Careers after completing a PhD

Many individuals set out to study a PhD with the clear intention of pursuing a life in academic research. However, the reality of a career as an educator can be different to expectations. It is not unusual for PhD students to seek a change of direction as they ask themselves 'will a PhD help my career?'. Preparation for careers after completing a PhD needs careful planning, so this guide will help you think about research roles inside and outside academia.

The economic climate for research

Within all growing economies there is an urgent need for investment in Research and Innovation. Last year the UK Government confirmed its commitment to R&D through its Innovation Strategy by committing to a budget of £39.8Bn up to 2025. Despite recent challenges it remains key to restoring the UK’s economic growth.

The UK Government is looking to increase expenditure on R&D to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027. A further 25,000 PhD students need to be recruited. However, research suggests that not all PhD students remain in universities to build long term academic careers.

Types of careers after completing a PhD

There can be no doubt that the graduate salary premium is very attractive, and the evidence backs this up.

It is hardly surprising as many students want to branch out into other areas once they have completed their PhD. Lots of students return to their home countries to pursue specific careers as academics and in business.

The current academic job market has become increasingly competitive for PhD graduates, which has made it important for you to explore the available options and careers after PhD.

However, there are number of traditional roles in university research that many PhD students are naturally drawn to. These apply in most search intensive universities, so it is normal for PhD students to take up posts in different locations.

  • Teaching and lecturing
  • Post doc and Fellowship roles
  • Faculty positions – the research office

What is a postdoc?

A postdoc (or post-doc, postdoctoral, or postdoctoral research) is a training-focused entry level position. It is available to people who have earned a PhD. Postdoc positions include some teaching experience as well as research. They usually act as a stepping-stone between the period of study and professional experience.

A fellowship is a next step on from postdoc. In most cases you will spend more time on research, publications and conferences with some teaching mixed in. The role comprises fixed term contacts offered to recent PhD graduates.

This can be a rewarding career for those who have the right combination of ideas, skills and tenacity. There can also be an element of luck involved. Being in the right place at the right time with the research idea that someone wants to fund. Getting a postdoc position is not automatic.

Moreover, PhD students use this moment to pause and evaluate their needs. After spending many years living and studying a specific subject it is not unusual to want to take a break. It is good to consider other priorities.

After completing a PhD, graduates often take up part-time teaching roles. The experience gained will make them more competitive candidates to apply for research or teaching fellowships and permanent lecture positions.

Many candidates taking a PhD supervise groups of students while on their research degree. This is particularly common in studentships because the student completes a project as 'an employee'.

Studentships facilitated though a research school or Doctoral College will have training programmes built into the studentship. These provide valuable skills that the research student will be free to utilise once they have completed their PhD project. Many universities now have teaching-focused career pathways which you can follow.

Teaching and lecturing in universities does not require a PhD. Many teachers enter the field at university level after an established career in industry, so they complete additional teaching qualifications in order to carry out the typical roles needed for teaching groups of students.

Faculty positions - research office

There are many employees within universities who have PhDs but are not working as academics. This is commonly found within universities comprising of well-established research specialities.

You can find out the particular research standing of a university by looking through the results of the REF. The Research Excellence Framework is a collaboration of research outputs from all UK universities that publish their work to recognised international standards.

The most recent REF published in summer 2022 (after a pandemic-induced delay). This framework breaks down the individual research contributions by subject and project and ranks universities accordingly.

Co-ordinating the REF, and the administration of research development requires significant attention. Researcher Development teams design, organise and run training courses, events and development programmes for postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers.

Many of these professionals will have started off in research themselves, giving them an insight into what researchers need and how they might like to be supported. This kind of work can develop into supporting more senior academics with their development too.

Research projects are more often than not awarded through public funds, and the sums involved are very significant. The research income of a top ten global institution such as the University of Oxford is almost £800m per annum.

Academic/Education Development teams support academics with developing teaching skills, particularly those in new lectureship roles or researchers who are teaching for the first time. Some roles are classed as academic, others carry the title professional services.

Typical careers after completing a PhD

  • Using your research skills in another sector

Achieving the award of a PhD is a clear recognition of your ability as a researcher. Research skills are in great demand across all areas of business as well as academia, so everything you have acquired is of relevance to organisations that are seeking solutions to specific problems.

Of equal importance is the need for research in the not-for profit sector. Given the many challenges that we face it is just as important to direct your research skills for the common good as well as for money.

  • Using your technical expertise

Completing your PhD afforded you the opportunity to work with new technical innovations. Your contribution comes from experience of being a leading technician in a particular field, and this also makes an enormous contribution to knowledge.

  • Using your communication skills and experience

PhD students develop excellent communication skills. As well as being PhD experts in their field, Maggie Aderin-Pocock, Hannah Fry, Brian Cox and Neil DeGrasse Tyson share extraordinary gifts for explaining cutting edge concepts using no-nonsense language.

Hidden careers after completing a PhD

Your PhD has equipped you with a number of transferable skills, and these are applicable to a number of different sectors and careers. It’s a common misunderstanding among lots of people that having the title PhD is like a magic door to instant recognition and career success. The reality is that researchers have to follow the same rules for job hunting as everyone else.

One of the most surprising details that has become clear in recent times is the absence of title researcher in job advertisements. The specific skills acquired over the duration of a PhD are highly sought after. Many postdoc researchers inadvertently limit their scope for opportunities.

Optimizing your job search for great careers after completing a PhD

The three golden rules for job hunting require reflection, a willingness to relocate and networking.

It’s always good to look back on your experience of studying a PhD and reflect on what went well and what didn’t. The commitment to a PhD is substantial, from and emotional as well as financial perspective. The impact of COVID-19 on researchers has been well documented.

Where you choose to locate next is another significant decision regarding your post PhD life. Many PhD students from outside the UK will naturally have to return to their home country. The UK Government made big steps forward to retain the knowledge and investment provided to international students by making post study visas available to researchers and their families.

The content of your PhD has a bearing on location as well. If your speciality is protecting the ecosystems of coral reefs, then naturally these have to be undertaken in waters that sustain these lifeforms.

On the other hand, if you have researched alternative battery technology and energy recovery systems then startup business locate to wherever there is a hub of specific talent as well as the infrastructure needed.


Networking is perhaps the most overlooked part of the PhD process. Your research brings you into contact with leading thinkers on a subject. Naturally you are well placed to reach out to those that influence your research, in order to continue the theme.

Reaching the decision that its time for something completely different requires networking skills. Jobs received through university networks tend to align with your education and offer better career opportunities after your PhD.

Research shows that PhD students autonomously built personal networks can help match their specific scientific expertise. Speaking to senior colleagues about your job search can also help you understand their experiences and learn how to get into industry after PhD.

Next steps

Explore the latest PhD Studentships and research study funding opportunities on Postgraduate Studentships. Don’t forget to join our mailing list for up-to-date advice and opportunities.