PhD Candidate? Develop a Career Plan or Stack Shelves

PHD labourAfter several conversations with some  PhD students recently, I was struck by one common thread, the lack of awareness or astuteness in planning or developing their own careers and lack of confidence in seeking help. Note, in this article, I use candidate and student interchangeably!

So why this article?

Many PhD students whilst studying for a higher degree approach their careers in a manner no different from undergraduate (UG) students i.e. they typically wait to the end of the PhD and then panic stations which manifests itself in last minute CVs, poor application outcomes and pressure to make career choices.  With a PhD comes high expectations and sadly poor post-PhD career outcomes. Thus, it is imperative that PhD candidates understand the importance of the PhD.

As a PhD candidate, you need to view your project as a form of Project Management – think about it, you are given an idea or a project, you investigate challenges around the idea, often work with different stakeholders (sponsors, supervisors, other students, graduate school, community, peers at conferences etc.), proffer solutions and produce a report which you are expected to and usually defend to an expert committee.

How does this differ from a Project coordinator/manager in a business, clinical or engineering sector? A project manager typically gets a project, forms a team, works with the team to develop the idea (sometimes alone just like in a PhD), a process which includes a feasibility assessment (proposal stage during PhD), the main element and eventually presenting and defending the report to the clients (in this case the external examiners and often the project sponsors during the PhD).

So if the experience of the PhD student is similar to that of different roles in industry e.g.  project manager, it is imperative that PhD students or candidates are better equipped to engage beyond the walls of academia, are responsive and supported in developing their own individual personal and professional skills.

Are we preparing our PhD students well?

I am not aware of any other sector where individuals have a two- or three-year hiatus where they do not actively engage in the planning of their careers like you’ll find with PhD students. Often, without proactive supervisors to challenge the PhD student to explore, seek and engage in professional development, many PhD students do not seek help and ferociously burrow into the “work” and forgetting they need to proactively plan life beyond the temporary work/degree (which is what it is!)

In an article published in Science by Adam Ruben (When PhD stands for Problematic Hiring Detriment), the line ““How…do I find an employer willing to overlook my most flagrant disadvantage: my PhD?” is the reality many PhD candidates are either willfully ignorant about or grossly unprepared for!

It is possible that a lot of these students respond to the type of mentoring or lack of, from supervisors and in some cases are beholden to the supervisors which really impacts their judgement on their own personal career development. Also, where supervisors are not good mentors, not dynamic, commercially-aware and engaged with the sector, the risk is that the PhD student is looking through a narrow lens and sometimes become a clone of the supervisor and exhibit the same traits.

The challenge for many of these PhD students, is that for every however many PhD students, there might just be one lecturing or one post-doc job and many have ended up working at grocery stores, stacking shelves, working in farms and in very low paid jobs (believe me, it happens more often than you think!).

For many, this leads to poor mental health, no mortgage and embarrassment. As some have said, they are forced to remove the PhD degree from the CV to get an entry level job.

So who is responsible?

This should be a collective responsibility however the final buck stops with the PhD student/candidate!

Unfortunately, Universities in the UK do not typically provide robust or tailored career support for postgraduate (PG) and research students as the focus is squarely on the UG student. The Graduate Outcomes Survey (GOS) formerly known as the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) only targets UG students and for many careers services, this is where all efforts are focused. Following discussions with many PhD candidates in the US , the challenges are not much different. It has also been identified as an issue in Canada – read here

I have questioned an challenged this lack of support for the PG student and research community at several UK institutions and Employability leaders’ events and will continue to do so but we are far from an ideal situation. Graduate schools and Careers/Employability services should be expected to provide adequate support for PG students and researchers (they are fee payers too!). In addition, PhD supervisors training should include helping the PhD student with better career planning and development.

For the PhD Student,

It is important that any student who is embarking on a PhD should learn to ask for help early on in the process even before making a decision on the PhD. Ask questions about the career support being offered by the PhD supervision team, the Graduate School, department and the University.

In addition, as a PhD student, you need to understand the value of external engagement, conferences and networking beyond your office, laboratory or studio to your career development.

