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The Thesis Whisperer: career planning for PhD students

The Thesis Whisperer: career planning for PhD students

The lack of certainty in the academic job market makes it hard to make plans for post PhD work life.

Recently we interviewed around 60 PhD candidates at various stages in their study and asked them what kind of career planning they were doing. Most of them sheepishly admitted to doing nothing. This surprised me because doing a bit of market analysis for your skills is as simple as typing a few keywords into a search engine like seek.com.

I can understand this ‘head in the sand’ mentality on an emotional level – thesis writing can be all consuming. However, doing an analysis of your future options helps you make decisions about what opportunities to take up during your degree.

I am a graduate of the University of Melbourne myself and I know well how many great courses and programs are on offer. At ANU, where I work now, there are so many exciting talks that I could spend every day attending something enriching, except I don’t have the time.

Neither do you.

Having some idea of what a future employer will really value will help you make the best of the resources of the university while they are free. Why not cruise a job board today and see what there is on offer? Believe me researching your future options is time well spent. If you want to do that course on Nvivo or advanced statistics when you finish you are going to pay through the nose.

It won’t necessarily be easy to find jobs you could do if you are moving into a new field – and many of you will be doing just that. Academic categories don’t obviously translate to the outside business world. There are not many commercial astrophysics companies for instance, nor is there an obvious place to take your philosophy knowledge. Sociology students will generally have the perfect skill set for UX roles, but many of you probably don’t know what UX is (look it up and see – you’re welcome).

Last year we used machine learning to discover the extent of demand for researchers in the Australian economy and the results surprised us. There is a big demand for people who can think, do analysis and work independently on difficult problems. The problem is that more of these jobs are hidden from view. Our research showed that 80% of employers who are looking for people with high level research skills don’t put ‘PhD’ in the ad text.

We are not sure why this is the case, perhaps there is a lack of awareness of the value of PhD graduates? The good news for you is that there are plenty of jobs out there. Yes – even for humanities graduates.

Our research team is working on a free app to help you see these jobs more easily – you can register to receive news on our progress here. In the meantime, you can do a range of manual searches to explore your options. Your main problem is translating academic skills into ‘business speak’.

Try typing in the words ‘analyst’ or ‘advisor’ to see jobs that utilise your research methods skills. Terms like ‘stake holder engagement’ describe the complex set of relationship-building skills that you have had to develop to manage your relationships with supervisors. ‘Communications’ is a catch all phrase that many employers use to find people who can write and talk to an audience.

The latter skill is highly developed through activities like teaching, so there is a clear advantage in doing this kind of work, even if you never set foot in a classroom again.

I hope this suggestion is valuable – I’d be interested in hearing what you are doing to plan your future career in the comments.

 

This post is part of our Mind the Gap series, helping graduate students transition between study and work.

Find out more about Mind the Gap here.

Inger Mewburn

Associate Professor Inger Mewburn is the director of research training at the Australian National University, but is better known as The Thesis Whisperer, the name of her blog dedicated to helping PhD students everywhere finish their degree.

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