Life after PhD – the career at the end of the tunnel

Posted by Ellery McNaughton  @EJ_McNaughton

Six days ago I hit my three year anniversary – three years of commitment to the significant other in my life, my PhD project. It’s increasingly difficult to avoid thinking about what will happen when I can finally say goodbye to it. Ideally, this thinking should have been done before I entered into the relationship in the first place, but what can I say, it was a whirlwind romance. I was lured in with grand ideas about saving the world from the supposed evils of unchecked streetlight retrofits. Hard life evaluations and 10-year career plans didn’t factor into it as much as they perhaps should have.

Even if they had, plans can change. Preference for academic careers has been shown to significantly decrease over the course of a science PhD. I must admit that this rings true for me; the thought of academic tenure has swung back and forth between paradise and purgatory over the last three years. Perhaps I’ll eventually be struck with an epiphany that academia is the light at the end of the tunnel, but if I am, I won’t be the only wayward soul trying to reach it. Academic jobs are few and far between, and those that are available are contested hotly by post-docs who have graduated from a system that tends to elevate academia as superior to alternative career options. The spotlight on academic careers isn’t really surprising given that PhDs are awarded by academic institutions, and most students carry out their research in an academic environment, surrounded and mentored by those fortunate and successful enough to end up in an academic position. However, when less than 20% of doctoral graduates end up in tenure-track positions within 5 years of graduation, there is an argument to be made that academia is itself the alternative career option for science graduates.


Career pathways of NZ science PhD students (MoRST report, data from 2006). Taken from

Thankfully, this isn’t something that has gone unnoticed. A university workshop I attended earlier this year focused in part on applying for non-academic careers, and as always, the internet can be a great source of helpful articles and blogs (some colourfully worded, some not). Of course, none of this helps me if I’m actively avoiding thinking about the future. I’ve been so focused on trying to get through this rusty frying pan of a PhD that I’ve avoided thinking about the fiery depths of career opportunities I’ll be jumping into. Here’s hoping I’ll figure it out before my next anniversary.

Ellery (2)Ellery McNaughton is a PhD student in the Centre of Biodiversity and Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. Her project investigates the effects of a city-wide changeover in streetlight technology on urban bird behaviour and ecosystem function. She is supervised by Margaret StanleyJacqueline BeggsKevin Gaston (University of Exeter, UK) and Darryl Jones (Griffith University, Australia).

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