I regretted my honesty as soon as the words were out of my mouth. At a conference earlier this year, a professor asked me what I was planning on doing after my current postdoctoral job. I answered by talking about my fellowship applications. But then, before I could stop myself, I also mentioned that I’d applied for a couple of non-academic jobs. And my stomach felt hollow as I visibly plummeted in his estimation.
Feeling a need for secrecy when considering what are dismissively referred to as “alternative careers” is common among early career researchers, and it highlights a bigger problem. The idea that non-academic jobs are “alternatives” for PhD graduates is misleading in the extreme. Figures from the US National Institutes of Health show that only about one in 10 PhD graduates in US biomedicine ends up in a senior academic career. In the UK, just 3.5 per cent of scientific PhD graduates become permanent research staff, according to the Royal Society. If upwards of 90 per cent of all PhD graduates end up in non-academic careers, it is hugely damaging to that large majority to dismiss these careers as “alternative” and, crucially, to fail to provide useful training about how to embark on them.
Related to this lack of information is a second, less tangible, problem. My embarrassment at the conference stemmed from working in an environment where there is a single-minded focus on academic careers. This is entirely forgivable among academic supervisors because most of them will have had a solely academic career path behind them, and their enthusiasm for their students’ research prospects is an important part of supervision. But we learn from a far wider circle of people than our direct supervisors alone, and the universal silence on non-academic career options does nothing to alleviate the feeling that to leave academia is to fail, or to “waste” your PhD.
Of course, this is nonsense. Many skills developed during doctoral work are highly valued by non-academic employers, and it would be a terrible thing if the nine in 10 who don’t continue in academia were missing the information or training that would direct them towards their ideal job. Besides, no matter how good a researcher you are, surely it’s advisable to be realistic about the numbers game and to keep your options open given that you might not be the one in 10? And common sense is nothing to be ashamed of.
Various blog articles give advice on how to translate PhD experience into relevant examples of project management, problem-solving and analytical and communication skills, to name but a few. But it’s just not good enough that PhD graduates are forced to glean this information and advice from blogs. They are no substitute for direct training. Worse, this dependence on blogs for information only compounds the feeling that non-academic careers are something that an early career researcher should keep quiet about.
The bottom line is that non-academic jobs for PhD graduates are the norm, not an unexpected consolation prize. And it wouldn’t need to be a huge effort for universities to greatly improve the signposting towards them that they currently offer. As I see it, there are two resources already readily available to institutions. First, many already have careers advice centres that could be developed further to create more resources for early career researchers. This could involve mentoring, workshops or even open days dedicated to PhD graduates.
Second, any university will have countless PhD and postdoc alumni who have moved into non-academic jobs. These people are invaluable sources of information about life outside academia, and how best to break into it. Having successfully made the transition themselves, these alumni are likely to be happy to share their experiences, and, importantly, they will be able to present their successes (and mistakes) from a specific post-PhD perspective.
Ideas such as these are merely a start, and it would be unfair to suggest that some institutions are not already trying. But a little more investment would go a long way in terms of helping people to step off the academic treadmill without taking a tumble.
The writer is a postdoctoral research fellow at a UK university.