Am I wasting my PhD?

Posted in: Advice, Career Development, For PhDs

One of the things my colleagues and I hear most often in 1:1 conversations with research postgraduates is 'I don't want to waste my PhD'. Usually this is said in the context of someone not wanting to consider what they feel is a move away from academia or research; it can be easier to see how a PhD is 'needed' or applicable when it's an essential requirement of the job you would be using the research knowledge or technical skills you have acquired day-to-day. Nevertheless, my usual response to 'I don't want to waste my PhD' is to inwardly yell 'You wouldn't be!'. The broad range of skills and attributes you develop through conducting doctoral research will be highly sought after by employers - more on this later.

However, a conversation with someone yesterday and reading this excellent career story on the Nature Jobs Blog reminded me that this can be a complex and emotionally-charged question, so I wanted to unpick it a little, based on my own knowledge, personal experience and the experiences of others I've come across, with a healthy dose of career development theory thrown in.

- you've invested huge amounts of time, energy, intellect and possibly cash into doing a PhD, and it's perfectly understandable that you don't want to feel that that is wasted. It can, however, be helpful to unpick a little (on your own, with a friend or one of our friendly, impartial careers advisers), what you mean by wasting the PhD and why that matters to you. What motivated you to do a PhD in the first place and have your motivations/feelings about it changed over time? Are you assuming you'd be wasting your PhD in particular career paths or contexts without having checked this out? What is important to you in a career? What light does this shed on how much it matters whether the PhD is 'wasted'?
-there are different ways to think about your PhD. Most people I talk to underestimate the broad range of skills they develop through completing a PhD. The Researcher Development Framework is a useful tool for mapping out all the skills and attributes you acquire - take a good look at this, and also map out everything you do as part of your PhD and research-related activities, and then think about the skills, behaviours and attributes you are using. Almost certainly you would be using some of these in any future career moves.
- not all jobs require a PhD. This doesn't mean that the skills you have developed won't be sought after by employers, but employers may vary considerably in how much they know about what a research degree involves, and it's important that you can market your PhD effectively for the context and organisation you are targeting. The previous point should help you convince yourself of the value of your PhD so you can convince others. Also, whilst the PhD may have taken up most of your time and energy over the past three or four years, don't discount non-research interests and activities - they may be your most important selling points for particular roles.

- for some roles, organisations or sectors, you may find yourself starting at the same entry point as other graduates or new entrants. Whilst that can be galling, it would also be true of other people wanting to take a change of career direction. It may be the case that having a higher degree can enable you to progress more quickly, even if you start in a 'lower-grade' or entry-level position. As Virginia did, setting yourself some short and long-term goals can help you to see future career moves in a positive light and generate some control in the midst of uncertainty.

- we are influenced by other people, and people will inevitably have different views on what you should do next, so develop effective strategies for dealing with and processing these. For me it was a mixture of nodding and smiling, avoiding the subject at times, trying to listen to and understand others' points of view, and (over time) developing a positive answer as to why I wasn't staying in academia. Think proactively about who it might be helpful to connect with and how. Who could give you useful advice, access to opportunities or help you to check out some of your assumptions? Who needs to know you exist? Find yourself a cheerleader - someone who can encourage you to recognise your value, keep going in the face of setbacks and give you a nudge to book on that training course or learn that new programming language.

- don't under-estimate the emotional and psychological side of career transitions, be open to working through change (and change often involves loss), and to developing resilience, optimism and flexibility in your approach to future career moves.

Just a few thoughts on a big topic for a Thursday morning - we would welcome feedback and personal examples.


Posted in: Advice, Career Development, For PhDs


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