Dealing with career transitions

headimg We’ve got a few group members who have either recently transitioned career stages or are about to, so it seemed a good time to talk about career transitions. To help I posted this question on Twitter, assuming I’d get a handful of replies, but instead loads of people sent really helpful suggestions (thanks all!). Here is the summary of what people suggested. Note that I’ve summarised and paraphrased many points; for the full discussion see the thread on Twitter. Massive thanks to everyone that contributed, and apologies if I missed any of your tips :)

TL;DR: transitions are hard, being prepared is your best plan.

First I summarise the common themes across all transitions, followed by the overall take home message/advice, and then the specific points raised about each transition. Note that the aim of this exercise was to talk about the career transitions specifically rather than how to get the PhD/postdoc/job in the first place…

Apologies for not quote tweeting/HTing contributors, I ran out of time and a lot of comments are summaries of several people’s comments.

Common themes

There were a couple of things people brought up that were common at each stage of the academic pipeline…

  1. More emails, more admin, more meetings.
  2. Greater variety of tasks that you’re expected to be good at.
  3. Increase in competing demands for your time and energy.
  4. Less time to do science/explore ideas.

So if you’re a student feeling like you have a lot of emails/admin/meetings I have some bad news for you; it is only going to get worse! But don’t panic, it does get easier to deal with things as you gain experience. If you’re overwhelmed it’s worth taking time to come up with a system to deal with this early. You might need to modify it at each career stage, but having some system is better than none.

TL;DR: Transitions are hard!

The tl;dr from all of this is that transitions are hard, and no-one talks about them much, thus making them harder and scarier. The main solution people had was to talk about them more, and to be prepared.

At all stages, take time to think carefully about what you want to do next, and what do you need to do to get there. Talk to others who already have made that transition, and/or to your supervisor/boss, and/or to a mentor, and/or even ask for advice on Twitter. Then try and find ways you can move towards your goals. Schedule time in your calendar to do this.

Also remember that preparation often needs to be done quite far in advance. If you need to add stuff to your CV to make a transition, you’ll need to do that far enough in advance for it to be feasible. If you want to apply for fellowships or other grants, remember these take time, not only to write but also from submission to actually starting the fellowship/grant, assuming you’re successful.

Finally, remember this is your life, and no two career paths are identical. What worked for your boss 20 years ago might not be the right choice today. Get advice from as many people as possible, then choose what is right for you. And don’t be afraid to do what you need to in order to be happy.

Specific transitions…

For each of these transitions we noted good stuff, challenges/surprises and tips. All of these suggestions are of course specific to the person and field in question, and may not apply universally. Note that transitions can occur in both directions, and not everyone will have (or will want) the same path (i.e. Masters -> PhD -> Postdoc -> Faculty).

Academia to non-academia

A lot of people mentioned that this was a key one to consider given the lack of academic jobs. It’s also not always in this direction, many people go back and forth.

Good stuff

  • the disappearance of guilt/feeling of needing to work “just one more hour” to get stuff done.
  • normal working hours, taking holidays etc.
  • increased interactions with your colleagues and team working (compared to isolation of PhD work)
  • less pressure on you as an individual, more emphasis on the team
  • skills from academia are valued, but different skills to those valued by academics
  • better pay (in some sectors)
  • public-good focused rather than “fight-club mentality” of academia


  • pay might not be great (in museums and sci comm for example). Especially if coming from a PhD as student discounts/tax breaks will no longer apply.
  • need to have experience which might be unpaid volunteering
  • contracts are often temporary
  • pressure to work more/better to impress people to get a permanent contract
  • all jobs have bad bits - leaving academia is not a panacea!
  • being asked if you can do basic things like use Excel


  • Talk to people who’ve made the same transition before you.
  • Negotiate salary and moving expenses.
  • Be prepared for culture shock!
  • Be aware that some things will be worse than in academia, other things will be better, other things will just be different.
  • Things vary a lot between employers and fields, and sometimes even within companies. Get advice from someone as close to the team you will be in as possible.

