Finishing the PhD – Now What!?

24 January 2019

Reflections from a soon-to-be finished PhD student, and 15 others’ responses to the question: what will you do when you’ve finished your PhD?

During the three years I’ve worked on my thesis I’ve met and got to know dozens of PhD students in the broader field of migration studies. While we’ve all shared joys and frustrations with writing our theses, we’ve also shared anxiety about another matter: how to plan for- and how to decide what to do – when you finish your PhD? For some it’s a question of securing income. Others are more concerned with the academic race, facing the difficult task of staying on in academia as a migration researcher.

As I’m suddenly approaching the epilogue of my own PhD, trying to write up a thesis and several unfinished articles in an instant, the dilemma is more acute than ever: what will I do when my PhD contract ends, and how can I possibly plan for that right now? It feels like the worst timing ever. Is it even possible to encapsulate the big Q&A of an entire PhD project and at the same time plan for new projects or positions in, possibly, a different research field? I’m not sure if that’s a reasonable thing to do. While some of my senior colleagues urge me to finish my thesis and ignore planning for a future career, it seems unavoidable to contemplate my post-PhD life. Right now, I’m constantly juggling my options. I also feel bad spending too much time delving on my future rather than – highly needed – writing my methods chapter.

While we all share the same dilemma, I think most of us feel like we’re struggling with this alone. This blog post is meant to display the uncertainties involved in this process. There is no easy fix to plan for an academic career. To succeed it seems like you either must be dazzlingly intelligent (AND know how to carry out exceptional research AND network AND make strategic plans for your work life at the same time) or you need to have a remarkable stroke of good luck. To be fair: you most probably need both.

Finishing the PhD – Now What!?
Flickr/Ross Burton/cc

Fortunately, I’d say, not everyone desires to stay at the forefront of research. The discussions I’ve had with fellow PhD’s have revealed not only ambiguity about, but also diversity in terms of plans and ambitions. Non-academic goals, however, are not often proclaimed in e.g. conference settings. While it sometimes seems an academic career is the only satisfactory alternative, I don’t believe that reflects reality. Perhaps even the academic ideal makes us less satisfied, or proud, if we choose a different career path.

During a PhD we have plenty of time to shuffle our priorities. For me, for instance, my PhD life transitioned from trying to balance academic work with a good social life (read: drink beer), to the more acute challenge of balancing work and family life (which can happen if you get children during your PhD). My ambitions therefore also shifted. My aim developed from 1) start a PhD, to 2) write a brilliant thesis and become a senior researcher asap, via 3) quit academia as soon as I can to have some time to live, landing on 4) find the right balance between academic research, a solid family life and other priorities important to me.

I guess these kinds of continual changes in aims and future aspirations are normal. While you can be a stern believer that you’re unfit for academia when you start your PhD, you may love doing research by the time you’ve finished, or vice versa: you may end up deciding to explore other fields. I think, however, it’s pretty common to have no clue what to do when you start, and still no clue what to do when you’ve submitted your thesis. I also think we do wise in acknowledging that this is a common challenge. While some PhD seminars, for instance at the IMISCOE annual conferences, focus on future career planning, they are most concerned with grant applications. But far from all want to stay in academia, and many end up with a non-academic position because they don’t get the grant or post-doc that they wish for. To support PhD students, I think attention could be given to career planning already at an early phase in the PhD, through seminars, courses or mentorship, the vast pool of options should be presented, including academic and non-academic pathways. Perhaps most importantly, though, mentors, supervisors and fellow PhD colleagues need to be aware of the mental workout most PhD students carry out: doing our first and perhaps most important piece of research parallel to nervously dreading the uncertainties that lie ahead.

When I started writing this blog post, I realised that the secrecy around future careers is an aspect that makes, at least me, more uncertain. What will other PhDs do when they’re done, have they managed something I haven’t, and is there something I can learn from their experience? Thus, to expose some of the frustrations and diversities that exist, I asked 15 fellow students what they would to when they had finished their PhDs. Their answers revealed that many – and clearly not only you and me – struggle with the worrisome task of planning for a life and career beyond the thesis.

What will you do when you’ve finished your PhD?

Anonymous | Irregular migration, Afghans, Germany | 1 year, 4 months left|

I’ll try my best to get an academic position, which probably will involve a longer period of part-time teaching and freelancing.  Or I might give that up and apply for work in a NGO, or start working part-time as a high school teacher, doing the things I love without payment. Having worked for eight years in temporary contracts at the University, I might still hope, but I don’t believe a stable position comes easy.