Going to a conference should be more about the opportunities available to you not bouncing off on a high to present your “ground-breaking” research, getting drunk with your group/lab mates or shopping trips. Don’t get me wrong, both are equally important, but you do not want to be the PhD graduate working stacking shelves after four years of a PhD when you could have done that without a University degree in the first place.

Article that would interest PhD candidates ‘Improving Society not chasing academic kudos!’ – Guardian article


  • If you are a PhD student, ask for help, always! This is a key strength and not a weakness
  • Use a career planning or auditing tool to map your career journey. If you are not sure how to do this, speak to a career advisor.
  • Understand the link between your PhD and your sector and build those links from day-1 of your PhD.
  • Keep networking as your network is your net worth (click article here).

You can find other PhD career related articles on the hub or visit our career resources pages for more. The two articles below also provide useful advice for PhD candidates

  1. The PostDoctoral Conundrum – To Postdoc or not to PostDoc by Dr Victor Ujor (Click here for article).
  2. A PhD should be about improving society not chasing academic kudos by Julian Kirchherr (Click here for article).

EAdukwuAbout the writer – Emmanuel has a PhD in Microbiology and is a Senior Lecturer in Biomedical Sciences and Public Health. He leads research in the development of antimicrobial agents from natural sources and infectious diseases of public health concern. He is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (UK), he has taught at several UK Universities and delivered guest lectures and many Universities globally.  For more about Emmanuel, visit the about us page here.

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#CareerChat: Getting into Writing & Publishing

Tolulope Photo
Image – Tolulope Popoola

Would you leave a relatively secure job that you weren’t passionate about to develop a career in an area that you absolutely loved even though there were no guarantees of how well (or badly) things would go? Is your dream worth the risk of finding out? We have been inspired by Tolu’s career journey – and absolutely in love with her ‘Flash Fiction’ stories – and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to share her story with our readers. Enjoy!

APH: Can you tell us about your educational and professional background? 

Tolu Popoola: I studied Accounting and Business Economics for my first degree, then took a year out to gain some work experience before going back to university to study for a Masters’ degree in Finance and Investment. When I graduated, I started working in an Accounting role while studying for the CIMA professional exams. I was halfway into the professional exams when I decided that I was in the wrong profession and I needed to make a career change.

You are a qualified accountant who now makes a living as a writer. Please can you share the story of your transition? 

It’s a long story, but I’ll try. Towards the end of 2006, I started getting frustrated with my career. Every morning was a struggle to motivate myself to get up and get to work. I wasn’t fulfilled in my job, even though it paid well and the company was a great place to work. I knew I had creative talents that I wasn’t putting to good use and, the more I thought about it, the more I was filled with horror at the idea of working in accounting for the next forty years of my life.

Then, one afternoon, I met a lady who was an accountant and working on a major finance project for her company. Even though it was a Saturday, and we were visiting, she was glued to her laptop, working on some financial data. When I asked her about it, she started telling me about her job, talking about the project she was working on, describing every single detail. She sounded so excited, passionate and enthusiastic. She said, ‘I love accounting, I love finance and I love working on exciting projects.’ In my mind, I was thinking, ‘Wow! She actually loves her job!’

It was eye-opening, because I hadn’t imagined that there were people who absolutely loved what they did for a living. After that meeting, it became clear to me that I didn’t have that same passion for accounting. It was just a profession I trained for and a job to keep some money coming in – nothing more. And, if I was to leave the job, I wouldn’t miss it one bit. So, I started to ask myself: what job could I do that would make me passionate and excited about getting up in the morning? Around that time, I discovered blogging and started writing short fiction as an experiment. The more I wrote, the more I enjoyed doing it. It became clear, before long, that writing was what I was meant to do with my life, not accounting.

In your opinion, what are the important skills and personal attributes to create a career out of writing?

Dedication, persistence and creativity. You have to read a lot, and you have to write a lot to continually improve. You need to be able to handle criticism and receive feedback with grace. You need to be passionate about it because you may get discouraged sometimes, and you need to believe in yourself even if your work gets rejected a few times.