Masters to PhD

Good stuff

  • you can work normal hours (most of the time)
  • fewer deadlines
  • cool to focus on one project for three years and become an expert
  • you get paid to do research
  • supportive cohort
  • everyone is as nerdy and enthusiastic about niche things as you are!


  • lack of structure
  • lack of feedback
  • more administrative tasks
  • more competing demands on time
  • more isolated as you don’t have classmates
  • hard to get used to using initiative and trying things that might fail


  • PhD is a marathon and MSc/MRes is a sprint. It is easy to burn out if you continue working the same hours you’ll have done in your MSc/MRes. Try to treat your PhD like a 9-5 job where possible.
  • PhD gives much more space to explore and think. Take advantage of this. If you want to learn something or improve, the first few years of your PhD are the best time to do this.
  • You might not feel like you have much spare time as a PhD student. If there are things you want to achieve, try scheduling time each week to do them and stick to it. Otherwise it’s easy to just work on your thesis and not your broader skillset.
  • If lack of direction or structure is troubling you, talk to your supervisor.
  • Come up with a thesis plan early on, but remember you don’t need to stick to it if things don’t work or your interests change.

PhD to postdoc

Good stuff

  • more money!
  • taken seriously/given more responsibility
  • suddenly feeling smarter because you’ve learned all this stuff, are no longer super stressed, are in a new environment where your expertise isn’t familiar so it seems new and shiny, and your postdoc adviser wants your opinion!
  • more structured than PhD which can mean it’s less stressful as it’s clear what you need to do


  • more administrative tasks
  • more competing demands on time. Often need to deal with PhD projects and new projects at the same time. Need to learn how to prioritise.
  • lose your identity as a student, and student perks
  • suddenly expected to know everything and do things without help, but at the same time not always trusted to do things you did during your PhD
  • less freedom. Now an employee so working for someone and following their agenda rather than your own.
  • central conflict of postdoccing is between you and your goals, and the goals of your boss. It requires a lot of communication, negotiation and careful prioritisation to keep everyone happy.
  • stress of uncertainty about what happens next
  • can be very lonely without the support of your cohort and in a new place
  • now staff, have to do health and safety training etc. that staff need to do
  • in a grey area between staff and non staff. What should you get involved with? What can you skip?
  • change of relationship with having a supervisor versus having a boss can be hard to negotiate
  • PhD students get priority for certain bits of equipment and funding, so you need to plan around that
  • fewer sources of additional funding compared to PhD students


  • Learn how to prioritise your work. You might need to negotiate this with your boss. My boss agreed I should spend one day a week on my own work, and 4 days on his work. This meant I could get old projects finished but still make progress on what I was employed to do.
  • People will ask you to help out with things. Initially this feels flattering, but be very careful about agreeing to do too much extra stuff. Try to balance costs and benefits. Will this new task add something substantial to your CV, or not? How much time will it take you?
  • Ask about moving expenses before accepting the job.
  • Ask if salary can be increased, there’s sometimes a bit of wiggle room.
  • Get a mentor who has no link to your project for independent advice.
  • Going from post-doc to fellow can easily take a year, even if you are very successful. Start applying early!

Postdoc to independent research fellow

Good stuff

  • more money!
  • freedom to work on a project you designed and are passionate about
  • stepping stone to permanent job
  • can take on PhD students (in some places) to help with work


  • failure to live up to my potential was a constant worry
  • people will not help because they assume you know what you’re doing
  • people will give you extra things to do that actually are not to your benefit, but it’s hard to say no when you’re trying to develop new networks
  • need to deal with admin (often) in a new institution that takes huge chunks of time away from working on your project
  • as soon as I didn’t have a boss, I felt that I was drifting. It was really uncomfortable, but with hindsight I can see that I was starting to change direction. I’m very glad I put up with the discomfort & didn’t rush


