Beyond the PhD: Careers Outside Academia

3 Oct

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I recently spoke at a PhD & Beyond panel at RMIT. The aim was the give current doctoral students an idea of careers post completion and outside academia. I was the ‘newbie’ – freshly minted 18 months prior, and sitting alongside such distinguished alumni as nanotechnologist Dr Amanda Barnard, the recipient of the prestigious 2014 Feynman Prize for Nanotechnology (Theory).

Not only is Amanda the first Australian in the Prize’s 22-year history to win the award, she’s also the first woman, and it was no surprise to discover she completed her PhD in 17 months. She’s a high achiever, and she has achieved a great deal. Let’s just say that by the time I got up to speak, I was feeling a tad anxious.

Sure I had my PhD and completed it full time, on time, while working full time in another job – and with two children. But what did I have to tell people anyway? As a single mother I am not pursuing illustrious post doc placements overseas, and while I have a publication record that is hardly shabby, I found my current job in strategic communications when I started the doctorate, not post doctorate.

I was eagerly taking notes from the panel because the speakers had such good advice. The intention of the evening was to enable the current HDR candidates to hear from those who have gone before them and the pathways they have taken since finishing their PhD. There is a growing awareness in universities of the need to prepare doctoral candidates for the fact that the journey post PhD is one that is very different from previous generations.

While perhaps 60 % of higher education graduates find their way into an academic career of sorts, that still leaves 40 % who need a new way of looking at their future post completion. You either think that any career outside academia is second best, or change your mind set. There are interesting, high level positions that need the skills you have. The key is finding them, marketing yourself and letting go of the ‘holy grail’ of a lecturing role. I even wonder how many people actually like teaching anyway. Certainly, the best way to learn how to teach isn’t by doing a PhD. My first degree was a Bachelor of Education, and I went straight into a career in journalism after I graduated. However, I never regretted the B.Ed, and knowing how to teach and plan a curriculum. I may not have taught in schools, but I was education editor at a daily newspaper, and I worked as a sessional lecturer while doing the PhD.

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On one hand, we are told there is a PhD employment crisis. The PhD is too narrow, too theoretical and graduates have challenges finding work. On the other hand, the knowledge economy is hungry for highly skilled workers who can thrive in the modern labor market. So what are the post graduation tips and outcomes?

I have been busy interviewing graduates about their pathways and advice, and will publish these in 100 Days to the Doctorate in the blogs ahead. What comes through is that there are no clear pathways, but there are opportunities. A PhD provides you with excellent skills and networks, but to make the most of this in the new economy, you need to be able to understand how to apply these to the market place.

Not finding an academic job doesn’t mean you or your doctoral study have been a failure. It means you need to look elsewhere. Outside a system that says no and into one that will embrace your skills. The conversation about whether universities should be taking on so many doctoral students is one I cannot imagine will be had. Students = money, after all, so the next best thing is that universities add essential work placement training and entrepreneurial skills along with research study courses.

I do not for a moment think my PhD was a waste of time because I do not have an academic job. Life in academia is far from perfect, after all. I know of many people in varying academic disciplines who have gladly chucked in their lecturing roles (‘it’s just teaching anyway’) to find something more creative, lucrative and fulfilling – and less stressful. And of course, the lament of those in the ‘bottom rung’ of academia, as eloquently reported by The Guardian’s “Academics Anonymous” blog is a thankless job with “low pay (relative to peers in industry), the short fixed-term contracts, the expectation that you constantly move universities and countries with no guarantee of a permanent position”.

While I have kept the same day job for the past six years, my research and writing has been – and continues to be – informed by my academic study. I have honed my research and analytical skills, and undertaking a large writing and research project doesn’t phase me. With academic articles and citations to my credit, I am also making a name for myself in a range of interdisciplinary areas beyond creative writing. It’s important to understand what you stand for, what your brand means, and your unique point of difference in a crowded market place. And these are skills you need to start honing while undertaking your doctorate.

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Certainly, that was the case with the panellists on the Beyond the PhD panel. The five alumni (including myself) from diverse fields spoke about what career paths we took since graduating. What students wanted to hear was; how did we get our current job, what kinds of jobs were we looking at, were we at any stage seeking an academic career? And any career advice we would have liked to have heard when we were first starting out.

The speakers; Dr Amanda Barnard; Dr Patrick Clifton; Dr Erjiang (Frank) Fu and Dr Jeff Fang and myself are currently all in full time employment in jobs that were not in the academic field, but that all utilise skills we gained from our academic study.

Despite having 160 peer reviewed journal articles to her credit and a stunning list of attainments, Dr Amanda Barnard’s current position as a CSIRO Office of the Chief Executive (OCE) Science Leader and the head of the Virtual Nanoscience Laboratory at the CSIRO involves just 20 % research and 80% of ‘the other stuff’ she told the audience. “Research is now the cherry on the cake for me,” she said. Sound familiar to anyone trying to squeeze research into a post doc career?

Amanda Barnard’s tips are based on her own experience travel early – because other career demands get in the way later on. Get out early and meet those people and make those collaborations – those contacts stay with you. Be generous with your research – you gain more than you lose by sharing. And for anyone who thinks scientists can forget branding and hide behind their research – she advises that people who can write well and present well do really, really well. Again, being able to effectively communicate what you do is critical.

