Academia and beyond: life after a doctorate

August 28, 2014

Highlighting the challenges of doing a PhD in order to manage the expectations of prospective doctoral candidates, both during and post-PhD, is of course extremely valuable (“This far, and no further?”, Features, 14 August). However, I was disappointed that a balanced view of the PhD experience was not offered across the five case studies in the article.

I completed my PhD in biochemistry in 2008 and found the experience extremely rewarding. Yes, there were tears and frustrations when experiments were not going to plan, but I was fortunate to have a supportive supervisor along with an equally committed team of peers.

I secured a postdoc position upon completion, funded by the industrial partner I worked with during my project. I was lucky in this regard, although I did have to work hard to build my reputation with the company and demonstrate the value of funding an additional two-year project. I had not decided whether to pursue an academic career at this stage, although I had unsuccessfully explored opportunities for independent fellowship funding. However, I realised that there was a life beyond the lab where my contribution could be greater, to a diverse range of research within university management and administration. I was encouraged to make this step away from academia and haven’t looked back.

I am now working as research and knowledge exchange manager in a faculty of humanities and social sciences, a position I never dreamed I would be in after the thrill of scientific research, but I use the skills I developed during my PhD every day. Having a doctorate gives me credibility I rely on to perform well in my role, as well as providing an understanding of academic values and motivations.

Perhaps the wounds of having recently coordinated research excellence framework submissions across 14 units of assessment have not yet healed, but I would say that this was far more challenging, often far more isolating and caused much more self-doubt than the freedom and excitement I experienced during my doctoral and postdoctoral research.

In rethinking the future of the PhD and its role in higher education, whether leading to academic positions or otherwise, we should seek a balanced view in order to set appropriate expectations. We might also take the opportunity to share positive examples of academic experiences. It is difficult to secure an academic position post-PhD but it is not always the right career path for all doctoral candidates. There are other opportunities for well-qualified PhD graduates, often in fields and roles they wouldn’t expect.

Jenny Rivers
Research and knowledge exchange manager
University of Liverpool


John Gill comments on the “surprising statistic, that […] only a fifth of UK PhD holders were working in higher education research roles three-and-a-half years after completing” (“Slipping through the net”, Leader, 14 August). This agrees with my figures for around a quarter in the University of Cambridge. But why should it be surprising?

It is now more than 15 years since the science, technology, engineering and mathematics research councils dramatically increased the number of PhD studentships they fund. There was concern at the time that this would inevitably mean a reduction in academic opportunities for new PhDs, which was rebutted with a clear statement that the increase was intended to deliver highly trained self-motivated independent thinkers to UK plc. (This motivation is even more explicit in the new round of funding for Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council Centres for Doctoral Training.)

While the situation is probably not as extreme for PhDs in the arts, humanities and social sciences, there is certainly no suggestion that current funding is below the academic replacement rate: an increase in funding, through whatever means, will only increase the numbers seeking non-academic jobs.

It is not obvious that this is should be a cause for concern. As your longer article “This far, and no further?” (Features, 14 August), makes clear, academic research is not for all, and UK plc has a clear need for those with the qualities needed to complete a PhD. No more is it problematic that the great majority of new graduates who do not proceed to a PhD find employment that does not draw directly on their academic knowledge, but more on their transferable skills developed through the pursuit of a degree. Such at least is the story we tell. We can’t have it both ways.

Rachael Padman
Cavendish Laboratory
University of Cambridge

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