How to get employed with a PhD

PhD graduates are having a harder time than ever finding jobs, but that doesn’t mean you have to be one of them. Read on to maximise your job prospects.
James Davis
James Davis
Team PostgradAustralia
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It’s a problem years in the making. Students are graduating from PhD programs at an extraordinary pace compared to just a few decades ago, with academic positions growing at a comparative crawl. In 2014 alone, there were 8,000 PhD graduates according to a departmental document. “There are not enough academic jobs vacant in Australia each year to employ all our PhD graduates,” observed senior lecturer Gwilym Croucher from the University of Melbourne.

These stats and assertions have been felt across the country, with first-hand accounts being heard all the time; the guardian recently featured a doctorate holder forced to work as a waitress despite all her qualifications. She cited complaints of ‘being overqualified’ among others as reasons for being rejected for employment, bitter about her choice to pursue postgraduate research. Fortunately, there are ways to defy the odds both during and after completion of a PhD.

Do a PhD by publication

This latest method of undergoing a PhD allows students to publish a series of six or seven works in various journals before compiling them into one large, interconnected work later. This is known as the PhD by publication, which you can learn about in detail here. The advantages of this over a traditional PhD thesis are two-fold.

  1. Students gain experience of what it’s like to publish work. If you aspire for a career in research and academia, getting published is the single most important thing. After all, what good is completing research and writing rigorous academic documents if nobody ever reads them?
  2. It impresses future employers. Unlike a traditional PhD, students from these programs gain a full body of published, peer reviewed work at the end. This tells universities and research institutes that you not only have the initiative to get published, but the knowledge of how to function in the industry. You come out of your degree knowing how to perform in the job you’re aspiring for.

It can be slightly more arduous having to submit your works for review all throughout your program, but it’s certainly worthwhile.

Work in the private sector outside academia

The viability of this depends upon discipline, but all PhDs require skills that any employer would consider valuable. Academic positions might be shrinking, but working for businesses around the world is valuable even if you never aspired to it. If your end goal is to one day enter academia, a prior career in the private sector show your mettle via the practical application of your knowledge. You show you’ve committed to the company’s schedule and culture, which automatically conveys the fact that you’re organised and able to work diligently to any future employers or universities afterwards.

A May 2018 article in the Financial Review argued exactly in favour of this. “We need to have our students enter PhDs with an aspiration to work in the private sector,” author Geoff Prince stressed. “Our private sector under-utilises PhDs compared to Australia’s competitors.”

Carefully tailor your resume

This piece of advice can seem generic, as it’s often used as a ubiquitous catch-all tip for employment. In this context however, it’s particularly relevant because many PhD graduates are entering the workforce without any experience. So what does this actually mean then? It means:

  • Marketing the skills you’ve learned throughout your PhD first and foremost. Many employers if not all are looking for an explicit skill set. Nothing says “I can perform in this job” quite like explicitly listing all the job requirements and why you’re perfect in all of them. List all the things a PhD requires to succeed if you’re not sure what I mean. Unending persistence, patience, research and discipline are likely among them. These are things you’re likely to see every employer want, so show off why you’ve got them all in abundance.
  • Drawing confidence from the sheer determination it took to gain those skills. “I’ve undergone the highest level of academic rigour possible,” you can write in your cover letter. “I would be an exceptional asset to your company because I have nothing less than world-class problem solving, analytical and research skills.” Your potential employer may not understand your field of study, nor might they understand what it took. The one thing they all understand when they see it is confidence. Show them that same determination and drive you poured into your PhD.

Networking

Another classic, I know. What they say about networking is all true though. Going to public industry events, asking for introductions and learning who’s who in your field of interest are keys to breaking into a job, especially in the private sector. Start by seeing if your old supervisor or colleagues know someone who knows someone. This way, they can put a good word in for you. Send out emails and offer to buy people a coffee. At worst, you meet someone interesting and learn a thing or two. At best, you find your first job. Definitely worth a shot.