27 March 2023
‘Should I stay, or should I go?’ Deciding to pursue an academic or non-academic career path post-study
Dr Andrea Calef
Lecturer in Economics, University of East Anglia
This blog examines the experiences and career paths of two recent PhD graduates – both began their doctoral studies with a keen interest in their subject discipline.
One graduate progressed into employment in academia, while the other developed a career outside higher education. But what influenced their choices and what advice do they have for current PhD students approaching employability?
- Dr Emike Nasamu obtained her PhD in Behavioural Experimental Economics from the University of East Anglia (UEA) and is currently a lecturer in Economics and Programme Leader of Economics at the University of Chester.
- Dr Edoardo Palombo graduated with a PhD in Economics from Queen Mary University of London and is now an economist within Deloitte’s Economics and Markets team.
Expectations before starting the PhD journey
Did you enter study with a specific career path in mind, or did it evolve over time?
When I first decided to obtain a Master’s degree in Economics, my objectives were clear: to deeper explore my curiosities about economics and to subsequently get a job at KPMG. Between my Master’s degree and my PhD, I took a year off. During that time, I got a job in Management Consulting at KPMG. My time at KPMG made me certain I wanted a life in academia.
I chose to pursue a Master’s in Economics and then a PhD because I was passionate about the subject - and I still am! I think education at all levels should be primarily driven by what motivates you and what you’re obsessed with, whatever that may be. The career path wasn’t on my mind until the last year of my PhD when I started to think about it. And then it evolved, and it’s still evolving.
For both candidates, the motivation to apply for PGT and PhD courses was principally one of curiosity. Career planning appears less prominent, with both evidencing how preferences can change over time with the acquisition of new information and experiences, potentially resulting in a more varied employability journey.
Experience during PhD study
Did you feel supported to explore more diverse career prospects during your study, or were you directed towards an academic career path?
Due to the fact I deeply desired an academic career, I didn’t consider any other options beside academia or something related to research. During my PhD, I was exposed to ways in which researchers could engage with industry beyond simply having an academic career, but none of these appealed to me.
In my experience, university pushed me more towards an academic career. I can understand why that was the case, and it was a path that I seriously considered. It did seem natural to finish my doctorate and then look for a job in the academic world. However, I think that when choosing a career path, you need to consider what makes you happy inside the job and outside of it. In that sense, I think all universities can improve when giving career support.
How well do you think doctoral study prepared you for your current career and the current job market more broadly?
UEA School of Economics was very supportive in preparing me for the job market and for my current/evolving career. There were various opportunities at various stages to promote the learning of relevant skills such as research, teaching, administration, leadership, presenting, and collaborating with other academics both in and outside economics.
I think the most important job of postgraduate study is to deepen your knowledge in a specific field and sharpen your critical thinking. These are the skills you’ll need the most in any career and are more transferable than you think. So, in this sense, I think my postgraduate study prepared me excellently for my career and the job market. I think that one thing that may be improved is that universities should recognise the variety of jobs outside of academia and give the students as much information as possible so they can make the best choice for them.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, universities can be self-referential when it comes to preparing job market candidates with high qualifications. In part, this may be due to the fact that careers services are most often used to support undergraduate and postgraduate students as opposed to doctoral candidates. This can mean that PhD students are naturally more reliant on support and direction from their faculty and supervisors, who are likely to have substantial experience in academia as opposed to industry or other career pathways.
If the student intends to remain in academia, this knowledge will be highly beneficial. Yet, if their ambition is to move into the private market in search of work, they may feel a bit lost. For Emike and Edoardo, both appear to have been keenly aware of the skills they developed in the course of their research. It is critical that students appreciate how their skills map to the needs and interests of future employers.
If you were to give advice to current postgraduate students about pursuing an academic or other career path, what would it be?
Protect your passion for the things you love. Protect your excitement. 2) Surround yourself with good mentors and colleagues, that network will prove very valuable to you as you navigate your career. 3) Be patient with yourself and trust the process, sometimes the journey to point B isn’t straight, you may need to take a zig zag or a roundabout road. 4) Stay hungry and stay curious.
Firstly, do what you're obsessed with. Don’t second guess it. Trust your gut and go for it. You'll make a career out of it and a successful one at that. Secondly, don't let others’ judgment interfere with your choice. If academia is your passion, then amazing, if it's not then that's awesome too. People naturally have misconceptions about jobs and careers that reflect their experiences, but you need to forge your own path.
For both graduates, success is about more than achievement. It is also about satisfying one’s sense of purpose, recognising and harmonizing the needs of the individual both professionally and personally. While their career paths have taken them in different directions, their curiosity and passion for what they do remains, as does their appreciation of the need to build networks and keep an open mind.
Planning a career path is a useful and affirming activity. Ultimately these graduates remind us that, as we grow, so too do our aspirations, needs and interests. So be open, be thoughtful and ‘forge your own path’, whether that’s inside or outside of academia.