What will you do when your doctorate is done?

In a recent post on her blog “100 days to the doctorate and beyond” Dr Evelyn Tsitas reflects on her post PhD experience. Like many part time doctoral candidates, Evelyn was working full time throughout her doctorate and, after it was done, finds herself, at least temporarily, back where she started, doing the same job in the same place.

Screen Shot 2014-08-15 at 9.37.59 amI can understand why Evelyn call for universities to support the students after they graduate in the ‘agonising career and research issues’, however this is a very difficult thing for people like me to do. Everyone faces, as Tseen Khoo puts it: “highly personalised and contexturalised” decisions about what to do next. Generic advice only gets you so far.

This is why, in August, my team convened an event called “PhD to Present”. The idea was inspired by a talk with Prof Brian Schmidt, ANU’s very own Nobel Prize winning astrophysicist, who encouraged us to do something to help PhD students who don’t want to continue on in academia.

We invited a wide range of successful people in a number of fields to come along and share their experiences. The panelists were living examples of why we shouldn’t see leaving academia as “failure”, generously giving their time to share their career stories – warts and all. Many students told me afterwards that they felt so much better just knowing that there were more options than they thought. I thought I would share some of what we heard with you, so here are five post PhD careers you might not have thought about before:

Public servant

ANU’s location in Canberra, Australia’s capital city, makes it the perfect location to hear about careers in government. We invited Dr Subho Banerjee, Deputy Secretary of the Department of Industry and three high profile women along to our event: Dr Rhondda Dickson, Chief Executive, Murray-Darling Basin Authority, Dr Rachel Bacon, First Assistant Secretary Regulatory Reform, Department of the Environment  and Dr Alexa Shaw, Assistant Director, Strategic Policy, Department of the Environment.

All of our public servant presenters emphasized that starting in the public service might mean giving up the idea of yourself as a specialist in a particular discipline or field. Although many of us might expect to enter the public service at a higher level, this is not necessarily the case unless you have some particularly sought after technical skills and there are some citizenship issues to consider.

Most public servants either do PhDs while they are working (as a way to get promotions) or enter in the graduate program. As a graduate entrant you can expect to get a lot of training and to move around between departments. All of our panelists talked about how valuable this was as an experience and how much they enjoyed the variety. It seems that the high level skills in presentation, teaching, reading and writing you develop in your PhD can be a real asset in this kind of environment and might enable you to climb the ranks relatively quickly.

One student asked the panel what it was like to work for a government whose politics are not your own. All answered that it was important to remember that governments change, but they are voted in by the people. It is up to public servants to be there, providing the best advice possible – even if it wasn’t always listened to. I was impressed by the commitment to working for the public good expressed by our public servant panelists. The passion they clearly had for their work echoed the passion that many academics feel for their research and made me think that a career in public service might scratch the itch that many academics feel for doing meaningful work.

Politician

Of course, Canberra is the home of the Australian Parliament, so we took the chance to ask two politicians who had PhDs to our event. Dr Adam Bandt MP, Deputy Leader of The Greens and Federal Member for Melbourne (@AdamBandt) and The Hon Dr Andrew Leigh MP, Shadow Assistant Treasurer and Federal Member for Fraser, ACT (@ALeighMP) came along to tell us their stories

I’ll confess, I am a bit of an Adam Bandt fan girl, so naturally I found him an impressive speaker who made getting into politics with a PhD seem both possible and important. Adam talked about fitting in the final stages of his PhD write up with campaigning and doing the political work that finally resulted in him being voted first lower house Greens member of parliament.

We were all curious as to why Adam did not list himself as a PhD on the electoral roll, but he pointed out that Australian’s needed time to adjust to the idea of a Green politician in the lower house, let alone one with a PhD – which was a sad indictment on Australia’s lack of respect for intellectual work. Adam emphasised how much the research skills he learned helped him absorb large amounts of complex information and express himself in writing and in presentations.

I’ve met Andrew Leigh (who is actually my local member) a number of times now and have a great deal of respect for his work – even if I don’t vote for him. Andrew used to be an academic at ANU before his passion for public life drew him into politics. We tend to see academia and the ‘outside’ as binary opposites, but Andrew is a good example of a an ‘academic hybrid’. Like many of our presenters throughout the day, he still contributes to the academic literature by writing books and blogging.

