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28-08-2021

How to manage your career as a PhD

The number of PhD graduates is rising. One out of ten is able to pursue a stable academic career. A majority switch to jobs outside of academia either immediately after graduating or during the following one to ten years. Continue reading to learn more about how to manage your career as a PhD.

Written by: Lucia Smit, BRAINGAIN

PhD life is more than performing experiments
As a PhD you belong to the most highly qualified group of workers. PhDs are trained to do analytical and conceptual work and to create new knowledge. In 2005 the OECD started to collect data about the careers of doctorate holders worldwide. The results reveal how PhDs benefit from their doctoral training:

  • Worldwide individuals with doctoral degrees enjoy higher employment rates than the average higher education graduates (Auriol et al, 2013).
  • Doctorate holders are generally satisfied with their employment situation (Auriol et al, 2013).
  • PhDs are able to apply their analytical and conceptual skills in various roles and sectors (2010, Smit).
  • HR managers put the performance of PhDs on complex problem solving tasks at a higher level than their colleagues in equivalent working contexts with Master’s degrees (2010, Smit).

Academic socialisation
Preparing for the next career step after your PhD graduation requires taking an in-depth approach. One of the biggest challenges is efining your professional goals. Having spent four or more years in an academic environment, you have adopted a social identity involving an academic orientation towards your work. Contributing to the knowledge base, working on long-term problems, working with technically competent colleagues are important job elements for the research community (2010, Smit). Although only 5-10% of all PhDs have access to a tenure track position, abandoning the academic dream is not so easy. Many researchers love doing analytical work, have an outstanding publication record and love teaching. Climbing up the academic ladder is a desirable step. Moreover researchers have a skillset that is ideal for academic jobs and sometimes your boss might encourage you to stay a bit longer on this career path, since it is hard to let go of trained researchers who offer added value to the research department. As a result, four out of ten researchers stay in academia immediately after graduating, but most leave academia in the end.

Limited knowledge of career options outside academia
In general we researchers have limited knowledge about career options outside of academia. We are hardly aware of what kind of jobs would fit with our talents and competences and we have little idea of how PhDs are perceived outside of academia. Moreover we lack experience in applying for jobs outside of academia. What do employers look for when they hire new people? And are PhDs considered as fresh graduates or as candidates for a first work experience? Does one need to meet all the criteria when applying for a job? All these questions can make you feel insecure about yourself and your future career path. This feeling of insecurity can generate a limiting belief when looking at your future career options.

Exploring your professional goals
In our book How to manage your career as a PhD?, we help you explore your talents and align them to potential jobs. A career interests test will help you to ascertain which particular activities you like most in your work. Developing a career options plan will structure your thoughts and acts as the basis for informational interviews. The goal is to find out about the everyday content of the job, the skills that are needed and how your profile is perceived within the organisation. All these elements are key when it comes to defining your professional goals and motivation. And motivation is a key condition when you start applying for a job outside of academia.

Career transitions and the need for a sound motivation
When you start working outside academia you will experience a career transition. A career transition refers to a switch to another type of activity (outside R&D) or to another sector (outside academia) or both. For HR managers, career transitions present a risk: you might make a wrong choice. HR managers want to avoid this and they will test your motivation in various ways. Therefore you need to be able to link the motivation in your current work (PhD) to your future career goals and show that you know what the job and the organisation entails.

Required technical skillset
Technical skills involve the ability to use methods and techniques to perform a task. Employers refer to technical skills as having a specific qualification or prior work experience in a specific field of activity or sector. Having a PhD is only an explicit prerequisite for a few career paths. This does not mean that that you cannot take advantage of the technical skills that you acquired during your PhD outside of academia or R&D. These skills can be very specific (expertise) or more generic (transferrable skills such as project management, data analysis, IT skills, writing and editing skills, analytical and conceptual skills etc.). For PhD ascertaining if their skillset matches the required skills in job advertisements can be a big challenge. In our book we provide you with tools and insights to help you discover what employers are really looking for and to what degree your background matches their criteria.

Illustrating your soft skills
Interpersonal skills are the ability to understand, communicate, and work well with individuals and groups by developing effective relationships. During your PhD you will have worked in several groups such as your research team, your department, internal and external partners, your faculty, a doctoral school, granting organisations, etc. All these groups needed you to adapt your work to meet their standards. This implies that you had to develop effective relationships with them. What approach did you take? How well do you fare when managing a project? How do you manage expectations? In our book we help you to become aware of your interpersonal skills by providing you with a tool that will you help you to build up a convincing, short and concise story. Reviewing your CV and cover letter Now that you are aware of the two ingredients (motivation and skillset) for successful job applications, we will show you how you can apply these guidelines to your CV and cover letter. When reviewing your cover letter and CV, please make sure that employers get an immediate impression of your professional goals, how your background matches their requirements (technical and interpersonal skills) and what kind of person you are.

Preparing for a job interview
Job interviews have a specific structure and also demand a specific tone. You want to generate interest in your profile. The ultimate goal of a job interview is to be selected and to receive a job offer. In addition to verbal communication, non-verbal communication also plays an important role in how the interviewers assess you. In our book we describe all the important elements of a job interview. Doing job interviews gives you a chance to clarify your professional goals for potential employers.

Transitioning to a new professional context
When you start exploring your career options as a PhD you enter a new world. In academia we see ourselves as specialists in a specific field and we value our expert background and technical skills. When we present our work we go into detail. We tend to underestimate our level of expertise since there is so much more to be explored and learned. When you start exploring career options outside of academia you will find that future employers are interested in your generic skills. They want you to be concise and convincing. Details can be left out, but general assumptions and practical solutions are important. In our book we make you aware of the cultural codes outside of academia and how you can anticipate this in your communication to future employers. In so doing we hope you will gain new beliefs about your professional aspirations and competences as well as practical insights and skills to help you realise your professional goals.

About Lucia Smit, BRAINGAIN: Lucia Smit is founder of Braingain, offering professional, leadership and team development coaching. For more than ten years she has helped professionals to translate their ambitions into the needs of their working environment and the labor market.

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