The following is a practical guide to the activities that postgraduate physics students should undertake to enhance their skills and future employability, and to prepare for life after their postgraduate degree or PhD.
There is a range of initiatives aimed at supporting research staff – including postgraduates – in universities and helping them to develop their careers. Each institution should be able to provide students with more information about what to expect and what is on offer. Detailed information can be found in the Concordat for the Career Development of Researchers (2008), which was agreed by UK universities and funding bodies.
It is useful for students to join one or more of the Institute of Physics's subject groups. They are an excellent way to network and keep up to date with the subject. Group members are eligible to apply to the Research Student Conference Fund, which offers bursaries of £250 bursaries to attend conferences.
Postgraduate students can share their love of physics with the public or in schools. This can be very rewarding and helps to develop communication skills, which are highly valued by employers in all sectors. See our outreach section for more details.
The Institute of Physics also runs training workshops that are particularly suitable for postgraduates who want to organise their own outreach events. It also has a Physics Communicators Group, with details of activities that students can volunteer in.
Studying for a postgraduate qualification develops many skills which are not directly related to a particular research subject – including time management, professional ethics, communication and
presentation skills, negotiation skills, writing skills and project management. Students can read more about what they are likely to learn and how training can help in the article ‘Transferable skills training for PhD students’
There are many opportunities to develop skills through further training, including GRADSchools, which help students to develop personal effectiveness, communicate successfully and manage their careers. Other programmes include Broadening Horizons, Effective Researcher and Careers in Focus, in which postgraduates gain insight into specific careers.
The Institute offers a range of online transferable skills courses that are free to members. Topics include time management, project management and communicating complex ideas.
Students may already have a mentor in the form of a supervisor or someone else they know professionally who is more experienced and can guide them in their career choices.
If not, the Institute can help them to find one. It publishes the booklet Working Together to help guide them through the process.
Preparing for life after a postgraduate course
Some students will be thinking of continuing in research; others may plan to start on a new path altogether. Read here about what other physics postgraduates have gone on to do immediately after graduating. There are also stories of the career journeys that physics postgraduates have taken.
For more information about research opportunities, the booklet Research fields in physics is a useful resource.
For detailed advice on writing a CV and preparing for a job, the Physicist’s Guides series of booklets are extremely useful. In particular, the Physicist’s Guide to Raising Your Profile may be useful at this stage in a student’s career because it offers tips on how to ensure that they stay on the “radar screen” of senior managers and potential employers.
For those considering a move away from research, the New Directions guide is likely to be useful. It is aimed specifically at physicists who are planning a career change. The Institute’s website has some handy tips for those who are still wondering what to do next.
Postgraduate physics students who are interested in the policy aspects of their work may wish to apply for a fellowship at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. These run for three months over the summer.
After a postgraduate degree, students will be specialised in one area and they will have picked up some useful skills, but it is important that they keep improving and broadening their work skills throughout their career. In the future they may wish to gain accreditation for their professional skills and experience and become a chartered physicist or chartered engineer, which will enhance their employability
Life as a postdoc
For those who are about to embark on a post-doctoral research position, this article can give them a better idea of what to expect.
last edited: February 05, 2013