Ask the Expert: What should I do after getting a PhD?

One thing you may have realized — or learned from Charles Craik’s keynote lecture, if you attended the U.S. Symposium — is that tenure-track positions in academia are hard to come by.  Although academic research positions have historically been thought of the “default” career path for a PhD in science, they’re now considered anything but.

Instead, as Craik explained, there are a lot of exciting career options available to PhDs and a great need for PhDs across multiple fields, including law, communication, education, and business.

What do you choose? Or, at the very least, how can you learn more about your options? We posed these questions to Natalie Lundsteen, PhD, director of Graduate Career Development at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. She specializes in working with graduate students undertaking PhDs, on a range of activities from career planning to negotiating job offers. Here are her (edited) responses.

Do graduate students come to your office interested in securing a postdoc?

NL: What I’m seeing now is students coming in, saying, ‘I’d prefer to go the academic track, but I know that option might not be open to me even if I choose that.’

The job market right now in academia is intensely competitive. Even students who want postdocs and academic careers aren’t assured of getting a position. There’s a logjam of postdocs for the past three years who are still trying to get tenure-track positions. So currently, graduating students are competing against postdocs for postdoc positions and academic positions.

When should someone start planning for the next steps beyond graduate school?

NL: As soon as possible. I’ve had students in this summer who are very active in looking ahead. They’re asking, ‘What can I do during my time here to be most competitive for an academic career as well as any other options I might choose?’

What do you tell them?

NL: The first thing is to identify and make use of all the resources at the university.

  • The first place is in the department — looking to their adviser, other faculty, or postdocs as potential [career] mentors. Departments usually have an administrator or academic officer of some kind. That person is a good resource for career options too. They run the department announcements or listserv.
  • Then there’s the career center. Usually, one person there works specifically with graduate students and PhDs.
  • Most universities also have a teaching and learning center, which helps grad students get a teaching certificate. Or in some cases, they are a good resource for writing a teaching statement required for an academic application.
  • Offices of technology transfer or research/community outreach might help graduates find places in industry that can use their expertise. Some of these offices even offer internships for PhD students.
  • Reaching out to all these resources helps students create a network from the get-go, but it’s also important to just be aware of what’s available.
  • Something that also goes along with the academic department is joining professional societies or organizations. That happens during the course of the PhD but it’s important to get involved early.

These are all things that a person can do right away?

NL: Absolutely. You don’t necessarily need to or want to because you have a lot going on. But it’s good to be thinking about it. After that first semester, you’re settling in, learning how to become an academic researcher. It’s kind of hard to think about the end game, but you should.

What steps can PhD students take to broaden their career options, before they’ve decided exactly what to do?

NL: Grab any opportunities you can. Teach. Universities always offer training for new teaching assistants. But if there’s any kind of certification you can get, it’s important to do that.

Along the way, too, if you’re considering a career in industry, be open to opportunities like internships or externships that will expose you to industry, even if it’s just attending panels with alumni who come back and talk about their jobs or going to any professional or trade industry events in your region to listen and learn.

Whether or not you’re going for the academic route, serve on committees. Manage activities and projects — even small ones. For example, you might be a peer mentor who helps younger students learn the ropes. Take those opportunities if you can because they can demonstrate a lot to employers both academic and other.

What about students who are toward the end of their PhDs? Does planning make all the difference?

NL: It’ll really depend on the individual, but just be aware of what your options are. Even students who have been planning throughout their doctorates to go into academia may not be successful, and this might happen at the very end of their PhD. They could be in the same position as someone who has done no planning whatsoever. But, emphasizing the activities I mentioned, like serving on committees, getting involved with extracurriculars, getting a teaching certificate, perhaps doing a mini externship or mini-project of some kind — those can still serve them well in applying to a non-academic job.

How can students research the career options available to them?

NL: The number one thing, no matter where you are, is to look at those who have gone before you. Think of it as a research question. Where have the PhD students with your same degree and at your same institutions ended up? Every university — not just in the US but I know we had it at Oxford where I worked before — has databases where you can look at what alumni have done. Your network of Amgen Scholar alumni is another option.

That’s “stage one” of the research — figuring out where the people are and how many of them are in academia or other industries. Stage two is contacting those people and having a chat with them, to learn what it means to be a principal manager, analyst, a consultant, or whatever the title might be. You will learn so much more valuable information about what a career is all about from the people who are doing those jobs.

Talking to people about what they do (and if they like it or not) is no different than gathering data about anything else. And this research helps calm a lot of people because, for example, they can see that there are hundreds or thousands of people who have gone out into the world and have jobs.

Recommended links:

My IDP (individual development plan).    

Helps scientists-in-training explore different career trajectories in science and set specific professional goals. Free for all users.

The Versatile PhD

A community and resource for graduate students who are exploring or preparing for non-academic careers. Access to the community is free. Users must pay a subscription fee to access premium content. (See whether you belong to a subscribing university here.)

Bio Careers

Online career resources and job postings, aimed at expanding professional options for life science PhDs and MDs. You’ll need to pay to access this resource, but you might attend a member institution, which pays for access on behalf of its degree candidates, postdocs, and alumni. Caltech, Columbia, UCLA, Stanford and WUSTL are all members.