“Be careful what you wish for”, so the saying goes, but sometimes “Be careful what you don’t wish for” is more wistful advice. Recently, Nature published the results of their survey of PhD students and it wasn’t surprising to see that the no. 1 wish was to have a career in ‘Academia’ (52%), with ‘Industry’ coming in second at 22% and other sectors figuring very marginally.
A career in academia has long been the favoured career of PhD students, despite the diminished chances of securing a permanent position, let alone a professorship. Many of those who sense that they may not achieve academic success opt for ‘industry’ instead – in whatever sense that may be. In the Nature survey, ‘Industry’ in this instance is defined as ‘research in industry’, but there are many other roles requiring a PhD in this sector of small, large and wide-ranging employers, e.g. pharamacovigilence, medicine and medical affairs, clinical operations, production operations, quality assurance, regulatory affairs, licensing, publications management, medical science liaison, data science management, marketing and sales, market access, consultancy.
Closer examination of the survey’s raw data reveals how well the participating PhD students were familiar with the career landscape, what was their knowledge of non-academic employers who would appreciate their skills, as well as being able to recognise their strengths and what they have to offer the non-academic world: all scored low in the survey. This may be a classic ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ situation – with no knowledge or experience of external opportunities, graduate students may be more inclined to choose ‘research in industry’ as it’s the most closely aligned to what they are currently doing.
It’s possible that you took part in this survey, or that this may be the kind of situation you find yourself in. The survey indicated that most of the students chose to do a PhD because of the intellectual challenge, stimulating work environment and creativity. It’s questionable whether over 50% make the initial decision because they hanker after a career as an academic, rather their career aspirations may become more allied to doing research and remaining in a stimulating work environment as they progress in their early career; the work focus of a PI is very different to that of a PhD student or postdoc, with the majority spending much of their time writing grants and papers, teaching and doing administration, not to mention dealing with intense competition. Of course, there are plenty of positive aspects, but you need to be passionate and strategic – as well as lucky – to attain tenure and to have the stamina to forge a life-long career in academia these days.
Moving out of academia into the wider world of work offers a cacophony of career options, maybe too many! PhD graduates and postdoctoral researchers can be overwhelmed with choice, but don’t know anything about these jobs or where to look for them, let alone whether they would be suited to them and vice versa. In the survey, having access to information about the job market and career guidance were both cited as being lacking along with other barriers to transitioning out of academia.
The majority of those surveyed use the internet to locate opportunities and research careers so with that in mind, here are ten of my career-related blogs to help you to wish for something else other than academia:
- Get to know the job market
- Use specialised job sites
- Increase your self awareness
- Recognise your skills
- Link your skills and interests with possible types of careers
- Get LinkedIn
- Adapt your CV to the job
- Make your own luck
- Investigate non-academic careers in more detail (e.g. career stories)
- Get career support