In a recent post on her blog “100 days to the doctorate and beyond” Dr Evelyn Tsitas reflects on her post PhD experience. Like many part time doctoral candidates, Evelyn was working full time throughout her doctorate and, after it was done, finds herself, at least temporarily, back where she started, doing the same job in the same place.
I can understand why Evelyn call for universities to support the students after they graduate in the ‘agonising career and research issues’, however this is a very difficult thing for people like me to do. Everyone faces, as Tseen Khoo puts it: “highly personalised and contexturalised” decisions about what to do next. Generic advice only gets you so far.
This is why, in August, my team convened an event called “PhD to Present”. The idea was inspired by a talk with Prof Brian Schmidt, ANU’s very own Nobel Prize winning astrophysicist, who encouraged us to do something to help PhD students who don’t want to continue on in academia.
We invited a wide range of successful people in a number of fields to come along and share their experiences. The panelists were living examples of why we shouldn’t see leaving academia as “failure”, generously giving their time to share their career stories – warts and all. Many students told me afterwards that they felt so much better just knowing that there were more options than they thought. I thought I would share some of what we heard with you, so here are five post PhD careers you might not have thought about before:
ANU’s location in Canberra, Australia’s capital city, makes it the perfect location to hear about careers in government. We invited Dr Subho Banerjee, Deputy Secretary of the Department of Industry and three high profile women along to our event: Dr Rhondda Dickson, Chief Executive, Murray-Darling Basin Authority, Dr Rachel Bacon, First Assistant Secretary Regulatory Reform, Department of the Environment and Dr Alexa Shaw, Assistant Director, Strategic Policy, Department of the Environment.
All of our public servant presenters emphasized that starting in the public service might mean giving up the idea of yourself as a specialist in a particular discipline or field. Although many of us might expect to enter the public service at a higher level, this is not necessarily the case unless you have some particularly sought after technical skills and there are some citizenship issues to consider.
Most public servants either do PhDs while they are working (as a way to get promotions) or enter in the graduate program. As a graduate entrant you can expect to get a lot of training and to move around between departments. All of our panelists talked about how valuable this was as an experience and how much they enjoyed the variety. It seems that the high level skills in presentation, teaching, reading and writing you develop in your PhD can be a real asset in this kind of environment and might enable you to climb the ranks relatively quickly.
One student asked the panel what it was like to work for a government whose politics are not your own. All answered that it was important to remember that governments change, but they are voted in by the people. It is up to public servants to be there, providing the best advice possible – even if it wasn’t always listened to. I was impressed by the commitment to working for the public good expressed by our public servant panelists. The passion they clearly had for their work echoed the passion that many academics feel for their research and made me think that a career in public service might scratch the itch that many academics feel for doing meaningful work.
Of course, Canberra is the home of the Australian Parliament, so we took the chance to ask two politicians who had PhDs to our event. Dr Adam Bandt MP, Deputy Leader of The Greens and Federal Member for Melbourne (@AdamBandt) and The Hon Dr Andrew Leigh MP, Shadow Assistant Treasurer and Federal Member for Fraser, ACT (@ALeighMP) came along to tell us their stories
I’ll confess, I am a bit of an Adam Bandt fan girl, so naturally I found him an impressive speaker who made getting into politics with a PhD seem both possible and important. Adam talked about fitting in the final stages of his PhD write up with campaigning and doing the political work that finally resulted in him being voted first lower house Greens member of parliament.
We were all curious as to why Adam did not list himself as a PhD on the electoral roll, but he pointed out that Australian’s needed time to adjust to the idea of a Green politician in the lower house, let alone one with a PhD – which was a sad indictment on Australia’s lack of respect for intellectual work. Adam emphasised how much the research skills he learned helped him absorb large amounts of complex information and express himself in writing and in presentations.
I’ve met Andrew Leigh (who is actually my local member) a number of times now and have a great deal of respect for his work – even if I don’t vote for him. Andrew used to be an academic at ANU before his passion for public life drew him into politics. We tend to see academia and the ‘outside’ as binary opposites, but Andrew is a good example of a an ‘academic hybrid’. Like many of our presenters throughout the day, he still contributes to the academic literature by writing books and blogging.
