What CAN you do after a PhD?

Many thanks to Sharon Maguire, Careers Consultant (Medical School and Vet School), for sharing some valuable insights from speakers at our recent event, PhD Horizons: Career insights for PhD students. This annual event was held earlier this summer with the aim of showcasing the different career opportunities for PhD graduates.

We know that students considering PhD study, or those completing their PhD, are often unaware of the diverse career areas that they could enter. Apart from following an academic career, what else can you do with a PhD?

Some of our speakers were working in roles removed from their subject area, but using the skills they’d gained from their PhD. We had a speaker with a PhD in chemistry who was working in data technology, a religious studies PhD graduate who had set up her own craft business, someone from a music psychology background working in healthcare improvement, and an engineering PhD working in government policy.

Then we had other speakers that were a bit closer to their subject area; an English Literature PhD working in academic publishing, a public health PhD graduate who was working for Public Health Scotland, a physicist working as a scientist for a medical research company, and a speaker with a PhD in pharmacology working in medical writing.

As well as describing what their job involves, and how they got there from their PhD, they shared some insights and tips that they thought would be useful for PhD students exploring their career options (and that we think will be useful for anyone just considering doing a PhD too!).

Messages from the speakers

Building experience

  • Teaching experience gained during the PhD can help broaden your subject expertise beyond your narrow PhD topic.
  • Be proactive in building experience during your PhD by engaging in other activities beyond your research. This could include writing blogs, internships, public engagement or science communication, part-time work, own projects (coding), and more.

Comparison with academic research

  • Speakers outlined some of the reasons they personally did not want to follow an academic career (which will not apply to everyone). These included finding it a lonely career (they wanted to work in a team), too competitive, lack of security in the short term, and the desire to stay in a specific location (not move around for an academic job).
  • Enjoy seeing a more immediate impact of their work than is usual for academic research (e.g. working in policy).
  • One of the challenging things about doing a PhD is that you do not get regular feedback on your performance. You can find this feedback in other jobs and this can help boost self-confidence.
  • One of the great things about doing a PhD is that you are continually learning. Setting up your own business is a great way to continue learning as there are so many different aspects to running a business (e.g. how to market the business using social media, how to navigate complex financial planning, understanding of employment legislation when recruiting).

Working outside academia

  • There are intellectually stimulating and rewarding careers outside academic research. Seek out companies that interest you.
  • The pace of work and what you achieve in a day can feel much greater outside academic research which is enjoyable (medical writer).


  • Many employers do not understand what you gain from a PhD so it is your job to spell out what you can do and the skills you have developed throughout your research degree.
  • Doing a PhD encourages you to ask questions. So apply that same questioning when researching career options!
  • Think about how the company you may work for will allow you to satisfy your personal values and ‘fit’ your personality. The culture of the organisation you work for can be equally as important as the job you do.
  • A cover letter is crucial in applications. It is your chance to show you’ve done your research on the job / company, demonstrate your interest, and show how your skills are relevant to the job.

Listen to the PhD graduates tell you about their jobs and career journeys by viewing the Media Hopper recordings at the links below (University of Edinburgh login required):

Considering something related to your academic research – publishing, industry research, public health and medical communication

Considering something different – healthcare improvement, government policy, data technology and self-employment


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