I honestly don’t know how Andrew finds the time to be so productive, but it’s illustrative of why our ‘all or nothing” thinking about what it means to be an academic needs updating to reflect the more complex ‘knowledge intensive’ world. There are clearly many ways to be ‘academic’ that don’t involve working in academia. Andrew joked that his staff are the most “PhD intensive” of any in parliament – three out of four of his permanent staffers have one and that the one person still without is under a lot of pressure to start! This suggests that working for a politician might be another interesting career path to follow, if being an actual politician is not your style. Personally I feel comfortable at the idea that my local member is being supported by such a ‘brains pack’.

Novelist

I was lucky enough to chair a panel which had Dr Alison Booth, Professor of Economics, Crawford School and Research School of Economics, ANU who is a published novelist. I often tell people that my next career is as a romance writer, so I was eager to hear what Alison had to say about writing and publishing fiction.

I was surprised when Alison told us she applies techniques from her work as an economist, such as the use of tables, to map out her character’s interactions. I asked how she balanced her work as an academic, who writes a lot, and a novelist, yet more writing. She emphasised the need to separate the writing spaces and to push on with the fiction writing over quite long periods of time, mostly on weekends.

Very few people make a living from being a professional writer, but it strikes me that the accessible self publishing platforms (which I use for my book) make the barrier to entry for aspiring writers much lower than they used to be. As a supplement to other parts of your career, or a way to satisfy your creative urges, there is much in the PhD experience that would help you make money as a fiction writer – or a popular non fiction writer for that matter. Ann emphasised the skills process of managing a large and complex project over a long period of time. I had renewed hope at the end of this panel that I might eventually be able to write those campus romances and maybe even become the next David Lodge 🙂

Entrepreneur or ‘micro-business owner’

There were a couple of people on the program who had either made products or sold services, using their skills as researchers to get a head start. One was Dr Linda Glassop whose latest venture is the excellent cloud writing software “Comm Writer” which is expressly designed for academic writing. Linda spoke eloquently of the need to be good at networking and communicating if you want o go into business for yourself – and skills in grant writing are still useful to apply for government funding schemes for start ups. While the monetary rewards might be more patchy than other lines of work, the ability to make your own destiny was something she relished.

This view was echoed by Dr Janet Hope who runs a personal coaching business who emphasised the need to use your skills in networking and time management to help build a client base. Janet does most of her coaching by Skype, so her location in Canberra – a relatively small city – is not a disadvantage. Owning your own business might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it was interesting, again, to see the possibilities afforded by the internet to run a range of businesses from almost anywhere.

Consultant

We were lucky enough to have two full time consultants on our panels, in particular Dr John Söderbaum, Director, ACIL Allen Consulting, Dr Sarah Keenihan, freelance science writer (@sciencesarah) and Dr Ross Smith, Director, Hydrobiology Pty Ltd (@DrRossSmith). They had an interesting and wide ranging conversation about how to get started in consulting and what kinds of skills you need.

Contrarily to what I had thought, being a consultant is more like being a public servant than an academic. You will probably have to apply your research skills in a wide range of areas, rather than narrowly focussing on one domain. Strong numerical skills are clearly an advantage in this field, so if you like crunching numbers and making models this is a job where you get to use those skills AND make more money. While Sarah has an active practice as a blogger, both John and Ross actively contribute to the so called ‘grey literature’, which is becoming increasingly important to academics – I use a lot of grey literature in my work as it is a good source of bio-demographic data. It is possible to be a consultant and still be contributing to the public good through your writing work.

This is a really long post for the Whisperer, but I only skimmed the surface of all the things we talked about that day. I think it demonstrates just how many career options there are out there. What do you think? Have you thought about what you might do after your doctorate is done? Does it include non academic career paths? Are there any other jobs we might not have thought about, but are good options for someone with a PhD? Interested to hear what you think in the comments.

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21 thoughts on “What will you do when your doctorate is done?

