Among the most difficult decisions during your Ph.D. is what to do when you're finished. You're probably familiar with the "typical" career track: Ph.D., postdoc, then a climb through the academic ranks of assistant, associate, and full professorship. Any other path is often looked upon with derision by peers, as though leaving academia means you can't handle the academic track.
But this "move up or move out" attitude is a purely academic perspective. Universities don't just train new professors; they prepare people to contribute to society in many ways. In the Netherlands, for example, 60% of Ph.D.s leave university right away to take jobs in corporate, not-for-profit, or government organizations.
Most of the remaining 40% continue their academic careers as postdoctoral fellows. But within 5 years of graduating, half of those will wander off the academic campus. The picture is the same in other Western countries. So, your career is likely to take you outside the hallowed halls of academia. Get used to the idea.
As you move toward the last months of your Ph.D., consider the full range of employment options. What you do directly after graduation will have a major impact on your professional progression. Evaluating all the options is a lot of work, so allow time to do it properly and start well in advance.
We suggest splitting the job-search process into two parts. First, decide which type of job appeals to you most. Then start the application process, which typically takes several months. You should start evaluating your options at least 6 months before you graduate.
What really makes you tick?
Your education puts you in a position to find a job that not only pays the bills but also provides satisfaction. To discover what type of job will do the trick, analyze what you most enjoyed while working as a Ph.D. student. Was it working in a team of enthusiastic young people exploring unknown (scientific) territories or working to solve a tough problem? Or perhaps you were most excited by the challenge of mastering particular technical skills, learning the multidisciplinary aspects of your project, or teaching. Maybe you were most enthusiastic about the impact your results have (or are likely to have) on society.
At first glance, you may conclude that your particular research topic makes you want to get out of bed in the morning. But after more careful consideration, you're likely to realize that narrower aspects of your project are more important than the topic itself. Ask close friends what they see as your strengths; friends can often see what you were best at and what gave you the most satisfaction, even when you can't see it yourself.
Map out your options
Somehow you need to make sense of all the possibilities--yes, there are lots of them--and discover which path is right for you. A decision tree will give you an overview and help you sort out your long list of options into a shorter list of opportunities worth pursuing further. Ask around the lab to find out what types of jobs previous generations of students have chosen.
While growing your own decision tree, you may notice that branches you intuitively ignored (e.g., working for the government) have interesting subcategories (for instance, working at the patent office). Maybe you're certain you want to be a bench researcher but thought you'd need to stay in academia. In fact, an accurate decision tree often includes research opportunities in the academic, industrial, and not-for-profit sectors, depending on your research area.
Explore the unknown
So now you know what makes you tick and have a map of options, but you may have only a vague idea of what some of those jobs entail. So explore the less familiar options on your decision tree. If you’re considering a job in industry but don't know much about it, visit one or two companies to get a feel for the culture and gain a sense of whether you would enjoy working in such a place. This research will allow you to base your decision on your own observations rather than those of your colleagues. Such "informational interviews" are also great ways to add valuable people to your network. (Shameless plug: You might also search Science Careers for articles about types of jobs that you aren't as familiar with.)
Leverage your hidden network
Your network is a great asset in the job search, but do you even have a network? You do, even if you don't realize it. Many Ph.D. students have graduated from your institute in the past, and your supervisor and other staff members will most likely know how to find them. These people will be happy to discuss their current and past employment, especially if you offer to buy them lunch.
Double-check your decision
It may take a while, but it is hoped that your research on the job market will reveal a direction in which you want to head. Double-check this decision by talking to friends, relatives, and close colleagues. Sometimes people who know you have remarkable insight into what will work for you and what won't.
So ask around but keep in mind that some professors may not like the idea of having their star students stray from their own exemplary career paths; they might be biased against jobs outside academia. People working outside universities have lived in both worlds long enough to judge the difference. Yet many people who have left academia are like reformed smokers, pro-industry to the point of tedium. So talk to Ph.D.s working in every sector that you're interested in, then make up your own mind.
Do you want the job?
You've been offered a job. Congratulations! But during the job search, you may have become so anxious about getting a job that you lost sight of whether you really want the position that's offered. So go back to your decision tree and to the list of things that were really important to you. Consider whether you will enjoy working for this employer, taking full account of your interactions with the people you met during the interview.
Tempted to say “no”? There is no need to take the first job you are offered, but there is a limit to how often you can say no.
Your direction is not carved in stone
If, after working for a while, you feel that you are on the wrong track, consider switching to a different branch of the career tree. There is mobility among the various sectors, so don't feel like you're trapped if you're unhappy. While you restart the job search, make the most of your current job by learning new, practical, and transferable skills.
As a scientist, you are used to tackling complex problems in a systematic way. Finding a job is a complex process requiring a serious commitment of time and smarts. It is worth making the effort to start well before your thesis defense to kick your post-Ph.D. career into high gear.
Patricia Gosling and Bart Noordam are the authors of Mastering Your Ph.D.: Survival and Success in the Doctoral Years and Beyond (Springer, 2006). Gosling is a senior medical writer at Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics in Germany and also works as a freelance science writer. Noordam is a professor of physics at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and director of development and engineering at ASML. He has also worked for McKinsey and Co.
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Images. Top: Courtesy, Springer. Middle: Bart Noordam