Where to look for help as you job hunt

Last September, Science highlighted the aggressive sales tactics used by Cheeky Scientist, the leading PhD recruitment specialist, to sign up new members. Its approach included emotional manipulation to push expensive membership (up to $8000 (£6400) in some cases) on anxious individuals. On top of that, hidden in the small print was a clause prohibiting members from openly talking about Cheeky Scientist unfavourably. Thanks to a few brave individuals, the wider academic community now knows about this bad practice.

But how did Cheeky Scientist grow to dominate the PhD careers market? A key reason is the absence of any real competition for many years. While there are numerous career counsellors, PhDs often engage better with advisors who recognise, or even have experienced, the specific challenges that academics encounter, such as imposter syndrome or a fear of leaving university. The private and public sector are slowly catching up and more now offer services and advice that are targeted at PhD graduates.

Where can you find support?

If you work or study at university, there should be a careers office delivering general training and personal advice on navigating job applications, how to write CVs and prepare for interviews. These teams are usually small, which means resources are limited. PhD students comprise 15% of a typical department, with the bulk being staff (50%) and undergraduates (35%). So the majority of the career advice available will tend to be general and delivered to large groups, but may not be specific to the needs of PhD students. Any tailored guidance via 1-to-1 meetings is likely to be quickly snapped up.

Most university careers offices host public talks, inviting alumni to give insights into the reality of employment post-university. For example, King’s College London, UK, regularly interviews PhD holders now working in business and academia on their Careers in your Ears podcast. Universities also host careers fairs that attract external businesses desperate to hire bright minds. These are an excellent way to learn about possible future jobs and build networks. I regret not attending more when I had the chance. In addition, some universities have Enterprise departments that teach attendees entrepreneurial and business skills, and how to commercialise their research.

Professional recruiters are another source of free, but limited support. These specialists help organisations fill vacant positions in broad sectors, like consulting, data science or finance. Recruiters are paid directly by businesses, and their fee is usually a percentage of the employee’s starting salary – so it is in their best interests to help you get a high-paying job. This is why recruiters may help you prepare for job interviews or ‘polish’ your CV.

However, don’t be fooled. Their sole purpose is to fill vacant roles, and they speak with many candidates competing for the same position. This means their time is extremely limited and you won’t get personalised career advice. Nevertheless, the benefit of working with a recruiter is that they will consider you for multiple roles, even if you are unsuccessful for one. They may even consider you for a future position later on in your career. Best of all, you don’t pay for any of this service.

To work well with a recruiter, be honest, upfront about your needs and set clear boundaries on salary expectations or jobs you do not want.

Lastly, there’s a small but growing presence of independent specialists offering career services focused on academics. They tend to have PhDs themselves so can easily engage with postgraduates. Holly Prescott, a careers adviser at the University of Birmingham, UK, shares guidance on her website The PhD Careers Blog, which is aimed at academics and at the career guidance practitioners working with them. Chris Humphreys (Jobs on Toast) delivers modern career training to universities, while Jennifer Polk (From PhD to Life) and T J Preston (Soldrevet) are some of the few offering career coaching aimed specifically at PhDs.

Private coaches can help you see career barriers that you may be unaware of. While these services can be expensive (upwards of £80 per hour), you may consider it as an investment in yourself. Ask for client reviews or a taster session before you part with your money. The Royal Society of Chemistry also offers a career consultation service, which is free for members.

When I graduated 10 years ago, there were hardly any career specialists or career books aimed at PhDs. That’s why I wrote my book A Jobseeker’s Diary to share the first-hand experience of overcoming challenges PhDs face when job hunting. Thankfully, social media is now thriving with postgraduates sharing their voice, which has helped destigmatise many discussion points within academia, including careers outside of academia, asking for help and general mental health challenges. This is a step in the right direction, but there is still a long way to go.