I honestly don’t know how Andrew finds the time to be so productive, but it’s illustrative of why our ‘all or nothing” thinking about what it means to be an academic needs updating to reflect the more complex ‘knowledge intensive’ world. There are clearly many ways to be ‘academic’ that don’t involve working in academia. Andrew joked that his staff are the most “PhD intensive” of any in parliament – three out of four of his permanent staffers have one and that the one person still without is under a lot of pressure to start! This suggests that working for a politician might be another interesting career path to follow, if being an actual politician is not your style. Personally I feel comfortable at the idea that my local member is being supported by such a ‘brains pack’.
I was lucky enough to chair a panel which had Dr Alison Booth, Professor of Economics, Crawford School and Research School of Economics, ANU who is a published novelist. I often tell people that my next career is as a romance writer, so I was eager to hear what Alison had to say about writing and publishing fiction.
I was surprised when Ann told us she applies techniques from her work as an economist, such as the use of tables, to map out her character’s interactions. I asked how she balanced her work as an academic, who writes a lot, and a novelist, yet more writing. She emphasised the need to separate the writing spaces and to push on with the fiction writing over quite long periods of time, mostly on weekends.
Very few people make a living from being a professional writer, but it strikes me that the accessible self publishing platforms (which I use for my book) make the barrier to entry for aspiring writers much lower than they used to be. As a supplement to other parts of your career, or a way to satisfy your creative urges, there is much in the PhD experience that would help you make money as a fiction writer – or a popular non fiction writer for that matter. Ann emphasised the skills process of managing a large and complex project over a long period of time. I had renewed hope at the end of this panel that I might eventually be able to write those campus romances and maybe even become the next David Lodge :-)
Entrepreneur or ‘micro-business owner’
There were a couple of people on the program who had either made products or sold services, using their skills as researchers to get a head start. One was Dr Linda Glassop whose latest venture is the excellent cloud writing software “Comm Writer” which is expressly designed for academic writing. Linda spoke eloquently of the need to be good at networking and communicating if you want o go into business for yourself – and skills in grant writing are still useful to apply for government funding schemes for start ups. While the monetary rewards might be more patchy than other lines of work, the ability to make your own destiny was something she relished.
This view was echoed by Dr Janet Hope who runs a personal coaching business who emphasised the need to use your skills in networking and time management to help build a client base. Janey does most of her coaching by Skype, so her location in Canberra – a relatively small city – is not a disadvantage. Owning your own business might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it was interesting, again, to see the possibilities afforded by the internet to run a range of businesses from almost anywhere.
We were lucky enough to have two full time consultants on our panels, in particular Dr John Söderbaum, Director, ACIL Allen Consulting, Dr Sarah Keenihan, freelance science writer (@sciencesarah) and Dr Ross Smith, Director, Hydrobiology Pty Ltd (@DrRossSmith). They had an interesting and wide ranging conversation about how to get started in consulting and what kinds of skills you need.
Contrarily to what I had thought, being a consultant is more like being a public servant than an academic. You will probably have to apply your research skills in a wide range of areas, rather than narrowly focussing on one domain. Strong numerical skills are clearly an advantage in this field, so if you like crunching numbers and making models this is a job where you get to use those skills AND make more money. While Sarah has an active practice as a blogger, both John and Ross actively contribute to the so called ‘grey literature’, which is becoming increasingly important to academics – I use a lot of grey literature in my work as it is a good source of bio-demographic data. It is possible to be a consultant and still be contributing to the public good through your writing work.
This is a really long post for the Whisperer, but I only skimmed the surface of all the things we talked about that day. I think it demonstrates just how many career options there are out there. What do you think? Have you thought about what you might do after your doctorate is done? Does it include non academic career paths? Are there any other jobs we might not have thought about, but are good options for someone with a PhD? Interested to hear what you think in the comments.