Dr Patrick Clifton works as a Research and Football Projects Analyst at the Australian Football League. Patrick looked at management consulting and marketing jobs after his doctorate, but his passion for sports lead him to search out sports administration jobs. His advice: How do you leverage your core strengths and unique skill set from doing a PhD? Don’t underestimate the analytical skills gained from a PhD, and remember when trying to find work, the advertised job market is only 10 – 20 % of the job market. The more people you can speak to about breaking into non academic fields, the better. And finally, don’t ask for a job – ask people for advice, and describe your background to them.

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Dr Frank Fu is a Senior Environmental IT Specialist Climate and Water Division Australian Bureau of Meteorology. He started his talk by challenging us to ask why we decided to do a PhD in the first place. A good point, as we all have different reasons. However, as Dr Fu reminded us “you don’t have to be an academic to achieve life’s purpose.” He realised his PhD had skilled him up as an excellent researcher and problem solver – and he took those skills out of the academic environment and into another area. So, how do you achieve this? Again, the advice is to talk to people about your desired career.

Dr Jeff Fang has recently become the Senior Research Officer (Performance Auditor) at the Department of the Legislative Assembly, Victoria Parliament, where his responsibilities include leading, managing and mentoring a group of research staff on various inquires within the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee. Jeff said he always wanted to ‘make a difference’, and did his PhD because he wanted to advance his knowledge and skills.

Like many doctoral graduates globally, despite having tutored, lectured, published papers, and everything else to get a foothold in academia, it was not meant to be. “I never got the opportunity to be a lecturer – so I look at the strengths I got from my PhD, which were writing, research, analysis and problem solving, and applied those skills to other jobs,” he said.

Jeff’s advice is to show that you can transfer your skills and knowledge gained in the doctorate into industry. Show that you can write and view your PhD as project management.

“Try to lead or coordinate a small group when you are doing a PhD – this way you show you have management skills and are capable of managing a small group.

“You need to increase your presentation and communication skills and you can do this by participating in the Three Minute Thesis Competition, for instance. And try to establish good relationships with your supervisors, as these people will be your best allies for a reference check when you go for jobs.”

Finally, Jeff warned not to ‘show off your intelligence’ when going for a job after your graduate. A PhD can be intimidating for many people and he suggested emphasising instead what you have learnt through the PhD journey that can add value to the position.

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All great advice. So what did I have to add?

My journey was different from the rest of the panel. I already had a career in journalism before I started the doctorate, and I arrived at the PhD at the same time in my life as I was juggling the need to work full time with raising two children. The doctoral study had to fit into that mix, especially after the first semester when I was offered a scholarship that meant I didn’t have to pay fees, but wasn’t going to get a living allowance. Catch 22 – I had to do the PhD full time in order to get the fee support.

That meant I had to keep my day job in order to support my children. What made that possible for me was the fact that I was working and studying at the same university, so I was across the road from my supervisor and next door to the library. I could use my lunch breaks meeting my supervisor or going to the library or helpful sessions provided on research and publishing by the School of Graduate Research.

I didn’t undertake this mammoth task to be superwoman, but because there were financial benefits to not paying fees, and because I was super efficient with my time and advanced with my research. My core strengths – apart from being a highly skilled and efficient writer and communicator – are being able to quickly synthesise new information, make links and generate new ideas; and being incredibly focused and driven. That served me well as a communications strategist and doctoral student.

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When the going got tough and I sat in my supervisor’s office crying and wondering if I should get an extension, she told me “what makes you think your life will be easier in six months time?” Tough talk, but true. She added “you are so far ahead of everyone else doing it easy, I have no doubt you can finish ahead of them, despite your circumstances.” I am ever thankful for her belief in my abilities, and compassion when I needed it. And yes, the tough talk as well. Sometimes you need someone to say ‘suck it in, sister’.

So – I had convenient geographical location of work and study within the same university, academic and pastoral support from my supervisor and the university’s School of Graduate Research and family support with my children. I put in two to three hours of study, research and writing every night on top of my paid work and parenting commitments, and spent the weekends studying. I had no social life, I let the housework go and paid no attention to my health (and I paid for all these things after completion, believe me). It was all about kids, work, study. However, my role in the university art gallery kept me involved in a fascinating mix of cultural activities, with an enviable array of top Australian and international artists and curators. My job is varied, creative and interesting. It’s not like I was sitting in an office writing tedious reports all day. 

Since December 2013 when I graduated, I have been picking up the pieces, getting my health, house and life back into shape – and at the same time trying to establish some sort of ad hoc non academic research and writing career.   

Though we have diverse backgrounds and fields, everyone on the panel was equally savvy about making best use of what was available to them. We all played to our core strengths and didn’t squander a second of the time we spent doing our doctorates. Patrick Clifton has bountiful people skills, and made connections in areas he was keen to work, always keeping his passions in mind when finding a career that merged sport with his analytical skills. Both Jeff Fang and Frank Fu were able to take a lateral and strategic view of their doctoral skills and apply them to areas outside academia, while Amanda Barnard completed her PhD in theoretical condensed matter physics in just 17 months because she was offered a job a year into her research and she was strongly motivated to finish.

A common thread was that in each of our different areas, and with our different strengths, we each instinctively looked for and seized the opportunities that were in front of us. None of these had “opportunity’ glowing in flashing lights and with arrows pointing to them, but they were there.

A tip from the world of marketing – no matter what you are studying, take some time to do a SWOT analysis of your own Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats when thinking of positioning yourself in a career post doctorate. Write up a possible list of people in fields you’d like to work in and approach them for advice, and offer something back. When it comes to networking, ask not what others can do for you, but what you can do for them. You are a newbie, after all, they have the runs on the board. Even if it is buying them coffee, do something to show your gratitude for the time they have taken to help you.

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