Living with a PhD (Pretty Hot Degree)

phd logoThis article celebrates the positives of a PhD (or Pretty Hot Degree) and offers perspectives from Joanna Randall, someone who has made the leap from academia to a role in industry.

This month marks a key milestone for me: a celebration of surviving a year outside academia. After 10 years of being buffered from the outside world by institutions swathed in history, learning and self-improvement, I had finally made the decision to work in “the real world”. I expected this “real world” to be gritty, realistic, challenging. I had a suspicion that I was too soft, that university hadn’t really prepared me for this reality.

It all began with a secretary shuffling me in to meet the four people who would spend the next 12 months inspiring and terrifying me in equal measure. These were consultants: medics at the top of their profession with a no-nonsense approach to training junior doctors – and in my case, a clinical scientist. I felt their eyes boring into me as I mumbled a short hello and said something embarrassing about how nervous I was. I was swiftly escorted back out again. Not the great first impression I was hoping for….

But this first encounter was nothing compared to the reception I received from lab staff. I expected a level of distrust regarding what exactly a clinical scientist might mean for staff job security. What I didn’t expect was a surprising lack of understanding or appreciation of what academic research could bring to industry. “The problem with a PhD is you just learn a lot about one tiny thing” – this statement paraphrases the reaction I received from the person who was to become responsible for my lab training. That one sentence set me back more than anything else I experienced in the first days of working outside of academia; I knew I had a struggle on my hands.  

So, the problem that I faced in my first job outside of academia wasn’t that I didn’t have the right skills, grit or determination to work in this alien environment. It was that our precious, hard-earned PhDs could be reduced to such a meaningless entity as “too specific”. My reaction of course, in my introverted way, was to smile pleasantly on the outside, whilst in my head the theme tune to “Life of Brian” played with the infamous line “What did the Romans ever do for us” echoing in the distance. Damn those Romans for being just “too inventive”….

So here we have it. With so many PhDs around, yet little understanding in the real world of what a PhD entails, how do you get around this adverse reaction? How do you make the most of your PhD and make yourself employable in the “real world” at the end?

The good thing I found was that I already had the tools to turn this situation around. It wasn’t long before I was using my communication skills to present my work to the department so they had a better understanding about what I could do. I started to use my networking skills to gain links with local universities to update my skills in areas that would benefit our lab. I gained the trust of the consultants who were sceptical at first about what clinical scientist could bring to the department, through using my data analysis skills and contributing to improving services. The list goes on.

Does your PhD confer superpowers? - image via Pixabay

Does your PhD confer career superpowers? – image via Pixabay

For me, it was about recognising those extra little things picked up during the PhD and promptly using them to my advantage. I am shocked at the idea that some people actually leave their PhD off their CV when applying for jobs. My thesis is placed proudly on my desk at home and at work. I have a picture of my graduation ceremony on my desk, and yes, I use my full title at work – not exactly an easy thing to pull off in a hospital full of medical doctors!

Nothing prepares you for working outside a university, but there are a lot of things you can do before, during and after a PhD to make you more prepared. Here are a few of my favourites:

1. Do some work experience outside your university. This may be something that complements your work, or, more realistically, just gets you out there and talking to different groups of people. An amazing group I had the privilege of working with is the British Ecological Society’s “Sex Bugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll”. Early career researchers set up small demonstrations to engage the public with science at music festivals across the summer, and this really takes you out of your comfort zone as a researcher: find out more here

2. Become a STEM ambassador. It’s really easy to sign up for this, plus you only need to commit to one event a year. It also really helps with the transition from institution to workplace as STEM ambassadors work with scientists in a variety of roles across industry as well as academia. I’ve been able to go into local schools and talk about the bits of my work that are amazing (and there are lots!).

3. Network – academics love talking about their science, but let’s just say that some can be pretty aloof characters. So what’s a student to do?!  Simple! Make the most of conferences, social media, email, phone – and, best of all, coffee breaks* to tap into their years of experience. The easiest thing is to sign up to Twitter, albeit with a “work-only” philosophy. (Probably goes without saying that out-of-lab shenanigans should remain safely on Facebook, wait what?). It really helps me match faces to names I’ve read about, and makes approaching people at a conference that much easier.

4. Communicate – every conference I’ve been to gives prizes and makes allowances for students giving talks, even if their research is unfinished. It’s a rite of passage to give a talk or poster at a conference as a student, so don’t avoid it. My PhD supervisor threw me in at the deep end and asked me to present an oral presentation in my first year. I hated her at the time but it was ultimately the best thing for me.

5. Learn new skills – it’s amazing how few people are confident with writing, statistics, data interpretation, understanding and digesting a wide range of literature. You need these skills to do any kind of research or senior lab position outside as well as inside academia. Learn and celebrate these skills. In an interview situation, talk about them. These are your bread and butter, and regardless of your subject area they represent the core outcomes of your PhD.

6. Help people – the people I’ve noticed get the most out of jobs are those that recognise their skills and share them with others. Get yourself known as the person who is “good with stats” and you’ll soon be indispensable within your department.

7. Do some amazing research – of course, your supervisor won’t be too happy with you nipping off to do alternative training courses at the expense of your work. They will have worked hard to get your funding, so make your research the number one priority – it’s much more fun learning how to better communicate if you’re talking about work that is actually great.

8. Impact & outreach – academics no longer write grants specifically about their research, but also how it impacts the wider scientific community. One way to measure this impact is to take part in lots of outreach work, such as building a website or writing a blog to get people talking about your work, or building links with schools or local scientific/conservation groups. Get this experience early and you’ll soon see how much further your research can go.

9. Be nice to your supervisor – I CAN’T STRESS THIS ENOUGH – don’t underestimate the power of your supervisor. They are your gateway to a future job and I guarantee without their support your PhD will be a very long and arduous experience indeed. Whatever you think at the time, they are always busier than you, so be patient and make sure you do all the chasing. Be proactive and things will move along more quickly, especially useful when you need your chapters reviewing around write-up time. Be nice to them, make them coffee, keep them up to date – smile!

10. Enjoy your PhD – lastly, if you are thinking of doing a PhD, just enjoy it. I so regret the opportunities I didn’t take when I had the chance. If someone offered me the chance to do another PhD I wouldn’t hesitate (now there’s a thought…).

So my take home message is this: do your PhD, do it well, and enjoy it. It’s a pretty hot thing to carry around with you so never be ashamed of it. Good luck!

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Surf’s up!

Joanna Randall is a clinical scientist trainee in the Department of Microbiology at the Royal Devon & Exeter hospital in the UK. She is enrolled onto the highly competitive NSHCS Science Training Programme (STP) – a new scheme to train clinical scientists in the NHS. Joanna completed a PhD in parasite disease dynamics at Cardiff University in 2012, and a post-doctoral research project in the Insect Parasite & Disease Ecology Group at Lancaster University. In her spare time Jo loves nothing more than running in the Devon countryside with her beloved Teignbridge Trotters, surfing with her husband and hanging out with her feline pals, Ubu & Pickle. She’s also set up a brand new blog, which you can read here.

Follow Joanna on Twitter! @JL_Randall

* Bio Detectives confirms this is best of all. S.

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