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Q & A: The PhD and The Job Market

I was recently interviewed on the job market after obtaining a PhD. You can find the interview here:

1. When you began your PhD, what were your initial career plans?

I didn’t really have plans – my original plan was to pursue a PhD at the university where I was enrolled for my Master’s, but then the economic crisis of 2008 hit and funding was impossible to find. At the beginning of my PhD I was open for both working in the industry after my PhD (seeing bridges being built) as well as staying in academia. More than anything, I went into my PhD out of curiosity and out of my love for learning – two factors that have been driving the course of my life.

2. Were you always interested in going into academia?

Not really – I just always wanted to do something that I find interesting and challenging. The regular school system had me bored out of my mind, and once I got out of there, I just wanted to go and study something difficult, something that would actually be fun and intriguing – and, as I mentioned before, this curiosity and need for getting my brain to work, has been a constant drive for me.

3. If you weren’t in academia, what career path would you have taken?

I have a broad range of interests. I could have gone full-time into bridge engineering in the industry (I am working on some projects in the industry besides my academic work at the moment). Other career paths that draw my attention (in no particular order) are: teaching yoga, writing (poetry mostly) and music.

4. How did your PhD research get picked up by the Dutch Ministry of Transport?

I actually joined a project as one of 5 PhD students that was funded based on a need of the Dutch Ministry of Transportation to further analyse the shear capacity of the existing bridges. Since I applied to the open position for a PhD student, their need for this research came before any of my results.

5. How did you secure your research position at TU Delft after receiving your PhD?

It followed naturally from the experiences that I had during my PhD – more than anything, I think the excellent work relationship I built up with my direct colleagues made it a logical step to keep working together. It was decided before my graduation that at least I would be able to stay as a guest, without a salary, but keeping the research tie, keeping my library access and similar benefits. When funding was found to hire me as a part-time researcher, I was very happy. Practically it means that during the summer semester of Universidad San Francisco de Quito, where I am a professor, I return to The Netherlands to focus on research, work on short research projects, or chip in where my colleagues need an extra bit of help.

6. What do you think of the jobs market for PhD graduates outside of academia?

At least in the field of engineering, I think there will always be a need for people with a deep understanding of the problems that the industry faces. Sometimes it might be a little more difficult to explain the value of the PhD degree to some companies, but none of my fellow PhD students from the same research group seemed to have any difficulties securing a job position – in academia or in industry.

7. Do you feel your PhD gave you an ample skillset to pursue roles outside of academia?

Absolutely. I work on some smaller projects in the field of design of structures outside of my academic work, and the speed with which I can develop a design is very high, because I have a deep understanding of the structural behaviour of concrete. Moreover, when I’m faced with the need to design a structural element I haven’t designed before, or I need to familiarize myself with a code that I haven’t used before, I only need a few hours to soak up the new material before I can put it into practice – again, thanks to a thorough understanding of the behaviour of structural concrete.

8. You mention the need to learn ‘non-scientific skills’ during a PhD, what are these?

Communication more than anything: giving presentations and writing reports and papers. Planning and time management skills are another important set of skills: you can’t manage 4 years’ worth of research without a basic time management system.

9. What advice would you give someone undertaking a PhD who is worried about finding a job after graduation?

If your graduation date is more than a year into the future: relax – you never know what curveball the economy is going to throw you (good or bad). If you graduation date is coming up: go to events and network with companies and other universities, talk to your senior colleagues about your job search and ask about their recommendations and experiences, visit the career center of your university for some guidance on finding a position upon graduating. If you want to stay in academia, familiarize yourself with the institutions that award research grants, and their requirements.

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