Five steps to surviving the Post-PhD Career Precipice

Picture this horror scene: You’ve spent >20 years in education becoming a beacon of knowledge. Everywhere you go people duly drop their jaws at your cranial awesomeness. But just as you are to be crowned with a PhD, you emerge into the world to find no job, no salary, no means and no pedestal for your dreams.

Sadly, that is the reality for a lot of students, which means that most of us spend our last months as students scouring the Internet for work instead of finalising our research. That has been my reality for the last 6+ months, and I was recently saved by the powers that be, unscathed.

I am very happy to announce that I have been awarded the very prestigious Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Wellcome Trust (read more about this here). I absolutely could not have achieved this without a long list of helpers at Imperial College and the Clinical Sciences Centre, for which I owe a lot.

And so, as a small way to pay my large debt, here are some tips on How to Survive the Post-PhD Career Precipice for those of you who want to stay in academia.

1) Don’t limit yourself – apply for lots of things.

There are many sources of funding which you can apply to survive ‘The End’: personal fellowships, project grants, and postdoctoral positions.

Personal fellowships are the hardest to get, and the best for your CV as they really encourage your personal and independent development. You will typically need to have at least one first author publication from your PhD to be considered. I applied for three (Wellcome Trust, Alzheimer’s Trust and The Fulbright Commission) but there are other field-specific ones. You will have to write a project proposal, find sponsors for your project, and complete an epic form that will make your thesis seem like a romantic novel. It is often recommended that you find two institutions to sponsor you, as this will broaden your training considerably (I stalked a Professor at Harvard a full year before my end date to get his support). Deadlines for Fellowships start early, so do your research at least 9 months before ‘The End’ and plan accordingly.

Project grants – these involve getting a big-wig (e.g. your supervisor) to submit a grant proposal with you as a named researcher. Or rather, this will probably involve you writing a grant proposal and naming your supervisor as the principal investigator! But either way, if it allows you to survive ‘The End’, it’ll be worth it. I thankfully avoided this option but it would’ve been my last resort.

Post-doc positions – these are often competitive but, given that you will have a PhD from Imperial, so are you! Check for postings. In this setup, you will be working on someone else’s project, so it is important that you are interested in the project. In most cases, the principal applicant will want you to learn new techniques, come up with new questions and develop as a researcher, so you won’t (hopefully) just be someone’s lackie. It is best to wait until closer to your end date (1-3 months) before applying for these, as most positions will want you to start relatively soon. I applied to three different postdoctoral positions and even when I was rejected found the interview practice very useful. Be aware that sometimes there is already someone (usually internal) in mind for the job, so don’t feel disheartened if you shone at the interview but were still rejected.

2) Get help!

You will be amazed at how much your university wants you to succeed! Overall, I had about seven mock interviews with different academics at Imperial. Each one taught me something new and made me more confident in my proposal. Imperial College, for example, is very good at supporting and coaching its students, so do seek the help. Contact your administrator who will be glad to arrange a mock interview for you. It is also useful to interview with academics from different fields, as they will have new insights into why your proposal is flawed.

3) Do the Hussle -

Don’t waste the opportunity by scoring an own goal. Do the preparation! Whether it’s for a fellowship or postdoc position, you have to put the time into it and research the position and project. This will show your interviewers that you really want the job. In preparation for my Wellcome interview, I spent two weeks revising full-time (in between mock interviews) as if it was an undergraduate exam. I told myself that I had to go in there knowing everything, or at least having an answer to anything that they might ask me. This is crucial, and is within your control, so just do it!

4) The Pitch

You’ve probably watched The Apprentice. This over-confident alpha-leader breed of human is what you must become to win over the interviewers (don’t worry, you can go back to normal shortly afterwards). They want to see that you command your field, that you have a clear direction in your career, and that you are coherent. This last point is the most important. Make sure you can explain your research in a simple, engaging, but exciting way, and the battle is half won. To do this, you need to practice your pitch again and again and again.

5) Good luck!

Sometimes it is just luck, so don’t be disheartened and keep trying.