Life after PhD – James Bell




Read on if….

My problem with most of the ‘how to get a job after you finish your PhD’ style articles that I’ve seen is that a) they’re always very vague and so not really helpful and b) usually written by someone who has very obvious industry potential (e.g. they did a PhD in electronic engineering or pharmaceuticals).

This blog post is for people who find themselves in my position, they’ve done a decent enough PhD but the topic is very esoteric and seemingly hard to relate to careers outside of academia. I’m just finishing my PhD in deep-sea ecology and have been offered a job at a marine science institute in the UK. I don’t have all the answers and I’m only speaking from my own experience but I hope that it will be useful for those of you who feel the same way I do about most of the guidance online.



You’ll obviously all know that for an academic career, your publication history is one of the primary ways in which your candidacy for a position will be judged. However, your publication record will still be valuable for other post-PhD careers, though probably less so in the terms of citation metrics and number of very high impact papers you’ve published. In addition to a strong publication record demonstrating that you can write well and prepare scientific documents to a high standard, non-academic employers will want to see evidence of things such as:

  • In each subsequent publication, how have you developed your skill set? During your PhD, take time to reach out to other disciplines and incorporate their work and expertise into your papers. In my case, this meant teaming up with microbiologists, geochemists and modellers. It all helps to make you look like a well rounded applicant (and I’d argue has also improved my papers).
  • What problems did you solve in these papers? Analytical? Methodological? What were the knowledge gaps and why were they important?
  • How does your publication record evidence your interpersonal and transferrable skills? Team work, time management etc.
Papers are worth doing well whether you plan to stay in academia or not, but for non-academic jobs, I think a key point is just to reconsider how you think about them during the writing and in application forms and interviews.


What else can you get involved in?

It can be easy to get blinkered by your PhD thesis and what you need to do to deliver it. It’s happened to me and I’ve seen it happen to many colleagues at one point or another. In terms of finishing your PhD, this probably isn’t a problem, but in terms of getting a job once you are finished, I think it definitely is.

During applications/ interviews etc. I’ve really been grateful to be able to talk about other things I’ve been working on that have given me examples of challenges I’ve faced or skills I’ve developed outside of the thesis. For me, this has included:

  • Serving on a postgraduate committee (duties including organising a conference; representing students at various meetings and refining/ improving guidelines in official documents)
  • Participating in working groups related to your topic. For me, this has meant working with other academics in the UK and abroad, thinking about the ecological implications of deep-sea mining. What this has demonstrated is that I’m aware of the wider issues that relate to my own research and that I’ve been actively engaged in trying to translate relevant research into advice and guidelines for industry.
  • Be opportunistic about including your other experiences. For example, I’ve also worked from time to time in events management. Think about your own employment/ volunteering/ recreational history and how it’s helped make you the right person for the job you’re interested in.


Be clear about what you want out of your career

It’s not true of everybody, but I reckon in most cases, people get involved in a particular topic of research because they are genuinely passionate about it, particularly in fields such as the environmental sciences. They want to know more about that topic and that enthusiasm drives them to do more and better research.

Choose a career path you love and you’ll never work a day in your life

I hate that quote. Even in a job you love, there will still be half a hundred things you have to do that feel like a huge chore. That said, it does make an important point in a roundabout sort of way. If you can choose a career you’re genuinely interested in, you’ll be more likely to land a job and once you’re there, almost certainly do better.

All I’m really trying to say is that when you’re exploring your options, take a few moments to think about the day to day life in the job (or even contact people who could tell you). If you’re enthusiastic about the position, that will come across when you apply.

Other things to consider are the opportunities for career progression, ancillary benefits and the extent to which the job could develop your skills and open doors further down the road. In my case, I’ve not decided that I don’t ever want to return to academia and so it is important to me that my next career stage means that is still a possibility.

Dr James Bell recently finished his PhD and now works as a fisheries assessment scientist at the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science in the UK
Dr James Bell recently finished his PhD and now works as a fisheries assessment scientist at the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science in the UK. He is a current member of the Deep-Sea Biology Society.