Robert Bowles earned his PhD in Marine Biotechnology from the University of Portsmouth (UK). He is currently Careers Adviser at the Royal Society of Chemistry.
Your First Post-PhD Job (Probably) Won't Be Your Last
One of the main reasons I choose a non-faculty career was that I wanted stable employment. As a PhD, I saw first-hand the precarious nature of being an academic researcher and how it negatively impacted people’s lives. While I was a doing my PhD, a postdoc in my lab got married and wanted to settle down and buy a house, but he couldn’t because he could not find a stable academic contract. So, he decided to leave academia and, in his words, “study computer science to get a permanent job.”
After he left the lab, I was offered his position, almost by default. But, when I sat down to write the research outline, I realized I had absolutely no interest in the subject matter.
At that moment, I made the conscious decision to to do something else with my degree. But what? I thought back to a conversation I’d had with a faculty member yeas earlier, when I was just starting my graduate studies: “Doing a PhD is great – you can do anything you want after.”
And so slowly, I began to explore the world outside of academia.
My first role after my PhD was working in another university on a Knowledge Transfer Partnership– seeking to take academic research and commercialise it with a small company. I’d always been interested in the applications of science. I quickly gained commercial experience, while still working in an academic environment. This was only a short term contract, and I knew I wouldn’t stay in an academic role afterwards.
I’ve had a few roles in since then, and for the last 12 years, I’ve been in a variety of different positions at the Royal Society of Chemistry, the world’s leading chemistry community. Today, I am a careers adviser for the Royal Society of Chemistry. As the Careers Specialist, I provide to our membership, who number over 50,000. In this role, I get to do a lot of different kinds of work: mentoring and advising members as they decide on next career steps, or helping with CVs and application documents. I work with people all around the world, at every career stage, across different industries and sectors. Some have PhDs, some don’t.
I’m energized by knowing I make a difference to people’s lives. Helping them make a career decision, validating a decision they may already have made, or pointing them to sources of information they can use to make their next decision.
Throughout my career beyond the professoriate, I am always learning new things. In my current position, I keep up-to-date on labor market information in a particular sector, or understanding trends in hiring and recruitment practices, or bringing new insights from counselling and psychology into my practice. These are very different topics than when I was an educational sales coordinator learning about user experience when designing a website. It’s vastly different than what I studied as a marine scientist.
My advice to PhDs is to remember that your degree or subject matter doesn’t define you, it just adds to the sum of your experience you can offer to future employers. Some of your knowledge and skills will be relevant to future employers, but a lot of it won’t be. Doing a PhD, however, equips you with a mind-set of a life-long-learner; you’ll always find the information you need to solve a problem. That skill is highly valued by employers.
Always be looking for new things to learn to make you better at your job, bring new insight, or that you just find interesting. This is the reality for most careers now and will be even more important in the future. The pace of change in the world of work continues to accelerate. The only way to survive and be successful is to keep learning new skills and knowledge.
Remember, you’ll probably have several careers during your lifetime, so don’t feel that the first job you take after your PhD is what you’re going to be doing forever. Use the time after your Ph.D. to try new things and seek out what you enjoy and what interests you. Don’t be too narrow in your job searching or let it be defined by your PhD.
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