Career Options

Career paths that you haven’t thought of after your PhD.

Broaden your horizons, there are other career paths than consultancy, writing, or non-academic research for PhD students.

When looking for career paths outside of academia, search engines or advice sites always seem to churn out the obvious possibilities, which if we’re totally honest, can be uninspiring. Typically, these are jobs related to consultancy, writing roles (such as medical writing, publishing, journalism etc), policy, or simply doing research again but just not for an academic institution. These options seem really limited and can leave you sort of trapped with the feeling of having to pick the least worst option, as opposed to something you actually want to do. To give you more outside of the box thinking, this post will address alternate career paths that you probably haven’t thought of.  

1. User Experience (UX)

User experience (UX) is an emerging career path as the tech industry tightens its grip within the current economic climate. Because of this, the responsibilities, skills required, and experience needed for UX vary drastically which can make it quite difficult, or easy to find a good entry into this career path. In simple terms, UX is a specifically a research role positioned internally within any business. Here, the key focal point of the role is to collect, analyse and disseminate customers opinions and views about a specific product and feed it back to the design team so they can make necessary changes. Typically, UX research is conducted with a tech focus, such as understanding what customers like and dislike about an app, website, or any other technological product they have to use. In essence you’re just collecting data or doing ‘market research’ about anything. Although you may have absolutely no experience with technology from your PhD, you will most likely have experience collecting and analysing data. This can be in the form of quantitative methods, such as surveys, data mining, questionnaires or data logs. It can also include qualitative methods such as designing and facilitating focus groups, analysing qualitative responses or feedback forms. Similarly, you will have extensive skills when it comes to explaining what the data means to a range of different stakeholders.

Once this data has been collected, it is the job of the UX researcher to explain these findings back to the design team (often referred to as UX Designers) – i.e. the people who develop, produce and actually make the product you’re collecting research and feedback on. Tech giants will obviously lead the forefront here, but also the banking sector will want to improve their digital banking, retailers will want to work on their digital shopping experience, and government arms will want to improve their website or other digital platforms. The list is endless. In fact, it does not necessarily have to be digitally related. Certain companies may conduct UX research on actual physical products, such as medical devices or furniture. The list is endless and favours certain PhD students depending on their acquired skills.

2. Intelligence

One of the most commonly mentioned skills PhD students have is problem solving and critical/analytical thinking. These skills transfer to a range of career paths, which is why consultancy is always the number one recommended career path for PhD students. But what if you want to use these skills, but not for consultancy? Intelligence provides a very similar opportunity here. It sounds a bit like a fantasy, but working for MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service, the CIA or the FBI is a perfectly viable career path. I mean, they are still organisations, that have employees and need people with a specific set of skills to operate. The great thing about these roles is that they very rarely specify a particular degree discipline, so essentially you could be coming from any academic background and not be worse off when compared to the other candidates. It’s difficult to provide a detailed explanation as to what these roles would consist of and that’s because they’re not always clear on the job applications themselves – which you can use to your advantage. When positions like intelligence are not specific in their duties, skills required or academic training, take it as code for ‘we don’t really know what we want’ and ‘we want candidates who have a broad and diverse skill set’ – aka you. Having a PhD gives you a plethora of skills and being able to apply them to a range of different contexts is vital for intelligence roles. If you’re the kind of person who wants variety, have a positive impact, and to feel like a badass – give this career path some consideration.

3. Project Management

Project management is a strange one because it’s such a popular word for job applications and businesses, but no two project management positions are the same. As outlined earlier, jobs that fall under the same name but are ill defined allow for significant variation in the type of skills and experience needed to land a job. Having a PhD would have given you extensive practice in managing projects – whether it be research projects, writing your thesis, writing papers, publishing work, attending conferences, completing ethics, teaching, or collecting data. Often you would have been juggling several of these things at once and nonetheless you were still able to complete and finish whatever you were trying to do to a relatively high standard. These skills are essential for project management, and to be honest you’ve had the baptism of fire when it comes to managing projects as a PhD student. The key thing here is to just communicate and explain how your PhD has provided you with a host of transferable skills and how they apply to a project management role.

4. Be an Entrepreneur

Although anyone can be an entrepreneur, not necessarily just those with a PhD, having completed a PhD can provide you an immense set of skills which allow you to excel at entrepreneurialism (yes, it’s a word). For starters, the very fibre of a PhD is that you’re researching or investigating something completely novel. Your topic of area, although might be reasonably understood, is a specialisation in an extremely niche field. In some instances, you might be in the top 5 people on the planet that actually understand what it is you’re researching. Because of this you essentially have no guidance, you have to figure everything out on your own, you have to consolidate information to make educational guesses about what to investigate next, what to explore and how to advance your field of study. To do so, you are constantly innovating, learning on the fly, adapting, getting knocked back, getting up again and thinking outside of the box – an absolute gift box of skills which are essential to have successful career paths as an entrepreneur.

The key thing to mention here is that you do NOT have to do something entrepreneurial that is directly related to your PhD. I mean yeah sure, that would make sense, but if you want to completely go rogue and develop or design something that is unrelated to your PhD – you can. I mean why not? At the start of your PhD you would have had very little knowledge about your topic area, but over time you have learnt on the way, made adjustments and done what you have had to do to exceed – usually on your own. This is one of the many viable career paths that could be the most lucrative and enjoyable if you get it right – the only thing you really need to do here is work out what it is you would innovate. Other than that, the world is your oyster.

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