Careers and pathways beyond the PhD
Careers and pathways beyond a PhD
Only a fraction of PhDs - maybe 10% - will become academics. Therefore in a research discipline like Materials Science and Engineering the main public purpose of our graduate research programmes is to develop Highly Qualified People for the workplace. PhDs find work in lots of places, from the Civil Service and government, to teaching, to professional services and the broader private sector. Most Materials Scientists working in industry work in R&D rather than in production, which is the domain of manufacturing engineers, who mostly come from general or mechanical engineering backgrounds. This is because there are comparatively few Materials Engineers, whose skills are correspondingly in high demand.
Imperial PhDs work in industry all over the world, including in countries where Engineering is a higher pay and higher status profession than is the case in the UK. Examples would include the Netherlands, France, Germany, Scandinavia, Australia, Canada and the US. But Imperial Engineering MEng graduates earn, on average, about £28,000 p.a., and PhDs slightly more. However, central London is not a major industrial hub - although there are start-ups in the London space and there are surprising amount of industry in the south east of the UK. But in general, you can expect to move nationally and internationally to find the major materials research employers.
Most of our PhDs don’t join graduate schemes but instead enter their ultimate posts directly. Large employers like Rolls-Royce plc, Ernst&Young, TfL and so on will recruit via traditional on-campus recruiting - through careers fairs, websites and advertising, for example. But, the more productive route comes from developing your own contacts - industrial collaborators, seminar speakers, people you meet at conferences and places of network. Engineering jobs websites can also be fruitful.
You will be judged on your outputs, which usually means publications. When applying, make sure you point out how your skills fit the job description in the advert. Look for positions about 3 months before you need one. Contact the group leader prior to the deadline so they are looking out for your application. If they have met you at meetings and know your work, you will have an advantage.
A sensible step for PhD students who want to stay on in academia is to apply for a fellowship following their PhD. However, many fellowship schemes close over a year before the start date and internal deadlines can be 2 weeks before the advertised deadline. For most students, this means that if you’re interested in applying, then you need to start thinking about these applications about 18 months into your PhD. The applications usually require a substantial effort to write: the length of the main text of the applications – where you describe the research you want to do - can vary from half a page to ten or more pages, while all the extra parts you need can take even longer to write. These usually include financial details, extended CVs and track record descriptions, written justifications of the resources you will need, a statement regarding the pathways towards creating impact from your work, as well as ethics and equal opportunities monitoring forms and letters of support from your host organisation, collaborators and sponsors. Two further sections are also typically required, in which you share your dissemination plan (i.e. how you will make your papers open access) and your data management plan.
The best way to approach this is to think now about what the job entails. Lecturing is an important part of the role, so you must enjoy the idea of that, but it is a small proportion of the role (usually). Teaching is not just lecturing, it is small group teaching, exam marking, setting up teaching labs and course management. Lectureships in research intensive universities emphasise research quality and research led teaching. Teaching focused institutions will obviously focus on teaching.
Here are the roles a faculty member takes: varied, fun, challenging: Researcher; teacher; fund raiser; group manager (project and people management); lab manager; purchasing; author; editor; reviewer; industrial liaison; consultant; pastoral carer; health and safety offcer; web designer; media; thinker (not as much as we'd like!). Fundraising to support researchers in your group is very important and can take a lot of time.
How do I get a lectureship?
Build a CV and application that can demonstrate the above skills plus international esteem (talks and awards). Apply. Visit the department ahead of the deadline and meet faculty members. Identify potential collaborators. If the current faculty members see your skills and research area are complimentary and useful (as well as world leading) they will want to employ you. Remember, you are being interviewed by everyone you meet, including students. You will give a presentation on your science and then have an interview with a panel. The panel will be asking you about everything else apart from the science. Think about your strategy for building research activity (funding sources) and where you see yourself in 5 years.
If positions are not available, look for Fellowships. Some institutions give out Fellowships that lead to Lectureships. Fellowships show you can get your own funds as they are highly competitive and peer reviewed. They tend to be in research areas that the research councils deem strategically important. Applicants are judged on track record and project plan.