I’ve got a social science PhD now what?

January 23, 2012 3747

I’m taking a break from digital professionalism this month to consider an issue which is currently dominating PhD / Post Doc discussions on twitter – Career options for Post docs and where you fit Post PhD.

In the week before Christmas I had a couple of long, somewhat analytical and at times teary conversations with my boss about being unsure of where I ‘fit’ post-PhD. This was in part to do with the adjustment to starting a new job and part to do with being in this weird PhD Postdoc transitionary period where you have to find your feet on the other side of academia. When I started my PhD I didn’t think too much about the end result. I just expected for my career to be in academia and automatically associated academia with more research and lecturing. Thus when I finished I was full of happiness but also bemused about what to do next. There was a distinct lack of research jobs and although I applied and was interviewed for a seemingly endless number of positions I got sick of coming a ‘very close second’ etc. although in my head I was still expecting to go PhD post doc or two then lectureship. My PhD is from a Russell Group institution where the focus is on research and developing international, highly qualified researchers. Thus the way I had been brought up academically through my university career I saw this as the natural trajectory.

While I was applying for the jobs I traditionally associated with a life post-PhD I was continuing to engage in a number of online social media based resources designed to support researchers in various stages of their careers. I started out as the Managing Editor of PhD2Published and then began writing for the thesiswhsiperer, LSE Impact Blog, Guardian Higher Education Network and other online resources, including becoming a featured blogger here at Social Science Space. This had evolved through using social media techniques to collect and disseminate my research. Having recognised what social media could offer academic practice and researcher development I approached my Institution to ask why we didn’t provide training in the area of digital research methods etc. To cut a long story short (that will be part two of the careers pieces), I am now employed by KCL to provide such training. My job is non-academic and housed in what is interestingly referred to as ‘professional services’ in reality I am working in the Researcher Development Unit of the Graduate School as the E-Learning and Social Media Development Advisor, just think all things web based and communication related for PhDs and research staff and I probably have some involvement. I love my job but it isn’t where I expected to be.

Recently on twitter a number of newly qualified PhDs have been discussing the same question and others using the hashtag #phdpostdoc. This made me feel better, knowing that I wasn’t alone with not being sure about where I was in my career journey. Subsequently I have developed the wiki-based community phdpostdoc with two twitter colleagues (Dr Anna Tarrant & Dr Jackie Kirkham). Within that community and on twitter in general I began to notice that many expressing concerns where those who had social science PhDs so I began to wonder why are social scientists so lost.

The most important thing I have learnt to date is to view my PhD as a process rather than a product. In fact, it is was my boss who told me this some months ago after a Guardian HE Live Chat, after I had admitted to being somewhat freaked out that I was becoming known for my social media expertise and not my Geographical knowledge. I am doing the job I have know because of the knowledge I gained from my PhD. I am still involved in the research process, I am still working with students and research staff, I now writing a book and developing papers on the subject of social media in academia and I’m about to start an MA in Online and Distance Education. Seeing my PhD as a process rather than a product has allowed me to view the vast range of opportunities available to me post doc. Rather than the end of an era completing my PhD has signified the beginning of a new one.

So why do I continue to feel unsure of myself? My answer; the stigma that seems to be attached to a non-academic, or non traditional academic career. People seem to look down on me or, in some cases, feel sorry for me because I’m not in an academic dept doing what they call ‘proper research’. I’ve even been referred to as a ‘failed’ researcher. I love what I do and the team I am working with yet I get upset, not because I feel a failure, I don’t. I get upset because I feel that the stigma attached to exploring different post-PhD career options could potentially limit so many researchers from finding something unexpected or from trying different things. So I open up this piece to comments to begin to discuss other post-docs experiences, particularly those who have taken a non-academic career route; what would you pass on to those about to gain their PhDs and what can we do to remove the stigma of the non-academic career route?

Dr. Sarah-Louise Quinnell is the E-Learning Lead Technologist for Floream Partnerships she works on a portfolio of e-learning projects in partnership with Google, International Olympic Committee and the Institute of Digital Marketing. She is also a researcher affiliated to the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities. All views are her own and do not necessarily represent her employer's views or policies.

