This well-intended question is a persistent source of anxiety for PhD students (myself included). You can feel subjected to a disproportionate level of career-related questioning. The end of a PhD can feel like an ominous T-junction: do you take the academic route, or the non-academic route? I’ve found this binary approach difficult to shake, but also really unhelpful because both academic and non-academic jobs are so hugely diverse.
I think there are ways to break down this binary academic vs. non-academic career thinking. You can explore potential future work in a more flexible, personalised (and hopefully less stressful) way.
My PhD has given me exciting opportunities! But deciding what to do next is both exciting and scary.
What do you do in your spare time?
The things you do for fun in your spare time are probably the things you love most. I have always loved dancing. I love that dancing requires discipline, persistence, and organisation alongside creativity and self-expression. I would like to find future work that also brings together these elements. Think deeply about why you love the things you love – they might be important aspects of your work.
Which tasks spark joy (and the opposite)?
We don’t always take the time to explicitly document what we like and dislike about work. Keep a list of things that spark joy in your work life – what made you feel good today? What tasks do you look forward to? What do you wish you could do more?
Also try a list of negativities – what left you feeling stressed, bored, or upset? You might start to see patterns that indicate which aspects of work you would like to find in a new job role – and which aspects you want to wave goodbye to post-PhD!
Who could you follow on social media?
Personally, I like these Twitter accounts and blogs:
They are all PhDs turned career coaches/bloggers. They offer advice to PhD students on finding meaningful careers, in or out of academia. Find people on social media who make you feel positive about career planning!
Who can you talk to?
Reach out to others who have done PhDs – what did they do next? You don’t need an existing personal network of PhD holders to do this. Look out for events organised by the Durham Careers and Enterprise Centre. I attended talks by people who have gone on to a variety of academic and non-academic jobs post-PhD (teacher, post-doc, lecturer, civil servant, charities, thinktank research). Whether you are interested in their specific careers or not, it can be reassuring to hear the huge variety of roles that PhD holders pursue. A PhD need not put you in an academic pigeon hole!
Get to know yourself
The most important thing I’m learning is the importance of getting to know myself. Understanding my underlying motivations and skills is helping me to think about future work more flexibly. I think the important question is not: academic or non-academic career? Instead, I prefer to ask what type of roles would be a good fit for my skills and interests? Of course, all of the suggestions in this blog come from advice I’ve had from friends, family, colleagues, academic supervisors, and careers advisors.