A PhD from Oxford — what next?

by Rahel Lewin

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I’ve successfully completed my PhD in neurosciences at the University of Oxford, and am now contemplating my future. Here are some personal reflections that may help others.

Roughly 25,000 graduate students complete their doctorate per year in the UK. When consulting with friends, I’ve found that many PhD students in their final year have one question in common: ‘What will come next?’ On further questioning, I usually receive an evasive shrug or a vague list of possibilities.

Knowing what you want and being supported are positive advantages, and having a goal will enable you to map out a series of career moves and tailor your CV. It could be studying in a leading institution overseas, doing volunteer work in an endemic area, or researching in a famous laboratory. One key piece of advice is to get a mentor, such as your PhD supervisor. Mentors may be able to offer specific recommendations and contacts for future job applications.

What about continuing in research? My PhD at Oxford was about Parkinson’s disease. It sought to better understand the molecular pathology of the disease and to define novel targets for drug development. The most logical option would be to continue in this field. However, that would mean choosing the life of an academic scientist, who only sometimes become professors or achieve academic glory. Also, you invariably work long hours for little pay and with no financial stability. Many find it challenging to start a family. After ten years of hard studies, I feel now that I deserve a job that pays my bills and will support a good work-life balance. Unfortunately, as I’m beginning to realise, having an Oxford degree does not guarantee that.

Another option is drug development in the pharmaceutical industry. This path pays better and may allow me to continue working in my field of interest. Several companies offer graduate/trainee programmes that provide insights into the structure of the organisation, operational procedures, and management. After about two years, you get to choose a work area. To be selected for one of these competitive schemes, you need a strong medical or pharmaceutical background and a sharp analytic mind.

Oxford is famous for sending its graduates to join big consulting companies such as McKinsey or Boston Consulting. Friends report good pay but exhausting global travel and crazy work hours. These companies can also be merciless if you’re not up to the mark. Some find the work boring and lack intellectual stimulation.

One area also under the radar is medical communications. Worldwide, approximately 100,000 people are involved in this multibillion-dollar industry, yet few outside the field appreciate its significance. Activities include reporting on and managing clinical trials and meetings, writing scientific articles, and producing educational and regulatory documentation. Employers include pharmaceutical and medical device companies, publishers, regulatory authorities, and communication agencies. If you’re interested in learning more, some key search terms related to the job market are ‘clinical trial management’, ‘medical affairs’, and ‘medical communication’. More information can be found online through LinkedIn and employment websites such as jobvector.de.

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A more personal way to tackle your job hunt is through professional networks and connections. I, for example, spoke with Steven Walker at Stgilesmedical, who suggested that I explore the world of medical communications — it’s his fault that I’m writing this article in the hope of helping others!

So, what’s my answer to the title question? Talk with as many people as possible, listen to their personal experiences, and seek their advice. Find a mentor. Explore your strengths and weaknesses. Draw up a life plan (e.g. where you want to be in 5 years), brush up your CV and get someone to review it, and draft an adaptable cover letter (with no spelling mistakes). Writing stuff down always helps clear the fog. And finally, don’t be disheartened by rejection — there’s always something better around the corner. The future is exciting, so embrace it.

Good luck!

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