View all posts by Sarah-Louise Quinnell

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Prof P.K.Pattnaik

Dear Sarah-Louise Quinnell.. Greetings. In India there are 5 types of Individuals who opt for Ph. D Research 1. A teacher who needs promotion in his/her career 2. An Academically good student who is jobless and needs scholarship for survival 3. An Intellectual Idiot/ Public servant who is in habit of acquiring academic degrees just to prove his intellectual brilliancy and 4 A person who’s job is to do research 5. A person having special passion for research. Now the next question is who cares about our research? Most Governments seldom care about these. If state wants to find out… Read more »



This is sandhya post doc fellow in economics, I find people how are having same feelings like me, today i have same problem that what next after my research. Though how good we are at our research they are no opportunities. I feel that I am over qualified. I feel it as a failure, I get weird thoughts in my mind. I Love teaching and Research . I get up set thinking what next ??????

Mamadou Bah

Hello, I am in the development field working for USAID for almost 3 years now. My backgroung is Accounting in the bachelor, Economics in the Master and now I am looking for either Sociology or Policy. I am thinking of a PhD in Social Science, or Public Policy/ Public Administration….not only for academia (cause I currenlty teach a project design class at a university in Africa) but for consultancy in the long run. I don’t want something that is 100% therory I reather want a practical view point. Do you have any suggestion on good school that are very oriented… Read more »


Hi All. Your comments about feeling lost post Phd are most insightful and very relevant to anyone who’s recently finished. Despite the attention increasingly being paid to career development by grad schools throughout the PhD process, I believe many academics actually encourage students to treat the PhD process as an end in itself. I re-entered academia as a mature student after 10 years working in the field. I too now feel somewhat lost wondering what to do next. Although I’ve loved exploring the theoretical aspects of my field, the (often non functionalist questions) you ask during your PhD often preclude… Read more »

Dena Rosko, MA-ComL

Hi, In general less than half doctoral students finish, and of those that do, only a small percentage end up teaching or in a tenure track job. The problem is systemic; schools say the PhD exists to train professors, but to me that’s a siloed self-perpetuating institution ill-prepared to reach out and contribute to society as a whole, or even in a given sector. So it’s best to transition higher education program design to applied research, or research practitioner degrees that train students in consulting, reform/policy, entrepreneurship, community development, and/or grassroots efforts and the like and as salient to the… Read more »


All of this schooling and then… “alot,” really?!

Mark Smith

I am entering into a doctorate in social science while working FT. My masters is a MFA in Art & Anthropology of Art. I really don’t want to limit myself to academia. In fact I much more see a measure of success by what you apply all that great knowledge to. I work with disabled veterans returning from the war find new direction in their lives and help them pursue their career and educational dreams. As a vet of the same manner and experiencing a few of those close calls I realized that one must do whatever they love to… Read more »


Wow. You are speaking my language. I love my job as an academic adviser and am considering a PhD program as well. It seems I work 24/7 but it’s not work at all. I have been on campus 40 already this week and it is only Thursday and I’m up @ 5 am working some more. I realize there is a level of non respect from faculty toward anyone that is not a tenured faculty. You must rise above this and do what you want for yourself. I love working with students and helping them realize that they don’t have… Read more »


I have always considered PhD as an additional result of research interests of mine rather than a goal itself. You just do your work, read and write, do some field research because there is this problem that you want to examine. In the end you find out that the whole work (thesis) might be doctoral thesis. Therefore I am not surprised that if someone thinks of PhD as a main goal, might have some problems after finishing it. One must redefine themselves once again. And this process, as all social scientists may know, is quite hard ;). Small change in… Read more »


Hi there Sarah Thank you for a fantastic blog. I am a Master’s student, should be submitting my work for examination soon. I am particularly amused by your story and experiences of life post PhD. I’m looking forward to a PhD soon, maybe in two years and I think your insights have shed some light in this stage for me personally since we dont really get to share about these things especially if we are all located sparsely across the globe. I thank you and appreciate your effort for sharing such invaluable “what they dont tell you after a… Read more »


Thanks for the great blog….nice to know I’m not alone in some of these thoughts…thx for sharing!


Fantastic blog and I find myself in a very similar situation, although I got my PhD in music. I think humanities postdocs find themselves in a very similar positions; there being a large leap between getting a PhD and a lectureships – postdoc positions few and far between. I have also begun working on the admin side of thing (research support) and get a similar sense of stigma despite the fact that I love my job and find it just as interesting as my PhD. It would be nice to see a move from administrators being understood as failed academics… Read more »