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…

Society VS PhD

Got your undergrad degree? “Congratulations!” Got your honours degree? “Wow, keep it up!” Got your Master’s degree? “Amazing! You’re going to THRIVE” Getting your PhD? “…Oh, still studying huh?”.

Can all my fellow PhD buddies raise their hands? This one is for you guys.

I can’t speak for all PhD students, but from what I’ve seen and heard, society doesn’t really understand what doing a PhD means. I’m not even sure they know what it stands for, PhD = Doctor of Philosophy. As a woman in STEM, I feel incredibly proud of how far I’ve come in science, and of the opportunity that I received to do my PhD. However, I don’t always feel this way when I enter a conversation about career trajectories, family goals or financial freedom.

PhD programmes differ in each country and field, some offer coursework in the early years while others (like mine) are conducted by research and I’m only marked on my final thesis so when a person asks me if I’m still “studying”, I always feel conflicted as to how to answer, because the version of “studying” that society knows, i.e. sitting in a library memorizing a pile of books for a series of tests or exams, is not the same as me “studying” pancreatic cancer through working in the lab, analysing my results, and writing up that thesis.

I often blame society. It has not painted us PhD students or even those who have obtained their PhDs in a great light. It often makes us look like boring, introverted, unskilled people. If I had to be vocal about my thoughts towards society, it might go something like this…

Dear Society,

A PhD is a JOB. The only difference is that sometimes the pay isn’t that great but show me a person who doesn’t complain about their pay-check every month. I get up every morning, and often work overtime during the weekend too, I respond to emails, write research papers, spend time in a lab coat and gloves, and go home feeling exhausted, just like you.

When asked what I was studying during my first year at university, I remember someone replying, “Science? Okay, well unless you go all the way to a PhD, you won’t end up making money”. Well, I’m here now, doing the PhD, and guess what? Those same people are now telling me to find a job because having a PhD makes me overqualified and nobody will want to hire me. Out of the very few that have made comments like this, ZERO have a PhD. And that’s just the point. How can I, a scientist, tell a painter to stop painting because they won’t find a job? I have no information about painters, the careers they can have, or the places they could go.

Please stop asking me, “When will you finish studying?” because, like you, I have no idea! I take it day-by-day, one experiment at a time. And I love it, one of the best parts of my PhD is the flexibility. But along with that, comes self-discipline.

So, you might be wondering after all has been said, why do I want to do this PhD, what’s so special about it? Well, a PhD is the most personal choice one can make. NOBODY can force you into it, or out of it (although some circumstances can get the better of us). Believe it or not, I am not doing a PhD to stay in academia or research. Instead, I have plans to graduate and move into a scientific corporate or industry setting as quickly as possible. So why am I doing a PhD if I have no intention of continuing with lab research? Again, that’s the point.

Society believes that if you’re doing a PhD that means 2 things: you’re becoming a lecturer OR you’re going to be in a lab for the rest of your life. Firstly, there’s nothing wrong with those 2 options but doing a PhD means you have the ability to LEARN, be flexible, manage multiple projects and handle large sets of data while designing and implementing changes to the project over time.

There are so many skills and techniques that you end up leaving with once you’re done with your PhD, that you can work at the highest possible position because of your capabilities and that’s something that I hope to achieve.

A PhD is not just a degree, it’s a life skill that only a handful of people are privileged to have (Okay, I’ll stop the glorifying here, we all know that there are some toxic parts of a PhD too!).


The PhD student

P.S. Shoutout to my family who have always and continue to support me 😊

So, I hope these words coming straight from a PhD student help you to understand the value of doing a PhD and why unsolicited advice from those without PhDs should be taken with a pinch of salt. Throughout the few conversations I have had with professionals that have a PhD, they have only ever given me a “thumbs up”.

I remain positive that in a couple of years, if not soon, my PhD will push me up as high as I can possibly go, not because of the “Dr” title, but because of the skills and tenacity that my PhD has and continues to give me.