Impact Blog

What if I don’t want to be a researcher?

June 2020
Dr Amy Chen
Co-founder, Scientists without Labels

Does completing a PhD mean you have to become an academic or even a researcher? Recent PhD graduate Dr Amy Chen describes her journey from thesis to job, condensing her experience into some excellent tips for transitioning to a career post-PhD. 

In my final year of PhD, I decided that an academic research career was not for me. It was not a spur of the moment revelation; in fact, it was something I had been thinking about for a while but did not have the courage to admit. I was afraid to be a “failure” or be told that I had wasted my time with a PhD. But the more I read about “alternative” career paths and spoke to PhD graduates in non-academic roles, the more I realised that, actually, academia was the alternative career path.

The truth is the majority of PhD graduates will not end up in academia; there are simply not enough academic positions available for the growing number of PhD graduates. With only 2% of PhD graduates enjoying uninterrupted academic careers to professorship, leaders in Australian research call for better “supervision, skills development and internship opportunities” to help PhD students round out their transferable skills. PhDs, argues the Australian Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkle AO, “are not just academics in utero”. He urged not just for Australian universities to prepare PhD graduates for non-academic jobs, but also for industries to be open about hiring PhD graduates.

But what can we PhD graduates do to make ourselves more competitive in the non-academic job market?

This was the question I spent the last few years trying to answer as I transitioned from academic research to digital communications. Here are some pivotal steps I took from my journey.

Start building your non-academic CV

I still remember the first iteration of the CV I prepared for government and not-for-profit sectors – it was five pages long. It had sections dedicated to my lab skills and way too much information about my PhD thesis, and even listed my publication and conference presentations, hardly relatable outside of research. It was no surprise I did not get an interview.

Academic CVs are very different to non-academic CVs and vary again depending on the field. It is important to know what the recruiters look for in an applicant and the best place to start is to refer to examples of industry-relevant CVs. Recruiters want to see that you have the skills they need, and quantifiable proof of those skills. There is a stark difference between “experience in event management” to “managed four STEM outreach events, attended by over a hundred participants”.

Putting together your CV also allows you to identify gaps in your skillset. If you aspire to work in science communication but lack the evidence to prove that you can write to a lay audience, this is your cue to look for writing opportunities. Not only will you gain valuable experience, you will also expand your network.

Opportunities in extracurricular activities

Once you have identified the skills gap in your CV, extracurricular activities are the best place to develop them; there is only so much you can gain in the lab. Participating in student, early career researcher and conference organising committees are not only wonderful ways to give back, they are also great for honing project and event management, interpersonal and collaboration skills.

Depending on the skills you want to develop, you may need to be proactive in seeking out opportunities. I knew I needed to get writing experience, so I mustered up the courage to cold email my faculty marketing team asking for work. This small act transpired to freelance science writing, and later, contract work on projects for the marketing team.

Find mentors

As a PhD student, I was constantly told to find a mentor. To that I replied, “how?!” Also, who would care to sacrifice their time to help me? Turns out, a lot of people. Most people are happy to share their experience and knowledge, you just have to take the first steps.

A mentor-mentee relationship does not have to be a life-long connection, and you can have more than one mentor. In essence, a mentor is a person you go to for advice. Is there a person in your faculty whose leadership skills you admire? Or someone you know who is doing your dream job? Maybe someone who has gone through a career transition? Get in touch. Tell them why you are contacting them and ask if you can buy them coffee. Most of the time they will say yes.

Better yet, look for mentoring programs. One of my mentors was assigned to me through my faculty mentoring program, and she is still one of the most supportive people in my corner. Mentors can give you tips on navigating your career and provide perspectives you have not considered.

Use your network

Here is a confession: all the jobs I have had so far, I got through my network. Your network is all the people you have ever met, and they are especially valuable when you are transitioning to a different career. From a recruiter’s point of view, it is a bit of a risk to hire someone lacking specific experience, but if they know the applicant and know that they work hard and learn fast, the recruiter is more willing to give them a chance.

To make the most of your network, you need to let them know you are looking for a job, or that you want to explore a different field. It may not result in a job offer straight away, but when something relevant comes up, the first person they think of will be you.

The good news is there are already plenty of PhD graduates working across different industries, with banking, finance and insurance being the top business PhD employers, while hospitals and health care are the main PhD employers in the public sector. By reflecting on where your interests lie and working to build required skills and support network, you too can make that first step out of research into something new.

Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash

The author declares that this is her original work and is her personal opinion, not reflecting the values of Scientists without Labels.


Fiona Zammit says:

Great advice – thank you Amy. Candidates who collaborate with industry partners during their PhD or who take part in an internship or placement program also build their networks and may open up career opportunities. These sorts of partnerships are often win-win too.

Susan Kinnear says:

Some great tips here, Amy. Reading the title of your article reminds me of a piece of advice from Dr Margaret Kiley (of ANU) … a research degree is not necessarily about training someone to “be a researcher”. It’s about training someone to “think like a researcher” – and then use those skills wherever they choose. I’ve always thought this was a really important distinction.

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