in an arts and humanities discipline and made the transition into a variety of work beyond it. Their candid personal reflections on facing challenges, responding to opportunities and reaching decisions are captured in over three hundred searchable audio clips. Find out more ».
In science and engineering, many PhD students are interested in continuing their research in an academic setting, and a PhD followed by post-doctoral research is very much a requirement for this. However, PhD researchers go on to work in research posts outside academia, and also enter a wide range of careers where the skills they have developed from their research (rather than their knowledge) are of most importance.
Whilst having a PhD is never a guarantee of a higher salary or level of job, the statistics show that PhDs do well in the job market - see What do Postgraduates do? for more information.
"What Do Postgraduates Do?" showed that PhD graduates are:
- more geographically mobile and more fully employed than less highly qualified graduates
- their unemployment rate at just 3.2% is less than half that of first degree graduates
- only 1% are in "stop gap" jobs (jobs which bear no relation to the level of their qualifications)
- the data also challenges the view that a PhD leads only to a career in academia or research. Significant numbers are found in all sectors of the economy
For more information about the job market for PhDs, also see "Your PhD What Next?".
How Do I Find Out About Different Careers?
To see information which will signpost you to information about a wide range of careers, see the Career Options area of this website. The information here is relevant to postgraduates as well as undergraduates, and the employers referred to will take applications from both, too.
There is also a web resource called Beyond the PhD, which is especially for Arts and Humanities Researchers.
Whatever job you apply for, having a PhD on its own won't be enough. Whilst employers certainly value a high level of academic ability, they also look for evidence of the transferable skills you will have developed from a range of experiences - your research, your training, and through extra curricular achievements and positions of responsibility.
As the job applicant, you need to recognise and demonstrate evidence of these skills, in addition to your specialist knowledge. The Research Councils expect PhD researchers to develop their transferable skills. There is now an increased importance placed on the development of these skills alongside your research degree. You'll notice that there's a good match between the skills you are now acquiring and what the Research Councils expect.
Transferable skills - what are they?
One thing that all employers have in common are the transferable skills they look for. These are skills that are developed in one context, and are transferable into another. For example, if you give a paper at a conference you can use this as an example of verbal communication skills - something all employers look for, and which you would need in any job.
Your subject area may well help you to develop particular skills to a high level.
When making applications, you need to be able to identify the skills listed in the person specification or advert, and give specific examples to illustrate when you have used them, alongside any relevant specialist and technical skills. You will also need to talk about them in an interview. They are crucial to the recruitment process.
3 ways to develop your transferable skills
- Whilst at university, see all your experiences as opportunities to develop your skills.
- Use the training that is offered by your department.
What skills do I need for an academic career?
For those of you who want to make a career in academic research and teaching, it is still a mistake to think that the only thing employers are interested in is your PhD. Of course it's important, but being a successful academic takes more than that.
You will need to show that you have the potential not only to teach and research, but also to develop the skills needed to work effectively as an academic in the future. Experienced academics need to be able to manage their own workload, network effectively, communicate with a wide range of audiences, write bids to bring in funding, manage other researchers, staff and resources, and negotiate for resources.
As a newly graduated PhD researcher, this might seem like a tall order! Remember - you won't have all of this experience, nor will you have developed all of these skills. You will be expected to develop them over time.
However, whilst still a PhD researcher, there are things you can do to increase your knowledge. Even though you are unlikely to have had bid writing experience during your PhD, you can still take the opportunity to talk to academics do this. Find out what makes a successful bid and who the key funders are in your subject area. Equally, you should be aware of assessment processes for teaching and research, and how this impacts of the work of the department.
To find out the skills developed by postgraduate research activity, see the Vitae Researcher Development Framework.
To review and assess your skills use the career planning section on the Vitae website.
What skills do I need for a career outside academia?
If you want to work in a job outside academia, employers will want to see evidence of the skills you have developed from being a researcher, and not just the knowledge you have gained.
For example, a large bank recently advertised for PhD graduates with maths/IT/engineering backgrounds to apply for jobs as financial modellers and quantitative developers. In addition to programming skills,
"both roles require a talent for creating innovative and practical solutions to real problems, strong interpersonal and communication skills, the ability to work effectively as part of a team, good organisational skills and the ability to work on multiple projects simultaneously and a desire to continue learning new modelling techniques or technologies. Prior knowledge of financial modelling, or experience in the banking industry, is not required."
