So I have a Ph.D.

Well I don’t yet, but soon, hopefully soon, I will. But what will I do next? Therapy probably.

Today there has been an online chat forum on what to do with a Ph.D and yesterday the THE website ran an article about deluded young scientists thinking they’re going to become permanent academics. So what use is a Ph.D. and what should we expect to be able to do with it?

Ph.D.s can be done on all sorts of crazy things but for clarity, I’m talking about science doctorates here.

Only 30% of Ph.D. graduates get post doc positions, according to a report by the Royal Society. Now I know many students, including myself, who have been put off academic research but this figure is amazingly low and is set to get lower as funding dries up and jobs become scarcer.

Most students don’t realise what they’re getting themselves into when they sign up to a Ph.D. and most have dreams of becoming an eminent leading expert in their field. And on the face of it that’s all you need a Ph.D. for: it’s not a vocational qualification and very few jobs outside academia require one so why start if you’re not intent on getting to the top in research?

The reality is that in the long run 90% drop out of academia and move on. Now I don’t think that is because these people didn’t reach the top. Everybody wants career progression but I think it’s unreasonable to think you deserve to become a lecturer/Principal Investigator just because you’ve worked in research for many years – however horrible that experience has been. How many people in other professions get to the very top? Academia is a pyramid like almost all other workplaces.

The problem as I see it is that science is full of short contracts. Young scientists are expected to move around the world to experience different specialist areas of their field and master many different techniques in order to become a fully equipped research scientist. This creates instability which puts many people – especially women – off. It’s very hard to settle down, get a mortgage and start a family when your contract expires after three years.

Luckily Ph.D.s are valued in many areas outside academia: from the pharmaceutical industry through to teaching (the most popular destination for graduates) and even in government. Since the Roberts’ Report  universities have got a lot better at broadening the training that a Ph.D student receives so that the graduate leaves equipped with skills that are valued in the big bad world outside of academia. Amongst others I think it proves better than any other piece of paper that the individual is determined, a Ph.D. is long and not easy after all!

I’ve been looking at job advertisements and many state a post-graduate qualification as desirable and I know of lots of people who’s bosses have been very keen for them to get those two distinguished letters in front of their name asap. Because a Ph.D. impresses people, it’s relatively rare in the employment market and it sets you out from the crowd.

So what use is a Ph.D. and what should we expect to be able to do with it?

Everything and anything. But at the end of the day it’s just another qualification and it is you as a person who will get a job and become a success if you deserve it.

2 thoughts on “So I have a Ph.D.

  1. I was talking about this for a bit last night with someone who has a science background (not to Ph.D level) but now works in a comms team for a science institute – they were saying that they'd far quicker take on someone with experience than a Masters or a Ph.D, so really I think it definitely depends on what field you're going in to, and yeah – what your boss wants. I was told when offered my job that it was in my employer's interest that I get those two letters before my name ASAP (depsite it not being a research or science job – though still being related to science, purely because it lends an air of credibility to… well me). It takes a certain type of person to WANT the uncertainty and insecurity that goes in hand with doing academic research because of short-term contracts, so kudos to those who make it to the top, but there are massive bottle-necks at each progression stage, and it can only get worse with the belt-tightening… but it's probably true that other industries have a similar situation – but then how many of these industries require you to do a 3/4 year qualification that is fairly hellish (at least) to even get on the bottom rung. You do a PhD because you want to work in research, and then unless you get a permanent position "at the right time" then you're screwed, unlike in other industries where there's still a (pretty much equal) chance that if you try again next time a more senior position opens, that you can get it. It's just a whole big mix of factors.

    I don't regret doing my PhD though – when I started my motivation was because I wanted to work in research in my field, but when it came clear I wasn't suited to it, didn't enjoy it at a fundamental level, and enjoyed doing other things far more, it was time to accept it, move on – but having a PhD hasn't done me and ill at all.

  2. Thank you for this post – this is a topic that many PhD graduates, graduates-to-be and academic staff will be concerned about in the coming months and years. Academia is a profession where the highly qualified are poorly paid and easily discarded. To make it one really has to embrace the nomadic lifestyle and rely on the good grace of the God that is presiding over your project.

    But that said, undertaking a PhD opens your eyes to much more than just research. You develop personally and intellectually. You gain skills, many of which can be applied to a wide range of jobs outside academia. What I found most satisfying from the whole experience is that you work with people; lots of people, from different backgrounds and from different walks of life. There are not many professions that allow for this.

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