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The Post-PhD Blues: Managing Your Career after the PhD

‘We live our lives going forward but only understand them looking back.’

Once you achieve your PhD and after the euphoria and the well earned sense of achievement has worn off a little you might get the post-PhD blues. This is common after achieving a major goal and so it’s important to anticipate it and set up new goals before you achieve your PhD. I also strongly recommend taking some time off – three months if you can – between submitting and before you start your next job or goal.

Make sure to celebrate your achievement and take some time off to reload the batteries before you begin your next project. Believe me, you will greatly benefit from a change of scene and from some change of scenery after you have finished the PhD. Think of it as a mini-retirement. Go do something that has been a long-term dream – this will be a further incentive to finish your PhD and a gift to yourself at the end of this major project. For me it was doing the Camino de Santiago, an 800 km medieval pilgrimage route across Northern Spain from the French Pyrenees, and later exploring Cuba for a month with my best friend. I did the first between a gap in my post-doc contract and I travelled to Cuba the year after. Both of these trips were life enhancing experiences and a great way to mark what was for me an end of an important chapter in my life and to acknowledge the beginning of a new one.

Getting a PhD definitely will likewise mark an important milestone for you. Also taking some time off to consider your options and to really investigate whether a career in academia is for you is a good idea. You can also use this time to try on other careers for size and get experience working in different environments. Be creative and find what inspires you! 

A PhD is no longer enough to a job in academia. It is a prerequisite, a necessary hurdle through which you have to clear in order to even be considered for an academic position. If you are really certain that you want to further pursue an academic career – and I would urge you to speak with as many scholars working in University to get their stories on how it is to work as an academic before you make this decision – then you will need to be strategic in the way that you differentiate yourself from the competition – because there is going to be a lot of competition for jobs, most of which are poorly paid and where you will be likely overburdened by teaching and administration duties. You need to be aware of the culture of working in academia before you decide to further pursue this career path.

You differentiate yourself from the competition by building a network with scholars during the course of your PhD, by distinguishing yourself at conferences (only 1 or 2 a year), and by publishing an article or two in an international peer-reviewed journal. It also helps if your PhD thesis is in a good state to be considered for publication and that the revisions will not take too long. But connections, like in most fields, are critical to your success and the quality of the relationships that you develop during the course of your PhD studies. This is true in all areas of life, but it holds especially true for academia. You might be familiar with the saying: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know that counts”. For getting a job in academia, we could rephrase this to say: “It’s what you know and who you know that counts”. Talent needs to be combined with developing strong professional relationships. You need to network in other words, but not in a pushy or sycophantic way. It’s just about making connections with leaders in your field, sharing your knowledge, and also where possible giving them helpful information and material that might be of use for their research.

I got my first job straight after my PhD through a meeting I had with an eminent American Professor who I first met when I was living in Oslo during the second year of my PhD. He advised me to go to Vienna, which has become one of the leading centres in the world for my field, and he put me in touch with the director of the institute there where I worked for the next seven years. I found out about a nine-month scholarship funded by the Austrian State to encourage academic exchange with international scholars. There was little competition for this scholarship and I was fortunate to get it. This led to me being offered a one-year fellowship when this scholarship expired and my contracts were extended for over 4 years. In 2013 I developed my own research project and a funding proposal for the Austrian Science Fund which proved successful. This project was awarded Euro 200,000 and enabled me to continue my research in Vienna for another three years. As a result of this funding I was able to organize and convene an international conference in Vienna and to start a collaboration with a leading scholar in my field on a book project which we published. The funding gave me the opportunity to work on three book projects which were published in 2017 and 2018.   

Moving to Austria proved a wise decision. Many of my PhD colleagues at St Andrews sought academic positions in the UK where the competition was intense and where many institutions unfairly favored candidates with degrees from Oxford and Cambridge. I know one colleague who had published two well-received books and a number of articles who was passed over for a recent PhD graduate from Oxford who had only published one article. This is grossly unfair but sadly not uncommon.

If you are contemplating another career path the PhD will look impressive on your CV and might appeal to some employers, but it will not be the determining factor in your success in the job market. While getting a PhD places you in an elite – about 1% of the population have PhDs – you will need to further distinguish yourself. You do this through the hard and soft skills that you have developed, again through connections and your network, and through the experience that you have built up. This, together with your PhD, will be what gets you a job. In any case, by achieving your PhD you will have shown to others and most importantly to yourself that you have the discipline, the project management skills, the focus, and the intelligence to successfully stay the course. You will learn valuable analytical skills, how to work independently, how to break down a big project into manageable chunks, how to monitor and track progress, how to communicate effectively, and how to build networks. The process of doing a PhD ideally should enrich your mind and make you into a professional researcher in your field. In the end this will be the greatest contribution of your PhD. But have an exit plan A and B in place for after the PhD.

Get the bigger picture here in my interview with Thesis Whisperer Dr Inger Mewburn on Navigating the PhD.