What are my career options?

As a PhD graduate in science or engineering, your options are - very broadly speaking - to;

Think of your choices as being mapped along a continuum

A key decision you need to make is assessing how important your research is to you. Do you want a career which very much uses the skills and knowledge you have acquired during your PhD, or do you want to move away from your research, and if so how much? Imagine the career options open to you as a continuum at the one end of which, you stay close to academic research (for example, you apply for post-doctoral research). At the other end of the continuum, you do a job which is based outside academia and not at all related to your PhD (for example, you apply to become a management consultant). As you move from one end of the continuum to the other, the focus of the options moves away from knowledge and towards transferability of your skills.

Post Doctoral Research In An Academic Setting

If you are serious about developing an academic career, post doctoral research in a university or Research Institute is the next step after gaining your PhD. As a route into being a future academic researcher and teacher, post doctoral research offers you the chance to develop your research skills, and publish and disseminate your findings.

It's important to be aware of the downside to post doctoral research. The work is usually offered on a fixed term (2-3 years) contract basis. Whilst this may be fine to begin with, it has implications for long term career satisfaction and stability. This means you need to use your time as a post doctoral researcher to maximise your publication output and network extensively, so that you gain the experience needed to move into a permanent academic post at the earliest opportunity.

Post Doctoral Research Case Studies

Rhiannon with a PhD in immunology and Brian with a PhD in marine biology.

So, what does an academic look for, when recruiting post doctoral researchers?

"We always interview, occasionally ask for a presentation, and we'd certainly look at their previous research work and publications if they had any. We would also speak to colleagues in the research group who they would be joining to see if they have heard of this person and what their views of the candidate's work are. Of course we also listen to the views of others they meet during their visit for an interview, like the technical staff, administrative staff and maybe even research students." (Senior Lecturer, Engineering)

Post Doctoral Research In A Non Academic Setting

Not everyone wants to remain in academia to continue their research. Research is also carried out in industry, the not for profit sector and the Civil Service.

In the longer term, researchers in non-academic settings commonly move into roles which combine research with project management, as they gain more experience. In addition to developing research skills, you may therefore also have the opportunity to extend your managerial skills. The good news is that unlike post doctoral research in an academic setting, fixed term contracts are less common outside academia.

One important factor to bear in mind is that you may find your publication output could be affected by there being less of a focus on research publication and dissemination than there is within academia. However, this will depend on your subject area and the nature of the research you are doing. If you are hoping to move back in academic research at a later date, your research output will still be vital, so keep this in mind.

Case Studies

  • Jeffrey - industrial researcher
  • Matthew - researcher in a government laboratory
  • Jill - researcher in a charity
  • Martin - researcher in a commercial company

Using some of your technical/specialist knowledge but not in a research role

If you decide that a career in research isn't for you, then you may be more interested in using the knowledge or specialist skills gained from your PhD in a job. In order to research careers that fit such criteria, you need to be clear on what you have to offer in terms of knowledge and skills. Below are some examples of career areas PhD graduates have gone into, where a good level of technical knowledge is important, combined with a range of transferable skills.

Remember, you will need to carefully research your career ideas, be clear on why jobs you are interested in are a good match for you - and be able to answer the question "so why do you want to do this job?" convincingly. You may also have to commit to further study and training, so think through the longer term implications of a change of direction.

The examples below are simply starting points. For more ideas, go to Explore Types of Jobs on Prospects website where you can look at more jobs in detail. Look at the "related jobs" section for other related career ideas and the "case studies" for real life examples.

Use Your Transferable Skills Rather Than Your Knowledge

Some PhD graduates decide that they wish to leave their research behind once they gain their doctorate. Rather than stay close to their subject in a research or teaching role, they decide to move into an entirely different area. This allows you to take on a completely new challenge and use the skills you have developed as a researcher in another context.

If you're going to make a complete change of direction, use the career planning section of the website to ensure you are clear about what you are looking for in a job and what you have to offer.

You will be asked in applications and interviews about your motivations for the change - not because it is perceived as a problem, but so you can convince the employer you are being realistic about the role for which you are applying.

This means you need to do your research, so get as much information as you can by reading about the job role, attending careers fairs and talks, and if possible by arranging some work shadowing or work experience. This allows you to "test out" the job without committing to it. See the job hunting section of this website.

Use the following links to explore areas which may be of interest:

Case studies of researchers who have moved into different roles outside academia:

  • Adam - Chemistry PhD to medical sales
  • Kathryn - Chemistry PhD to a science PR, then editor of a magazine
  • David - Geography PhD to Software Developer

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