Steer your career

Is your PhD driving you crazy? Does it sometimes drive you up the wall and round the bend? Well, don’t worry. Just like learning to drive, you are behind the steering wheel of your PhD driving towards that day when you graduate and receive your certificate. Once that day comes, as with your driving licence, your doctorate will be yours for the rest of your life – no one can take it away from you!

So, when the going gets tough, such as your experiments aren’t working or you’re having a difference of opinion with your supervisor, imagine it’s a difficult driving manoeuvre such as a three-point turn or parallel parking. Keep your eye on the prize and remember these three analogies:     

  1. When you start your driving lessons, it’s hard to manage all the controls, look at the signs, check your speed and watch out for pedestrians. As you progress you get more adept at managing all of these tasks, so that by the time your driving test comes you are ready to go solo. Equally, your PhD is a learning process in which you are progressing over a 3-4-year period to gain enough knowledge, skills and expertise ultimately to go out on the big roads, whether it’s in the direction of an academic or non-academic career. So, don’t be hard on yourself when you’re going through difficult times and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Your PhD is an apprenticeship during which time you can take advantage of all sorts of opportunities to help you build up skills and experiences to navigate your way to becoming a professional researcher.
  2. Like your PhD supervisor, your driving instructor is in overall control of your training and whether you get on with them or not, it’s up to them to help steer you to attain your ultimate goal – to pass your test. I remember my quite elderly and rather bad-tempered driving instructor being hard of hearing, so that any retorts I made to his remonstrations when I made an error fell, quite literally, on deaf ears. It meant I had to endure his criticisms knowing that anything I said in my defence would go unheard. It was a lesson in patience and endurance! On the upside, both my two brothers and I passed first time under his instruction. Whatever your relationship with your supervisor, good or bad, remember we all have our own personalities, strengths and weaknesses and the secret is to find a way to compromise, find common ground and to come to a resolution.
  3. Whatever driving school people choose, it’s likely they have had no prior experience of the company, just as you may not have had any experience of the department, university or research institute in which you are studying your PhD. Every institution has its own culture and work environment, some aspects of which you may enjoy and relish, whilst others may not be so fulfilling. For example, if you’re at a research institute and would prefer to be doing more student teaching and supervision, consider postdoc-ing at a university after your PhD. On the other hand, transfer into business or industry for a more applied, goal-oriented role or, choose something in communications if you’re a more people-centred person.

With your driving licence in hand, you can throw away your L-plate; the world of motorways, highways and autobahns is yours for the taking! Equally, your doctoral certificate will open up a whole variety of career routes to you. So, if your PhD is currently driving you to distraction, bear in mind that once it is completed you will be free to choose your own road to drive down. You can take a map, turn on the satellite navigation and plan your route, or just sit back and let your car(eer) take you wherever you want to go.

Related content: Making career choices

Leave a Reply