Is doing a PhD worth it? How do you decide whether or not to get one? We ask Kate Murray - the Deputy Head of Careers & Employability at King's College London. We also talk about transitioning into industry, whether employers value PhDs in the workplace, and the careers and employability resources available for people at KCL and publicly.
Here is the list of websites we talk about:
https://keats.kcl.ac.uk/mod/tab/view.php?id=3435432 (King's College London specific)
@kcldo1thing (King's College London specific)
Nicol Bergou 0:02
Welcome to the second episode of PhDs, the podcast for current and potential PhD students in the UK. My name is Nicol and I'm here with my co host Carolin. In this episode, we'll be talking to Kate Murray, about careers and employability.
Carolin Oetzmann 0:21
We're excited to have Kate on our podcast. She's a deputy head of careers and employability at King's College London, as well as co-chair of the national careers task group for researchers, students and research staff is a member of the Vitae Working Group on researcher destination and works on the amazing careers in your ears podcast. So a lot of really valuable experience and valuable insight and advising early career researchers on their employability. Welcome, Kate, tell us about your role within the careers and employability service and the work you've been doing with the careers in your ears podcast.
Kate Murray 1:02
Oh, well. Thank you, Carolin. That's a really lovely introduction. And thank you, Nicol, as well. It's really lovely to be here with you both. And it's great that there's this podcast happening as well. So congratulations on getting it started. So yeah, you've kindly introduced me with all those various roles. My main role with regards to you guys is that I'm the career consultant that works specifically at the ippn looking after research students and research staff. I'm also the lead within the careers employability at King's helping kings think about careers and employability for researchers, but you're my faculty. So I meet one to one with PGR students and with research staff and help them think about what the best next steps for them might be. In addition to that I'm also one of four careers consultants that does this job, but I am the one that specifically works for the ippn. So we put on a series of webinars, we put on some workshops with employers, we do a lot to help researchers really think about what it is that they've got to offer employers in the future, help them sort of define their career journey, where are they in their career journey, and help them take the next best steps for them. I love speaking to researchers, you do such fascinating work. I always say to people outside of work that anything I've ever learned about science has been by talking to the researchers at King's, you've really made up for a lack in my education, I feel I've learnt quite a lot over the years of talking to you all, so I find your stories fascinating. If I'm absolutely honest, most people have the similar concerns when they come and talk to me, which is around obviously, what are they going to do next in that conversation about feeling comfortable about taking the decision whether to stay in academia, or whether it's going to do something else? How might you combine the two of them? What good things there are to do to help you make those decisions. That's the conversation that I have most often. And the conversation that I love to have, quite often we see our clients more than once. And you know, I need to remind you that when people come and talk to us, it's a confidential space. It's a neutral space, I don't mind what it is that you go and do next, I want you to do the thing that's right for you to do next. And it is a pretty expert and experienced space, I reckon I've probably spoken to more PhD students than most PhD students have spoken to, certainly in this context. And I love keeping in touch with our alumni on LinkedIn. So every year I kind of do a tour of my LinkedIn contacts, and I look through them and I go ah that's what that person has gone on to do now. So I have a great regard for the work that you do. And I'd love to find out what people, where people take that. So you've asked the work about what what I do with careers and your ears, I'm going to say right now, I'm just a contributor to careers in your ears. That's my brilliant colleague, Vicki set it up with a lot of help from Donald. And we try to do a series sort of every term. And there'll probably be four or five episodes in each series, the editions that we did over the summer of 2020, had a focus very much obviously on helping people at this really difficult time. But up until then, and we'll carry on with some of those things, we also talk to alumni and other people who have PhDs or work as researchers and find out more about their lives.
Nicol Bergou 4:25
So I've actually used the careers and employability services myself both when I was just finishing my master's degree at King's, and I was looking to apply for research assistant jobs. And then later on when as a research assistant, I was applying for PhDs and I had some interviews coming up and I found it a really, really useful tool and a useful service to use because before my PhD interview, I did a mock interview with their career services. And I got some really, really good feedback about you know, what things I should be focusing on and my strengths and you know, maybe things that I'm not as strong with but maybe I should reflect on needing more training in those aspects that I wasn't very confident with. And yeah, it's definitely been something that I'm, you know, looking back on thinking that it's helped me tremendously. And I know that we're just talking from the perspective of being at King's College London but I think most universities will have a similar service, I would definitely recommend to anyone who is applying for jobs or considering applying for PhDs to reach out to them and use those services, because they are there for you know, for students and staff members to use.
