The Post-PhD Conversation


My PhD graduation.

This is the conversation you have with your partner, your PhD supervisor, your peers, mentors, sponsors, or those who have long ago finished their PhD.


It’s that conversation where you go in with the obvious question –

what do I want to do after my PhD?

– and come out with a plan.

Let’s look at what your conversation might be. Here are 5 options.

1. The Academic

The greatest expectation by PhD graduates of today is to finish their PhD, then onto a Post-Doc or two, then an academic career. Have you had a conversation about this with a current Academic? If not, here are some insights they might give you.

Currently, the number of PhD graduates is very high. The number of academic jobs has not risen at the same rate. Competition for that academic job is going to be very, very high and you need to be in that top 10% of your peers, and have something no one else does.

It’s not going to be easy, but with some planning it can happen.

  1. Clearly differentiate your PhD from everyone else’s PhD. From the outset, frame each chapter as a paper and publish each before submitting the dissertation for examination. Publishing and shameless promotion will increase your exposure (yes, it’s all about the H index and numbers).
  2. Find an Academic mentor. John Crossley wrote about the expectation of PhD graduates and the responsibility of Academic mentors and those in higher roles to help the PhD graduate find their path. It’s spot on. This role is also mentioned here.
  3. After your PhD, be focused. Be VERY focused. Your work must turn into publications. Beware of the post-docs that sound cool and fun, but won’t produce data in the first 1-2 years. You want to get a paper out in that first year and more before the end of the second year. My own Post-doc, setting up a set of long-term research plots, didn’t benefit me, but did those on the 23 peer-reviewed/report publications since. Big mistake.
  4. Network. Connect with people who will be productive and focused as much as you are and who share your passions and goals. These are the people who will want to collaborate, and write papers and grants with you.
  5. Be prepared to move from institution to institution. This may mean overseas or at least in a different lab/uni or two from where your PhD was. And be realistic about this. This blog here, and here gives some blunt truths about what this is going to be like.

Dr Emily Nicholson @n_ylime balancing academia and parenting ©Emily Nicholson

There are MANY people who are Academics with families. Admittedly, most of them are men; few are women but some are doing well. Here are some facts, particularly about women.

  1. There are fewer women in Academia than men. Women who balance the primary carer role and the path towards an academic career find it hard. And some men really get it. Women pay a ‘Baby Penalty’ (and read another here). There is a true gender gap.
  2. There are some women who have found their way and the reasons are many: a good mentor, a support network, a good CV and application, the right employer and managers, the right workplace, good leadership, and the right mindset. Read about Maggie’s experience here, and Emily’s here. Planned parental leave (not maternity leave – there IS a difference) is a must and Emily has some fantastic advice here, as do Hardy et al (2016).
  3. Let’s not forget that many men also balance the family life with career.
  4. Should having a family come before or after the PhD/Post-doc? People decide to give you loads of advice – take what you find useful and park the rest.



Take me for instance. I was banned. Yes, that’s right. I was sternly told do not have children during my PhD candidature. And I listened. This meant I started about 18 months after finishing the PhD. If I had my time again I would worked longer first to establish a career path and then have a family. However, the biological risk is that having children when you are older may put you and baby at higher risk. Alternatively, try family first then the PhD. You may find starting a family in those first 5 years post-PhD makes entrance to Academia hard so be prepared to be in the minority of those who have found success as an Academic. Persevere! There are many working hard to change this. The system isn’t set up for you now, which is a pity as that system is truly missing out on stunning talent.

Pep in Handbook1

My first full-time job was after Hons, as a government botanist

2. The Government

My first full-time job was working in State Government and my first full-time post-PhD position was with the Commonwealth Government. We need good ecologists in government positions. Here are some facts:

  1. Public service can be family friendly. Beginning a family options can be easier in government than in Academia. There may be less pressures for publications and grants. There can be stability if the job is permanent. However, in Australia it’s harder to get permanency now than it once was, but in terms of parental leave and flexibility, government can be easier than Academia.
  2. The variety of ecology based jobs in government is HUGE: ranger; Research biologist; ecologist; biometrician; conservation biologist; scientific officer; GIS officer; remote sensing scientist; policy officer etc. There is bound to be something of interest.
  3. I received training in off road driving, first aid, remote first aid, GIS, remote field work, working in teams, statistics and more. Upskilling promotes moving up levels and/or employment elsewhere. This conversation article discusses the need to review training for PhD graduates and I heartily agree. Internships (University – Industry) [also mentioned here] are required but the support and direction needs to happen first.

    Setting up for measuring Pringlea antiscorbutica phenology at the coast. © Kate Kiefer

    My first job Post-PhD was as a research scientist with the Australian Antarctic Division © Kate Kiefer

  4. Many people report more regular work hours and a good separation of work and home better than academia. Of course this can vary.
  5. You can still supervise Higher Degree Research candidates and author publications.
  6. Networking and public outreach. Having worked in two different Australian states, I have many contacts, most whom have remained friends and colleagues.

There are some negatives including politics, policies and not being at liberty to express your personal view about a topic (often referred to as being ‘gagged’: see here and here and for Australia here).