This advert for an industry based Senior Research Scientist reinforces the same message:
"In this role you will manage a small team, planning and co-ordinating work. You must have previous people management experience in a similar environment, together with an advanced understanding of the principles of protein purification and protein analysis. On a personal level, you are an excellent communicator, passionate about your science and committed to helping develop your team members."
As the job applicant, you need to recognise and demonstrate evidence of these skills, in writing (for job applications) and verbally (in interviews).
What if I want to change my career?
The 2001 report "Career Paths of Academic Researchers" included reference to a range of competencies which were required to successfully move from one career to another. This report reinforces how important it is to have a clear understanding of the skills you can offer an employer, and to be able to show the relevance and transferability of them in different settings. Explore a wide range of different jobs at Prospects.
Whether it's an academic research project, a technical post within an industrial research lab or a finance house recruiting mathematical modellers, employers have a wish list of qualifications, experience and skills that they are looking for. Although this wish list may differ according to the job role, there are many common themes that emerge when you look at what employers say they want from their PhD recruits.
Academic Research - What are academic employers looking for?
Your PhD is crucial if you want to build an academic career. However you'll find that a PhD on its own isn't enough. When you apply for postdoctoral research positions, you also need to show a strong motivation for your subject and a serious focus on developing your academic credentials.
What do postdoctoral recruiters say they are looking for?
On their subject:
"I look for a confident and able researcher who displays a passion for their subject area and who conveys a proactive attitude to developing their professional standing in the field. This might be through increased publications, grant applications, conference presentations, etc. In particular I am looking for evidence that the applicant has thought this through and not just telling me what I want to hear. So, what might the grant proposal be about, what might their next paper be on or which journal might it be published in? Detailed answers to these and evidence of having published already would give me confidence that they are serious contenders." (Senior Lecturer in Engineering)
On their potential:
"What do I look for? Subject and technique specific knowledge which matches the area of interest, the ability to generate publishable results, and the flexibility to be able to help direct a research project and guide students." (Senior Lecturer in Chemistry)
"We'd also want to know whether they would fit into the research group/centre they are applying to join. This might be by offering different but complementary expertise or knowledge, or by being well aligned to the work already being conducted in the group." (Senior Lecturer in Engineering)
Industrial/Government Research - What are employers looking for?
Some of you reading this will be interested in using your scientific/engineering knowledge and research skills outside academia. The 2007 report, "Recruiting PhDs - What Works" aimed to provide a 360 degree view of the PhD labour market, and included interviews with non academic employers who recruit PhDs. Here's what one employer sees as the advantages of recruiting science PhDs compared to undergraduates:
- Experimental experience: "PhD applicants are more likely to have experience of collecting and analysing data (and in particular the ability to carry out robust statistical analysis) and so it is not necessary to teach these skills."
- More confidence in use of equipment: "They are more likely to have used similar equipment while doing research for their PhD."
- Experience of conducting/writing literature reviews: "This is particularly important when investigating new techniques or looking at new subject areas."
- Maturity: "PhDs have wider knowledge of their subject."
- Better people skills: "PhDs are used to working in a group, sharing instrumentation, etc." (quotes from a manager/recruiter in a government laboratory)
This same manager, who has a PhD, feels that scientific officers with PhDs are more likely to hit the ground running when they start work. "This also...gives them an advantage when it comes to getting promoted. They are more likely to get promoted quicker. They are also able to take on a management role in projects sooner which helps them get the range of experience required for promotion earlier than other scientific officers without a PhD."
Non-Research Jobs - What are employers looking for?
The EMPRESS (Employers' Perceptions of Recruiting Research Staff and Students) project produced a report in 2005 which looked at non academic employers' perceptions of recruiting people with a research background. Although a few employers warned that some PhD applicants could come across as being too specialised, this selection of quotes from the report illustrates some of the positive reasons employers have for recruiting PhDs:
- Researchers have a good range of skills; "we see PhD students as having a wider range of skills to offer - analytical and numeracy amongst others"
- Researchers can move into different roles; "because someone has been in a research post does not mean to say that they can't translate to a commercial/public sector job BUT I would probe their motivation and do role-play to assess their personal behaviours"
- Researchers have specific skills that can save employers time and money; "[the person we recruited] had worked on a particular type of software and this saved us having to pay someone else for additional training"
- Having employees with a PhD can give an employer kudos; "their qualifications can be a great selling point to clients"
Overall, the report identified the most positive attributes that employers see in applicants with postgraduate research experience as being "more mature, having better analytical and research skills, better ability to work autonomously and good project management."