Kate Murray 5:35
That's fantastic, I'm so glad that you think that we did a good job with you, Nicol, that's brilliant to hear. It's certainly true that most universities have a career service. It's not always true that universities have specialists provision for researchers. So some University definitely do. And others have people who are perhaps less used to working with researchers. But you're absolutely right, you should seek people out, take the advice that you can, and certainly practice interviews is a brilliant way into using the Career Service, it's something that we know really makes a difference for people. So I'm glad you had a good experience.
Carolin Oetzmann 6:06
So I guess Nicol kind of just talked about her current situation and how she's been using the careers and employability service. Personally, I am a research assistant and still playing around with the idea of doing a PhD. Because it does really feel like quite a big decision to some extent. I think, hopefully, I'm not alone in thinking that. So what are some of the key things you think people or I should consider before wanting to do a PhD or applying to do one?
Kate Murray 6:38
Well, I think that's such a great question, Carolin. And I think when you are part of a research intensive organisation like King's, and in the faculty that you're working for, at the moment, it's really tempting to assume that this is the only way that from where you are as an RA moving on to a PhD, or possibly a postdoc that that's the only way the only possible career path. So I think you're asking a really good question. Obviously, you know, Nicol's taken one particular route onwards, as they were in terms of applying for and getting on a PhD, but you're definitely right to ask the question. So what are the key things people should consider is your question. And my response? The first thing really is, how do you want to be different afterwards? What do you want to be different about yourself after doing a PhD? So in terms of your employability, at King's, we talk about employability, being knowledge, actually skills and experience? So in terms of those things, what do you want to be different about yourself? And if the answer is, you know, more knowledge on a particular topic, or I really want to learn these particular research skills, or I want to have the experiences of attending a conference or publishing a paper, and if it seems that a PhD is going to fulfil that for you, fantastic, away you go, then I'm guessing that's the right thing for you to do. But if those sorts of things aren't coming up, when you're thinking to yourself, who do I want to be, that's different, you know, in three or four years time, if those aren't in there for you, then you need to find with our help something else that you want to do. So it really is, you know, in three or four years time, or five or six, depending how long it takes to get onto a programme or to find the funding to do something. It's really about trying to have that vision about what do you look like in five or six times and is the PhD the right route to get you there for. So that's a really key thing. And we could spend hours talking about that stuff. And I've got you here that's at the beginning of that journey. And Nicol has gone a little bit through that journey. So we could already be talking about what's different for Nicol compared with where you are right now, who knows, lots of things. So we could be talking about that for a really long time. But there's only one answer, or is a different answer for you, you need to think about what is the right answer for you. So that's one thing What would you, how would your employability be different as a result of doing a PhD, you would expect me to say I would hope that you would be looking at what the job market would be looking like whether you've got a PhD or whether you've not got a PhD. And I know we'll be talking about that in a minute. So I won't talk about it now. But I would hope that you're thinking about the afterwards bits before it as well. And in fact, when you're making your applications, you'd need to be doing that anyway. And then of course, there's so many practical things that you need to do, so be finding the right supervisor, finding the right topic, understanding all the various schemes might be how do you go about getting funding what the applications are like for the different institutions, blah, blah, blah, all of those really key and practical things. And inevitably, different institutions will do things differently. Different faculties will do things differently. So it's like a massive research project at this side of it to figure out how you do some of those really practical things. So but you would expect me to say that the really key thing you need to know, at this point is what you think you want to do with it afterwards.
Carolin Oetzmann 9:59
I think that makes a lot of sense for sure that that's kind of the key. It's the PhD, I guess, to some extent, is just a stepping stone to get you to wherever it is that you want to go next In terms of people, then going through that process and maybe talking to you in the careers and employability service, is it a questionnaire, as I guess that can tell you, what are you looking for? Is it just in discussion with somebody like you that individuals often kind of get that clarity? Or how, how does that process kind of take hold for some individuals.
