There comes a time in every PhD student’s academic life when they wonder if doing a PhD was the right thing. To outsiders, a PhD seems like it would be an automatic ticket to a good job upon graduation, but those of us reaching the end of our course have witnessed a very different reality. I’ve seen PhD graduates have to sign on to receive benefits, as they simply can’t find work after graduating. Does what we hope will boost us into a career in science actually give us the opportunity to overspecialise, and lessen our chances of finding work?
This article on the Science magazine website explores this idea. A PhD looks impressive on paper, of course, but many students have specialised to such an extent that they may not hold the ‘transferable skills’ employers are seeking in their new recruits. Some employers would prefer to hire someone fresh from their undergraduate degree, as they’re ready to be trained from scratch.
One shocking story from the article states that the HR department of one company screen candidates by throwing out the applications of PhD graduates, as they would want to leave the position they were actually overqualified for as soon as a better opportunity arose. This is very troublesome for PhD graduates – if there isn’t a position available at our level, how are we supposed to work if we won’t be welcomed in lower positions?
So, how can we fix this problem? The answer lies with how you present yourself. When applying for academic jobs, you would of course focus on your publications and the scientific merit of your research. When applying elsewhere, however, you need to focus on the other skills you have developed throughout your PhD experience. Employers want to hear about your experience outside of the lab, and know you’re capable of carrying out tasks outside of your field.
There’s also that piece of advice no one really wants to hear – you need to network. So often, it’s not about what you know, it’s who you know – so make sure you’re speaking to people as much as you can as the job hunt is creeping closer.
This all sounds very doom and gloom but don’t despair! Many employers are learning that a PhD isn’t a one-track course any more – many of us are taking part in activities which give us a wider range of skills than the lab-slaves of the past. The best thing you can do is go out there and prove to employers that we do have the skills they’re looking for, and that our PhD is a symbol of this, not a ball and chain.