The most commonly noted negative attributes included "narrowness of interest, problems of integration, lack of interpersonal skills and over expectation in terms of salary and career progression". Although not all employers feel this way, it's important to be aware of these perceptions so if you come across them, you are ready to counteract them.
Overall, employers who recruit PhDs are looking for - and value - the skills a research degree helps you to develop - maturity, lateral thinking, analytical skills and excellent problem solving capabilities to fill demanding roles
Whether or not you have some ideas about what you'd like to do when you finish your PhD, you may find the idea of career planning a little daunting - especially if you've been focused on gaining qualifications, rather than identifying a career goal.
This section is designed to help point you in the direction of useful resources, whatever stage you are at in your career planning. You can also arrange to speak to an Adviser in the Careers, Placement and Experience Centre to talk through your options and ideas at any time.
What careers have other PhD researchers gone into?
If you're lacking inspiration, a good starting point can be to see some examples of what other researchers have done.
You can see Case Study examples of University of Reading students or Case Study examples from other institutions. You can also see an overview of what Postgraduates do nationally. To find out how to generate career ideas, look at researching your Career Options (below)
How do I decide what I want to do?
The career planning process remains the same whether you have no idea, a few ideas or are very focused about what you want to do after your research degree. The process can be divided into 4 stages:
- Identify your strengths. If you want to enjoy the job you do, you need to be able to do work which plays to your strengths. Identifying your skills, interests, values and personal qualities is very important.
- What skills do you have? You will be asked to give evidence of your skills in applications and interviews, so you need to be aware of them. But which skills are your strongest, and which ones would you really like to use in a job? Assess your skills by using the career planning section of the Vitae website. This exercise is designed to help you assess your competency as a researcher and is based on the Joint Statement of the Research Councils' skills training requirements for research students. The Research Councils play an important role in setting standards and identifying best practice in research training and have agreed that these skills would be expected to develop during a doctorate.
- You can also reflect on your skills on Destinations.
- How might your interests affect your career choice? Sometimes, interests (which may or may not coincide with what you're researching) can be of importance to you and your career choice. Maybe your area of research is your greatest interest and that's where you see yourself working. However, sometimes people have other interests, not related to their research which they'd like to incorporate into their career.
- What's really important to you? Being aware of your underlying values - the attitudes and beliefs you have about what is important in life. It is crucial to know what these are. You also need to be aware of the values that different organisations have as you may find it difficult to get job satisfaction if you work in an organisation with which your values are not aligned.
- What kind of personal qualities have you got to offer an employer? How would your family or friends who know you well describe you in terms of your personality? - are you a fairly private person, or are you quite outgoing? Are you good at working with detail or do you prefer looking at the bigger picture? Do you plan and organise ahead or are you pressure prompted and do everything at the last minute?
- Be aware of what jobs are out there and what employers are looking for. Careers Advisers call this "Opportunity Awareness" - it's about researching all the different areas of work you may be interested in, and what employers are looking for.
- Match your strengths to the opportunities you have identified. You need to be able to articulate your reasons as to why your strengths, interests and motivations match well with the type of work you're applying for. At this stage you may need to weigh up the pros and cons of several possibilities. You can arrange to speak to an Adviser in the Careers, Placement and Experience Centre to talk through your options at any time.
- Make applications. By submitting applications and attending interviews, you can find out more about the suitability of the options you are considering. Reading up about a particular career or employer is only part of the story - the selection process and a visit to the organisation can tell you a lot more.
Other useful resources
Please see the Career Options page.
Please see the Job Hunting page.
Please see the Useful Links page.
- Skills of postgraduates and researchers (PDF)
- Competencies of postgraduates and researchers (PDF)
- Widening your horizons (PDF)
- Sources of information for Science and Engineering PhD students (PDF)
- Scientist PhD applying for academic job (PDF)
- Scientist PhD applying for job in external research (PDF)
- Scientist PhD applying for job in management consultancy (PDF)
- Arts PhD applying for academic job (PDF)
- Arts PhD applying for job in external research (PDF)
- Arts PhD applying for job in management consultancy (PDF)
All of these sample CVs are courtesy of UK Grad (now www.vitae.ac.uk).
These resources are new and we welcome your feedback on them. Each workbook contains an evaluation sheet. Please fill this in and return it to the Careers Centre.
Please see the Case Studies page.