  • Try and deal with as much admin as you can before starting the fellowship. Ideally move to the city a few weeks in advance to do moving related admin. Be prepared to get very little research done in the first 6 months as you negotiate the system.
  • Prioritisation is key. You’ll get invited to lots of new projects and suddenly have a lot more admin and possibly also teaching. Need to ensure your project comes first.
  • People will ask you to help out with things. Initially this feels flattering, but be very careful about agreeing to do too much extra stuff. Try to balance costs and benefits. Will this new task add something substantial to your CV, or not? How much time will it take you?
  • Take advice like “this will help you get a permanent job offer here” with a pinch of salt. It often doesn’t work out that way. And don’t trust verbal promises of permanent jobs after a fellowship; get it in writing.
  • Get a mentor who has no link to your project for independent advice.
  • Make sure someone senior advocates for you to help you get things set up quickly and efficiently, and helps you get round administrative hurdles.
  • Be wary of the sunk costs fallacy. Be prepared to abandon projects if they aren’t working and move onto something else.
  • Avoid the temptation to go to every conference/seminar you get invited to. You may have the funds, and it’s fun, but you have limited time.
  • Request your own office, you won’t get one unless you ask for it.
  • Make friends with the admin staff. They know what is going on, how to get stuff sorted, and are generally happy to help.

Postoc/fellow to Faculty

This attracted the most comments. I suspect due to the genuine shock most of us felt as new faculty desperately trying to keep our heads above water! Most people admitted they expected a change, but were surprised by just how extreme that change was.

Note that there are jobs which are “academic adjacent”, like working in a museum or research institute, where you would not be classed as “faculty”. I work in a museum for example, but before that I was faculty at a university so I’ve done both. In my experience the challenges are much the same, but you replace teaching with other responsibilities like curation, outreach, fundraising etc.

Good stuff

  • job security
  • more money (but not always)
  • ability to start a group and work with amazing ECRs
  • mutual benefit of working with productive people who can play nice
  • get invited to give seminars in fun places more often
  • job security means you have space to do some soul searching. What makes me happy? What are my priorities? How do I maintain my mental/physical health? i.e. stuff you tend to put off when stressing about the next job
  • job security also means you have time to explore different avenues of research and start new collaborations, even if they don’t produce outputs for many years, or at all.
  • can advocate for change in the institution/field


  • how extreme the change of the job was: in my case from about 90%/10% for research/everything else to 10%/90%.
  • the salary often isn’t much better (and can be worse) than a postdoc salary. Especially true for fellows (MSCA fellows in Europe for example are very well paid).
  • ADMIN, ADMIN and more ADMIN!
  • so many more emails it’s impossible to keep up.
  • amount of work is overwhelming. Systems that worked well in my earlier career stages just couldn’t keep up.
  • requires a crazy refocusing to develop courses (if teaching) and a ton of administrative things
  • teaching is fine, but the admin around organising teaching, exams etc is a killer
  • marking/grading is excessive
  • emotional stress of not keeping great people/ideas due to lack of funding
  • lots of competing demands/opportunities
  • people management is suddenly key, and not something I’d been trained to do
  • massive reduction in time for thinking/science/coding etc.
  • have to transition to having others do the research for you, which can be difficult.
  • increased importance of networking (impact, policy, funders)


  • Have data for papers, or think of papers without collecting data so you can keep publishing in the first few years while setting up new projects.
  • Ask about moving expenses before taking the job.
  • Ask if salary can be increased, there is often some wiggle room.
  • Get a mentor who has no link to your department for independent advice.
  • Need to carefully plan and strategise and prioritise to avoid just doing urgent tasks and not making progress with things you care about or need for promotion.
  • Be aware that setting up a new lab and creating new teaching materials takes a lot of time. Don’t expect to do much, if any, research for a couple of years!
  • Postdocs (often) have long periods of unscheduled time in which to get research work done. Faculty time is often shredded into small chunks. Protecting larger chunks of free time and hoarding busywork to usefully use “time confetti” is a key skill to develop. (HT @DrSallyET for the delightful term “time confetti”).
  • Make friends with the admin staff. They know what is going on, how to get stuff sorted, and are generally happy to help.
  • Be wary of the sunk costs fallacy. Be prepared to abandon projects if they aren’t working and move onto something else.
  • Avoid the temptation to go to every conference/seminar you get invited to. You may have the funds, and it’s fun, but you have limited time.

Good luck and may the time confetti ever blow in your favour…



Written on November 16, 2021