Is there life after your PhD?

‘It’s hopeless,’ says Fons Leroy, head of the Flemish Employment Service VDAB, after having spoken with a couple of PhD students. ‘They don’t have a network.’

Being a scientist, you not only have to be an excellent researcher, but also be able to translate your knowledge to an audience that can be of service to you. How should you do this? By applying three major principles.

The number of doctoral students has grown immensely over the past ten years. Of those students only 20% will continue to work in academia (figures for Flanders, Belgium). The remaining 80% will find its way to the job market.

Are you currently a PhD student, or are you planning to pursue a doctorate? Then you’d better start preparing for your life after your doctorate, even if you are planning to continue working at the university.

What will you need, regardless?

  1. Support from others, to further develop your project;
  2. Fresh ideas and feedback, to take the right steps;
  3. An employment contract or project funding, to continue putting food on your plate every day.

Who can provide this to you? Probably not your direct colleagues. And that is exactly why you should break free from that trusted circle. Instead, get people around you, who can help get you ahead, excited about your work.

Take a look at these three principles that will help you pave the way for a rewarding future:

Don’t be afraid to sell yourself

A researcher from India once came up to ask for some advice. A company had shown great interest in a technique that he had developed during his doctorate. He showed me the slides he had shared with the company directors. The information was very technical in nature, going into great detail.

‘Would you like to work for that company and continue developing your technique with them?’ I asked him. ‘Why yes!’ he exclaimed. ‘During your presentation, did you indicate how your technique could make a difference for the company, did you stress the role you could be playing in all this?’ He gave me a puzzled look. ‘Uh, no.’

Now what? Although the company is interested, it may not realize the actual impact this technique could have for them. That first contact could end right there and then, or the company may even find someone else to get the job done. A missed opportunity. Instead you should be selling your idea.

Don’t sell your soul, but do create value, that will help all parties involved get ahead. Don’t be afraid to negotiate, and indicate that you have something valuable to offer.

It’s not about you, but about them

What does a typical work day look like for you? You’re probably spending most of your time on your own, behind your laptop, in the lab, or hunched over bulky books. Your research is what you’re most familiar with. You could talk for hours about everything you do each day. Naturally, it can be quite a blow when you realize that hardly anyone around you is moved by it. Should you just keep quiet about it? Not at all!

An important first step: look at it from their perspective. This can be your audience, during a presentation, or someone you meet at a reception. What are they interested in? What are their goals? And how can your knowledge or experience be of interest to them?

From the very first minute, why not share with your audience a curious insight, a useful application or simply a fun fact? This will capture their interest. By opening the door to more, you will be able to continue discussing your research.

Be visible

When attending a conference, find out who will be the attendees and how they could be of interest to you. During conference breaks, it may be far easier to hover around fellow researchers that you know well, but those contacts are unlikely to add much value. Instead, approach those persons that could help propel you forward. Share your business card and invite them on Linkedin.

Also be visible, online.

What pops up on Google when people type in your name? Nothing, aside from a couple of Facebook photos of you at a wild party? Or a near-empty LinkedIn page? Not very convincing. And, who knows, even a missed opportunity with a future employer.

Your LinkedIn page or personal website should display just what you have to offer to others. Ask people in your network to write a recommendation for you, that will appear on your profile. Show that you are not only able to write a scientific paper, but have also participated in public speaking events, such as the Battle of the Scientists.

No-one likes an out-of-touch researcher

True, it will take some added effort to start a conversation with a total stranger. It will take guts to say that with your research you are battling cancer, even though in your head you are merely studying an enzyme. But you do want to create opportunities to continue developing your research and land an amazing job, right?

Let us help you translate your research into a clear and convincing story, geared to your target audience. We’d love to hear Fons Leroy, at an upcoming reception at a Flemish university, say: ‘Incredible! Those PhD students are bound to achieve great things!’

P.S. 1: Do you want to learn how to communicate your research in a clear and convincing way? Check out our workshops for researchers like you.

P.S. 2: Will you be defending your doctorate in the near future? Here are 5 tips to wowing the crowd during your doctorate defense.

Credits: Photo 1 by Mari Helin-Tuominen; Photo 2 by Lisa Zillio for SISSA