Thinking about academic or other careers

What we want to do is, you know, turn out people who have a reasonable shot at doing what they want to do, namely, become an academic, and we should be helping them to do that. (New supervisor, Humanities)

This supervisor expressed a view that is not uncommon among academics... and Oxford does produce an unusually high proportion of future academics for the sector, across all disciplines.

Oxford DPhil graduates: % of respondents in employment who are in academic Higher Education positions six months after graduation (Source: DLHE survey, 2012/13)
  Humanities Medical Sciences MPLS Social Sciences Total
In academic or academic-related positions 77% 46% 50% 63% 56%


However, with around half of those graduating from Oxford moving into non-academic positions, whether out of preference or job availability, the figures above clearly demonstrate that the doctorate is not only preparation for academic careers. Furthermore, the lack of academic (and non-academic) jobs available means some students find it difficult to relax about the future. As one supervisor commented:

They want to know... "where am I going to get a job, where’s this qualification leading?" Their attitude to the PhD is much more akin to an apprenticeship rather than an opportunity to explore and grow. (New supervisor, MPLS)

There are also students who do not desire an academic career, either knowing this when they begin or, as in the case of this student, deciding during the degree.

There’s a difference in incentives between me and my supervisor, especially given that I had decided by then not to stay in academia. For me, I just want to finish; I just want to do a DPhil that will pass, and that’s all that’s required. (Doctoral student, Social Sciences)

And there are students who are undecided about their career intentions:

I am exploring the possibility of transitioning from a research PhD into a career in policy (given the paucity and highly contested nature of research jobs in academia), and viewed [attending a policy conference] as a worthwhile personal career investment. …In some ways, I began to question my plans to move into a career in policy, and wondering if I would be happier doing pure research. I'm still not sure, but I feel it's important to explore these possible paths before committing to one, and much of what I learned along the way will still be applicable in a pure research career, in terms of "soft skills" and activities that may not be directly related to research performance, but certainly to social engagement and job fulfillment (I hope). (Doctoral student, MPLS)

While trends vary across disciplines, around half of DPhil graduates will not end up in academic, research or educational positions, as these figures show.  Across the UK as a whole in 2010, three years after graduation doctoral graduates were employed in the following ways:

Employed... Arts & Humanities Social Sciences Biomedical Sciences Biological Sciences Physical
Sciences & Engineeering
OVERALL HE research occupations 9% 15% 16% 27% 19% 17% research (not in HE sector) 3% 3% 13% 21% 16% 12% teaching & lecturing in HE 37% 44% 17% 13% 10% 21% other teaching occupations 14% 8% 3% 4% 6% 7% other common doctoral occupations 5% 12% 36% 19% 30% 23% other occupations 31% 18% 15% 17% 19% 19%


Longer term figures are generally harder to come by. However, for the sciences, it is reported that in the UK 30 per cent of science PhD graduates go on to postdoctoral positions, but only around 4 per cent find permanent academic research posts and less than one half of a per cent of those with science doctorates end up as professors.

While many Oxford postgraduate research students are satisfied with numerous aspects of their doctoral experience, from one quarter to more than one third report less satisfaction related to careers advice (Student Barometer, 20143):

PGR students "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with advice and guidance from academic staff on long-term job opportunities and careers
Female students Male students Specific learning disability Other disability Overseas European Union Home
64% 73% 70% 51% 69% 67% 70%


Case study: Brad

Part 1: The DPhil - the value of other training

Brad: The big problem is that many supervisors in the sciences want their students and postdocs chained to the bench. They won’t let them go to things like teaching preparation. Many supervisors are very anxious if they feel that people aren’t generating results from morning to night. This is really the issue … whether they would let them go to these courses and sometimes they won’t let them.

Questions to consider about the case study

Why do you think some supervisors, regardless of discipline, might feel this way?

Part 2: The DPhil - what is the supervisor's role

Brad: …and you tend not to think about [the future until] they submit …and they need to find employment. What I’ve learned is I need to be more proactive in future in trying to help them.

