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International PhD students: the ups and downs of job hunting in the UK

International PhD student Adeayo Sotayo shares why it can be tricky for international PhD students to find jobs in the UK, as well as some tips on how he managed it 

Adeayo Sotayo 's avatar

Adeayo Sotayo

July 6 2020
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Once, I was under the illusion that a PhD and a first-class undergraduate degree in engineering would lead to a great job with minimal effort.

I had completed some industrial projects/work experience during my PhD, received a few personal and professional development awards and some journal and conference publications. Although I lacked full-time industrial placement/experience in my field, I deemed my professional portfolio reasonably good.

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However, my illusion was shattered, having gone through the roller coaster of emotions associated with a plethora of job applications and rejections. As such, I will share my story and tips I’ve learnt along the way, especially for international PhD/research students based in the UK.

In 2017, I applied for more than 58 roles (32 in industry and 26 in academia) in the UK. Out of those, I was invited for five interviews in academia and two final interviews in industry. I finally got my first post-PhD role at Liverpool.

In 2019, towards the end of my Liverpool contract, I made 22 applications for roles in academia, which led to three interviews (attended two and declined one) and one job offer.

As a former international PhD student, I believe the complexities associated with the current UK work visa process, alongside a lack of complete understanding by some organisations, led to some of those rejections. 

During my job search, seven organisations explicitly told me they would not offer any visa sponsorship, one of which kindly said I met shortlisting standards. Although I felt slightly better knowing I was doing something right, I still wasn’t successful. 

While the job market is difficult in the current economy, it is even more competitive for international students and/or foreign citizens without right-to-work visas. Work visa rules change all the time so it’s important to stay updated.

From a company’s point of view, it is more straightforward to hire a UK and/or European Union national compared with the (perceived) added paperwork/process for foreign nationals.

Although some organisations have a work sponsorship licence, the reality is that these organisations typically sponsor more experienced individuals or those with specialised skills rather than recent graduates without sufficient industrial experience.

I went straight from an undergraduate to a PhD degree, with no concrete industrial placement or substantial work experience, so perhaps that worked to my disadvantage? “Lack of considerable experience” was common feedback from interview panels.

The constant rejections were painful and frustrating to accept, because these applications take a lot of time and effort. Furthermore, as an international student I had spent more than £100,000 on tuition fees, accommodation and living expenses over six years in the UK.

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On the bright side, in 2019 the UK government announced the creation of a new visa route, which will enable international students to remain and work, or look for work in the UK for two years after completing their studies.

In addition, I’ve had dual breakthroughs in getting postdoctoral positions (combined contract length of about six years), and I’ll share some practical tips to help prepare yourself better.

Firstly, start applying early (perhaps a year before the end of your degree). This process takes considerable time and effort. You’ll need to consider the visa processing time, because you’ll ideally need to get it before your student visa expires to minimise any disruptions. Starting early also enables you to identify gaps in your CV, which can be improved before it’s too late.

Having great academic qualifications doesn’t necessarily get you the job even if it does get you an interview. Experience always gives you the edge – there are many more academically brilliant candidates out there than you think.

There are several ways to develop your experience, such as seeking positions of responsibility and part-time roles within your institution before graduating. Common examples for PhD researchers include laboratory demonstrator, exam invigilator, academic tutor, associate lecturer, undergraduate/masters project co-supervision and technical project internships. 

There’s a somewhat controversial “publish or perish” culture in academia, which highlights the importance of peer- reviewed publications. However, I would recommend authoring at least a couple of conference or peer-reviewed journal publications before the completion of your PhD.

Similarly, as a young researcher, I would advise applying for small grants (for example, travel grants or short exchange programmes) within your institution, which are relatively easy and straightforward to get. These activities show strong competencies towards getting your first post-PhD role.

An alternate route is to create a research proposal together with your supervisor and/or institution and apply for funding from research councils to carry out independent research after your PhD, and get paid.

UK universities typically have free careers services so use them. Career advisers can provide feedback on CVs and covering letters, practice psychometric tests and mock interviews. 

Additionally, I would advise tailoring and personalising every CV and cover letter for each job application to address each job requirement, rather than a generic CV and covering letter. 

Speak to your PhD supervisors and contacts in related fields and draw on their experience. Some of them have considerable knowledge and/or connections that could be beneficial for getting your first post-PhD role.   

Before an interview, prepare adequately for the non-technical questions. Mock interviews and the STAR technique are useful for these scenarios.

Your university may provide a range of free development opportunities (such as software training, writing workshops, grants writing and leadership workshops) for PhD and postdoctoral researchers. Having been on the committee for the development of students and researchers, I found that there’s a lack of uptake of these opportunities, which is surprising.

There are also free online courses for learning and developing other skills.

In addition, I recommend taking part in departmental/faculty-wide presentations or speaking competitions .This not only adds to your portfolio but develops your experience in research communication and public speaking. 

Finally – rejections. Sadly, it’s likely that you’ll experience some or many job application rejections, especially in the current economic environment. This is compounded by the fact that work visa rules for international students change all the time.

However, the truth is that rejection forms part of the experience. On a positive note, I have friends and colleagues who got the first job that they applied for, so the job market is often unpredictable. With every rejection you get, always ask for feedback if you can (you’ve got nothing to lose), carefully review this and improve in the next submission/interview.

To all PhD researchers (especially international students) striving to get your first post-PhD role: sheer persistence pays off. Keep learning, keep iterating, keep improving and in the end it’ll be worth it. 

Read more: What does the new post-study work visa mean for international students in the UK?


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