3. Industry

Working for an industry, which is usually a private company, can be a great way to enhance your skills and increase your networks after finishing your PhD. You can still work with academia and supervise students. My post-doc was associated with a forestry company which was a government business enterprise (GBE).


Carrying my second child, as a post-doc in regrowth wet eucalypt forest. A pregnant tummy is a perfect notebook rest.

I firmly believe that there should be more post-docs created with a university-industry model. In effect, it was an industry placement, something that is lacking in Higher Research Degree (see Key finding 5 of this report). The science I was involved in had direct application to management on a range of ecological issues: threatened species management; landscape ecology; biodiversity conservation; fire ecology; biodiversity impacts from production. Having a STEM PhD also means you are more likely to be employed and earn a higher salary than those with a Bachelor or other higher degree.


4. Not-for-profit

Not-for-profit organisations operate independently of government. In ecology, many have the purpose of addressing environmental issues, which include political and social aspects. It can be a challenging, stimulating and rewarding experience working with a Not-for-profit organisation . The type of people who are passionate, committed, stimulated and driven are those that are well suited to this type of post-PhD career path.

  1. The list of opportunities is endless. Many Not-for-profit’s are small, with few staff, many whom are willing to work for free. The work is never ending and has a clear goal in mind. Those Not-for-profit’s that are large like the The Nature Conservancy and Earthwatch Institute have opportunities in developing countries. Those that are small such as the Tasmanian Land Conservancy, have a wonderful local focus to help you make a difference ‘in your back yard’.
  2. Competition for work is high with many places picking those brightest and most committed candidates. Those doing the work are 100% committed and the rewards abound with that true sense of purpose and achievement.
  3. Travelling widely is often part of the package. You may get to go to places you always dreamed of going to, and get paid to go there!
  4. Professional development is assured where you work on multiple projects, work across disciplines and are assigned a variety of tasks. Networking is pure joy and cross-disciplinary projects abound.
  5. Adaptable workloads and changeable goal setting means greater flexibility in family planning, work placement and project endpoints.

Some negatives include: high employment turnover; varied pay rates ranging from low through to high; the pressure of a lower wage yet still a high work demand may not be suitable to all with families; smaller Not-for-profit’s have limited professional growth opportunities; grant writing; and the push by some governments to gag Not-for-profit’s.

5. Self-employed/Consultant

Few people I know have taken this track straight after their PhD. This is mainly because to do it you need experience, knowledge, and a reputation. Many ecologists have worked post-PhD in academia/ government/industry and then resigned to successfully ‘go out on their own’ for example here, here, here and here. If you have much practical and written experience after completing your PhD, by all means become a consultant. An alternative is creating a team, such as working with a colleague whom you know you can work well with (e.g. Dr Kerry Bridle and I have found we work really well together). This company was formed after the key directors worked in a variety of different roles before moving out on their own together, and now they employ many others. The benefits of working for yourself can be many: flexible working hours; project choice; control; freedom to be your own voice. The negatives may include: the difficulties encountered in the competitive tender process; time gaps between projects; needing to work outside of your local area; keeping up with current research and analytical techniques; costs of training; the levels of insurance required.

I hope you get your Post-PhD conversation started soon.

If you want to read more I highly recommend the blogs at – just search ‘jobs’ or ‘non-academic’.


2 thoughts on “The Post-PhD Conversation

  1. This advice in the current academic culture is a bit tone-deaf. It places the onus on the PhD student as a victim that cannot change anything about their situation and they should just work more, harder, smarter, whatever. That is certainly not the solution, as even working extremely hard, having all the right publications and differentiating yourself from others does not guarantee you a job (any job). I am sorry that they told you not to have kids during the PhD and that you had to put it on hold for the promise of a better job. Luckily, that’s not the case in some countries (where I work, in the Netherlands, it is not as frowned upon and you get extra time for your PhD), which is already a privilege. But what is perpetuated in this text is to sacrifice yourself fully to the altar of academia, to not challenge the system at all, but simply bend yourself over backwards to contort to it. Honestly, I refuse to believe that. The only way forward is not to be enablers for the current system that does not provide a space for parents, women, BIPOC, persons with any disabilities or mental health problems, etc., but challenge it every opportunity we get. This post ain’t it.


    • Thanks for the comments.
      To be clear, RE our kids – I didn’t put them on hold for the promise of a better job but to finish my PhD, and we do get extra time in Australia to finish a PhD with career breaks. We now have four gorgeous children who are much more important than my career will ever be.
      Yes, I write about the current academic culture. I don’t sugar coat it. I write how it is. I’d be dishonest if I wrote how family supportive and equitable it is. Some people are very successful in the current culture. Others are not. I never said I agree with it nor that I believe in it. Note, I do mention there are people working to change it.
      The blog isn’t about how and why we need to change academic culture. The blog is about having a post-PhD conversation. These conversations are not happening enough – perhaps if they were we would be arriving at a better academic culture sooner. The blog is about some of the Post-PhD pathways you might encounter and academia is only one of those. It’s about pathway aspects that you may discuss with your supervisor. If you expected a blog about all the things that need to change in academia, then yes, you are right, this post ain’t it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s