  1. Great post!

    I finished my PhD early this year and am very much in the angst of post-PhD career choices. I worked throughout my PhD, in a variety of part-time jobs, one of which I still have. I supplemented this income… by writing romance novels! In many ways it has been a struggle to juggle the different deadlines and time pressures, and there have been many times where the fiction has felt like an extra chore. But the money has been a huge help and it’s meant that I haven’t felt the need to rush into a full-time job as soon as possible after finishing. I am only just starting to look around and apply for ‘real’ jobs.

    Oh, and you can find my books at all good digital bookstores – search for Ros Clarke!

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  3. My PhD is in an educational field so I have teaching on the brain but it would be good to hear from high school teachers with PhDs. High school teaching is sadly often stigmatised as a career but a PhD seems to be a fast track to a senior teacher’s position and it seems to be a more fluid move from high school to academia and back again than in other domains. I say this as an outside observer as my PhD is in informal and adult learning rather than issues more closely aligned with school teaching. Perhaps others can share an insider’s knowledge on this?

    • I would disagree about higher teaching positions unless it is linked with marketing or in education management and leadership. I find that I am too heavy for light work (side step into other teaching roles or at other schools) or too light for heavy work (because my PhD did not focus on management or leadership, although my Masters was in Ed Admin).

  4. I was a high school teacher, but my PhD had nothing to do with teaching. I moved into Arts from a Masters in gifted education and previous degrees in engineering and computing. I taught a bit during the PhD, but mostly relied on the scholarship. I taught both secondary and tertiary, and decided I much preferred the former (to my surprise), so stayed with part-time secondary after the doctorate.

    But my future is all in writing. I have now left teaching to be a full-time writer. I am in a different position from before the doctorate, when I wrote non-fiction (and one novel). I have a wonderfully broad new context to write from, plus the authority of the doctorate and the ongoing university affiliation as an Honorary Research Fellow.

    First is an academic book from the thesis to be published by Cambridge University Press next year. I have a proposal just prepared for a book for mainstream deriving from the thesis. The distance of a year or so has given me the perspective to see where further research expanding on my theme will take me into more commercial directions with writing. I have moved from wanting to do more depth in the research, as I expected when I first finished the PhD, to broadening it. I am now starting to look for freelance opportunities in magazines in areas I would have had no authority before.

    I also found that the only future implied by the university during the PhD was an academic path, but I realised as I finished that wasn’t my direction. No other option was talked about during the study, so I think this topic is a really important one to address in universities. I also think that the ivory tower image of universities, which enables politicians to dismiss their value, could be changed by more PhDs being in the community and their value beyond academia being on show.

    I’m blogging this direction ay http://lynnekelly.com.au. And blogging the research separately. I am hoping these blogs will help to define my direction.

  5. I have recently completed my PhD with the thesis title Food Skills in Secondary Schools. In my post-PhD work (in addition to my full time teaching position at an F-12 school) I have been involved in consultancy work disseminating to teachers my research findings and aligning it with the new Australian curriculum. Other work has occurred organically including consultancy work with the Education department and academic contributions through conferences (state, national and international) and textbook writing with fellow academics in the food literacy/skills domain. There is certainly work outside of the academic domain!

  6. This was a really helpful post. I completed my PhD last year after 6 years part time study while I was first employed and later as a self employed trainer and coach. My reason for studying was to provide a solid academic underpinning for my coaching and writing, rather than to secure a post within a university. The future for me is more about disseminating my findings in an accessible way for my clients and so I am now writing articles and e-books as well as speaking at networking events. I certainly don’t feel my PhD wasted because I am not an ‘academic’.

