Not an apprenticeship: your PhD and your career
(Last updated: 12 May 2021)
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It's not all that long ago that permanent academic appointments seemed to be readily available to young, eager academics fresh out of their PhDs. You might even remember, somewhere in the distant mists of your undergraduate studies, that tutor you had who struck you as a bit of an anomaly because they were named "Mr" or "Ms", only for their office nameplate to be changed out midway through the year for one with a "Dr" prefix!
Perhaps it was the energy, vitality, and will to learn and engage of a young, fresh-from-their-viva lecturer that inspired you to follow this path in the first place. And perhaps now you're thinking, somewhat wistfully, that life doesn't seem particularly fair. You're wondering if you'll ever be that fresh-faced, enthusiastic and carefree teacher and researcher who inspires the next set of researchers on their way in the world. You're concerned about how old you'll be - and how jaded - by the time you land your permanent job. And perhaps you're beginning to worry about what you might have to sacrifice - the prospect of having children, family life, relationships, health - to make it all happen.
We're not going to lie: the life of an Early Career Researcher (ECR) in the UK is no picnic these days, and the outlook may be considerably less sunny than when you embarked on your journey into academia in the first place. But there's no need to despair either: academic jobs are still out there for those who are sufficiently dedicated and willing to adapt their skills to the changing HE landscape. And that landscape even offers enhanced opportunities for those academics who are willing to think outside the box and get creative about the uses and applications of their work beyond the confines of the university. But we want you to know this too: your PhD is more than just an apprenticeship for lecturing. You've gained a lot of transferable skills through the course of your PhD, and if you do decide to jump off the treadmill, well… there are worse consolation prizes than a lucrative career outside of academia using and developing many of the skills you honed in your PhD, plus time to spend with your loved ones and work on those neglected relationships.
Read on for our guide to options for the new PhD - and the best way to pursue your career goals inside or outside academia.
We know, you don't really want to hear this. And you've done absolutely everything you're supposed to do: you've published extensively in prestigious journals, your name is attached to numerous exciting research projects and community initiatives, you attend all the right conferences, follow (and are followed by) all the right people on Twitter, and just last month you shared a panel with a leading scholar in your field, who described you as "the future of the profession." You'll be fine. You'll be one of the small number of PhD holders who eventually find themselves in the permanent academic post they'd always dreamed of. The rest - well, they've made missteps along the way. They didn't publish with sufficient frequency; they don't know how to handle the social media-heavy landscape of contemporary academia; they've taught too few classes, or done a bad job doing it; they've allowed their focus to waver onto other things; they just weren't as committed as you.
But the truth is, no matter how much you engage in doing "all the right things", it could still take - and is increasingly expected to take - years for you to find your first permanent academic post. The problem isn't only - or even primarily - the relative scarcity of academic jobs out there: upon initial graduation you'll no doubt survey the pages of jobs.ac.uk and feel quite reassured by the sheer number of jobs in your field, at least one or two of which seems to describe exactly you in the person specification.
The main problem is that, while the number of available academic jobs continues to increase at a steady rate, this rate is simply outstripped by the increase in students enrolling in PhD programmes - and appearing on the job market. Every post you apply for will have tens if not hundreds of other applicants, many of them with CVs every bit as swollen as yours. And in a market that's this loaded with applicants, hiring committees can afford to be picky. They'll interview as many as eight or ten people on campus for a single post, possibly after drawing up an initial shortlist double that length and whittling it down via phone interviews. And when it comes right down to it, you'll be no better-qualified or less well-qualified than any number of other academics on the same shortlist. Whether you get hired or not will come down to the intangible quality of "fit". If there was a dinner for the candidates, did you come across during it as somebody the hiring committee want to work with? Did you manage to overcome your nerves just enough to be charming and humorous company without seeming cocky and overconfident? Did you ask exactly the right question in your interview that chimed with some pet project the chair of the committee is about to embark on, which hasn't even been made public yet?
