Introducing Kate Johnson, one of the London Naturejobs Career Expo journalism competition runners-up.
Kate Johnson recently submitted her PhD at Queen’s University, Belfast, investigating vegetation change in southern South America. She stumbled into environmental change research through a love of month-long field seasons camping in front of glaciers, which led to an MSc thesis in the Canadian Coastal Mountains.
Just last month, I was faced with that terrifying prospect of “what’s next?” as I handed in my PhD thesis and await the dreaded viva date. It’s a fear of the unknown, one that I felt at the end of my undergraduate course and my after my masters too. When I completed each of those, I had a passion for my research topic and I knew instinctively what the next step was. Now at the end of my PhD, although I love what I did, I have to consider whether my future lies within academic research and teaching or applying skills outside academia.
The stats always tell us about employment rates within academia, and at the moment, they’re not looking good. Throughout my time as a PhD student, I’ve only seen three of my PhD colleagues carry on in academia (this is from a group of around 20 graduates). Many of us are seeking employment in the civil service or private sector, and right now, I’m one of them. But does that mean that I think there are too many PhDs, or is it still a valuable qualification to have?
PhDs require a huge amount of time, money, effort and an unfailing passion for the subject you are studying (remind yourself of that on the darkest days). My PhD was chosen through a love of fieldwork and a desire to collect new skills in research. But now that I’m at the end, I’m realising it wasn’t just the qualification that enticed me, nor was this qualification the best thing I’ve achieved in the last 4 years; the skills learnt during my PhD are universal, and can be applied to many careers outside of academia, as long as you’re willing to chase them.
Aside from research, my PhD was filled with teaching opportunities for undergraduate taught classes, field trips and the odd lecture. I had temporary employment within the Met Office daily pollen counts and worked with Translink to analyse leaf-fall data in the Autumn. I sat on many committees as the student representative, and through this, developed an understanding of life beyond my research within a university.
The question of where there are too many PhDs is focused on the idea that all PhD graduate students want to be academics. I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t one of those when I started my PhD four years ago. But now I’m realizing that the PhD didn’t close other doors for employment, it just opened ones I hadn’t considered at the start. And I’m beginning to understand that there’s nothing wrong with this, but that you have to be aware of the skills you can achieve during a PhD and strive to work (and think!) outside the box.
Understanding that a PhD is more than just research training is vital for a scientist’s personal development, and nothing to be criticised. I may be struggling to find research employment right now, but I don’t regret completing my thesis. A PhD is what you make of it.