Tectonics and Structural Geology

Mind Your Head #4: Job uncertainty in academia – know your strengths and possibilities!

Mind Your Head #4: Job uncertainty in academia – know your strengths and possibilities!

Mind Your Head is a blog series dedicated towards addressing mental health in the academic environment and highlighting solutions relieving stress in daily academic life.

In the three previous blog post of this ‘Mind your head’ series, we discussed the importance of communication with fellow ECS, time management, and a healthy relationship with your advisors. However, there is one big source of stress which we haven’t addressed yet: the insecurities regarding your future career, especially if you wish for an academic career. Unfortunately, this is also one of the most challenging stress factors to tackle.

How to decide if you are up for a career in academia, and if not, what to do next? And how can you increase your chances for a future academic position if there is often someone who has more experience, more publications, or simply better connections? And more often than not, this would involve a transfer to another country for a job, which can be a stress factor in itself – particularly when having a partner and/or a family to take care of.

Success rates in academia
To start with, let’s face reality. A study done by Nature last year has shown that worldwide, 75% of the PhD students think that it is likely that they pursue a career in academia. However, the large majority of these Early Career Scientists will end up somewhere else. In the United Kingdom for example, only 3-4% succeed in landing a permanent position at a university.

You probably already realized that the academic environment is very competitive, but numbers emphasize that it is in fact extremely difficult to maintain a career in academia. So how do we explain this apparent misconception that Early Career Scientists have? Why do so many wish to pursue a career in academia, despite the low success rates?

One important factor is probably the lack of examples of alternative career paths: in universities and research institutions we are only exposed to the academic success stories. Our advisors are senior scientists, or professors, who have successfully established their scientific career. Our colleagues might be post-docs, who have managed to find a position after their PhD that they like, or researchers who have written a successful grant proposal, which ensures them to work independently on their projects for several years.

However, where do the people go who do not find that post-doc after their PhD, or who write grant proposals which get rejected, maybe even more than once? Or the people who simply choose to leave academia after doing a PhD, after one or more post-docs, or even after tenure?

Transferable skills
Of course, where these people end up are excellent choices as well, even though there will always be people telling you that academia is the only path. Not choosing academia doesn’t mean failing! Besides having an academic career, there are many possibilities for people who obtained a PhD degree. And some of these careers might fit you even better than an academic career; you just have to know that they exist and how to make the switch! There are many articles that discuss the different career possibilities for Early Career Scientists, an excellent example being this EGU blog post. It introduces several current and former geoscientists who ended up outside academia, and who share their experiences.

Whether you’re already considering leaving academia, or whether you just want to have a back-up plan in case your desired academic career does not go as planned: it is important to know your possibilities, but more importantly your strengths, and how these can be useful in other careers. Are you aware of the many skills you acquire during a PhD that are extremely valuable to your future employers? All ECS have them! In sectors like industry, or consultancy, the exact topic of your PhD is usually of minor importance. It is the additional skills that you acquired that make the difference between hiring someone with a Master’s degree, or someone who obtained a PhD.

Examples of such transferable skills are your ability to work independently on a long-term project, problem-solving, time-management, communicating within an international community, or efficiently obtaining and transferring knowledge, through articles or oral presentations. When exploring future job possibilities, take a moment to identify your (strongest) transferable skills, and in which environments they might be most valuable.

Many companies and institutions work with competencies, also called ‘key competencies’, or ‘core competencies’. These are specific personal qualities that recruiters use as benchmarks to rate and evaluate possible candidates for a job. There are many lists online, that display all different types of competencies, often grouped in categories like ‘dealing with people’, or ‘self-management’. Also the book ‘Competency-Based Interviews’, by Robin Kessler, features a list of core competencies and explains how they are used for job interviews. Using such an overview to identify your core competencies might be easier than trying to come up with them from scratch.

In the end, knowing  your core competencies and using them to ‘sell yourself’ (during an interview, in a motivation letter, or on your CV), will be useful for any type of career, also in academia! To learn more about increasing your chances in academia, check out this article about marketing for scientists.

Mind your head!
So, to wrap up this series: many Early Career Scientists are very passionate about pursuing an academic career and are willing to work very hard to achieve what they want. Of course, you shouldn’t let yourself be scared off by the statistics; if an academic career is what you really want, go for it! Be prepared for the hard work and strong competition, but don’t forget to have fun! In order to do that, it is important to know yourself, your strengths as well as your limits, to manage your time wisely and… to communicate with your colleagues and advisors!

If it turns out that academia is not for you, don’t panic! There are many wonderful careers outside academia, where you and your skills will be highly valued. However, it is important to get out of the ‘academia-only’ bubble and broaden your horizon. Alternative careers can provide many benefits, such as job certainty, more teamwork, short-term and diverse projects, and an office in the right geographical location! Explore other careers that might suit you, and identify your strengths that will help you land your dream job, inside or outside academia!


By Elenora van Rijsingen
Written with help and revisions from Anne Pluymakers



2nd workshop of the Marie Skodowska-Curie ITN project CREEP: Discussion sessions between senior- and early career scientists focused on reducing stress levels in academia.

PhD management training by Marie-Laure Parmentier from Belpaeme Conseil, France. 

Elenora van Rijsingen
Elenora van Rijsingen is a PhD student part of the ITN Marie Curie project ‘CREEP’. Her project is a joint venture between the university of Roma Tre and the university of Montpellier. For her PhD, she uses the analysis of natural data and analogue modelling to better understand the relationship between the roughness of the subduction interface and the nucleation and propagation of megathrust earthquakes.

1 Comment

  1. Related article in Nature’s career column: doi.org/10.1038/d41586-018-05838-y


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