What advice would you share with anyone interested in getting that first book published?

First, write the best book that you can write. Make sure your story is as interesting as you can make it, make sure the plot is intriguing, and you have believable characters. Read it over and over again until you have absorbed every sentence. Then, you need to give it to a professional editor. Many first-time writers make the mistake of thinking that they don’t need an editor but we all do. Once your manuscript has been professionally edited, you will notice the difference in quality. Now you need to decide if you want to try to get published traditionally, or you want to self-publish. Whichever option you choose depends on your goals, but you are first and foremost responsible for writing a great book.

Can you describe a typical working day? What do you like the most and least about your job? 

At the moment, my job consists of writing as well as running my own publishing, consulting and coaching company, so my typical day is quite varied. If I don’t have a client appointment, I usually do the admin stuff in the morning – so that includes responding to emails, updating the company’s website and blogs, reading industry-related materials, keeping my social media accounts updated, bookkeeping, etc. I focus on publishing and creating content for my coaching classes in the afternoons, and then in the evening I do my own writing stuff.

What was the inspiration behind starting your own business – Accomplish Press? 

Becoming a publisher was always something I wanted to achieve when I decided to leave Accounting. When I was researching, I found a lot of things wrong with the traditional publishing industry, things that were so obviously inefficient. I wanted to do something different. Secondly, from my experience, I knew there were not many mainstream publishers willing to take a chance on new writers like me. I had met a few publishers who found my work interesting, but they always said that it wasn’t commercially viable because it was regarded as ‘ethnic fiction’. But, I believe that I have to tell my stories and there are readers who want to read about people like them in books. So, I did a lot of research and decided to take the chance and become a publisher myself. That way, I can reach my audience directly, as well as creating an avenue for other writers like me to get their work published.

What do you wish someone else had told you before you embarked on your professional journey? 

There’s no such thing as an “overnight success” so you have to be patient and consistent with your work. Most people you see who are successful now, have been quietly working in the background for years. Secondly, make sure you are constantly striving to do better.

Do you have any mentors? 

Yes I do. I have many people I look up to for inspiration. I follow their works and I’m inspired by their achievements. Abidemi Sanusi, Joanna Penn, Chimamanda Adichie, etc. I even have a coach who helps me with achieving specific goals.

How important has having a mentor been for you? 

I think it’s very important to have mentors. You need to surround yourself with people who have achieved what you’re hoping to achieve. My mentors are all successful people in their own right. They inspire me, encourage me, motivate me, give me ideas, and help me to see what’s possible.

What achievements are you most proud of? Have you made any mistakes you are happy to share and what did you learn from them? 

I’m proud of every single book I publish for my clients. I still feel a sense of wonder that people trust me with their manuscript, and I help them to turn it into a proper published book.

One of the mistakes I made was when I first published the series ‘In My Dreams It Was Simpler’ through Lulu, which is an online publishing company. It was a fairly straightforward process and I had a lot to learn, but I was fairly impatient, and I didn’t weigh all my options properly. I underestimated the importance of professional editing, properly formatting and typesetting a manuscript. So, I ended up publishing several editions, which was a costly exercise.

How do you maintain a sense of balance while juggling your different roles – both personal and professional?

It’s a constant balancing act, juggling family life, personal goals, and career goals. Most working women and entrepreneurs have to find what works for them. Sometimes I have to put in more hours at work, and sometimes I pull back on work so that I can relax and spend time with the family. It’s not easy and it’s not a static thing. Life changes and life is in stages, we’re always having to adjust.

Tolulope Popoola is an Author, Publisher and Book Writing Coach. She’s the founder of Accomplish Press, and the author of “Nothing Comes Close”, a novel, and two collections of flash fiction stories, “Looking for Something” and “Fertile Imagination”. Tolulope grew up in Nigeria, moved to the UK for her education and early part of her working career. She is passionate about writing, and literature and helping other writers achieve their dreams. She now lives in Nigeria with her husband and two children.

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