  7. This is really interesting – as I come to the final months of my thesis (all going to plan) I once thought my only option was directly back into academia. However, I also feel that there is pressure that if you don’t join, you’re loosing out on all the hard work you’ve put into your thesis. I think this is a big stigmatism that needs to be addressed. I haven’t had any help nor guidance in this area and it would of been really helpful, though reading this post is almost enlightening! It goes to show that you can still grow and develop whatever you do. Personally, I’m looking at going back into the same thing before I started my PhD which I’m a little worried about as don’t want to take a step backwards – however at the same time, I feel as though with what I’ve researched I’ve more to give and a bigger capacity to enrich the lives of young athletes (I’m a professional coach & work with athletes). So, I guess I’m still not fully decided as want to go deeper in respect to development etc but maybe this is because I’m afraid I’m taking a backwards step…what I don’t want – but then again, I think this is linked to the stigma of having to move on etc. I hope I figure it out, but by all means, I’d love feedback 🙂

    • Hi Midnightthesis, I’m actually in a quite similar position to you because I was an instrumental music tutor and band director in various high schools prior to the PhD. I very much didn’t want to go back to that full time (although I enjoy it as part of a variety of work). Post PhD I have found that a lot of quite unexpected work has come my way, curriculum writing for example, and my advantage is that I am used to managing myself as a casual. I imagine that you can utilize those ‘small business’ skills to similar effect. Good luck! 🙂

      • That’s great to hear! Like you, I guess I’ve climbed to a certain height in coaching that my thesis contributes towards, however I’ve also learned so much I’m conscious of not going backwards, but you’re right…what I have already learned and continue to learn, I hope, puts me…can I say ‘ahead of the pack’ in my field – plus I know I’m only a ‘spring chicken’ compared to many in my field, which I equally hope works for me, and not against, as sometimes the case. Thanks for your reply Eleanor!

  8. I want to say a big thanks for the organisation of this day Inger. I went to all of the sessions and thoroughly enjoyed it. You mentioned other students going away feeling better about knowing other options out there – and I felt the same. Many stories and sentiments resonated deeply with me and it was comforting in many ways to hear similar ambivalences and joys. It was absolutely wonderful to get the chance to hear so many inspiring and creative people tell their stories, and it happened just at the right time for me. I’m about 2 months out from submitting and starting to (more seriously) contemplate what I want to do career-wise. I’ve always struggled with knowing how to satisfy and fulfill all the things I love to do and am interested in. Research and study has provided a wonderful chance to explore, and listen, observe, reflect, share. Such a privileged thing to do. But like others, I do have a bit of an itch about engaging more in humanitarian/policy/public life. I had always half imagined I’d continue on to a post-doc but I honestly don’t think I have the right kind of energy and inspiration necessary for it right now. I am completing a PhD in cultural anthropology with a regional focus on China and I’m currently contemplating working in the foreign service doing diplomatic work between my home country of NZ and Asia/Middle East. It makes sense of many things I’ve done up until this point and the thought of getting into this line of work really excites me. So – I think I need to follow that and see where it goes. Like I say, the day came at a great time and I’m really grateful you put it on. Many thanks!

  9. I am going into my 3rd year of my entomology PhD and am now seriously exploring what I’d like to do after I’m finished. As someone who is not interested in academia but is obviously at a university setting, I’m finding it difficult to figure out what jobs in government, industry, etc would actually be like. Would I write all day? Do research? Be in meetings all day? Luckily I’m starting to make connections, but it’s disappointing that overall professors have no experience or knowledge about “alternative careers.” Thanks for sharing all this info with us!

  10. I left my PhD after five years (and without graduating) because I was paralyzed with fear by this very question. I realized pretty early on that I didn’t want to go into academia, but like many of you, I wasn’t sure about what my other options were.

    I thought that everything would “fall into place” after I was out of school, but the fear of failure followed me for months. I think that when you do a PhD (even a 3/4 finished one, like me), there’s this expectation that what you do afterwards will be really impressive.

    My advice would be to absolutely ignore it. No matter how many degrees you have under your belt, you should absolutely do what makes you happy. The trick is figuring out what that is 🙂

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  12. My name is Jill Johnson,
    I am a doctoral student finishing up my last class in this program of study. My degree will be an Ed. D. with a specialty in Higher Education and Adult Learning from Walden University. I am also working on my prospectus with my committee chairperson. Since, we are required to conduct a project study instead of a dissertation, I believe that I can get some available information from this blog site on dissertation writing, which could be applied to my project study. I look forward to reading this sites’ comments.
    Sincerely,

    Jill A. Johnson Ed. D. candidate, MSN, BSN, RN

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