There will be few occasions when you'll ask for feedback on your performance in an interview and be told you were "just pipped" by a better-suited candidate; there was nothing you could have done better or differently, nothing you need to change. You won't know whether this is good or bad news, and in reality, it's both. You've made yourself competitive enough to be in the mix, but you just haven't yet found your perfect match in academic job form. And it could be many more applications and interviews before you do.
So what do you do in the meantime? If you have or are about to finish - a PhD, the odds are you're already aware of the kind of work that's available to you. The truth is that if you're going to get that elusive academic job eventually you're going to have to be a hardy soul, and manage precarious contract work. This is often spread out over multiple institutions and this will include you continuing to engage in new research projects, publish regularly, seek out opportunities to apply for grants, and of course keep tossing in those job applications. So what kind of work can you expect to get, and how will it lead you down the path to the Holy Grail of that permanent post?
Contract teaching positions
With good reason, contract teaching assignments are viewed as the least prestigious and most precarious form of academic employment open to new PhDs. Horror stories abound about the casualisation of academic labour and lecturers living long-term on the poverty line, barely able to afford to pay rent, eat, and afford the transportation costs to work. But, despite the precarious nature of the work the chances are you'll engage in at least some work of this type, either during the final year of your PhD or for the first couple of years post-graduation. Contract teaching pays an average of £6000 per module, but the actual scope of this work may differ widely from discipline to discipline and module to module. At one end of the spectrum, you might be required simply to deliver someone else's prepared lectures and mark sixty assignments over the course of the term; at the other extreme you might end up marking hundreds of essays and writing extensive module content from scratch. Almost all contract instructors report doing some amount of unpaid work, and of course the usual perks associated with academic employment - such as being paid to do your own research - are non-existent. If you can secure a steady load of three modules per term you can eke out a living doing contract teaching work, and you can diversify your CV with a broad range of "teachables" and potentially some great teaching evaluations from your students. But a full-time teaching load - especially if you have to split it over multiple institutions and incur lengthy travel times to your classes - can seriously impinge on the time you can spend doing arguably more important CV-building activities like research and publishing.
Usually relatively short-term contracts (lasting up to two or three years), research assistant positions are common in the sciences and are normally paid for by funding allocated to a research project by a funding body. These positions generally pay in the £25,000-£30,000 range and typically don't require a PhD to undertake (though they do increasingly require postgraduate degrees and "research experience"). If you've almost finished your PhD and are out of funding, a research assistantship in your discipline can be a preferable alternative to contract teaching, with the added bonus of predictable, set working hours and employment benefits, neither of which contract teaching generally offers. In terms of building your CV, though, a research assistantship probably does less for you than demonstrating that you can teach in a range of different areas in your discipline. The keyword is "assistant": you are likely to be carrying out someone else's research to their specifications, which if you're an enthusiastic budding researcher yourself can chafe somewhat. If you're lucky enough to land in the midst of a prestigious or innovative project, this can be stimulating work, but your reward is likely to be the paycheque and the downtime to work on your own research, rather than any significant, CV-transforming credit for your involvement.
The numbers of teaching fellowships (usually ranging from one to three years' duration) advertised by universities has increased significantly in the past decade or so. The benefit of these jobs to the early career academic is the subject of hot debate. On the one hand, you get to put a full-time paid university position on your CV - and as such competition for the positions is fairly substantial. On the other hand, teaching fellows are generally hired as a relatively inexpensive way of teaching large numbers of modules, and while starting salary is typically similar to the lowest rung on the "lecturer" ladder, teaching fellows typically have a far higher teaching load than their colleagues employed on lectureships, and correspondingly little time to spend on their research. Small professional development grants are generally available to teaching fellows to enable them to attend conferences and so on, but - unless you're incredibly good at time management - a teaching fellowship is unlikely to give you the opportunity to advance your research profile significantly.
Postdoctoral/Research Fellow positions
Probably the best type of non-permanent academic post you can take in terms of CV-building opportunities, postdocs typically pay fairly well (£30,000-£35,000) while encouraging you to build your research profile, usually with fairly minimal teaching responsibilities. Postdocs are almost as competitive as permanent academic jobs for this reason, and if you manage to get one it's an excellent sign that you're on the right path.
