“What do you want to be when you grow up?”: Career anxiety and the PhD

Vesna Curlic

As the mid-point of my PhD creeps closer every day, I’m increasingly aware of the fact that I will soon enough have to make decisions about what to do after my doctorate. The prospect of life post-PhD weighs heavily on my mind, especially as I’m someone who went directly from undergrad into a master’s into a PhD. My whole adult life has been spent in academic spaces, and the prospect of that ending is loaded with complicated feelings.

So, if you’re also suffering from the post-PhD career nerves, I want you to know you’re not alone. I also want to share some of the strategies I’ve taken to mitigate these feelings. I’m the sort of person who combats anxiety largely by making a plan and taking action – nothing makes me feel worse than inertia. Luckily, the Scottish higher education sector has plenty of training provision for the career-aware (or the career-anxious). Here are a few things I’ve done that have helped me feel more prepared for life post-PhD:

Talk about it

I found one of the best ways to combat career worries is to be honest about them (hence writing this post). I’d particularly recommend being open with your supervision team about your concerns and keep them up to date about your efforts to build your CV. I’ve found my supervisors have been really helpful in integrating career training into my studying. You might also want to ask them to keep an eye out for any relevant opportunities or to put you in contact with any of their former students who might be doing work similar to yours. Though it might feel awkward, this is actually a key part of the elusive skill called “networking” that we hear so much about.

Consider internships & part-time jobs

This is obviously a very personal choice and there are many valid reasons to not work during your PhD, but if it does seem like a feasible option, I think internships and part-time work can be an excellent source of career training. Especially if you’re considering a career outside the traditional academic path, it can be helpful to get experience in related areas. I’ve found that working alongside my degree has made me feel more confident in my skills and has given me a better understanding of what I want to do after the PhD. There are lots of places to look for relevant work, including:

  • Your funding body: These institutions can be a great resource regardless of your funding status. For example, SGSAH facilitates excellent internships every year across a variety of partner organisations, which are open to all doctoral students at Scottish higher education institutions, funded or not.
  • Your sub-field’s society: Though it depends field-to-field, your discipline’s society likely have some opportunities for interesting work for doctoral researchers. In my field, the British Society for the History of Science usually offers an annual fellowship to work with a partner organisation for a few months, often on a research or public engagement project.
  • Your institution’s career services department: There is likely a career hub with on-campus internship opportunities, some of which will likely be tailored specifically to postgraduates. I did an internship over the summer through this path in a higher education-adjacent field and it was an excellent experience!
Source:  https://unsplash.com/photos/s9CC2SKySJM

Research, research, research

When confronted with a problem, we should do what we do best – research. Now is the time to see what other people with PhDs in your field are doing and how they got there. Most Scottish higher education institutions regularly host events where former PhDs return to discuss their career trajectories. In my experience, these recent graduates have a good sense of the job market and will talk frankly about things like pay, employment stability, and workload expectations, which I’ve found to be really helpful. If nothing else, hearing other peoples’ stories is an encouraging reminder that people have done this transition before and that things tend to fall into place.

Ultimately, I don’t think there’s any way to completely stop the feeling of anxiety that comes with the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” As I’ve been trying to learn, you don’t have to know what’s in store post-PhD and even if you think you know, circumstances change quickly and unexpectedly (which is a lesson the past year has taught us all). Take proactive action if you find it helpful, but most of all, take solace that you’re not alone in your worries.


Vesna Curlic is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Edinburgh, though she is originally from Toronto, Canada. Her current research examines immigration, medicine and ethnicity in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain. She can be found on Twitter at @vesnacurlic.

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