In the last part of this series, members of IChemE’s National Early Careers Committee talk to Eleni Routoula about her post-PhD career
Are you interested in a PhD but unsure where it will take you? Laura Grindey and Paul Jenkinson from IChemE’s National Early Careers Committee sat down with Eleni Routoula, teaching associate for employability at the University of Sheffield, to find out about her career post-PhD.
The biggest, undeniable takeaway from my PhD was that through this process I understood what I wanted to do next. After my undergrad, I had a very specific career vision in industry, which was to work in food engineering. During my MSc studies, the world of research opened up to me and I decided to extend my MSc research project on green nanomaterials to a PhD. While I was doing my PhD however, I encountered aspects of research that I did not envision myself working around. Knowing that a post-doctorate research career was not for me, I started looking for extra-curricular opportunities to gain experience and skills that would help me improve in different directions.
If it was not for my PhD journey, I would not have met such inspirational people or understood what my passions are, and I would not be where I am today! Completing my PhD benefitted me in multiple ways, not necessarily focusing around my research area, but mainly related to the research process, self-awareness, and the transferable skills I developed throughout.
Most engineers who obtain a PhD decide not to follow an academic career path or a relevant industrial path, but we mostly hear about these two options, so naturally we only see these as “suitable” routes. Knowing that I didn’t want a traditional academic or industrial role, I had to identify other options. Once I started looking beyond industry and academia, I identified opportunities and found pathways that were more suited to me, utilising transferable skills I actively developed during my degree.
Grabbing opportunities is very important, alongside being able to identify and create them. It’s easy to become laser-focused during a PhD and let opportunities pass you by because you don’t have time or are advised against it. However, if you know you won’t be following a traditional pathway, you need all the experience and skills you can get, and these probably won’t come through your research work. Think about what skills or type of experience you’d like to develop and go for it!
Two skills I developed during my PhD that helped me achieve my career aims were resilience and receiving feedback.
Non-academics think that academic researchers read papers, plan experiments, and try to make sense of results – well, kind of, but it’s not that simple – these are not the only parts of a PhD. Other parts include keeping up to date with research advancements and publishing before someone else does, accounting for failed experiments and delays, pushing through the competitiveness, and still maintaining a life. Resilience has a lot to do with personal growth! I started out soft and ended up developing a thicker skin towards all the negatives of research. This helped me manage my experience with job hunting, as I quickly reached a point where instead of feeling hurt from rejection, I ended up thinking, “ok, I got rejected, what can I learn from it and move on.”
During a PhD, feedback flows from supervisors, journal editors, conference committees, and more. It can become very overwhelming! I remember taking feedback personally, oscillating between “I am useless” and “what do they know anyway?” Once I broke the feedback down to advice and constructive criticism, things changed for the better. Pushing my ego aside and seeing the feedback from a positive view helped me progress faster, on a technical and personal level. When applying this skill to job hunting, I actively asked for feedback to improve my applications, knowing that some of it would be harsh or useless, and tried to identify the usable bits.
I developed numerous skills during my PhD that I find are necessary for my teaching role today, such as project management, communication skills, problem solving, and networking. For example, we are all aware about the notoriously busy academic calendars. Being able to manage my time and projects in ways that allow me some breathing space has been a direct outcome from me successfully managing my PhD project.
A big part of my current role is also around communication with various stakeholders and this requires being effective and efficient. My PhD helped me develop my communication skills, as I actively looked for various opportunities to disseminate my work internally and externally. Having said that, in a PhD there will inevitably be problems that will need solutions. Such problems could be technical (e.g., figuring out mistakes in planning/protocols) or non-technical (replying to reviewers’ comments in ways that cover requests and do your manuscript justice). This is a skill I apply often in my role, trying to identify the most time and resource-efficient solution to a given problem while always having an eye on the bigger picture.
Maybe the most important life skill is networking. Being able to talk to people, identify contacts, understand how you can get the necessary support to move forward, and keep your network alive is imperative. During my PhD, I networked with people on a technical, extra-curricular, like-minded, or mutually beneficial level. This helped me develop a strong, diverse network of professional acquaintances and friends.
Disclaimer: most roles I applied for didn’t require specific technical knowledge which I developed during my PhD. My current role asked for a chemical engineering degree, not necessarily a PhD qualification on the topic. So, interpreting “PhD research” in a very closed manner, such as strict boundaries around technicalities or no engagement with other activities, I didn’t use any of those qualities in my interviews for non-technical roles.
Interpreting it with an open mindset, as it should be, given that PhD research is a journey of professional and personal development, I would say I used several, like the ability to manage several projects or tasks simultaneously; troubleshooting and solving problems; expressing a passion for researcher and student development through training; teaching, and in particular, employability teaching, and gaining career insight through the job hunting process; and also an awareness of the engineering mindset–communicating with engineers is quite different to scientists, social scientists, or professionals in other fields.
In my corner of the industry – engineering education and employability – I add value through the skillset I developed by completing a PhD, rather than the PhD research area. I also add value by having an overview of all stages of chemical engineering education, from undergraduate to PhD and postdoc level, and an awareness of different educational needs and skills, especially in an ever-growing sector where things can rapidly change. I can help others to quickly grasp information and easily oscillate between the big picture and very specific details. I focus equally on the process and the outcome for a given task, realising the importance of, and the learning from, pursuing both elements. Finally, I am able to see people outside their degrees or experience, knowing that a PhD is not necessary to have a fulfilling career, nor does it necessarily add to someone becoming a better addition to society.
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