Kate Murray 10:35
So it is a process of discussion, yes there are career questionnaires out there. And I know that, you know, it's always very tempting to do those, because they bring with them a degree of certainty. And you think hurray, somebody told me what I can do. But really, it's about a discussion, isn't it about what's the right thing for you now, or in the next year? Also, what's the right thing for you. And as I say, I think it's a very difficult thing for people in our research intensive environments to try to think in a very objective way about themselves, because it's so tempting to look at what everybody around you has done and just assume that that's the only way that you can do things. It's a brave person who takes a different decision and goes in a different path. I mean, there are some quite practical things about whether or not, how many places there are available, how successful you are in your applications, and all those sorts of things. So what we generally say in careers is that you're kind of running Plan B, along at the same time as Plan A, just in order to give yourself some breathing space, we try very hard to make sure that people can bring their dreams to reality. But we're also really, really realistic about things. And that's why we're always talking to people about what else can you be doing and who else can you be talking to. But I think some key things to do are to be talking to people who have just embarked on PhDs, which is why your podcast is so great, try to be talking to people who haven't done one as well. And we run an awful lot of events with employers, where you can just be talking to employers about the kinds of people that they employ, as in what kinds of qualifications people have, and what sort of roles there are. So there's definitely a big sort of self education piece to be done around what does my labour market look like for me with one and without one. And then there's a point at which you make a decision for yourself, you go with what feels right, so we can support you with that research, we can support you with thinking, we can support you to find people to talk to that there comes a point where it has to be the right thing for you as well.
Carolin Oetzmann 12:39
Thank you for that. I think that makes a lot of sense. Again, I think one of the first questions, potential PhD students often also ask themselves is, is it worth doing a PhD? I know we've kind of touched on it a little bit before already. But I think a lot of students also including myself, get worried that if they don't want to pursue kind of the very traditional route of a postdoc, they might then end up being in the same place career wise, after completing a PhD, as they are now, competing for similar positions outside of academia. And obviously, it must be quite different for different industries. I was just wondering what your take was on that thought process?
Kate Murray 13:24
I think, again, you're asking me some really good questions, it really gets to the heart of this whole thing. So well done. This is a difficult question to ask basically, what value is a PhD to an employer is a really difficult question to answer. So I'll tell you straight off that the statistics that we have show that people with PhDs do earn more money than people with undergraduates or straight master's degrees, however, and inevitably, you know, you're all good at your data. So you know, this, however, that doesn't take into account what people's starting points, that's looking at averages. So it's perfectly possible that some people come into their PhDs already as quite high earning individuals, and they go back to that role after their PhD. And that might be what's skewing the data set. And it is also true in the UK, that you're not necessarily paid more money just because you've got a different qualification. I'm afraid the UK doesn't operate like that. That's probably a different story in different markets. However, what we do know and employers tell us this that people with PhDs are very attractive to them. I remember one particular employer says in a panel, he talks about the intellectual powerhouse that PhDs bring, because they know that PhDs have got an incredible way to look at a problem to turn a problem on its head, that they have that resilience, determination to keep going to problem solve all of the time to think creatively about things. You're that bit older at the end of a PhD than you are after your undergraduate or your masters. So you've anyway got some maturity. I know that your supervisors encourage you to think about a PhD like doing a job. So you've got that sense of kind of professionalism that you're developing through your PhD. So there's an awful lot of things that employers do value about people with a PhD. I remember one of our alumni, didn't get a job because she had a PhD, but when she was in the workplace, she was sitting around the committee table or in a meeting of some kind. And she was able to explain to the company that she was working with the tools that she'd used to solve a particular data problem, and she was effectively informing them about research methodology. So she was bringing in the sort of ethics and integrity and analysis and synthesis skills that she developed as a PhD, it was second nature to her that she would have a strong methodology to the way that she worked stuff out. And that they were able to give her a different job, they were able to kind of recognise that for her. So I can't sit here and say, you're definitely going to get a better job because you've done a PhD. But in terms of the way that you can talk about what you've got, and in terms of the skills that you develop, and the depth, the quality of the depth of skills that you've got, you're certainly in a different place, from people who've gone from most masters's. I don't want to be generalistic about it, but obviously, you've got three years worth of, of training, on top of all of that, plus, you seen a really difficult project through, from beginning to end, you may well have, you know, done other things in terms of sort of budget management, or even some of the kind of public outreach type things. So it gives you that space and opportunity to develop a lot of skills. So I hope that that sounds reassuring, I will say that the UK is not great at recognising qualifications. In that sense, there's probably a residual worry is to strong a word but maybe a question in the mind of some employers about people with a PhD applying for jobs that people with an undergraduate or masters can perfectly well do, they would wonder why you do that. But that's the kind of thing that you work with us to help you kind of figure out, you know, what's the right job for me to go to how can I make myself look attractive on paper for these employers, there aren't that many schemes which have got the word PhD only written all over them. So we work with you to understand what the kinds of roles that you can do. But I hope that that is a bit reassuring, at least you bring tremendous value to employers, we think PhD applicants are fantastic.
