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Catherine Reynolds

October 17th, 2017

Career options after a PhD. What are you thinking? How are you feeling?

1 comment

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Catherine Reynolds

October 17th, 2017

Career options after a PhD. What are you thinking? How are you feeling?

1 comment

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Are you thinking about roles in or outside academia? Could you have both?
Are you feeling curious, confident, confused or concerned?

Career conversations with PhD students tend to focus on two employment sectors: in and outside academia. But in a complex labour market is there a simple binary divide between these employment worlds? Your future might involve both. Putting aside tricky questions about finding vacancies, making applications and succeeding at interview for now, I’d like to consider where you will find job and personal satisfaction. Where will you thrive and do your best work? There are pros and cons in every employment sector and multiple roles in both. What will suit you?

LSE Careers actively supports your career progression wherever you intend to work.

Academic roles

A common complaint from people working in academia is about the volume of work and multiple pressures. The Universities and Colleges Union published findings from their Workload Survey in June 2016. It isn’t pleasant reading. You might see the topic covered in the press too. A THES article (April 2016) about academic life titled: A Workload Survival Guide for Academics, offered lessons and practical tips.  Considering when to say no, to decline interesting opportunities, try this:

‘All baby opportunities are cute. Imagine this opportunity as a teenager.’

Professional priorities and finding focus, so that work and home lives are both enjoyable, is a common theme in this type of advice.

But, academia is a kind of cult and leaving it behind can be complicated, particularly whilst you are still embedded. Many websites, blogs and books share the strains of academic life and offer advice on alternatives. Some are best avoided but I like sources such as : Escape the Ivory Tower, Jobs on Toast and the ‘It’s Ok to Quit’ pages of ‘The Professor is In’.

Alternative roles in higher education

Every year PhD graduates move into the Professional Services Division of universities in the UK and overseas. For example, Dr Alex Free (LSE, Media 2015) works on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion  here at LSE. He enjoys being part of the higher education community, having access to University resources and continuing to publish academic articles, whilst earning a regular income, in a city he wants to live in and having a stimulating work role. He learned through selection processes to present himself as a professional researcher rather than as a PhD graduate. Research degrees are preparation for being a researcher of many topics – you won’t undertake the same project again and recruiters need to know you can transfer your skills and motivation to their setting. Having a PhD and working in higher education in an ‘alternative academic role’ is not uncommon and staff in many professional service departments are qualified at PhD level.

Outside academia

Similarly, some staff in the Civil Service, NGOs, think tanks, consultancies and international organisations are also PhD qualified. Their job titles tend to include researcher, analyst, and consultant. Some people will move into academic positions later, if they can continue to build relevant experience – that’s research, publications and teaching. Others will stay in organisations outside academia and thrive there. Increasingly senior people have a PhD as part of their portfolio, not its defining element.

Having both?

So how realistic is the possibility to be both? Careers do not need to be conducted in straight lines. Dr Julia Horn describes careers as ‘Odyssean’ Homeric style meanderings as well as ‘onward and upward’ trajectories. She says:

Cycling in a career means moving in and out of different realms of activity, changes of employment, industry, occupation and location, examples include changing the job itself, moving between projects, moving between full-time and part-time work, moving between work commitments and family commitments. This may be more rewarding: many of the academics who at the end of their careers appear the most accomplished, are those who behave in maverick ways, straying into fields which were not originally their own.

Creating a portfolio of experience

Building experience during your PhD can provide a rich resource to draw from later. As well as research and teaching the impact your work is having in external organisations can help build the dual pathway. Getting yourself known, getting your work known and building your network are legitimate activities during your PhD; you might consider contributing to blogs; media coverage; talking to audiences outside academia; doing some consultancy or other temporary work.

Some alumni examples

Every term we invite alumni to share their career stories and experiences of finishing up and moving out of academia. Speakers are often responsible for various policy areas, employed in a think tank, an international organisation, research institute, the commercial sector and central government. The panellists are selected from different years of graduation, so they can explain the short and longer term career progression after a PhD. By attending these events you can:

  • learn more about your options after your PhD
  • learn from your peers how they managed the process of submitting their PhD and making the transition to work
  • discuss career development after your PhD

 Alumni Panels

Panellists have included:

  • Francesca Bastagli, LSE PhD Public Policy 2008 –  Head of Programme, Social Protection and Social Policy, Overseas Development Institute
  • Julia Himmrich, LSE PhD International Relations 2016 –  postdoctoral fellow policy researcher at the Dahrendorf Centre
  • Shuxiu Zhang, LSE PhD International Relations 2013 – Senior Policy Officer, Department for International Trade, UK Civil Service
  • Giulia Pastorella, LSE PhD European Studies 2016 – Government Relations Manager UK and Italy, HP

Contact Catherine Reynolds, LSE Careers, if you would like to participate as a panellist or if you have ideas for topics you would like covered.

Find events listed on Career Hub Events.

Careers appointments

Confidential one-to-one careers consultations are available every week, use this to plan your career strategy during your PhD. Whatever you’re thinking I can help you feel increasingly curious and confident and less confused or concerned about your career continuum.  Book an appointment with me now. Catherine Reynolds, Careers Consultant, LSE Careers.


About the author

Catherine Reynolds

Posted In: PhD


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