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The Quest for a Post-PhD Career

Last month, Ireena Dutta described her post-PhD dilemma, to postdoc or not? Having weighed the pros and cons, she decided that the lab was not for her. But what next? Here she shares her top career information gathering tips.

Well, the good news is that, just because I've decided that a postdoc position is not for me, my PhD need not have been a complete waste of the last 3 years of my life! I've found that there is still a huge range of possible career options open to me, where a PhD can be useful, or even essential. In fact all this choice can be rather bewildering, and deciding what to do after a PhD can be almost as difficult as doing the PhD itself! One of the best sources of help and information I've found turned out to be virtually on my doorstep.

Although as a postgraduate research student I have to admit that I wasn't even sure where the university careers service offices were for the first two and a half years of my PhD, they proved to be a great starting point for finding out about 'alternative careers' for scientists. And contrary to my expectation that their efforts would be geared to the needs of undergraduates, with little of relevance to postgrads, there was in fact plenty for those finishing higher degrees too. This included information on employers, feedback from previous students on their experiences in various jobs, and discussions with a careers advisor.


Former molecular biologist Chloe Evans works for a consultancy specialising in brand management and valuation. She uses techniques such as assessing the financial status of a company and market research to put a monetary value on the strength of brands. She enjoys working in an environment in which she is still constantly learning, and the "real sense of achievement" she gets from working on short-term projects, which unlike open-ended scientific research can actually be "finished and a line drawn under them." Evans believes that her PhD is an important asset. "I think that all the critical thinking and analytical skills that I acquired during my PhD are invaluable," she explains, and public speaking experience "is brilliant for presenting to clients."

The careers service also offered courses or workshops on writing CVs, help on psychometric tests, and performing in interviews--useful to any student seeking a job. There was even a course specifically on careers for PhD life scientists that not only presented the jobs that were open to people like me, but also prompted us to examine the skills that we had acquired whilst doing our research.

Evaluating my strengths, and determining which aspects of research work I really enjoyed, provided an excellent starting point for beginning to think about the many possible careers I could choose. Hoping to find out more about specific careers, I decided to head for the big smoke and travelled to London for a one-day careers conference, organised by the UK Life Sciences Committee. * Rather than guidance from career advisors, this conference focussed on 'real' people speaking about their jobs and the career choices they had made. There were speakers in traditional post-PhD research jobs in academia and industry, but others opened my eyes to professional avenues that previously would not even have crossed my mind, such as law or teaching. Hearing the people who were actually in these professions speak about them with real enthusiasm made the whole experience very worthwhile.


Glen Crocker, a senior manager at Ernst and Young, decided to train as a chartered accountant with the firm after completing his PhD in immunology and now works in the company's life science practice. He felt that there was a "niche for a scientist who knew about business, and a businessman who knew about science." But he was also worried by the lack of resources going into research and now "earns many times the maximum I could have earned in research." He describes his new role as "acting as a bridge between the scientist founder of a company and the financiers. I can discuss and understand what the chief executive is trying to achieve, then help put that into words that potential investors will understand." Crocker says that his PhD remains relevant to his work in the financial sector and helps give him a "broad knowledge of what is going on in the industry in general." He believes that opportunities for PhD scientists in the financial sector are increasing, and his own office expects to recruit an additional two doctoral scientists every year for the foreseeable future.

In a similar vein, I've also been lucky enough to be part of a department that regularly organises seminars, bringing in speakers who have pursued careers in science, but not in research. Attending these careers seminars not only allowed me to find out about the specifics of jobs I was interested in, but also made me realise that PhD scientists have a whole range of skills that are highly valued by employers. Although you may not have realised it, as PhD students we have developed all sorts of useful skills, such as problem-solving and conflict resolution. Of course not all of these seminars proved worth sacrificing valuable lab-time for, and whilst most of the speakers were very professional one notable exception spent much of his talk describing the clinical depression his previous job had caused!

The prospect of leaving the comfortable and familiar world of petri dishes and lab coats is not always easy to contemplate. That's why I've found it incredibly reassuring to talk to doctoral scientists who've moved into a variety of, perhaps unexpected, positions (see sidebars). It seems that job options for a PhD scientist are virtually limitless. And although I know that I do not want to continue working in the world of scientific research, this does not mean I have to leave science completely. In fact, I can continue to work in the life science field but instead of a lab I may be in the world of law, finance, policy-making or publishing; it's now just a matter of deciding which one!

* Editor's Note: These annual events are sponsored by Next Wave. This year's conferences will be held on 3 November in Bristol, 17 November in Newcastle, and 1 December in London.