If you are unsure of what to do next, you are not alone
PhD graduates who decide to pursue an academic career normally face years of fixed-term contracts before they find more permanent roles. This reality manifests as barriers to career progression, especially for women and ethnic minorities. Coupled with the scarcity of permanent academic jobs, these are some reasons why many PhDs leave academia for more commercial roles, and why I did too. But the fundamentally different working cultures and behaviours of the commercial world can be daunting.
On paper, my CV reveals success in business following a promising research career. But it hides the physical and mental health challenges I faced along the way: stress, imposter syndrome and financial insecurity. Social media bombards us with how amazing everyone’s lives are, which makes it difficult to open up when we face difficulties. To fight this toxic positivity, I share my career mistakes with PhD students at careers events, online, and in my book, A Jobseeker’s Diary. Although it is embarrassing revealing my flaws, I do so to break down stigmas associated with career unhappiness. Below are the lessons I have learnt the hard way, on how to progress your career in academia and beyond.
Use the right language
Academic communication uses passive, indirect language, but more active speech is needed when prospecting for work. Employers want to know what you specifically achieved. Writing a job application requires practice and experience and is altogether a more commercial form of communication than writing a thesis or a journal article. I had not yet learnt how to write in that fundamentally different way during my academic career.
I used to think I was ‘just’ a spectroscopic chemist, and consequently I described my skills using highly technical language. Eventually, I realised I could describe the numerous transferrable skills my PhD taught me in more accessible language. For instance, leading several studies on photoactive materials gave me project management experience; while presenting the results meant I had confidence describing complex concepts clearly. These skills are essential in many vocations, including sales, consultancy and lecturing. However, to be successful, you need to tailor how you describe your skills to suit the language of the audience. For example, both sales and journalism roles require communication, but the former values speech while the latter values confident writing.
The notion of scoping for job opportunities at conferences filled me with dread. Now, I recognise the whole point of networking is to further your career by meeting new people, generating ideas, being challenged on your work and finding employees or employers. Of course, not all meetings will be fruitful, but there is truth in the maxim ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’. If approaching people coldly makes you nervous, you can arrange meetings beforehand by email. Practice introducing yourself, or describing whatever it is you seek, concisely, to make the best first impression.
When I was looking for my first postdoc, I had never applied for a job before, so I didn’t know how to write an effective CV or cover letter – let alone a fellowship application! I should have asked for support, but I was too embarrassed to admit my ignorance in front of multi-million-pound grant winners. Now I realise that my pride was a barrier to my progress. The reality is that whether you are learning to drive or learning calculus, we all start off ignorant, so there is no shame in asking for guidance. Friends and colleagues can objectively spot errors in our work, so be sure to ask them for assistance – but be specific in your demand. For instance, request help reviewing a CV or an hour practicing an interview.
Healthy body and mind
Whether you are employed or not, job hunting is stressful and exhausting, especially if you have other commitments like childcare. It is also difficult to stay motivated, especially if your applications are unsuccessful. A structured approach is essential to focus your energy and time. For instance, break down tasks like writing a cover letter into achievable bitesize activities. Spending 30 minutes daily to draft paragraphs is more manageable for many people than blitzing it in four hours in one evening. Mental and physical exercise, such as socialising, walking outdoors or reading a book in the sun, are welcome distractions that help your body unwind.
Whether you decide to stay in academia or pursue an alternative career, try to make informed decisions based on what is best for you. I looked for postdocs because I thought I had no other choice, and that a commercial career would be a waste of a PhD. This is a foolish outlook and significantly hindered my development. Now, I am so much happier in the commercial sector, but only you will know what career path is best for you.