Carolin Oetzmann 17:18
That definitely gives a lot of reassurance. And also that obviously, careers and employability services can kind of help you frame your PhD in the right way.
Nicol Bergou 17:30
So I was just wondering if you could touch a little bit on, so if I later down the line after completing my PhD, if I decide not to stay in academia, and actually go into the industry, do you think the transition is kind of smooth, or? I did my undergraduate and I went to do my masters. And then I got a job as a research assistant in academia. And when I was deciding whether I should go on to do a PhD, or whether I should, you know, continue working, I was looking at getting a job in the industry. And I kind of always felt like my skill set, is so focused on the things that we do in academic research, I wasn't sure I would be able to apply it to a different setting. So do you think doing a PhD gives you the background that you can then go and apply what you have done what you have learned to do in a different setting, working in a you know, for profit company?
Kate Murray 18:25
People always worry about making transitions from any sector to any sector. So when you're talking to a careers person, or you're talking to any kind of recruitment person to us, it's almost like an almost a false distinction between academia and industry, it's moving from one place to another place. And if we were helping any client move from one place to another place, then we have to help you think about what you look like to the new place, and how your past experiences can be made to look relevant to the to the new situation that you find yourself in. I think, particularly if you're talking about moving into the life science industry, then they really understand what you bring as an academic, for example. So in that sense, the transition Yes, is pretty smooth. But there are some really, really key things that you can do during your PhD to help you understand that. And I've mentioned already the events that we run, we bring onto campus, metaphorically speaking, an awful lot of employers, we probably have about 1000 employers per academic year, who do talks for us who run workshops for us who appear on panels and in podcasts and all sorts of things. And my suggestion, my plea, my request is that everybody doing research, whether that's an RA, or a PhD, or a postdoc, or a technician, or a teaching fellow, that everybody every so often checks in with what's on offer sees an employer that they like the look of, and spends a little bit of time you know, often our events are an hour or less, just a little bit of time hearing from people who are outside academia so that they can understand, almost they can understand what the language is the way that these people speak about their roles, what they say about getting experience what they say about making applications, what they say about networking, because you know, I can say all this stuff, and I will say all this stuff, I'm really happy talking here to you guys. And I love it when I speak to researchers individually, but it's much, much more powerful if you just spent a bit of time scrolling through career Connect. So career Connect is the website where you book appointments, where you find our events, just trawl through that we will have life science employers, so there'll be licenced consultants, there'll be patent attorneys, there'll be people that work in the lab, people that work outside the lab, medcomms people. Spend some time hearing how these people talk about this, pretty much everybody who does that will have been in your situation, they'll either have been an RA, or they'll have been a PhD student. And then they've made the move. So we're bringing you people that you can listen to, and ask questions of in our events. And I'd really, really urge people to take advantage of that. Even if it's not labelled for PhD students or for researchers, please just spend the time, check out when they come in, just spend a bit of time understanding how, how they made those transitions and what you can do to just get yourself in the right frame of mind to be thinking about it.
Nicol Bergou 21:26
Great advice. Thank you. I'll make sure I will do that.
Carolin Oetzmann 21:31
And we love the careers in your ears podcast. I've listened to it quite a lot. I think it's very engaging. And I learned a lot more than I thought I would listening to it, quite frankly. And just hearing all the different stories. Obviously, you said that you're a contributor on that podcast. What have you learned about employability after doing a PhD? from listening to these different stories and the different interviews of former PhD students? And maybe Is there any particular episode or any particular story that stood out to you that you could share?
Kate Murray 22:10
I love careers in yours as well. Partly, I love the title. To be honest, I can't think who came up with a title. I think it was Vicki. But it is a great podcast. I think what I've learned is that all of the things that you have expressed in your questions to me today are precisely the things that our alumni talk about, and our PhD speakers talk about. They all worry about what they're going to look like when they're not in academia anymore. They all worry about, are they making the right decisions, they all worry about what their next step might be, even though they look like they're doing perfectly interesting jobs already. So I think that speaks to that whole kind of human need for reassurance. I will also say that I think that researchers spend a lot of time researching what their next job might be. And they kind of think that there's this powerful moment when a truth will be revealed. And that's the next thing rather than trusting their guts and moving forward. So I think people get a little bit paralysed about making decisions because they think they just find out one more thing, then that'll help them with their decisions. So that comes to me as well when I listen to those podcasts. So it's a one particular episode that stood out to me, I'm going to slightly sidestep the case study question I have to say because the one episode that I find most useful, is the one recorded with our now former head of careers and employability, Dr. Kate Daubney, who talks about the value that researchers have. And it's so powerful. She herself does have a PhD in music research. And and she talks about her journey from music as an academic into the professional services role that she has has now, she's just moved on from her role within King's. And she talks really powerfully about what it is that researchers bring the fantastic way that you have to go from I think she talks about the knowledge that sits on a pinhead into thinking about the incredible array of attributes, skills and experiences that you bring. So she really helps people really understand just that wonderfulness that you have. And researchers tend to get so focused in because you have to, in order to get through your PhD gets so focused in on that one tiny piece of knowledge and forget the wider world of yourself. So I'd really encourage you to look or listen, I should say to the careers in your ears episode with Kate Daubney.
