By Megan Booth, University of Cambridge
If someone had asked me 18 months ago where I wanted to be in 10 or even 20 years in the future, my immediate reply would have been academia. As cheesy as it sounds, since I can remember, I have always wanted to be a scientist. My younger self imaged Nobel Prizes, ground breaking research and solving the world’s antibiotic crisis! Now, a year into my PhD, I can confidently say that I don’t want to follow a career in academia.
I was recently told that had I made these feelings clear before I applied for my PhD, I wouldn’t have been taken on as a PhD student. I had no idea that I would feel like this, yet this aside, why should doing a PhD and later following a career outside of academia be mutually exclusive?
I am a typical science geek, I always have been, and I always will be. I absolutely love science and found my undergraduate degree incredibly interesting. I got excited about attending lectures, I even went to physics lectures when they didn’t clash with my own timetable and I’ve even found myself missing exams and colour coded revision. My passion and dedication to science cannot be questioned. Thus, the logical next step after my undergraduate was to follow a PhD.
I have found that I don’t particularly enjoy the lab work element of my PhD. However, there are many aspects of my PhD that I do find very enjoyable and rewarding. These include writing, teaching, giving presentations, reading and developing my scientific knowledge to help me solve problems. A PhD doesn’t just allow you to delve into the intricacies of your subject area, but it enables you to communicate this to non-specialist. These skills are highly sought after in a wide variety of careers options, and it is important to continue to develop transferable skills throughout your PhD. Often, students fail to see the benefit of attending extra training courses and find themselves spending hours and hours at the bench. However, developing your skills outside of the lab, whether this is through communication, joining a society, consulting or teaching, is important in both academia and non-academic professions.
Image taken from page 14 of ‘The Scientific Century securing our future prosperity (Royal Society)’.
According to research conducted by the Royal Society, only 3.5% of PhDs follow a career in academia and even fewer still (0.45%) go on to become professors. Due to the incredibly competitive nature of academia, it is perhaps more important to leave your PhD with a well-rounded CV that lists publications, teaching experience and your ability to obtain grants. A lot of societies offer small grants for students/early career members, which could be used for putting on a symposium or a networking/careers event. Showing that you can obtain grant money, invite guest speakers and organising a large event at the same time as pursuing a PhD looks great on any CV, for any career.
To students considering applying for a PhD, those who have recently started or those nearing the end of their PhD journey, here are some top tips on what to consider when the big question ‘What Next?!’ creeps up on you:
- The PhD project is important, however, also make sure you take some time to pursue other interests and develop transferable skills. Whether this be outreach, teaching, writing or even consulting, it will help you to enhance your skills and become a better researcher.
- Networking – attend conferences, symposium events, guest lectures. Guest lectures will also maintain your interests in subjects outside of your immediate research area and may spark an interest for a post-doc position or even an industrial job.
- Organise a conference and apply for grants to help cover the costs.
- Do some writing – writing for blogs or university publications will help you to develop your writing skills in time for the dreaded thesis write up!
- Speak to a career’s advisor, these are often slightly more well equipped to discuss careers both in and away from academia and can give you more impartial advice than a supervisor may be able to.
- Start early! It may seem silly to start thinking about your future career when you’ve only just started your PhD. However, starting to research options earlier could make a significant difference to you CV and future applications. Don’t wait until 6 months before your hand in date to start applying for jobs and realise you should have developed your skills sooner. The write up stage could be stressful if you have to apply for a job, write up and then run the risk of finding yourself short of funding.
- Most importantly – enjoy your PhD and if your project isn’t working out, speak to your supervisor, other PhD students and Post-Docs so that you don’t get stuck into a rut!
I’m Meg Booth and I am a PhD student at the University of Cambridge. I am an avid science communicator and huge science geek with a passion for biochemistry. When I’m not doing lab work, outreach or editorial work, I can usually be found horse riding, playing squash and eating nice food! I have recently joined the Editorial Board for ‘The Biochemist’ as the student representative, so you will be hearing a lot more from me over the coming months!