We’ve written some guidance on what to think about if you’re considering a PhD and here Ruth Garland, who’s just finished her PhD in media and communications at LSE (having returned to academia after a 25-year career in public sector PR) follows up. Ruth is currently teaching master’s students at Brunel University.
If you find halfway through your master’s, or towards the end of your bachelor’s, your mind is turning more and more towards an academic career, you might like to ask yourself some important questions, and consider carefully whether this is what you really want. To make a success of academia you are going to have to commit yourself to at least four years studying for a PhD on a relatively low income, followed by the struggle to establish yourself in the early years as an emerging academic. It makes sense to think it through because you may be making a decision to stay in academia for negative rather than positive reasons.
1. Am I drawn towards academia or is it just fear of the unknown?
You have been in educational institutions for most of your life so it’s not surprising that academia might be preferable as it’s what you know. One way to test whether your interest in academia is negative or positive is to expose yourself as a student to as many working environments as you can; by volunteering, tutoring or through part-time work or internships. Attend LSE Careers workshops or breakfasts where you can meet employers and ask them about their working lives and attend alumni events to find out what life is like after LSE.
2. I find studying relatively easy, always get good marks, and feel that I would be more attractive in academia than elsewhere. Am I underestimating my ability to attract employers outside academia?
You may well be. If you are a good student, have an inquiring mind and have consistently achieved high standards, you may indeed have great potential in the academic world but these skills are also in demand in business, government and in the arts and civil society. With the help of the LSE Careers team, carry out an audit of your skills, and, even more importantly, assess your aptitudes and interests, and see what other career opportunities might suit you.
3. Is there something that I really enjoy doing, perhaps in my spare time, more than anything else, and are there ways other than in academia where I could capitalise on and develop these abilities?
If you have a passion, say, for the arts, or sport, finding out how people live, helping people in trouble, making money or participating in intellectual discussion and debate, you may be able to turn this into a career elsewhere, building on your academic background. You may be a brilliant mathematician who loves solving puzzles in your spare time, or the top debater in your year. Should you consider the possibility of a career in finance, economic think tanks, social policy or political lobbying? If, having considered alternatives, you still prefer the idea of an academic career these aptitudes will all come in useful.
4. Do I have a burning question that I think only I can answer, and am I driven towards reading as much about it as I can? Am I always on the lookout for lectures and conference opportunities in my discipline? Are there any academics I particularly admire and who I would like to work with?
If the answer is yes to all these, then you sound like you have an academic mind-set and would find studying fruitful and exciting. If the answer is no to all or some, it doesn’t mean that academia is not for you at some point, but you might want to try a year or more to establish a stronger motivation because you will need it to get you through the early stages.
5. Is this really a now-or-never decision for me or can I decide on one path and then choose another further down the line?
Yes, this is increasingly possible. Your working career is long – you have as much as 50 years of working life ahead of you. Depending on your social and financial circumstances, and the local working culture, it is becoming easier to use transferable skills to develop several careers. The academic world benefits from people who have worked in a range of other sectors; while former academics have the kind of critical minds and analytical skills that are sought after elsewhere, especially in areas where new thinking is required. If you feel that, on balance, this is not a now-or-never decision, and you are still in favour of a career in academia, it doesn’t mean you are stuck with it for life or that it won’t have benefits that apply beyond academia.
If you’d like to talk through your options and get support, book an appointment with one of our careers consultants – good luck!