Tips for those tough post-PhD, pre-postdoc days

January 10, 2013

Doing everything you can to keep a “toehold” in your field while looking for postdoctoral positions was one of the pieces of advice offered at a session on life after the PhD at a conference last week.

PhD students heard recommendations on how to succeed in careers both inside and outside academia on 4 January at the British Society for the History of Science Postgraduate Conference 2013.

Rebekah Higgitt, curator in the history of science and technology at Royal Museums Greenwich, urged graduates to do what they could to remain visible, including staying affiliated to a department, teaching, speaking at conferences, networking and joining scholarly societies.

But she also acknowledged how difficult this time could be. Looking back on her own PhD peer group, she said, “the people who made it on the academic train were those who…for whatever reason were able to support themselves for a little while without having any real security”.

Don Leggett, research associate in the School of History at the University of Kent, which hosted the event, said researchers benefited from showing they could work outside their discipline. “There are likely more [PhD students] in this room than there are lecturers in the history of science in this country…Whatever you study you should start to find ways to communicate it to a wider audience,” he said.

Dr Higgitt stressed that skills learned while doing a PhD - such as the ability to focus on detail, to distil large amounts of information, to be self-motivated and to manage projects - were valuable in careers outside academia.

Melissa Smith, now a senior policy analyst at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, said the skills the PhD teaches sometimes need spelling out: “If you are looking to do something outside academia, don’t assume your PhD is going to speak for itself or that people know what it is to do a PhD.”

Demonstrating wider interest by gaining many different experiences - including writing for different audiences, organising events and getting work experience - would also be invaluable when looking for non-academic jobs, she added.

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