The Industry Mindset

What can I do with my PhD?

At some point we all google or search ‘what can I do with my PhD?’, only to be met with unhelpful advice and non-specific guidance. To really understand what we can do with our PhD we need to think about our careers differently and break the mould of academia.

‘What can I do with my PhD? – the age-old question, and one that can be unsettling for most. We spend several years studying, gaining skills, doing research, and developing our domain specific knowledge only for us to be left with confusion, uncertainty, and doubt when we start thinking about our next career chapter. In an ideal world, and very much the story we’re led to believe, is that you’d go to university or college, complete your degrees (plural), and walk out with a ‘good job’ and happy life.

Unfortunately, in the real world, this isn’t how things play out. For most, when we complete the academic journey we start to doubt whether it was the right choice. That ‘good job’ we’re expected to just get or achieve doesn’t appear quite as straightforward. In some cases, maybe it is that easy, but we realise that it doesn’t support the lifestyle we want to live. Equally, maybe our goals just change – a high chance given how long a PhD takes to complete.

For some, this feeling and worry kicks in half-way through the PhD – before it’s complete. This can lead to questions and lack of confidence in completing the programme itself. It’s a common experience for most academics to ask themselves if it’s worth it and whether they should quit. Having a lack of career clarity or certainty can make this question more prevalent and subsequently contribute to the decision to quit your PhD.

Maybe we try to combat this feeling. We often Google or search ‘What can I do with my PhD?’ but the advice is likely to be very limited. There are some core skills that come with doing a PhD, and so search engines will usually spit out the same recommendations. Things like; consultancy, post-doc roles, lecturing or teaching, and entrepreneurship are the common offenders. Don’t get us wrong, these are viable careers, but it’s not an exhaustive list. Most of us are left uninspired by these options which again may (incorrectly) validate and confirm our fears and worries about the value of our PhD.

In effect, we’re left with no advice from Google. Our understanding of career opportunities is relatively narrow. What makes things worse is that you can’t exactly turn to your friends and family and ask them ‘What can I do with my PhD?’ – because hey, they don’t have a PhD and may at times find it hard to relate to your experience. They may say ‘surely you’ll be fine’ or ‘of course you’ll find a career’ but this isn’t tangible enough to help.

So, there we have it, a perfect storm. Individuals with great talent, capability, and in the top 1% of the population in terms of academia and intelligence are left without options, clarity, and feel like they’re back to square one when it comes to the job market.

The good thing you’ll be pleased to hear is that this narrative isn’t necessarily correct. It’s not that a PhD is useless or too rigid, it’s the fact we haven’t acquired the skills or the know-how to leverage this opportunity in the wider context of the job market. We’re so focused on academia, accolades, academic CV’s, publications etc, we grow out of touch with how the rest of the working world operates. We become disconnected from interviews, other career options, the importance of flexibility and social mobility, and more.

Up to this point, we’ve approached our careers and professional development in a singular way. We’re trying to put round pegs in square holes, doing our best to make our PhD ‘fit’ with other careers. You can hammer this all you want, but the reality is you’ll sell yourself short and reduce the chances of success. Instead, we need to approach our careers as a more fluid and transient journey. Perhaps in previous generations individuals would pick a career and then stick to it for the next 30 years or more. However, in today’s eco-system social mobility is more common, it’s the norm to see people explore a range of careers and professions as opposed to sticking to one.

With this idea in mind then, it’s about you redefining what your next career move will look like, what’s your next chapter, and how flexible do you want to be? In other discussions we’ve spoken about how best to identify your transferable skills, map them to different career prospects, and then be able to convey this effectively in an interview. The key objective is to identify your skills and how they relate to the wider world of work – as opposed to focusing on your shiny PhD certificate. Skills are more applicable, certificates and accolades – not so much.

To get these wheels in motion however, it comes down to your own mindset and approach. It’s first important we do our best to accept and digest this viewpoint. Maybe our PhD wasn’t as directly relevant to the working world – and that’s okay. Instead, your PhD has provided you with a tonne of skills and foundational knowledge to be able to thrive beyond what most people could achieve. It just maybe doesn’t look the same as to what you expected when you started this path, but you’re certainly not behind or stuck.

A lot of this stems from the relentless narrative and expectations academia imposes on us. We’re expected to be Dr’s and work in a specific industry, but as discussed, this isn’t the case. To really figure out what you can do with your PhD, you need to get out of autopilot mode of just expecting academia to progress you, deprogramme yourself from the expectations you carry, and then reframe and rebuild what you want to achieve professionally with the skills you have. Your past and academic history doesn’t define your future path.

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