Careers Research Student-made

Not every PhD candidate wants to be an academic

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My career plans have changed quiet a bit from the time I was old enough to be asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. Okay, yes, I will admit to wanting to be a teacher at one point, and even though I would still like to teach on a part-time/when-I-have-time basis, that doesn’t mean I want to be an academic – despite my doing a PhD. The question that usually follows after I tell people I’m doing a PhD is: “so you want to be an academic”; to which I always answer (usually with an eye roll) “no”.

Not an academic_Eye rolling 2

I’ve come across a number of PhD candidates and people with doctorates that don’t want to be or are not in academia. During a time when I worked as an engineering consultant intern, I met a lady who was working in the same company as a lead engineer. She had a PhD in mechanical engineering and so, was not an academic.

The common misconception is that obtaining a doctorate degree makes one ‘over qualified’ for a lot of jobs. But what in the world does being ‘over qualified’ even mean? And why would that be a bad thing per se? It’s like saying a teacher is too good at imparting knowledge… Really though? The trick to dealing with this catch 22, comes down to how you sell and communicate your skills. Let’s break this down with an example;

PhD activity/task Transferable skills/competency
Working with supervisors/being part of a research team/working with other departments o  Communication.


o  Team worker.

o  Negotiation.

Conducting qualitative research – information from interviews, surveys, focus groups, etc. o  Research/Questionnaire design (if applicable).


o  Emotional intelligence.

o  Ability to maintain confidentiality.

o  Fluency in subject specific software.

Conducting quantitative research –doing experiments, creating simulations, testing theories, etc. o  Problem-solving.


o  Understanding ethical procedures (if applicable).

o  Data analysis and finding patterns and meaning therein.

o  Presenting concepts and conclusions.

o  Fluency in subject specific software.

Writing a thesis. o  Report writing – organising and effectively presenting large amounts of information in a clear and concise manner.


o  Fluency in Microsoft Office packages and/or Latex.

Presenting at conferences, publishing papers, taking part in public engagement events, etc. o  Communication – being able to articulate complex ideas in a variety of ways.


o  Effectively communicating with various audiences.

o  Networking.

Completing a PhD in three/four years. o  Project management – planning and delivery, meeting deadlines.


o  Risk management

o  Time management.

Completing a PhD. o  Independent worker.


o  Self-motivated.

When scrutinise it, it is not simply a doctorate, but rather a degree that allows one to acquire transferable skills (which is how bachelor’s degrees are viewed). We come to realise that opportunities are indeed boundless. That being said, we have to keep certain things in mind. Firstly, most people do and will still have a certain idea of what having a PhD means/should mean. Yes, this idea can be flawed but that’s just the way it is.

Secondly, not everyone will ‘appreciate’ someone having a PhD and the added benefits that such a degree usually brings to an organisation. Thirdly, you won’t necessarily be paid more for having a PhD and you will probably have a supervisor that doesn’t have a similar qualification. Though more often than not, people with a PhD often climb the corporate ladder faster than their counterparts. Tiny perk.

Bottom line, you really can do a number of different things following a doctoral degree. This can range from working in government as an advisor, in finance, in patent law, being a scientific writer or just a writer, being in project management or in a managerial position (after gaining some experience), working as a consultant, an analyst, in technology transfer, an entrepreneur (my personal go-to) and so on.

People often view pursuing a doctorate as a path ultimately leading to becoming an academic, but this is not always the case. There can be as many career prospects after completing a doctorate, as there are when graduating from a bachelor’s degree. The choice really comes down to what you want to do – not what anyone else wants to pigeonhole you into doing.


If you are thinking of exploring your options, the Careers Service are holding a series of online events throughout October and November you might find useful. They also have specific resources and skilled careers consultants ready to help.

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