Unpaid work – does it pay?

Is your PhD value-added? Will you be able to sell your ‘assets’ to potential employers in a competitive job market? Whilst your PhD will certainly give you an advantage in particular career areas, are you paying enough attention to improving your employment ‘capital’. The majority of PhD-qualified scientists leave academia sooner or later to take up non-academic careers, with only a small percentage continuing to a permanent faculty position (ref blog). Either way, it’s vital to consider your personal and professional career development strategy along the way to boost your employability and ‘future-proof’ your career.

Many PhD students and postdocs keep themselves up-to-date and employable by learning fast-evolving methodologies and technologies necessary for their research. Training might be through Summer schools, lab visits or on-line courses. You may have access to career development classes at your university or institute or there may even be opportunities to take part in training during conferences. However, as well as formal learning and certificated courses, there can be much to be gained through unpaid work, where you get hands-on real-life experiences, whilst incidentally developing your interpersonal skills. These voluntary posts, in the employ of others or initiated and driven by yourself, can be invaluable, and even necessary, to upskilling and networking your way into your next career (ref blog). 

In my former life as Head of Education and Public Affairs at a scientific charity, I took on a PhD student intern every year for a period of four weeks to assist me in communicating our delegates’ research, which was being presented at our annual scientific conference. Over the years, I employed over 15 ‘press assistants’ who would write press stories for three weeks ahead of the meeting, and then attend it for the whole week to manage media interest. None of the students were paid for this work, which was often the subject of controversy when I advertised the position each year on discussion groups and websites. However, my defence for this was always unapologetic: the students received mentoring and training in a real-life setting; they could work remotely, and all their expenses were covered including accommodation, travel, meeting registration and meals during the week-long conference. In addition, they gained access to a new network of journalists, science communicators and other professionals, received a reference from me when applying for paid jobs and, without exception, realised a very successful transition into a non-academic career following their PhD graduation.

I have known many PhD students and postdocs who have relished their unpaid work, enabling them to get involved in activities for which they have a passion: “I had the luxury of being able to do unpaid work when I was studying for my PhD”, says one student. She had approached a parliamentary advisory group to ask to be involved in their work, giving her the experience, insights and contacts that she needed to make an immediate transition into a policy-related career at the end of her PhD. Another student describes how the knowledge he gained about the drug development process during a short research internship in a pharma company, as well as the reference he received from his line manager, helped to propel him into his first medical science liaison post. Other doctoral students and postdocs have chosen more local initiatives, joining or starting up entrepreneurship clubs, organising events, setting up journal clubs, launching their own departmental magazines, sitting on advisory panels and getting involved in local community projects, depending on their interests. You can get more ideas by looking at the profiles of PhD students, researchers and young professionals on LinkedIn to see the types of extra-curricular activities others are involved in.  In fact, the opportunities are boundless if you don’t ask for payment; it affords you the advantage of choosing to do more-or-less exactly what you want to do and is a great enabler to transition into your next career.

So does it pay to do unpaid work? Overall, I would say yes, but you need to be careful and do your research so that you make the most of your limited available time. It can be tempting to get involved in too many volunteering opportunities, distracting you from your PhD, so ask yourself:

  1. What kind of unpaid/voluntary work will be most valuable to help me to build on my current skills towards my desired career?
  2. Who will I be working with and what kind of role will I have?
  3. Will this experience give me access to a new network or extend my current network of contacts?
  4. Does this work complement my career goals and add value to my CV?
  5. Will this company provide me with meaningful work experience and introduce me to a new network of professionals that will help me to gain access to this career sector?
  6. Should I inform/ask permission from my supervisor (in cases of a more lengthy commitment) and, if so, how can I make a convincing and positive argument to offset any fears he/she may have regarding my temporary absence?
  7. As a postdoc with limited flexibility and time, is it worth using my holiday time or weekends to develop the skills and gain the experience I need for my career?

Overall, think ‘quality’ not ‘quantity’ – a one-week internship, one-day’s work-shadowing, organising a seminar series or being involved in an outreach event can sometimes be enough to convince yourself and employers of your aptitude and enthusiasm for a particular career (or not, as the case may be). From my own perspective, volunteering at the university career service many years ago made me realise that helping students with their careers was more rewarding to me than doing research – the rest is history!

Leave a Reply