Noor Jdid | Active citizenship in Scandinavia| 4 months left

I have no idea what to do! Hopefully a postdoc, but not quite sure if I want to do it right after the PhD. I’m quite flexible and could see myself working in different sectors, including academic research. Plus, I need to focus on finishing my thesis, so I don’t have time to research the job market yet. I will grab whatever interesting and relevant opportunity that might show up 

Ilona van Breugel | Immigrant integration policies| 2-4 months left

I’ll be a post-doc researcher on a new project, ‘Volpower’ on the impact of volunteering on integration. I’ll turn my PhD upside down: to complement my former studies on policy steering of integration with a bottom-up perspective of integration in practice in a non-governmental practice.

Anonymous | Transnational ageing | one year left

I would like to continue to work as a researcher in migration studies, but in or outside academia is still unsure.  I love what I do, but I find academia to be more stressful than I can handle at times. Therefore, I would like to do something that fits better within my stress-boundaries (but perhaps there will be a post-doc somewhere that does!)

Carmen Draghici | Children of migrants’ experiences in preschool | 10 months

I’ll prepare my application for becoming a lecturer in France and after obtaining the qualification (“maître de conférence”) I will apply for a job in academia. If needed, I’ll also search at an international level. I’m willing to accept short term positions (e.g. post-doc or position as researcher in organisations) until I’ll find a long term job in academia. I aim at finding a job in academia because I think it fits very well with my educational path and my aspirations and skills. Jobs in other areas are possible, but only if nothing comes out in academia.

Amany Selim |Homeland political engagement among Syrians in the diaspora | 2 years, 10 months left

I think I’ll pursue a postdoc. Because I want to stay in academia.

Jan Magne Steinhovden | Music in displacement | 11 months left

I’ll go back to my position as teacher and researcher at NLA University College.

Mette Strømsø | Everyday nationhood| Just submitted

I’ll take some time off to be with my children. Apply for an academic position.  I love working in academia, but there is also a need to balance work with life.

Elisabeth Strømme | Forced displacement and health | 2 years left

My hope and intention are to be able to combine research within the field of migration and health with working clinically as a medical doctor. However, it is hard to obtain a permanent position in academia, and I consider myself privileged to have a medical background, as I will always be able to return to full-time clinical work. I think combining research and clinical work is advantageous in my field. The public health perspective enriches the work with individual patients, whereas the individual meetings pave the way for relevant and innovative research ideas.

Mirey Alfarah | Education, technology and armed conflicts | 6 months left

I’ll party. Then look for a job in research or related to my research. In the meanwhile, I’ll be learning Norwegian and I’ll look for short term consultancy jobs. It feels the right thing to do 

Cathrine Talleraas | Institutional perspectives on transnational living| 5 months left

I’ll work a few months on a different project. Then I’ll apply for researcher positions (if there are any), in addition I might open a bar. I don’t think I’ll manage to secure any research funding while I’m finishing my thesis – I try, but as I need to focus on the thesis I don’t have much time left to develop project proposals.

Ann Cathrin Corrales-Øverlid | Migration, gender, immigrant entrepreneurship| 1 year, 6 months left

I’ll combine teaching at university and high school level, as well as work with translations while applying for postdoctoral or other research related positions, both nationally and internationally. I wish to continue working with research, but I assume it will be hard to land a job right after receiving my PhD.

Zubia Willmann-Robleda  | Everyday tactics of female asylum-seekers in Norway |  1 year, 8 months left

When I’ve submitted (even before if possible) I’ll apply for all sorts of jobs, from post-docs, to research assistant at universities, research centres etc. I’ll also apply to more social worker/project coordinator type of jobs like working in asylum centres, UDI, and NGOs as I wouldn’t mind working there for a while to get an insight into that as well. I think I need to keep my options open, there are few social science positions in Norway and a lot of competition so I need back-ups, in Europe and in other kinds of jobs in Norway.

Raquel Herrero-Arias | Parenting and migration | 2 years left

My plan is to apply for jobs at the University. I would like to continue my career in academia.

Mari Norbakk | Egyptian expatriate workers, privilege and belonging in the Arab Gulf| 9 months left

I’ll probably work temporarily in researcher positions until I can either ensure funding for a post doc, or manage to get a permanent position. I will however give it a timeframe before I branch out and look towards other sectors, then in particular I’ll look to governmental work, or relevant international organizations such as ILO. I would like to stay in academia, but I do not want to work temporarily at the university as I have seen colleagues do, on part-time contracts. So I will probably target the institute sector through external funding (i.e. write project applications for others; ask to be part of project applications and hope that some land.)

Anonymous | Youth trajectories| 3 years left

I have no idea what to do when I’ve submitted. I’m not really mobile due to family situation, so my plan will depend on what kind of job positions that are available in my region when I’ve submitted.

Finishing the PhD – Now What!?

is a Doctoral Researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO). In her doctoral thesis she examines the Norwegian welfare administration’s encounter with transnationally mobile people.

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