You’ve finished studying! So, what’s next?

I’ve spent the past years working hard (and partying harder) to obtain three degrees. I’ve thrown my mortarboard in the air and said my goodbyes to the lecture halls, my fellow students, and the student flat I called home. Now it’s time for me to get that great job – and salary – I’ve been promised, and to start living the good life, right? Well, sadly no.

For many, life after university is not all as glorious as they’d hoped it would be. For many, it’s when the real hard work begins. There are many reasons why it can be difficult to land your first job after university. While some factors are out of your control, such as the current state of the economy or personal issues, it’s a good idea to start preparing to enter the job market before you graduate.

Upon graduation, some students discover they have no greater interest in their majors. Others discover a severe lack of job opportunities within their chosen field. The advice I gave myself was to think carefully about what I specifically enjoyed about my studies and the projects I completed along the way.  After discontinuing my PhD, I realised that my dream of becoming a professor in academia wasn’t for me anymore. I would still, however, love to end up in a laboratory doing what I love: Virology.

The first job a graduate takes after university often has a significant impact on the rest of their career. Graduates who obtain a role that has little to do with their area of study, or doesn’t even require a degree, are more likely to stay in either it or a related role for the next few years. Individuals find it difficult to deviate from that path once chosen, decreasing their odds of obtaining employment in their field. Since I started looking for potential jobs, I sadly realised that my first job would probably be in sales. My first interviewer told me that I have a great, bubbly personality and would become an excellent sales lady. But I can’t stop asking myself, did I really study for decades in the science field to become one of those spam callers we all dislike so much? Definitely not. But alas, that is the reality I am facing.

With so many people searching for jobs at the same time after graduation, the job market for entry-level positions is naturally more competitive. Some industries experience more job competition than others and it becomes harder for individual graduates to stand out, even with excellent grades and experience. It was quite disappointing to me when I realised that my field of expertise is not readily available in South Africa as I thought it was. However, it has always been a dream of mine to work internationally, and after a bit of research I decided to apply for research jobs at big companies such as AstraZeneca and Pfizer. Whether I will be considered is a big unknown, but who knows, maybe I will be one of the lucky ones!

At one point or another in your job search, you’re bound to encounter this scenario: You’ve found the perfect job, and the description reads like it was made for you. It seems perfect. But here’s the kicker. You keep reading, and under the requirements, you read that dreaded line: “Must have three-plus years of experience.” Ultimately, experts agree that even if you don’t have the required numbers of years of experience, it is still worth applying for the position. I might not have the doctorate title, but at least I can use my 3 years of studying as work ‘experience’ in my CV. Some might not see it as being of value, but I am sure there is someone out there who will.

Along with experience comes valuable skills, some of which individuals only learn while on the job. Employers often seek specific skills when fulfilling their roles and they may ignore resumes without them. You can gain skills valued by all kinds of employers by volunteering, interning, or working, even if they aren’t in related jobs…but even those positions are very scarce in South Africa.

Many recent graduates often underestimate the power of following up. After completing an interview process, it’s important to follow up with the person who interviewed you via email.  Keep it professional and concise, thanking them for the opportunity and mentioning anything that could set you apart from other candidates. 

So, do I miss being a student? The truthful answer is no. I was a student for almost 12 years, and the reality is that there is more to life than finishing that one big solo project. The scariest part of putting myself out there is that I don’t need anyone’s permission but my own. I must get out of my own way, stop holding myself back and simply take that leap of faith!

Everything will work out in the end…

Every Cloud Has A Silver Lining

I have suffered from anxiety and depression for over 10 years, and I knew the potential threat a PhD might pose to my mental health before I had even started. It’s no secret that the culture of overworking in academia, alongside experiences of bullying and discrimination, contributes to 86% of PhD students reporting marked levels of anxiety. Some students may also face the question: will I ever finish my thesis at all? In my experience, it turns out the answer was a big fat NO.

I got through the first and second years of my PhD well enough.  By the third year, however, I was barely getting out of bed unless I had to go to the laboratory — and sometimes not even then. I hardly engaged with my colleagues, and I cried in front of them more than once. I started skipping important meetings and presentations I had to deliver, and I was constantly making mistakes when it came to my work.  

In June 2021 I was admitted to Denmar, a psychiatric hospital in Pretoria, for a duration of two weeks after a mental breakdown. Admission into a hospital brought me into a therapeutic community where every aspect was designed to have a beneficial effect on me. I was protected from the outside world and the environments that have caused me so much unhappiness. Every day I was offered psychotherapy, individually and in groups, occupational therapy, recreational therapy, work therapy and therapeutic attention from various trained specialists. I was encouraged to express myself, to cry for my mental hardships, and to acknowledge that I needed help to heal. Although I was in a protected setting, I exerted myself to the limits of my ability…and so I became stronger.

Did my situation improve after I went back to the laboratory? Unfortunately, no. Even though I received the best treatment and rehabilitation, I still wasn’t strong enough to deal with the academic environment. A few months later, in April 2022, I made the final decision to deregister from my degree. I have never felt as relieved and happy as I did that day. I gave myself a chance to breathe and be free.

Now some might ask, didn’t you waste 3 years of your life? No, I don’t think I have. As academics we may forget that even though you do not have a paper calling you a graduated Doctor of Philosophy, it is very likely that you learned a few useful techniques during the journey. This is my silver lining. However incomplete my thesis was when I deregistered, I had learned how to read scientific papers, write scientifically, (nervously) present my work to others, work under stressful conditions, improve my critical thinking ,and publish my work in journals. Even outside of academia these are useful skills that will allow me to have a better chance of succeeding in my future career. I am glad that I had the chance to learn these.

I left the university with mixed feelings, however thinking back there were many achievements. I was able to generate a lot of promising results that will lead to many publications for the research group that I have left. I attended multiple online conferences, and was accepted to attend international workshops which I was unfortunately unable to attend due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year I was accepted to attend a conference at the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, USA, to share my findings regarding the discovery of a new virus. I worked very hard to get to that point, and even though I did not get the chance to present there, I count this as a big achievement.

Letting go of my PhD made me realize how important other things were in my life. I used to be completely preoccupied with academic commitments like writing grant proposals and submitting my work to conferences, and most of all pleasing my supervisor. I had no idea what other things I could be doing professionally if I could not be an academic. If I had any time to spend with my family and friends, it had to be planned around my schedule, availability and the mental and emotional state I was in at that current time. PhD took precedence over everything else.

Who you are as a person is more than your research interests and the hard work you have done. This is not meant to reduce the significance of what you have accomplished while getting a PhD, or the degree certificate that some will be able to receive at the end of this road. It is meant to help you realize that there are many other great things ahead of you. You might feel lost at first, but this is usually a sign that you’re embarking on a new adventure, entering an unfamiliar situation. This means more learning, growth, and self-discovery.