Phd job prospects



I'm currently considering whether to accept a Phd offer in the complexity sciences versus accepting a consultancy job.

I love science, research, and really enjoyed my MRes however there is a nagging fear about all the negativity that seems so be swirling round the internet on job prospects in research, particularly in academia.

I just wondered how things looked from the perceptive of people that are going through the phd process.

In addition to general thoughts, I would like to know specifically:

1. Are you confident that there are enough jobs in academia/research that getting a job related to Phd isn't just a crap shoot (as I've heard it described)?

2. do you know of anyone that has completed their Phd and gone on to research or academic work?

3. Do you have much freedom to pursue your own research interests?

4. How many hours do you estimate that you work (by that I don't mean 'work-mode' where you are trying to get things done but get distracted or procrastinate but hours actually working on the Phd or related academic work)?

5. How flexible are working hours (I realise there's a huge range of Phds e.g. web lab rotations probably take away a lot of flexibility but I'm interested in getting a broad idea of what phd life is like)?

Much appreciated,



Hi there! I can only comment from my experiences- I have just completed my PhD in clinical psychology and am about to start a post-doc job at a different university in about 10 days- afraid I don't know much about your subject! But anyway:

1) I don't think there are enough jobs in academia for everyone who does a PhD- I have heard a rough figure of about 30% who make it to post-doc level as a researcher. However, some people don't do a PhD to go into academia anyway. Some do it to get into other careers (many people I know have done a PhD in clinical psychology to get onto the practitioner doctorate in clinical psychology, and have succeeded in this). Others do it after retirement for personal reasons etc.

2) Yes- I do know of quite a few people who have gone on to get post-docs, but also of people who have carried on in research but not managed to secure a job at post-doctoral level (e.g. working as a research assistant). I also know of some who don't continue in research at all as they never manage to secure a research position. There are others who get a first post-doc and then never get another- so as you can see, there are a hundred shades of grey! One thing is for sure- to succeed in the long term you need to be very good at what you do and also need some good luck and to know the right people.

3) I designed and won funding for my own PhD project, so obviously had the freedom to pursue whatever I wanted to, but many people apply for specific projects and have to carry out whatever was on the original proposal. Of course, if successful, researchers write their own grants for projects they want to carry out so get some freedom in this way, but this comes with experience.

4) Some people treat their PhDs as a 9-5 job and finish on time, but many over-run into a 4th year, often for reasons beyond their control (such as participant recruitment, supervisors being very slow to turn work around etc). Personally, I worked a minimum of these hours every day, often more, and usually one or both days at the weekend in my first 2 years, a bit less in the third year (when I met my boyf and got engaged!). I went from start-viva in 2 years and 10 months, but have no children etc to look after, and had a sup who was exceedingly quick to turn drafts around. Others manage by doing far fewer hours- it really depends on your topic.

5) I treated my PhD as a job and therefore stuck to a minimum of office hours, but people have very different routines, and in my team as long as the work gets done, nobody is that bothered whether you do office hours or not, work in the office or at home, etc etc, as a PhD student. Obviously that's different when you work on a post-doc etc.

Overall my PhD experience was a great one (although with difficult and stressful periods), and I don't regret it as yet. However, it isn't the most stable career path to start out on, so it's hard work to secure a career in research.

Hope that helps a bit- someone more in your subject area might have more to add!
Best, KB


I think the opportunities to stay in research after a PhD vary massively by subject area -I would say as general rule that there are a lot more jobs in health/science related areas than there are in the arts. But even within these broad disciplines there will be differences between specific subject areas. In my subject area there are quite a lot of jobs but there are other issues to consider....contracts will often be fixed term, you may have to move to another city, you may have to consider a job not in your main research area. I'd say around half of the students in my department stay in academia post PhD, and those that haven't made an active decision to do something else rather than applying and failing to get a research job.

A PhD is very much 3-4 years of training to be an academic researcher. If you don't want to be an academic researcher it is definitely worth thinking through your motivations (because you definitely have to be motivated to make it to the end!)

Academic jobs generally have flexible working hours but this will depend on your department and nature of the work (e.g. friends doing lab based projects had much less flexibility than I have had).

Hope that's some help!


It's a difficult one, my experiences of people doing a PhD is that come the end of it they either love academia or they hate it, I guess your experience depends on a number of factors (yourself, the project, supervisor, department, university etc).

1. If I remember correctly there are about 4 or 5 times as many people with PhDs as there are postdoc positions and as a result applying for postdoc positions is very competitive, how many positions are available in your area depends very much on the field you are in, and how broad your area of interest is.

2. I know alot of people who have completed a PhD and gone on into research (at Postdoc level), equally I know alot of people who have completed their PhD and never want to work in research or science again. Of those I know who are now postdocs some made the simple progression from PhD student to postdoc in the same group, others via contacts they had made in the department or at conferences and some by just applying for advertised positions, (the latter being the more difficult). If you want to stay in academia after a PhD it's good to make contacts and collaborate with people during your PhD, and you have to be flexible about where you want to live/work as generally you'll have to move to where work is available.

