“Is there life after a PhD?”: Hear from our very first seminar
By Virginia Gori, on 11 December 2015
Our first Energy Demand in Practice event “Is there life after PhD?” aimed at exploring the range of possible careers in energy and investigating how to use at best the skills acquired in the PhD. During the evening, Dr Zack Gill (Willmott Dixon) and Dr Victoria Gay (Cofley – UK Energy Services) briefly introduced their life after PhD, their career paths and the lessons they have learned along the way. Then, they were joined by Dr Nish Rehmatulla and Dr Giorgio Castagneto-Gissey (both UCL Energy Institute) for a panel discussion chaired by UCL Energy Institute PhD student Carrie Behar.
Zack finished his EngD 4 years ago at University of Bristol. During the EngD he was working with a company which proved to be a very positive experience for him. After the completion of his studies Zack started thinking about possible options for his career, although at that point he was not sure about what option would have been the best for him. To explore possibilities, he started to build his network in the field, which happened quite quickly given the small number of people in the field, and used his contacts to find out where he would have liked to be with his new job. A key challenge for Zack was getting used to switching between projects very frequently – this was a big change from academia but he came to see the frequent change of problem to solve as an opportunity to learn new stuff, and he started looking at his job as an ongoing project. Zack found that taking a sabbatical after 18 months of work helped him with the adjustment between a PhD and life in industry.
Zack says: “there are a lot of opportunities out there, each person needs to find his root. People outside academia may not understand a PhD and you may need to manage it a little bit, for example people may expect you know everything!”.
Victoria has a mixed, non-energy-related background. She worked for the network rail during her undergrads, visiting construction sites, followed by a part time PhD in biodiversity. After the PhD Victoria worked in an energy investment company, which involved the creation of investment projects in renewables. Victoria’s current job as strategy manager is her favourite job so far. It involves energy efficiency consultancy on a broad spectrum, including implementation of energy-efficiency measures in buildings, development of new products, competitive analysis also accounting for legal aspects and costs.
Even though Victoria’s PhD was not related to her post-PhD jobs, she says: “I think the skills I learned during my postgraduate studies – like communication and presentation skills, data analysis, budgeting and time management – have been of great importance for my after-PhD jobs: everyday skills are not necessarily subject specific”.
- Would you recommend doing an internship during the PhD?
Zack: in my experience it was very beneficial; it was an opportunity to see what industry does and I enjoyed the academia vs. industry balance.
Victoria: if you are undecided about what to do next, an internship is a very good opportunity. I met one of my previous bosses at an UCL event.
Nish: an NGO was interested in the topic and research I was doing for my PhD and I ended up spending 3 months there. There were different dynamics there compared to academia, but I managed to transfer some of my knowledge to them.
Giorgio: During my MSc I was not thinking about pursuing an academic career – I was keen to go to work in industry, or banking and earn money. However, by the end of the MSc, when decisions had to be taken, I realised that I wanted a job where I could manage my time and make an impact, so I ended up doing a PhD.
- How well were you be able to sell the skills gained during the PhD?
Zack: a lot of companies in the field have research departments or are affiliated to an academic department. You need to know what is going on at the cutting edge and there are huge benefits to link academia and industry.
- Some people say that if you go outside academia after the PhD then it’s hard to get back in; is it true?
Giorgio: it depends on how long you stay in industry; I would not spend too much time outside academia. I recommend to stay out no longer than half a year or a year at the most and, in the meanwhile, to do something exceptional.
Nish: it’s up to you and what you really like. I like academia and its flexibility, so I never had time off. However, both my supervisors stayed 5 to 10 years in industry and they acquired the credibility to come back in academia.
Giorgio: I worked with somebody who was outside academia for 15 years and then came back; however, he was already a professor before leaving. Generally, I think it is possible but not a great idea because you would lose touch with the academic world. It could be hard to get back because you would have left an evolving network, so someone else would have taken your place.
Victoria: I have not ruled out coming back to academia one day: if you have good projects, it may be possible.
Zack: problems are not strictly related to academia or industry in itself. Wilmott Dixon has some research going on, and if I decided I would like to go back to academia I feel I would have a lot to bring back.
- It seems to me that in the UK it’s harder to sell a PhD. In Switzerland a PhD is widely recognised, but in the UK it seems to be hard to sell. Do you agree?
Victoria: in services people generally are quite impressed by PhDs (although there is only one other PhD in my company). Self motivation is one of the biggest skills a PhD has and I never found it hard to sell my PhD.
Giorgio: Sometimes having a PhD could mean being overqualified for a job. Also, I would be careful not to accept the first offer you get – for example in my case I did not accept a position as a Research Assistant and I was lucky because otherwise I wouldn’t have got my current job as Research Associate/Co-Investigator. Holding a PhD is very attractive to many employers. I would recommend accepting a Research Assistant position only if you do not have a PhD, otherwise I would look for a Research Associate position. Anyway, all universities in the UK have different appointment systems, so it is worth considering that one position as Research Fellow, for example, is not necessarily better than ones as a Research Associate since this depends on the University job titles.
Victoria: I would not necessarily think that someone saying that a PhD is overqualified is bad thing: it means that that job would be boring for you!
- Is your day to day job as you expected when doing your PhD?
Nish: my background is in management. I did 50% management and 50% research (both consultancy and academic). So, it was nice!
Giorgio: Yes, I was looking to have some freedom on what to work on. In my case, this is happening; however, to have complete choice on your project, you must first win a fellowship. In academia, if you are a research fellow you can work on what you want since you will have written a successful research proposal. If you are a research associate you will work on someone else’s funded project, which still entails some freedom of choice on which research question to answer, although it must relate to a given topic. I was looking to manage my own time and do whatever interested me to some extent. The good thing about being a Research Associate is the fact that you will most probably be working on a more high-level project compared to that for a fellowship since it is a project that was likely written by a higher-level academic. So you have the chance of entering the market in a high position and to make an impact under such circumstances.
Victoria: no, it’s not very different from what I expected during my PhD. I wanted to do different things anyway at different stages.
Zack: At Uni I did a course on negotiation and I thought it wasn’t relevant, but actually it has proven to be very important. You will achieve a good position if you know what you want. Maybe in 5-10 years I can be in a different position, but for now this is sort of what I expected because I have told Willmott Dixon what I want to do.
- Do you feel we are there in terms of gender equality?
Victoria: I had different feelings in different jobs. In some places it can be a disadvantage, but for example in my current company I don’t feel it as a disadvantage, although there aren’t many women.
Zack: the girls I work with are great in their job and they do not get special treatment because of gender.
Nish: The UCL Energy Institute and UCL in general tend to be better than industry. Things are improving, but there’s still a long way to go.
Giorgio: I believe women are treated perfectly equally and this is reflected in the rules of UCL and other institutions in the academic context. The number of women has increased incredibly in academia (around 50%). Once I have found that I could not apply for a position I would have liked to because it was for women only.
Victoria: negotiation skills may be a very important means when negotiating for job, also to overcome inequalities.