Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Taking my head out from under my lab book

By and large a PhD is a qualification for an academic career, yet according to a 2014 report by CFE Research over half of STEM PhDs go on to find work outside higher education. Often this is an active decision to transfer into new careers or simply move away from growing job insecurity, long hours and lower salary potential. Unfortunately, however, for many the choice is made for them. There are now more PhDs being trained than ever. This combined with factors such as senior scientists that are holding positions for increasingly longer periods leads to a bottleneck at the top. There simply aren’t enough academic jobs for the number of PhDs. In fact according to a recent Royal Society report, fewer than 1 in 200 UK STEM PhDs will go on to receive a professorship.

Like me, most people only discover these facts once they’re well within the midst of their doctoral studies. Like me, most people ignore them, burying their heads under their lab books with their fingers in their ears. Therefore many PhDs end up staggering out of their viva, squinting into the sunlight for the first time in years, and as they finally look around they see that they aren’t alone. In fact there is a whole hoard of others just like them, all of whom have PhDs and are entering the incredibly competitive job market looking remarkably similar to employers.

This may seem like a rather bleak time to be a doctoral student, but this is far from true. The current climate has not gone unnoticed. Universities, societies, funding bodies and a huge range of companies are all clambering to offer support and countless opportunities to those who are willing to look. These courses, competitions and events not only offer doctoral students a chance to develop and exhibit their diverse talents, but also to explore exciting new avenues of interest. Each student can therefore carve his or her own unique personalised PhD experience, with clear demonstrable examples of their transferable skills.

Somewhere towards  the start of my second year I took my head out from under my lab book and decided to take advantage of as many of these opportunities as I could. This was definitely one of the best decisions I’ve made during my PhD. Courses such as the Postgraduate Enterprise Summer School offered by the Careers Network helped me recognise my transferable talents and how applicable they are to diverse non-academic settings. Competitions such as the BBSRC Young Entrepreneurs Scheme educated me in the research commercialisation process and put me face-to-face with companies in industries from biotechnology to intellectual property. The university’s ‘Storytelling Researcher’ and the Biochemical Society’s ‘Science Communication’ competitions gave me a reason to learn animation and video editing techniques. Even just volunteering at public engagement events such as ‘Meet the Scientists’ at the Thinktank museum developed my public speaking skills and helped me remember the real world importance of my research.

Not only have these experiences helped me develop a wider skillset; they have emphasized my strengths and weaknesses, shaping my career plans and aspirations. I am now more confident in my CV and I feel like a competitive candidate entering into the job market, not a failed academic. Regardless of the current academic climate, a PhD is still a fantastic training experience. With abundant potential opportunities out there, it’s what you make of it that counts.

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