Nicol Bergou 24:34
Yeah, we'll put a link to this episode in our episode description.
Carolin Oetzmann 24:38
One of the episodes that really stood out to me was when obviously it's a lot of people that kind of went that route, didn't do a postdoc and went into industry afterwards. But you also feature people that were just the more traditional route for research and kind of went into the postdoc and are now in a researcher position and I I think that that's really interesting as well, because often now people think about, oh, what can I do that's in industry. But it's also very important to look at academia. And the merit that is in staying in that same pipeline.
Kate Murray 25:16
I think that's true. I think it's really important for people listening to your podcast to remember that the statistics show us that around about 60% of the people will have a job not in academia three or four years after they complete their studies. So it's really important, yes, a bunch of people will stay, and the majority of people will go, or there might be a blend in what they do. So that's why these sorts of case studies are so important for us.
Carolin Oetzmann 25:42
And finally, are there any other helpful resources that you are aware of that might be good for some of our listeners, both inside and outside of King's obviously have kind of already touched on that quite a lot, particularly internal to King's. But is there anything else that you think might be relevant to mention here, maybe particularly for those that are still contemplating the concept of doing a PhD, or those that are in the beginning stages of it and thinking about the next step?
Kate Murray 26:13
Honestly, there are so many researchers, research students are a very well research group of people, it must be said, so there's, there's an awful lot of support and help available for you. So I'm going to give you maybe five or six different places to go to. One is the Keats pages that we have careers pages for researchers. So that's we did a big revamp of that, this summer, summer 2020, it will only continue to grow, because there's so much stuff that we can do. And you should make sure that you look at the Centre for doctoral studies research pages, or researcher development and training pages as well. There's two places to have a look at which are kind of more, what's the word sort of giving you a sort of national and an international picture. So you should always look at jobs.ac.uk they've got a very good set of careers pages on their website. Plus, of course, you can be having a look at the jobs pages, because it never hurts to understand what the money looks like and what the job titles are. And then there's one called the League of European research universities (LERU) leru.org. And so if you're a European researcher, or thinking of working for a European institution, you should look there. And somewhere on there, buried on their website is, it's called the observatory, it's talking about what it's like to work in the different European countries. So leru.org. So those are the kind of pan national international pages to be looking out. And then there's three ones to look at as well. One is jobsontoast.com, which is a really good place and support for PhD candidates. That's I think, I believe he's a UK guy Chris Humphrey that runs that, there's an Australian equivalent, called the thesiswhisperer.com. So have a look at that one. And then the Professor is in is a blog, and careers thoughts about academic and non academic life in the states as well. So those three are really good. And then we were talking about case studies just a moment ago. And there's a really good website with lots of lots of different case studies published from PhD students at Oxford, and that's called research-careers.org. So, hopefully, that gives people quite a range of places to go look at. If you're still thinking about looking for a PhD, then a good website to look at is just called findaphd.com. So it will never have every single PhD opportunity that there is, but it will be a good place to start.
Carolin Oetzmann 26:18
Well, thank you so much for all of those invaluable resources. As you said, there are so many websites, it is often hard to know where to start your search. So getting a refined selection that you have found most helpful for many PhD students you've spoken to is really great. We will be sure to check them out. And I guess this concludes this episode. Thank you, Kate, for speaking to us. It has been wonderful having you on and you will most definitely be linking all of these resources.
Nicol Bergou 29:05
Yeah, thank you for coming on our podcast.
Kate Murray 29:07
Oh, no problem. Thank you so much for inviting me. It's been a great treat to meet you both. And I really wish you well with your podcast as well. So congratulations for doing it. And I hope everybody who's listened and is listening, finds it helpful. Please do just get in touch with us. That is what we're here to do is to support you all in this decision making. So thanks very much indeed.