Disclaimer before we even start, as I know the title is nice and controversial: I’m not here to tell you that your work isn’t valid, that your research is weak or that you should be side hustling next to a full-time job, which is what a PhD is (when done full-time of course). I’m not trying to make you feel bad or inadequate. That’s not the message of this post. The message of this post is that when it comes to finding a job after the PhD is over, or more likely, when looking for one during the PhD, “just” having done the PhD might not get you the results you had hoped for. It might not get you any results…
So what am I saying here? Well, you’re going to have to do things next to the PhD. Now to most already over-worked PhD students, this sounds like a nightmare. And I get it. But it’s really not that bad. Let’s dive into why the PhD itself isn’t good enough, and what you can do about it.
When it comes to getting a job, which is what I think you are aiming for straight out of the PhD (preferably after a well-deserved break, if you can manage it) you need to know people who can get you these jobs. I have written about “hot” vs. “cold” applications before, and I don’t recommend the latter. Apply somewhere where they know either you or your research. You can spot the immediate issue here: how do you get people to know you or your research?! If you want to continue to be an academic the aim of the game is conferences. Go to a lot of them. All of them. This allows you to present your own research, meet people who are in similar fields (so you can more easily direct your job search) and the most important of all: network! Whoever said academia was a lot less networking than corporate lied! So yes, conferences are where it’s at! Other opportunities to get to know more academics is to research who is in your field (google scholar will show you published results) and to reach out to these people/research groups. Maybe you can collaborate? You could set up research during the PhD that could flow into a postdoc. Who knows? The world is your oyster. This way of “sliding” into a research group is especially useful if this is the group you’d want to continue working for after your PhD is finished (postdoc). You need to make sure people know you and your research before the PhD ends. It’s time to get your foot in the door, and you can’t do that early enough. Maybe a foot isn’t even enough, throw your whole body through the doorframe and see what happens. As the Dutch saying goes “Nee heb je, ja kun je krijgen.” (You already have no, you might get yes).
If you want to make the switch into corporate you’re going to have to go beyond conferences, research collaborations and other academic meet-ups. Because you’re currently in academia and not corporate, you are 1-0 behind. If you’ve got no previous working experience, you’re about 5-0 behind. If you do have previous working experience you can go through this route. Dive back into the old network and let your colleagues, peers and friends point you in the right direction. Unfortunately, if you did the PhD to help you switch fields this might not be that useful. What you can do is attend events and webinars that companies are organizing that are semi-targeting your field and research topic. As such you can meet them face-to-face (or via Zoom etc.) and establish a connection. You can pop them an e-mail after such an event as well, to connect more deeply. And make sure they might still remember you in a week’s time. There might be some freelance work there as well, but to pull that off you really need to sell yourself! Some PhDs I know are worried about not having enough work experience to make it into the corporate sector. And as I mentioned before, having work experience does help a lot. So what can you do? Well, what they have done is launch out a call to be a consultant in their field on the side. They take on the jobs they want to, or at least take on the type of jobs which they feel they can manage timewise. That way, they slowly gain more work experience, gain some more useful contacts, and are slowly moving into corporate!
Now you might be wondering, does any of this actually work? From personal experience, I have grown my network slightly by going to conferences and joining different research networks (such as the Network for Integrated Behavioural Sciences (NIBS)). I’m sure your field must have some inter-institutional partnerships. These are really useful, join them! But if I’m being really honest, the lion share of my network comes from my writing. And I don’t mean my academic writing. I mean the writing I do on here. Writing my own articles about behavioural science, personal finance and life as a PhD student, and promoting them on all my social media (I know I spam), has gained me a rather large following, which I otherwise never would have had. I haven’t published any academic research yet. So what would people have found about me? Almost nothing. And this is an issue.
If you’re invisible online, or practically invisible, you’re not that employable. I’m not saying you should immediately start a blog or a podcast (I mean you can, I have!), but you need to be putting something out there. I have to add this as well: when it comes to reaching out to academics and practitioners directly, I do this all the time as well. You probably have seen the interview series with prominent people in behavioural science on here. How do you think those interviews come about? It all starts with me reaching out to them. Sometimes it goes well, sometimes I get rejected. Oh well. At the very least, they’ve heard of me. And get to publish about them, which links me to them, as judged by others. This helps more than you think!
Now as I said before, I’m not saying that you need to run out and start a blog and write the days away (especially not if you hate writing…), but this is a way of growing your network, which is useful for after the PhD, but has very little to do with your PhD research. There’s many options for expanding your network beyond the network you’ve gained from doing “just” your PhD research. Because that network isn’t big enough. Networking, in every form it comes in, is a very important part of the career path, so make sure you don’t ignore it!