Career options for PhD-holders are explored at IOP event

25 October 2016

Particle physicist and science writer Professor Jon Butterworth spoke at an IOP event on 19 October to explore career options for people with PhDs that also had input from physicists in government, industry, finance and academia talking about their current roles.

Career options for PhDs-holders are explored at IOP event

More than 80 postgraduates came to the event, ”PhD careers: the options”, which focused on how the skills gained in physics research are sought after by a range of employers, how people with PhDs can make the most of their transferable skills to secure careers both within and outside academic research, and how physicists are using those kills in their everyday work.

Butterworth described how he had made different moves in his career, leading to his current position as head of the physics and astronomy department at University College London and his work on the ATLAS experiment at CERN. Nicky Agius, who works in an analytical role at the Home Office, explained that she was hired to work in the Civil Service because of her skill set, but not especially for her subject knowledge.

All of the speakers held PhDs in nuclear physics, astronomy or particle physics, including Bruce Sibthorpe, a systems engineer at Airbus Defence and Space; Adam Nichols, a criticality and radiation protection specialist at the Office for Nuclear Regulation; Andrew Powell, a software developer at MathWorks; Susan Vu, a portfolio analyst at the Reinsurance Group of America; and Adam Davison, head of data science at the Economist Group.

Two other speakers were working in academic research: Dr Phil Rosenberg, a postdoc in the Institute of Climate and Atmospheric Science at the University of Leeds, and Simon Badger, an STFC Ernest Rutherford Fellow at the University of Durham.

Vishanti Fox, the IOP’s careers and CPD manager, gave a presentation on writing CVs and preparing for interviews. She gave some tips on making yourself more marketable and appealing to employers, then answered questions, such as whether it was better to send off dozens of CVs at once or to concentrate on five or six. Her advice was to apply for fewer jobs but to pay more attention to each, as employers could easily detect a scatter-gun approach. Asked about the optimum length for a CV, she advised that a three-page CV was just about acceptable in academia, but not in industry, for example.

She also examined two job descriptions – one for a postdoc and one for a modelling risk research analyst in the banking sector. Both posts required PhDs and the job descriptions both specified the need for collaboration, teamwork and research. Though the language used for each was different, and the purpose differed, postgraduates had the skill sets to apply for both of them, she explained.

The event in London was a collaboration between the IOP, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS). Dr Robert Massey, deputy executive director of the RAS, and Dr Andrew le Masurier, head of education and training at the STFC, chaired parallel sessions at the conference.

Commenting at the event, Massey said: “It's really exciting to see so many talented early career researchers thinking hard about taking their skills to the wider economy, for the benefit of us all. Whether the PhD students and postdocs here today choose to stay in academia or move into areas like industry, finance, government or teaching, I have absolutely no doubt that they're set to do great things. I wish them all the best whatever route they choose to follow.”

Asked if any of the day’s speakers had inspired them to look into a sector that they had not previously considered, some of their comments included: “It allows me to realise doing a PhD gives you lots of transferable skills”, “I have greater confidence to apply for jobs I might previously have considered limited to engineers”, and “they have given me a good insight into other careers”.

One student said: “The event was useful and interesting as it got me thinking about options that I didn't realise were available to me. I left with a positive feeling, a refreshed understanding of what I've gained from my PhD, and how those skills and experiences are going to be helpful in finding a job.”

Career options for PhDs-holders are explored at IOP event

The IOP’s chief executive, Professor Paul Hardaker (pictured), welcomed people to the conference and closing remarks were made by Professor Grahame Blair, the STFC’s executive director of programmes.

Hardaker said afterwards: “We are delighted to be continuing our work with the STFC and the RAS to promote the opportunities for early career physicists and astronomers, and it was great to see so many of them taking part enthusiastically in today’s event.

“The skills that our scientists learn and develop are hugely desirable and transferable across a wide range of jobs and sectors. So it’s important that we make them more aware of this and help them to build strong connections with their future employers. Having been involved in the day it is easy to see the future is in safe hands.”

  • For more careers information and advice for early career researchers,  visit the IOP’s website.

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