In most universities, Lecturers form the lowest rank of permanent academic staff, and are paid to conduct a balance of research and teaching (though the balance between these two activities can vary significantly: at post-'92 universities, the latter is likely to form a bigger part of the lecturer's duties than at a Russel Group, say). Increasingly, though, universities tend to make lectureships available on a limited-term basis at first, with the option to make the role permanent based on a combination of factors including budget and performance in the job. A limited-term lectureship will often lead to a permanent position, either as an extension of the same contract or at a different institution. The key is to treat the position as if it is permanent, and throw yourself into all the activities - from teaching and researching to committee work and student supervision - that a full-time lecturer would.
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Let's just pretend for a moment that you're not going to get that dream permanent lectureship after all, or even that you're going to take a break from the relentless mad dash of contract teaching work just to breathe a little, take stock, and evaluate your options. There's good news here, and that's that even the most esoteric PhD has given you valuable transferable skills that you can market to employers in a variety of fields:
- You're self-motivated. Look at job ads in any given field and you'll be struck by just how many of them demand "self-starters". Nothing proves you're a self-starter more persuasively than the three-year research project you've just undertaken under your own steam, with just occasional guidance from your supervisor. That's every manager's dream!
- You have great time management skills. You produced a 200-page thesis of unique, sophisticated research within specified time constraints. No deadline can ever daunt you again!
- You can be relied upon to research the answer to a problem.
- You're a capable communicator, equally comfortable expressing yourself in written or spoken forms, with succinctness and clarity.
- You’re more than likely a confident and able presenter.
Indeed, the biggest obstacle you're likely to come across if you apply for jobs outside of academia is that employers may be sceptical of your desire to work in their field. You may have to convince them that you're in for the long haul and you're not simply taking a job to support you while you finish your book and refocus on your academic career. This may be hard work, especially if that's exactly what you're doing…
But what kinds of jobs might you do with the skillset you've accumulated during your PhD? Below are just a few suggestions that will allow you to keep on doing many of the things you love - and perhaps obtain a little more work-life balance to boot!
- Research. Let's start with the job that's closest to the one you've always imagined yourself doing. There are plenty of industries that require experienced researchers and, whether it's government climate research or commercial pharmaceuticals, there are plenty of non-academic careers that will allow you to spend your work days in a lab.
- Commerical R&D. Research is also a key component of product development in a wide range of fields, from software to toys and educational materials. If your degree is in a social sciences discipline or in education, as well as the "hard" sciences, there are likely to be jobs for you here.
- Copywriting, editing, or technical writing. If your research is in an arts or humanities discipline, or the thing that got you most excited about your PhD was the writing process itself, there are plenty of jobs out there where you can continue to practise your skills. Writing copy for marketing or advertising purposes will let you indulge your creative streak, or, if you enjoy the logical, expository side of writing you may find a career in technical writing rewarding. Editing the work of others is a pursuit that can be taken up both as a full-time job and as a lucrative sideline.
- Freelance academic work. If your experience in academia has left you hungry both for the research and writing components of the profession and for helping and mentoring students, becoming a freelance academic and devising model answers, revision plans and other study aids on a bespoke basis for university students could well be the job for you. And we can help with this one! This is work you can take on at your own pace, either as a sideline while you continue to advance your academic career or as your sole source of employment. Why not submit an application to our sister company, Academic Minds, and see if you're the kind of writer we're after?
Ultimately, nobody here wants to tell you you can't achieve your dream of a full-time academic post. We recognise that's why most people embark on a PhD in the first place, and if you're sufficiently dedicated - and everything else in your life can take a back seat for a few years - there's no reason you can't achieve that goal. But we want to emphasise too that a PhD is more than just an apprenticeship for an increasingly elusive career. Your skills as a researcher, writer and teacher are just as in-demand outside academia as within, and there should be no sense of failure or disappointment if you choose to pursue one of the many other rewarding career opportunities your PhD has opened up for you!