3. This depends on the project and the supervisor, during my PhD I had alot of freedom to choose where my project went, my PhD consisted of about 3 seperate projects, one of which my supervisor started my out on, the other two I basically picked up myself. Although this isn't necessarily typical, some PhD projects are alot more well defined.

As a postdoc my current project is essentially a continuation of my PhD, so basically my supervisor lets me do whatever I want (within reason). But my contract is coming to and end and I am looking at other projects, typically postdoc positions seem to want you to devote 70-85% of your time to that project and use the rest to persue your own research interests and personal development.

4. I guess for my PhD for the most part I worked ~40-45 hrs a week, when I was writing up it went a little crazy

5. Again flexibility of working hours depends on the project/lab rules/supervisor. It is fairly common for labs working with hazards have set or core working hours and people aren't allowed to work outside these times for safety reasons. Or if you are using shared equipment you have to with it when you have your allocated time (this may mean long hours to get work done). Alternatively you may have the freedom to work whenever you like, my officemate worked strange hours often starting at 5pm and working into the night.


Thanks for the replies it has really helped.

You see the info here is actually quite encouraging and makes me want to go for it but then I read things like this blog from phillip greenspun - - and think hmm, maybe he has a point!


If you look on the internet, on blogs, newspapers, virtually everywhere, you will only find negative views about doing a PhD, because it is mostly the people who have had a bad experience who write those things, the people who failed or the people who couldn't take it and comforted themselves in another way. Or the people who successfully completed their PhDs, but chose a poor project topic, or didn't complete it in the correct way, so couldn't get a job at the end, or realised that in their field PhDs may not be so important. Or people who don't really understand what a PhD is (never done it). Or people who didn't realise that a PhD is merely a stepping stone to lots more work, post doc positions etc, and get scared off and then become disillusioned because of how they wasted their time only going half-way up a ladder (thinking that it would get them to the top by itself). A PhD isn't just a qualification, it is much more than that, but if you don't network right and focus on the right things and topics and skills and people then it is only worth a qualification, you wont see the benefit. That's why so many people complain, because they think "I did my PhD, now why can't i get work" not understanding that you can't just do your PhD, you have to do it in the right way.

The people who think well of a PhD generally don't write about it, news tends to be "bad news", so you just doing see the positive views on the internet.

Yes, in reality it is hard, there are no jobs, but there are no jobs for PhD students or people without PhDs. I prefer to have the PhD and struggle than not have one and struggle.

Yes, it is expensive and there is a lot of debt, and your salary will never come close to justifying the work you put in and the sacrifices you make, but we do it because it is what we want to do.

You only live once, i would prefer to struggle with no money doing something i enjoy rather than have a middle-ground decent salary working a boring office job.


Ender, Certainly I agree that its no surprise most of the views on the net are negative as people are much more likely to post something if they want to complain - not to mention all the trolling that goes on! Also I agree with everything you say about having the Phd and the job market etc.

However, I don't think the views of Greenspun fall into this category - he actually has a phd! Also, he is a millionaire who has created some successful startups and I believe he still does some teaching at MIT from time-to-time. When people just have a rant about phds I understand that really they're just letting off steam, but when I hear a well structured argument like Greenspun's it really does make me second guess my desire to do research as I agree that its better to enjoy what I do than work just for the salary - but research can get pretty boring and repetitive at times too!


I have heard many times that for the number of years at uni etc. that academic careers have one of the worst financial returns. And there is probably a lot of truth in that. BUT I know a lot of people in other graduate professions that don't earn as much as people might think, and certainly less than a postdoc salary - the job market is tough for everyone at the moment. With regards to the article you reference - remember that's from a US perspective. UK PhDs are amongst the shortest in the world (‘only’ 3-4 years full time). So it is entirely possible to have a PhD here by your mid 20s unlike the US or much of Europe where the youngest you can be seems to be closer to 30. Starting post doc salaries in my subject area range from around £26,000 to £34,000 with most currently being around £30,000. I don't know if this is representative of other subject areas, but I think these figures are higher than that article states?

I think a bigger issue is with career progression. I went to a presentation that talked about the huge attrition from PhD to postdoc, then from post doc to second post doc, then from postdoc to team leader….. So it is definitely true to say that only a small proportion of PhD graduates will ever become team leaders. But I think how you view this all depends what your aspirations are - I enjoy research and want to continue in this line of work but I personally do not aspire to lead a team and am fortunate to be in a subject area where it is possible to work as a senior researcher long term (I think this is harder in lab based sciences as I have heard from friends that you can get to a stage where you are too expensive to employ as a post doc….). So again, your subject area is key.

There is a lot more to a job than a salary - academia generally offers flexible working hours and decent holidays, often the chance to travel, and the opportunity to direct your own work both on a day to day basis and longer term. One woman in my department left after her PhD to work in finance (with the potential for a very high salary) - she left after less than a year to come back to do a post doc as she missed the working environment of academia (and like me she has no ambition to be a team leader - she just enjoys research).