May 29, 2020 | Safety vs Freedom: The Landscape of Post-PhD Careers

(written by Natalia Bielczyk, Ontology of Value & Elisenda Bonet-Carne, BCNatal Fetal Medicine Research Center, a reprint from the ECR Life blog)

The Big Dilemma at the End of PhD

Like so many others, we faced a huge dilemma at the end of our respective PhD programs. After many long years of working in the lab, where do we go next? To another lab for a postdoc? Or perhaps, pivot towards industry? At some point, we each took two different directions. Elisenda joined a public-private research institute as a Scientific Manager, while Natalia ventured into entrepreneurship. We first met at Avengers for Better Science. It was a 5-day event dedicated to topics such as inclusivity, self-care, and mentoring in science where we had an opportunity to share our personal experiences. We discussed the similarities and differences between careers after PhD and drafted the landscape of post-PhD careers summarizing the main options.

Most PhD graduates do not spend enough time researching career options that deviate from the traditional academic career path. When trying to expand on their possibilities, PhDs often deliberate potential jobs by comparing their skills or expertise with the requirements listed in the job offers. And, they often conclude that they are not a good match. There are other factors beyond your skill set that play a big role in the overall satisfaction from your professional life. For instance, both of us have skills in Data Science. Would our satisfaction differ depending on whether we choose to work for a government, a corporation, or a startup? Most likely, yes! And the optimal choice very much depends on our personality traits.

The Landscape of Careers After PhD

So, what does the landscape of post-PhD careers look like? The job market is huge and complex. However, we attempted to grasp the essence of it in just one picture using a two dimensional graph.

These dimensions are personal freedom and stability (or safety) at work. By personal freedom, we mean an ability to define your projects, choose your team members, and define your own long-term career goals. By stability, we mean decent income (relative to your needs), continuity of income, and good working benefits.

The holy grail of the job market is how to achieve a high amount of personal freedom, while at the same time, maintaining a comfortable, stable life without worrying about tomorrow. We listed a few main classes of post-PhD career trajectories and compared how these trajectories look in our two-dimensional space.

We discussed the similarities and differences between different post-PhD career tracks and drafted the landscape of post-PhD careers summarizing the main options.
The landscape of post-PhD career tracks comparing the degree of personal freedom versus stability at work. Dots represent the lack of evolution of personal freedom and stability at work over time. Lines show the evolution of these two factors over time. The typical academic track (red curve) is one of the most nonlinear paths. It starts from the middle range of stability and freedom (PhD phase). It then curves into a big dip (Postdoc phase), and in the end, turns towards the “happy corner” (faculty position). This trajectory varies between disciplines: in less competitive branches on science, it is more linear. It also varies between countries; in some countries, PhD candidates receive fellowships. In that setting, they do not enjoy the same working benefits and stability as Postdocs.

How Does a Typical Career Track Look in Academia?

In academia, the trajectory can be a rollercoaster. It is true especially if you work in a highly competitive field. You start from a 3-6 year PhD contract which gives you a certain amount of freedom and stability. But then, you need to go through the turbulent a.k.a. “Postdoc” phase. It means short contracts, severe competition, intense grant writing, student supervision, promoting your research, etc.

This is when for most academics, the quality of professional life drops the most (although there are exceptions!). For Elisenda, this rollercoaster stemmed from the nature of the public-private institute she worked for. This type of employer is partially dependent on external funding from private companies. In this environment, Postdoctoral contracts are typically short, and the amount of insecurity is even higher than in case you have a university Postdoc contract.

When you enroll on a tenure track, you slowly gravitate towards the happy corner: a stable job with lots of personal freedom. This is a generalization of course. There are branches of science in which the journey towards the happy corner is almost linear. In those areas, there is enough space for almost anyone who is willing to develop an academic career. However, in life sciences, severe competition presses on Postdocs to take on lots of projects, and substantially lowers their job satisfaction. The situation also varies between countries. In some countries, PhD candidates receive fellowships rather than employment contracts. In that setting, they do not enjoy the same working benefits and stability as Postdocs.

Public Sector vs Private Companies

Many PhDs switch careers to the public sector: government-funded institutions and jobs within academia that are beyond the academic career. These jobs include grant writing, teaching, science policy, managing a lab, PhD advisor jobs, or scientific communication. In the public sector, jobs are generally stable: you might be able to settle in one place for the rest of your professional career. The working benefits are usually attractive. This kind of job can also be found in the private sector, i.e., in private research institutes, which do not guarantee high stability. However, this often comes at a cost of personal freedom. You typically have a well-defined function, deliverables, superiors to report to, and relatively little space to propose new initiatives.

The private sector is also increasingly welcoming to PhDs. Namely, researchers are often preferred in the Research & Development (R&D) departments at large companies. Corporate jobs can secure more job stability and working benefits while gaining valuable work experience. At the same time, promotions to management positions can help increase your personal freedom. For instance, by giving you opportunities to propose and lead new projects. PhDs also quickly adapt to the startup culture. In startups, there is more personal freedom by definition. However, at the same time, attaining work stability can take much longer than in corporations.

Freelancing

Many PhDs also successfully start freelance careers. Freelancing includes working as consultants, coaches, data scientists, or software developers. In freelancing, the amount of personal freedom is high. You have no boss and no one else depends on you. You can also choose where you want to work from and when. Work stability starts at low levels but increases gradually along with developing your brand, acquiring a base of returning clients, and increasing your income and savings.

Entrepreneurship

Lastly, many PhDs launch startups and become entrepreneurs. Some (but not all) startups stem from academic research, or from problems experienced during an academic career. This largely drove Natalia’s motivation to start her own company. It happened at a point when she felt drained from a futile job search after her PhD and found out that others were experiencing the same roadblocks. In the summer of 2019, she gave a workshop about post-PhD career tracks at the Organization for Human Brain Mapping annual meeting in Rome. The room was packed with people willing to sit on the floor or stand outside the room just to listen to the lectures. 

Shortly after, Natalia came back to the Netherlands and marched straight into the Chamber of Commerce to registered her company, Ontology of Value. The company aims at helping researchers in self-discovery and in finding new avenues in industry. It offers intensive career workshops and creating new recruitment solutions adapted to hiring highly qualified professionals who value non-material aspects of their jobs.

Entrepreneurship gives little sense of stability at first. Around 50% of startups fail within the first few years (still much better odds than to become a PI!). At the same time, the amount of personal freedom is high. You can define your projects, develop these projects from scratch, and decide whom you work with. While the startup develops and matures, your level of stability gradually increases too. This happens at the cost of personal freedom, as together with the growth of the startup, the number of stakeholders and corporate procedures within the company will increase.

The Landscape of Careers After PhD: Summary

In sum, careers after PhD differ in terms of the qualities they provide. Take into account that this is just a simple 2D-representation of the job landscape. In reality, jobs have many more aspects to them. Within the most important ones, there are the core competencies that make you unique on the job market. Our advice is to think big. Take a helicopter view of the job market, and make steps towards the career that will give you a lifestyle compatible with your personality. If you do what you love, the way you love, it gives you the best chance of developing a fulfilling professional career.

Do You Need More Information About The Post-PhD Career Tracks?

You can find more information about the working culture in these different environments, and how to join them as a PhD, in Natalia’s recent book entitled “What Is out There for Me? The Landscape of Post-PhD Career Tracks.

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Please cite as: Bielczyk, N. (2020, May 29th). Safety of Freedom? The Landscape of Post-PhD Careers. Retrieved from http://ontologyofvalue.com/all-posts/phd-careers/careers-after-phd/ 

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