Universiteit Leiden

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Leiden Institute for Area Studies (LIAS)

Beyond the PhD

This section contains information on:

Academic careers
Other careers
Finding what you need

PhD graduates move on to a wide range of professions. To work as an academic, you usually need a PhD, but having a PhD doesn’t mean you need to become an academic. In fact, the percentage of PhD graduates who go on to be academics has steadily decreased since the late 20 th century, and there are many research-related jobs outside academia for which a PhD degree is now an advantage, or even required. Here are some pointers that may help candidates reflect on where they would like to go, and what they need in order to get there.

Academic careers

For an academic career, the next step after the doctorate is normally a postdoctoral fellowship or a lectureship / assistant professorship, or a replacement / visiting / adjunct position. The discussion below is a general one, and local situations in various places in the world may differ significantly.

Postdoc appointments are typically for one, two, or three years. Most if not all postdoc fellowships are research-intensive. Some include teaching opportunities. These are important for professional development and for one’s CV, so if the institution doesn’t ask, one might consider offering oneself to teach, as long as this will not unduly affect research productivity. Some one-year appointments are explicitly meant to give the fellow time to revise their dissertation for publication, in article or book form; this may vary by field. Longer appointments are normally meant for new research projects. The big plus of postdoc positions is that they offer ample research time. This is not just intellectually attractive, but also an investment in one’s future career. Postdoc positions normally do not offer the prospect of a permanent position, but having done a postdoc may help one to land a lectureship position.

NWO has two open-topic postdoc grant schemes (Rubicon and VENI), and NWO- and ERC-funded team projects often include set-topic postdoc positions, in addition to PhD positions. Topics are often specified in broad terms, with significant room for one’s own ideas. Elsewhere in the world, too, calls for applications may be issued by universities and research institutes, and by funding agencies directly. The latter include national organizations such as AHRC and ESRC (UK), ACLS (US), ANR (France), DFG (Germany), and JSPS (Japan); and private foundations such as Mellon and Volkswagen.

Lectureships / assistant professorships are structural positions that may offer the prospect of permanent employment. A lecturer’s duties usually include teaching and thesis supervision, research, and administration. A lectureship is hard work, certainly in the first few years, especially for recent graduates who have not done a postdoc, and need to develop their courses and keep their research going. The big plus is the prospect of job security. This will also enable one to develop a long-term research agenda rather than having to make one’s work fit the requirements of whatever fixed-term opportunity is coming up next.

Replacement / visiting / adjunct positions are usually limited in duration, heavy on teaching, and ungenerous in terms of infrastructure and terms of employment. Still, they offer tide-over opportunities from the PhD to positions with better career prospects, and they will strengthen your CV. And at the stage when one may be revising one’s dissertation for publication and considering one’s options, they may work better than a job outside academia.

Academic positions, including lectureships and postdoc fellowships, are advertized on websites such as H-NetJobs.ac.ukAcademic Transfer(jobs in the Netherlands), AAS (for Asian studies), MESA (for Middle-Eastern studies), and any number of discipline-defined websites such asAAR (for the study of religion), The Linguist List, and so on; and, of course, on the websites of the hiring institutions. Community-maintained websites listing postdoc fellowships, some of them focused on humanities and/or social sciences, come and go, and vary a great deal in terms of orientation and coverage.

Please note that the websites mentioned above are anything but exhaustive.

Other careers

Doing a PhD can also be a stepping-stone toward other research-related careers, in business, consulting, the cultural sector (e.g. commercial publishing, libraries, museums, performing arts institutions), education, funding agencies, government, media, NGOs and NPOs, and writing & editing in a variety of settings – and in universities (e.g. in research and education policy, grant support, counseling, administration, HRM, academic publishing).

One crucial asset is the transferable skills one acquires in graduate education. Specialist knowledge – of languages and cultures and societies past and present, of particular disciplines and themes, of research methods, etc – can also be used for other things than academic research. More generally, transferable skills of PhD graduates in the humanities and the social sciences include the ability to

  • handle and synthesize large amounts of information and complex issues
  • undertake methodical analysis, and contextualize one’s findings in social, cultural, and historical terms
  • contribute to structured discussion and provide high-quality feedback
  • report on one’s work in high-quality writing and oral presentations
  • self-start, think creatively, and work independently, and consult others at the right time
  • see the big picture for longer-term projects, and persevere.

Finding what you need

No single website can be representative across the board. Once you have a sense of where you may be going, you will find the information you need by focusing your online searches and talking to the right people. Also, consider doing some of the relevant coursework.

As noted earlier, in regard to job profiles, terms of employment, opportunities for promotion and so on, there are considerable differences between regions, countries, and individual institutions. Still, there are many sources of information for students that will also help PhD candidates to identify the issues, opportunities, and choices they may encounter, regardless of where these sources are based and who is their primary intended audience. For example:

  • The university’s Career Service (primarily meant for Bachelor’s and Master’s students, but with much online information that is equally useful for PhD candidates), and the Humanities center for career advice to employees; even if only employed PhD candidates are formally part of their client group, they may be able to offer informal advice to others as well
  • Columbia University: academic and other career resources for PhD candidates
  • Professional literature on PhD research and career development, such as Karen Kelsky’s blog, and her The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning your Ph.D. into a Job (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2015), also with useful tips for pursuing non-academic careers. Occasionally, Kelsky’s views and guidelines are somewhat absolutist, but the key questions are spot-on. US-focused, but many of the issues discussed equally matter to PhD candidates and graduates elsewhere, even if they manifest differently.
  • The Prospects website (UK)
  • The Versatile PhD (US), for non-academic careers
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