Questions to consider about the case study

To what extent have you, whether you are the student or the supervisor, discussed with each other the student’s hopes for the future?

  • to get an academic position?
  • to get a research position or to prepare for positions in the health, social work, IT or business sectors?
  • to do anything else?

How do the answers to these questions influence your interactions with each other?

Possible strategies

  1. Discuss early on the student’s hoped-for career and consider how this might influence identifying training needs.
  2. Review the student’s career hopes from time-to-time in order to re-adjust training needs, for instance, as part of the GSS report.
  3. You may find it useful to review this list of positions other than lecturer that require or value a doctoral degree: Post-DPhil Career Positions
  4. Consider organising an occasional careers event as in this example from Humanities - What to do with a doctorate.
  5. Resources like the following may be useful:

The League of European Research Universities (LERU) has developed academic career maps for a range of European countries. "The maps show the different research positions available in an institution, the levels of responsibility, how they are funded at each stage and how a researcher may progress from one level to the next." See Academic career maps in Europe.

The European University Institute's Academic Careers Observatory "facilitates the diffusion of knowledge among young researchers about national academic careers and research opportunities in the social sciences and humanities, throughout Europe and beyond". You can learn, for example, about job markets by country or by discipline, or make comparisons by salary, gender or age.

Those in the Humanities may find the following website useful since it describes post-PhD trajectories of Humanities PhD graduates: Beyond the PhD

Post-PhD “trajectories are built from the beginning of the PhD” (Mangematin, 2000, 251).

While many students continue to desire academic careers despite the lack of available posts, Beiber & Worley (2006) reported even those nearing completion held unrealistic views of such careers. Their views were largely scripts or abstractions of academic practices, not developed through asking questions or carefully examining the nature of academic work, and unfortunately academic culture does not encourage such disclosures so this becomes an invisible feature of academic life. Thus, for example, students are unlikely to become aware of the need for resilience in dealing with rejection of papers and funding proposals, or the multiple forms of accountability that influence personal decision-making.

A further consideration as regards careers is the growing evidence that better working conditions as well as salaries will be necessary if academia is to attract sufficient numbers of individuals to remain. For instance, Mason et al (2009) reported that doctoral students in research-intensive universities shifted their intentions during their degree; they went from imagining positions in similar types of universities to deciding not to seek such employment due to the quality of life they saw more senior academics experiencing. And the UK Council for Science and Technology (2007) noted PhD graduates in non-academic jobs often reported as much or more satisfaction with work conditions, salary and benefits, and work-life balance than those in academia.

Those who persevere in aiming for an academic career need to be aware that more than one post-doctoral position is likely to be necessary before attaining a faculty post. Long-term planning will be required, including being proactive in networking for guidance, support and help in opening doors and getting relevant experience and skills. Ultimately, realism, flexibility and a Plan B, perhaps built around a diverse skill set and broader knowledge, may open up more avenues, especially outside academia where increasingly greater opportunities can be found (Bonetta, 2009, 2010, 2011). Indeed, a recent UK survey found employers were keen to recruit researchers, both for their technical skills and their "first class brains", with 31% of respondents already actively targeting doctoral graduates and 73% of respondents welcoming more applications from doctoral graduates (Vitae, 2010) Such opportunities, according to Garcia-Quevedo et al (2012), may be greater amongst companies and organisations which collaborate with universities, belong to technology intensive industries or undertake intensive research and development activity.

Those who take up careers outside the academy, whether or not research is a job responsibility, are positive about the value of the doctoral skills they developed and now draw on (Kyvik & Olsen, 2012). These include thinking systematically/ analytically (71% of those surveyed); dealing with complex questions (63% of those surveyed); as well as doing multi-disciplinary work; communicating with the public; connecting with foreign colleagues; understanding cultural influences; negotiating with business and other partners; project administration; and management and leadership.

