Why PhD graduates are opting for a life in the fast lane.

Many PhD graduates are now choosing well-paid, high-status jobs outside academia. And, as Suzanne Lynch reports, employers are increasingly seeking out candidates with doctorates

Thursday 20 October 2011 12:30

For Mark Perry, academia seemed the obvious career route when he finished a PhD in engineering at Cambridge University. "I’d always thought I’d be an academic, but after I finished the doctorate I began to think for the first time about exploring other career options," he says.

After working as a postdoctoral researcher at the London School of Economics for a year, Mark decided to rethink his career path. Now he’s working as a risk analyst for Paddy Power bookmakers in Dublin: "I’ve always had an interest in the racing industry and sports betting in general, but never dreamt that I could work in the industry full-time. It’s great to be able to use the mathematical skills I developed during my PhD and at the same time do something I really enjoy.”

Mark is one of a growing number of PhD graduates in science and engineering who are pursuing careers outside academia. According to Dr Charlie Ball, labour market analyst with the Higher Education Careers Service Unit (Hecsu) and co-author of the book What Do PhDs Do?, doctoral graduates are increasingly likely to end up in non-academic careers.

“Although research and academia are still prominent careers for PhD students, they are not as dominant as may have been believed,” he says. “Nowadays, PhD graduates can move into a wide range of occupations and career sectors. More than 50 per cent of them move out of the higher education sector immediately after graduating.”

One of the main reasons why a large proportion of PhD students do not pursue academic careers is the notorious difficulty in securing a permanent university position in the UK. With approximately 43,000 people registered for doctorates in the fields of science, maths, computing and engineering subjects, the academic job market is fiercely competitive.

But for many PhD graduates the decision to pursue a career outside academe is a conscious one, and can lead to jobs that are just as challenging as those in academia – and infinitely more secure and well-paid.

Graham Forrest is one PhD graduate who made the transition from academia into the commercial world. After finishing his PhD in molecular biology at Imperial College, London, he joined leading patent firm Mewburn Ellis LLP where he is now a partner. Patent agency is becoming a popular alternative option for science PhD graduates. Lying somewhere between science and the law, the job of a patent agent or “attorney” is to assist clients to secure intellectual property rights for an invention.

“I decided fairly early on in my PhD that a job in the lab wasn’t for me,” says Forrest. “At the same time I wanted to maintain a connection with science. In particular, I had always enjoyed scientific writing. Patent agency offered me the opportunity to use both interests, allowing me to balance analytic and linguistic skills.” Although he believes that the experience he gained during his PhD made him a better patent agent, Graham has no regrets about leaving academia. “Patent agency is just as intellectually stimulating as academia, but offers better job security and potential for career progression,” he says. “The financial rewards are also a factor.”

Another popular option for science PhD graduates who don’t want a career in the lab is a job in finance. Malcolm Finn graduated from Oxford with a PhD in chemistry. He now works as a senior manager in audit and assurance at Deloitte. Making the transition from academic research to accountancy was a natural progression for him.

“Although I enjoyed my PhD at Oxford, I was aware that there were many career paths open to me,” he says. “I began working for Andersen in 2000, continued working with Deloitte when 3,500 Andersen employees were hired in 2002, and have been there ever since. The work is hugely enjoyable: intellectually challenging and fast-paced.” Although Malcolm has no regrets about leaving the academic world, he still manages to keep in touch with it in a different way. He is currently doing an executive MBA part-time at Cass Business School in London, something he finds both personally and intellectually stimulating.

If PhD students are becoming more clued in to the variety of career paths open to them, employers, too, are becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of hiring PhD students. A 2006 survey undertaken by Mary McCarthy and Jane Simm, career advisers at the University of Sheffield, found that employers’ attitudes to the recruitment of PhD researchers in non-academic environments has changed profoundly in the past few years.

“There used to be a perception that PhD graduates were too specialised,” explains Simm. “Employers in industry and commerce simply weren’t aware that PhD graduates were available and employable. However, our research, which built on the Empress report undertaken at the University of Leeds in early 2006, has shown that this perception has changed. More than 80 per cent of employers we contacted for our survey said that they wanted more PhD students to apply to their firms.”

According to Simm, PhD graduates have many transferable skills that make them attractive to employers: self-motivation, creative thinking, problem-solving ability, time-management skills and teamwork. “These are skills that PhD students often take for granted, but are in high demand by employers,” she says.

Simon Kiddle, head of the graduate recruitment programme at Mewburn Ellis, agrees: “Five or 10 years ago about 15 or 20 per cent of our graduate trainees had PhDs; now more than half have postgraduate or research experience.” Although Mewburn Ellis also hires candidates with undergraduate degrees, Kiddle believes that PhD graduates have a lot more to offer: “They tend to be more mature and have more polished communication skills than younger trainees. Having worked as researchers themselves, they also have a keen awareness of what research is like – an important asset when dealing with our clients.”

There is also a growing belief that PhDs are necessary for those wanting to progress up the career ladder in the long term. “Although PhD graduates often start at the same entry-level salary as other university candidates, they usually progress faster through the grades,” says Charlie Ball of Hecsu. “This is even the case in the field of the phys

ical sciences. You will often need a PhD in science in order to secure a senior position later in your career.”

So what can PhD students do to ensure that they secure the job they want and market their transferable skills effectively? Luckily, over the past few years there has been a huge push by the Government to help improve training and development for PhD researchers. This is mainly as a result of a 2002 review led by Sir Gareth Roberts, which pointed to serious problems in the supply of high-level scientists and engineers in the UK. The report recommended that PhD students be given improved training in transferable skills and that career services should foster meaningful links with businesses. Now the Government is investing £20m a year through the research councils into improving training and professional development programmes for PhD students.

So what resources are available to PhD students eager to improve their competitiveness in the job market? According to Ellen Pearce of UK Grad Programme, a government-funded association which helps PhD researchers with career development, there are a range of initiatives in place. “We work with university career services to provide a range of initiatives to help PhD students improve their employability,” she says.

As well as publishing a range of publications that offer career advice to PhD students, UK Grad runs a series of conferences, good practice workshops, and high-quality training programmes throughout the year.

One of the most popular UK Grad initiatives are “Gradschools”, three-to five-day workshops open to all postgraduate researchers in the second year and above. Details of courses can be found through most university careers services, or by visiting their website at www.grad.ac.uk/courses.

Despite the initiatives designed to help PhD students improve their career prospects, it is ultimately up to the individual to recognise their transferable skills and communicate them to employers.

“PhD students have so much to offer the job market,” says Charlie Ball. “They just need to be able to confidently identify and articulate their skills.”

With the letters “PhD” after your name and a little confidence, the world, it seems, can be your oyster.

Lap of honour?

Cian Shaffrey graduated from Cambridge in 2003 with a PhD in engineering. His thesis looked at “image retrieval”, which involved building a research tool for images, similar to what Google does for text.

“After three years of solid research, I wanted to see what the real world had to offer before committing to a long-term academic career,” he says. When he began job-hunting he was pleasantly surprised at the range of career paths open to him. “I signed up to the university careers service and a job with McLaren as a race strategist caught my eye. I applied, and was successful. In my PhD I used statistical analysis to retrieve images; in racing we use similar mathematical techniques to devise the best race strategy.”

He now works for Capgemini Consulting. Again, strategic analysis forms a central part of his job, but this time it’s analysing business and financial data rather than race data.

Cian firmly believes that having a PhD has been a big advantage for him personally and career-wise

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