A PhD student’s perspective on what to do after PhD

Billy Bryan is a currently undertaking a PhD in Medical Education at the University of Sheffield. His research project aims to understand how a specialised feedback intervention in clinical skills training can improve learning strategies and skills performance in medical students. Here he blogs about what to do after your PhD.

What will you do after your PhD?

That’s the question every PhD student gets asked once a week on average by family, friends and colleagues. It’s the one we dread even if we have a pretty good idea. Most of us have no clue what we want to do, so we mumble “post-doc”, in a small and unsure voice. I think the problem tends to be an over-emphasis on the outcome rather than the process, we expect our future selves to be able to answer that question, and so we leave it to them instead!

There are certain decisions and commitments you make during the early part of a doctoral degree which are crucial and exciting. The ever changing formulation of a ‘question’ is an example of this – a direction in which the further you go; the harder it is to see any other method of getting to the end of the three years. January and February was the two months of toil I went through to carve out that all important research question. It sets a certain precedent and gives you a direction in which to travel in.

There are of course sub-questions galore which help you hold on to the far-flung hope that you won’t just become the ‘expert of nothing’, as some post-PhDs regularly quip. But, they’re right. Imagine all the knowledge there is currently in the world in a balloon, the sole purpose of a PhD project is to push past that outer boundary and add a unique spike of intelligence, bursting through to give a whole new perspective in that area. This is of course, less dramatic in reality. However, it is an important factor in motivation to know that someday you will be the world expert in your topic (however large or small).

I’m not sure how my fellow students perceive the timeline of their projects, although most faculties will gladly give you a timeline riddled with deadlines and those all-important portfolio submissions. Constantly picturing the whole timeline is heavily detrimental in my opinion – by all means imagine the final result but don’t dwell upon it. There are steps and processes to go through, not all of which can be measured using a Gantt chart.

I have learnt to look at my time on my project in a segmented way; visualising a tower I build brick-by-brick (hopefully with a cap and gown at the top).

When I try to imagine my life after this degree I don’t see anything that resembles a particular job role or position; instead, I see an older (slightly haggard) version of myself perhaps wearing more jumpers with shirts underneath and sporting a big smile. I know I’ll end up somewhere, all I can really say when someone asks me the question I typed first on this post is: “I’m working on it”.

The decision of what direction to take may become marred with doubt and uncertainty. As with most things in life, it is the journey and toil which maketh the graduate, not the 80,000 word thesis.

Nov 2015