Interestingly, students have consistently reported a desire for more and alternate career advice (Kyvik & Olsen, 2012; echoing Golde & Dore, 2001). Unfortunately, the majority of supervisors feel they lack knowledge of non-academic career paths (Thiry et al., 2013). Other ways of supporting students include calling on the Careers Service and inviting alumni who have gone on to non-academic positions to act as mentors.

Moving beyond studies of doctoral students, Enders (2007) has commented that present academic employment patterns may be comparable to other fields – with increasing emphasis on an entrepreneurial stance for academics. Baruch & Hall (2004) note the need for a sense of personal agency, the importance of networking beyond the home institution, and the ongoing need to invest in self. They offer the notion of the ‘intelligent career’ as a way to emphasize individual intention and decision-making in constructing a satisfactory career path. Characteristics of individuals creating an intelligent career include: motivational energy to understand oneself and adapt to changing work situations, emotional intelligence and resilience in order to bounce back, and well developed connections and networks. Lastly, those in organizational behaviour have noted the need for greater attention to subjective rather than objective careers – attending to individual’s personal perceptions of their careers and criteria for success rather than external measures such as rank and salary (King, 2004; Eby et al, 2003).

The above text is based on:

Baruch, Y., & Hall, D. (2004). The academic career: A model for future careers in other sectors? Journal of Vocational Behavior, 64(2), 241-262.

Bieber, J., & Worley, L. (2006). Conceptualizing the academic life: Graduate students' perceptions. Journal of Higher Education, 77(6), 1009-1035.

Bonetta, L. (2009) The evolving postdoctoral experience. Science Careers.

Bonetta, L. (2010) The postdoc experience: Taking a long term view. Science Careers.

Bonetta, L. (2011) Postdocs: Striving for success in a tough economy. Science Careers.

Eby, L., Butts, M., & Lockwood, A. (2003). Predictors of success in the era of the boundaryless career. Journal of Organizational Behaviour, 24(6), 689-708.

Enders, J. (Ed.). (2007). The academic profession. Amsterdam: Springer. (No electronic record available).

Garcia-Quevedo, J., Mas-Verdu, F. & Polo-Otero, J. (2012) Which firms want PhDs? An analysis of the determinants of the demand. Higher Education, 63(5), 607-620.

Golde, C.M. & Dore, T.M. (2001). At Cross Purposes: What the experiences of doctoral students reveal about doctoral education. Philadelphia, PA: A report prepared for The Pew Charitable Trusts.

HESA. Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) Survey. (2012/13)

King, Z. (2004). Career self-management: Its nature, causes and consequences. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 65(1), 112-133.

Kyvik, S., & Olsen, T. (2012). The relevance of doctoral training in different labour markets. Journal of Education and Work, 25(2), 205-224.

Mangematin, V. (2000). PhD job market: PhD job market: professional trajectories and incentives during the PhD. Research Policy 29(6), 741-756.

Mason, M., Goulden, M., & Frasch, K. (2009). Why graduate students reject the fast track: A study of thousands of doctoral students shows that they want balanced lives. Academe, 95(111-16).

Neumann, R., & Tan, K. (2011). From PhD to initial employment: The doctorate in a knowledge economy. Studies in Higher Education, 36(5), 601-614.

Royal Society, The (2010). The Scientific Century: Securing our Future Prosperity. Downloaded on 28 July 2015.

Thiry, H., Laursen, S., & Loshbaugh, H. (2013) Doctoral advisors' perspectives on career advising professional preparation in the sciences. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association.

UK Council for Science and Technology. (2007). Pathways to the future: The early careers of researchers in the UK. London: Council for Science and Technology.

Vitae (2010) Recruiting researchers: survey of employer practice 2009. The Careers Research and Advisory Centre (CRAC) Limited.

Vitae (2013) What do researchers do? Early career progression of doctoral graduates 2013. The Careers Research and Advisory Centre (CRAC) Limited.