Usually, as academics and researchers the typical driving factor to go on to pursue a PhD is not because of the monetary benefit that may come after. Majority of PhDs embark on a research career through the love of a particular subject and/or the excitement of discovering and learning new things. The majority of PhDs are inquisitive by nature, they have high ambitions and, in all honesty, some of the most capable people to exist on the planet.
The fact is, when you take these remarkable human attributes and stick them in an environment that’s highly competitive, strange thing happens. These individuals, on occasion, lose sight of how unhealthy this is. Working long hours, living off minimal wages through a stipend, relying on family for financial support, or even racking up student debt to simply be able to do what you love is the norm. What’s worse is that this ecosystem skews your expectations and waters down your ambitions long term.
The biggest killer of them all is that stupid dichotomy you create between ‘choosing what you love’ and ‘earning lots of money’. These things categorically do not exist on a linear spectrum, and in fact, it is possible to find something that you love and pays you respectably. So, this blog post is dedicated to this. Here, we will focus on reframing the unspoken topic of money and salary goals, especially when it comes to leaving academia.
Before we work out what your salary goals are or should be, it’s important to understand what you want your life to look like. Money is simply a unit of currency which is used to buy and sell goods. Thus, the amount of money you make (usually) dictates the types of goods you can acquire. Thinking about this in the context of your personal life and how you want your life to look like (depending on your values) is extremely important. For instance, where do you want to live? Do you want/have a family? How many holidays do you want a year? What are the luxuries in life you want to be able to afford? If you want a family, what kind of life do you want them to have? What types of opportunities do you want for yourself and your loved ones? If you ever want to take care of, support, or even repay your parents back, what does this look like? This usually is the key starting point to understand what type of post-PhD salary goals you should be setting.
Depending on the type of life you want to live, will influence the type of salary you should be aiming for, both in the short term and the long term. A key component to this question though is believing that you are deserving of any figure and adopting a growth mindset. Of course, it’s easy to say ‘the more the better’ but really, what’s the actual minimum you need to be able to build and construct a life that will bring you satisfaction? In essence, what are you unwilling to accept? Think about this salary goal and stick to it, even if your ‘dream’ job pays significantly less than this goal.
After spending some time to think about this, reflect on whether you’re being too conservative. After three or more years of probably receiving minimal wage for slave labour it’s very likely that this has skewed your perspective. Even looking at post-doc positions are likely to skew your salary goals even further as these aren’t necessarily well-paid relative to jobs in industry (post-doc positions are scarce, and so they are able to lower wages due to the disproportionally higher demand). It’s recommended here to speak to your friends and family, especially those that are so far removed from research and academia – get a real flavour of what a ‘respectable’ or ‘possible’ salary could be. And remember, you have a PhD, which likely means you’re capable of earning slightly more. This salary goal is integral for how you search for jobs, how you filter out what you should and shouldn’t apply for, and what kind of career transition you are going to make.
The second piece of the puzzle to identifying your post-PhD salary goals is to remove yourself from the dichotomy we’ve already discussed. The one that’s about ‘doing what you love’ vs ‘being paid well’. These two things do not exist on the same spectrum, and it really is possible to find something you love whilst also being paid respectably for it. Indeed, you might not have much exposure to other possible careers, maybe you haven’t got a clue what else you might like or enjoy. But it’s highly unlikely, if not statistically impossible, for there to only be one thing on the planet that you love. Humans are complex. It makes more sense, and is therefore more likely, that you will love and enjoy multiple things, sometimes they aren’t even related at all! Maybe you don’t think or believe you have a purpose – which is great, you’re ‘just’ a multipotentialite then. Having so many options, partly due to a range of transferable skills, means you have the possibility to do well at a range of things. This abundance of options can feel overwhelming, and so understanding how to map your skills, and your values to a career path is key. But you cannot do this until you work out all your values, one of which being your salary goals.
Here’s the only caveat. Sometimes, the first step in transitioning out of academia into industry doesn’t always go seamlessly. Even if you learn how to translate your PhD to non-academic folk through CVs, cover letters, via LinkedIN, at an interview, whilst also managing job search stress it can still fall on deaf ears. Patience and persistence here are pivotal. However, over time, we all acknowledge that the standards you set yourself may wane, those thoughts and fears that ‘I can only do academic research’ or ‘maybe I should just take a lower paying job outside of academia’ begin to creep in. It’s important to stay resilient and continue to push on. Remember, it’s a numbers game, you only need one break, or one job offer – the more you apply for, the higher chance and probability you have of achieving this.
Secondly, taking a ‘lower’ paying job than your salary goal is not necessarily a bad thing AS LONG AS, and it is to be stressed as long as, this lower-paying position can be leveraged in the medium-to-long-term allowing you to achieve your salary goal. In practice, you might set a particular salary goal but apply for roles that are 5-10% lower than your goal. Accepting these positions might be worth considering. Your first job out of academia will firstly provide you with insight into the working world, and you can correct some of the skewed perspective of work. Secondly, the first non-academia job provides you with credibility on your CV, it’s then a lot easier for ‘new’ employers to offer you a role as you’ve already demonstrated that you can work outside of academia. Taking this slight reduction in your career goal might be a tactical play at first, you get a bit of experience, stability, re-correct your mindset, build up some confidence, acquire the credibility you didn’t have before and THEN apply for a job that is either equal to, or a bit more than your initial post-PhD salary goal. These slightly reduced paid positions are steppingstones so to speak, you stay in them for 1 or maybe 2 years max, and you’re off. This is also a key reason why you should re-consider doing a post-doc.
If up to this point, you’re still not onboard, have doubts, or think this blog post is nonsense, brace yourself for the final trump card. If you don’t believe in yourself or even that other career opportunities are within your reach, do it for your fellow PhD students. Currently, as of 2021, and likely for years to come, the PhD ecosystem is in need of reform. PhD students are too often underpaid and overworked. Not only is this unfair, but it’s also sometimes to no benefit. The ratio of PhD positions to post-doc positions isn’t equal, somewhere in the region of 70-80% of PhD students leave academia, and not necessarily by choice. For those that do stay, the find themselves stuck in the trenches again.
Doing long hours, being overworked, and underpaid as a post-doc. This is also usually done without job stability, as research grants have fixed time period, and so you’re caught bouncing 1–3-year contracts here and there. Think back to the values piece we explored at the start of this post; does this align with yours? Do these aspects enable you to build a life you would be satisfied with? However, if you leave, if you walk away from academia, and rather than ‘sticking it out’ because it’s ‘what you love’ accept that you and your fellow PhD students deserve better. Move on to more prosperous careers, earn your salary goals, build a life you are happy with, and over time the universities and academic institutions of the world will be forced to change the PhD experience to keep talent like you. If you stay on, and it’s not what you love, and doesn’t provide you with the lifestyle you want to have, you simply reinforce the narrative that universities and academia can treat you and others the same.
Stand together and secure the bag.
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