- What Do PhDs Do?
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- Sara, careers research consultant, PhD in chemistry
Sara, careers research consultant, PhD in chemistry
Occupation: Careers Research Consultant
Sector: Private (Freelance Consultant)
PhD subject: Chemistry
Why did you do a PhD?
As an undergraduate I’d worked as a summer intern at a large consumer products company and it seemed that everyone who was on a management track had a PhD. Conversely, the technicians and junior scientists had only first degrees. From my perspective there seemed to be a definite glass ceiling. I also had a very interesting final year project and wanted to learn more about the topic, so when I was offered a PhD with the same supervisor it was easy to choose between the PhD and the job I had been offered as a trainee accountant!
Describe your current job briefly.
I am freelance so I work on a range of projects all connected to PhD and postdoctoral researcher career development. Typical activities include writing articles, giving workshops on career issues or skills development and doing research into career paths and choice.
Why did you decide in this career?
The decision to do this has evolved –I’ve moved into this area by taking on jobs that looked interesting and then working out what I was best at – with advice from others who could give me feedback. After my PhD I spent a year as a post-doc, but quickly realised that I wasn’t a brilliant chemist and I would need to be if I was going to have a lecturing career. I spoke to my supervisor and he thought I was better suited to science policy so I looked for work with the key professional bodies. After a few failed attempts, I saw an RSC funded post (12 months) in a university as an assistant on a project to develop the communication skills of undergraduates. I found that fascinating, particularly the elements of the module which involved the Careers Service. They could see my enthusiasm and started to mail me details of trainee careers adviser posts. Although I had to take a serious pay-cut for the project assistant job and then started as a careers adviser on a lower scale than if I had remained as a post-doc, within a couple of years I had moved to a higher scale than I could have hoped for on the academic track.
What was your job search strategy?
For the project assistant job I replied to an advert in the Guardian. I’d also visited the Careers Service and got their advice about where to look. A colleague who knew I was interested in that area sent the careers adviser job vacancy to me. From now on I expect any future jobs to come from either jobs.ac.uk or through personal contacts.
Why do you think you got the job?
Although I was very overqualified and over experienced compared to the other candidates for my first non-research post, I had a lot of ideas (mostly developed on the GRADschool I went on as a final year PhD student) and a track record of interest in student issues and development (involvement in committees and student tutoring) so I think they could see that I was going to put much more in than someone who was only going to do the typing and photocopying!
I was appointed as a careers adviser against the odds – I was up against qualified and experienced people, but my academic background was attractive as the service aimed to build links with departments and figured someone with a research background might find this easier. I also performed really well at interview (largely because I figured I didn’t have a chance of getting the job!) and again, had slightly different ideas about the role of careers services having recently interacted with one from an academic department.
Do you think a PhD has had a positive impact on your career?
Definitely – both in terms of the skills I developed, but also in terms of personal credibility. In academia and as a freelancer, having a PhD affects the way people perceive you – usually for the better!
On a personal level, it is still something I get a lot of pride from as well – it was really tough at times, but the sense of achievement that I’ve had made all the hours trying to decipher impenetrable papers and trying to learn dielectric theory worthwhile.
What advice do you have for PhD students to boost their employability?
Remember that your PhD is only a step in your career and think about where you would like to go when it is completed. Use your careers service from an early stage as they increasingly know about all kinds of development opportunities and chances to meet potential employers. Don’t allow yourself to be labelled as a “chemist” or whatever – you can do whatever you want to careers-wise so don’t worry if you don’t want an academic or research career.
Go on a GRADschool if you can – if not find out what alternative training your institution offers. Join a professional body and get involved in their events – these are a great way to build a professional network and meet other people in your subject.