Have you ever wanted to answer the emergency call for a doctor on a plane? “I can’t resuscitate him captain, but I can increase his understanding of the application of nanotechnology to enhance hydraulic fracturing in unconventional hydrocarbon reservoirs.” Aside from the allure of adding ‘Dr’ to your name, what impact could a PhD have on your career? What should you be aware of when considering an application for a PhD?
A voyage of discovery
Status, financial reward, career progression, personal ambition… there may be any number of reasons that inspire PhD students to undertake research. But for many the fundamental motivation is the opportunity to explore their intellectual curiosity and enhance knowledge and understanding in their chosen field. University of Warwick academic Neil Wilson makes it sound very exciting:
“The best aspect, purely selfishly, was the satisfaction of thinking a thought that no-one had ever thought before and succeeding in an experiment that no-one had succeeded in before. Doing something genuinely new.”
Financial return is unlikely to be the predominant factor for many students considering a PhD but it is interesting to consider the impact doctoral research could have on career earnings. Bernard Casey (1) calculated that a PhD graduate will typically earn 26% more in his/her career than someone who never went to university. This looks to be a substantial return on the significant commitment undertaken during a research degree, until it is compared to the 23% premium a Masters graduate also enjoys over someone without a degree! Unless your PhD offers something an employer specifically requires (an expertise in quantitative analysis for example) you may not enjoy a significantly higher salary than other graduate level recruits. There is some anecdotal evidence however, to suggest that PhD graduates beginning their career at graduate entry level, progress through a scheme more quickly than graduates (and therefore enjoy higher salaries at an earlier point in their career).
What are the employment prospects for an academic career?
Higher education is an extremely competitive sector. The reality is that your career could begin with an hourly paid, temporary contract. The Guardian newspaper has calculated that one third of academics fall into this category and a survey by the Economist found that for every 100 PhD graduates every year, there were approximately only 20 jobs in academia. Although success in academia may depend to an extent on your ability to generate research funding and your publication record, it will also draw on your personal attributes of resilience, determination and perseverance.
Will non-academic employers value my PhD?
There will be a variety of opportunities available for those doctoral researchers who decide not to pursue an academic career on completion of their research. Recruiters will value the skills and knowledge developed on a PhD if the applicant presents them in a way that demonstrates their transferability and relevance. A researcher’s unique selling points could include for example, analytical, project management and collaborative skills all developed to a very high level – skills rated by employers.
The PhD graduate perspective… two physicists share their experience
What were the best aspects of post graduate research?
“My PhD gave me freedom to find out more about my chosen research area, nanotechnology and through the research I undertook I felt that I made a real contribution to the field. It was of course an intellectual challenge, and I also enjoyed the practical aspects. I enjoyed discussing research and learning from my supervisors and colleagues.“
“The freedom to focus for a longer period on a very interesting project and the ability to work with a number of extremely talented people.”
And the worst…
“…character building in the long run: I learned that you can work really hard for several months on an idea and it can come to nothing so you have to start again, that you can produce a paper that you are really proud of but a referee can condemn it with a sentence, that equipment often breaks and experimental research is sometimes irreproducible. Dealing with failure and rejection can be hard when you invest so much of yourself in a project, but you learn from these experiences and it makes the successful experiment and the accepted paper all the sweeter.”
“…project took longer than the funding lasted, requiring the investment of some extra money to complete.”
What impact did the PhD have on your career?
“At the start of my PhD I was by no means committed to a career in research, but I knew that I was interested in Physics and nanotechnology and wanted to explore it a little further before signing up to a lucrative career in finance like my friends from university. The biggest impact my PhD made was that it developed my passion for research that gave me the drive to succeed in an academic environment. It taught me the lesson as well that the road to an academic career is hard, requiring hard work and commitment, but the intellectual rewards are worth it for me. That has helped me also to keep perspective during my subsequent career – I know why I am doing my job, because I am passionately interested in it.”
“My PhD has opened doors to some very interesting jobs and in this respect has made a strong positive difference, but it has delayed settling into a stable career by many years. This is especially true since I spent a few years on the academic track before moving to industry.”
The decision to take a PhD…
According to research undertaken by Vitae (2) fewer than one third of PhD students have a career plan, even in the latter stages of their research. This does not call into question the validity of the decision to take a PhD but rather emphasises that it is a choice that ideally should be approached with the same degree of reflection, realism and research as any other career decision. Clearly, your passion for your subject area needs to be sufficient to sustain you through the significant commitment you are about to make.
(1) ‘The Economic contribution of PhDs’ Bernard Casey (Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 2009)
(2) ‘What do researchers want to do?’ (Vitae, 2012)