Careers and Employability Service
Services for PhD students

Career development

Man and a woman sitting at a table together


Even in the later years of their doctoral programmes, only around a third of respondents had definite ideas about their future careers, and about a fifth had little or no idea. 


What do researchers want to do?

Ideally, your career planning should start in year one of your degree so that you’re not worrying about your future at the same time as writing up.

Having said that – whatever stage you are at, there will be something you can do to make progress. In the end it’s down to you to take an active role in considering your future.

Taking a step back to review and consider your options from a broader perspective will enhance the quality of any decisions you make.


Start now...

Here are the four steps to career planning.

Step 1: Review what's gone on before. Read Andrew's reflection on his first year.

The first stage is to review what’s gone before. Ask yourself the following questions:

Why did I decide to undertake a research degree? What motivated me?

For example: intellectual curiosity, response to employment/economic conditions and necessity for future career.

What ‘research’ did I undertake to support this career decision? Was it effective?

For example: talking to academics, careers advisers, and other students, and browsing PhD listings.

Who were my influencers?

For example: undergraduate supervisors, peers and future employers.

On our blog

Andrew Wihelmsen reflects on his first year as a PhD student.

He talks about the four lessons he's learned about himself. 

On to the second; post-hoc analysis of my PhD and where I think I'm going


Step 2: What motivates you and how do you make decisions? Listen to Emma's story

The next stage is to take what you’ve learned about your motivators and your decision-making processes and consider if they were effective and have changed as you’ve matured. Would you apply then in the same way now, or would you approach things differently?

Could my motivation to undertake a research degree be satisfied in roles outside academia?

For example: in industry, education or government.

Should I approach my career research differently this time? What else could I do?

For example: build a useful network of contacts and seek out experts who can advise me.

Have my influencers changed?

For example: family members.

From a PhD Chemistry to equality and diversity roles within higher education

Dr Emma Taylor-Steeds, Equality and Diversity Inclusion Adviser, Kingston University.

Emma talks about her current role and the career choices she made during her PhD Chemistry.

After deciding that a scientific research career was not for her, Emma explains how she broadened her experiences at Nottingham as a way of exploring other career options.


Step 3: Practical barriers

The next step is to acknowledge any practical barriers to your career research and decision-making and consider how they might be overcome. These might include:

Potential barriers and how to overcome them
Practical barrier How to overcome it
Pressure to make a ‘forever’ career decision Take the pressure off yourself and see this next move as a positive step towards future opportunities. Instead of choosing one career for life, you might change jobs and career direction several times.

Workload, family or other commitments

Recognise career thinking as valuable time spent and allocate some time to it, for example, find one hour a week for job ad surfing or LinkedIn profile development and commit to it.

 Take our online career development course to help you commit to career planning.

Fear or lack of confidence

Talk to people and read blogs. Developing a network of contacts is a valuable approach in most sectors of work, including academia. The more informed you feel, the more confident you will be.
Peer pressure Comparing yourself to others can be unhelpful, especially as career development is such an individual issue. 
Procrastination Identify a time and location that suits you and start with elements that you feel more confident about. Continue to record your experiences, look for personal development opportunities at Nottingham and use jobs adverts to explore what's out there. Just making a start will encourage you to continue!
Are you having a crisis and feeling paralysed?  Careers advisers are experts in their field and will be able to help.

Step 4 - Look for career clues to generate career ideas

Look for career clues and use them to generate career ideas. For example, you might ask yourself:

  • What have enjoyed most/least about my research degree?
  • What gives me the most satisfaction in my work?
  • What skills do I enjoy using?
  • What am I passionate about?
  • What skills and expertise have I picked up easily?
  • What working environment brings out the best in me?
  • What values are important to me?


Start to generate career ideas

In the medium term, use your career planning time to research different career areas, make valuable contacts and look for opportunities to raise your profile in useful places, for example in social media discussion groups.

Continue to review and reflect on your experiences, in and out of your workplace, so that you will be in a stronger position to recognise opportunities that might suit your strengths and interests, even if you have no idea yet of the job titles that might interest you.

Consider booking a PhD career development appointment with one of our careers advisers to discuss your options. Please login to MyCareer  to book an appointment.

Career curiosity

Some things you could do to generate initial ideas:

  • Browse job advertisements in a range of places such as, The Guardian and specialist publications in your field of expertise
  • Attend events such as conferences and training days and talk to other attendees or presenters about what they do and how they got there
  • Join online networks that interest you and read the news items and discussion strands to see what’s going on
  • Look around the University – are there other roles such as central support functions that sound interesting?
  • Consider what you do in your leisure time – are there any potential career ideas there that might be interesting to pursue?

Researching the roles and sectors that interest you will give you a more informed idea of what they involve.  

Consider the following questions:

  • Do I have a stereotyped view of this job/sector? Is it accurate?
  • What are the potential growth employment areas in this sector?
  • How could I test the reality of this idea?
  • How much time/effort/money would it cost?


Training, events and further reading

Job and sector events

We offer a wide range of sector-based events in the autumn and spring terms. Speakers at our events are often Nottingham alumni.

We also offer, in conjunction with the Researcher Academy, events targeted at research students; these also involve alumni speakers.


Careers and Employability Service

University of Nottingham
Portland Building, Level D
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

telephone: +44 (0) 115 951 3680
fax: +44 (0) 115 951 3679