Contemplating a PhD? Please read this.


My university allows high school students to shadow academic staff for their work experience. I think it’s a great idea. It got me to thinking though, what do they or anyone contemplating entering academia, need to know? Here’s my two cents.

The fundamental thing anyone contemplating academia needs to know is that there are many, many, many more PhD students than there are academic jobs. Stats vary, but only about 40 to 50 percent of the people who complete a PhD will actually get a job in academia. The few who manage to secure a job, almost always have to travel interstate or overseas to do so.

From my own observations, the few who break into academia have this in common:

  1. A lot of first-author publications, usually in high impact journals (essential).
  2. An ‘in’ with a research group – perhaps they did a mini-post-doc during their PhD at another lab or, secured a highly  prestigious scholarship often used to cherry-pick future employees (advantageous)
  3. Teaching experience (advantageous)
  4. Conference presentations, media coverage of one’s research, involvement with research organisations in the field (advantageous)
  5. Industry skills.  Many of the psych PhD’s I know who did manage to get an academic job also had a qualification as a psychologist which gave them an edge, particularly for the more applied type post-docs (possibly advantageous)

The more of these boxes you tick, the greater your odds of success BUT, it is entirely possible that you still will not find work in academia.

It is also very important to remember that not finding work in academia often has very little to do with your capacity to be an academic. With so many brilliant people completing PhDs and so little funding, the supply of PhD graduates is just way too high for the demand. So if you are one of the vast majority who have found a career outside of academia (not by choice) know that you  were just as capable as the people who did get in to the ivory tower.

I’m a big fan of being practical. So, given the odds of academic work are so low, what can you do about it?

  1. Choose a project and team that will help you tick those boxes I mentioned. From day one, develop a clear plan about how you and your team (your supervisor, research higher degree support services, uni career counselors, journal club, partner, family, friends) are going to get you ticking off those boxes. That plan will change, and repeatedly. But as they say, a dream without a plan is just a wish.
  2. Make sure you have a solid, viable, ‘Plan B.’ If you take one thing away from reading this post, please, please let it be this!  This is every bit as essential as point #1. The most obvious Plan B though there may be others, is to have a clear and viable pathway into an industry related to your PhD. How? Make connections, do internships, choose an applied project, do a research project proposed by an organisation involved in that industry and/or, do a double degree that will give you an automatic qualification in industry like I did.

I haven’t written this with the intention to scare you.  What I am hoping is that you might go into the decision-making about whether to do a PhD more informed. These issues are discussed far too infrequently in academia, despite their consequences for incoming PhD students.

Anything else to add? Any stories about breaking into industry, in particular?

Honourable Mentions

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Filed under academic culture, career, Clinical Phd, postgraduate applications, Reflections, Research

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