How to find a job after doing a PhD in the field of security

by Verena Brähler, 7 June 2015

I am working as a Research Manager for the Equality and Human Rights Commission in Great Britain. This is my first job since graduating from University College London with a PhD in Security and Human Rights. I really like my job but getting here was much harder than I anticipated. In this blog post I am sharing some of the lessons I learned, hoping that it will help others to transition successfully from doing a PhD to a professional job.

My personal job hunting experience

Between November 2013 and September 2014, I applied for 28 different positions. I spent the equivalent of three months’ full time work on networking, writing applications, getting references and filling out online application forms. I was unsuccessful in the first round on 20 occasions, never heard back anything from 3 organisations and made it to the next round on 5 occasions. Of those where I did make it to the next round, it took up to 8 months to hear back from them.

Timing is of the essence

The first time I applied for a full-time job was 10 months before I finished my PhD. In hindsight this was way too early. I was writing things like “I am currently completing a PhD” in my cover letter. Experienced recruiters know that if you haven’t submitted your PhD thesis yet, you are not mentally or “logistically” ready for a new job. The few applications where I was successful were the ones I wrote after I had defended my PhD thesis (read more about this experience here). That is why I would tell others that this is a good moment to start looking for a job, especially because in the UK, PhD students often need to do “minor corrections” after the defense which can take up to three months.

Prepare yourself mentally

You need to recognise that getting a job is a job and can take a long time. For most of the jobs I applied for I was told that between 250 and 650 other candidates applied (below are some examples of the jobs I applied for). You need to prepare yourself mentally for being turned down over and over again because it can be a very frustrating experience. The more realistic you are at the outset, the easier it will be to for you to deal with the fact that you are not getting interviews, or you get interviews, but you don’t get the job. At the same time you may see all your friends around you working on great career paths and it is easy to get disheartened and very down about yourself which is a dangerous spiral. Don’t internalise the job search – talk to your family, friends about the jobs you apply for, the interview you get or don’t get – there is no shame in applying for a job and not getting an interview, or getting an interview and then not getting the job.

Pick up the phone, networking is vital

In hindsight there was one thing that my 5 “more successful” job applications had in common, and that is that I had talked to someone in the organisation before I sent my application. I got in touch with these people mostly through contacts and colleagues I met over the years while doing my research. Linkedin is a great tool for that because it shows you who can put you in touch with someone in the relevant organisation. Don’t be ashamed to ask people you hardly know for some help. In the worst-case scenario your chances are something like 1 : 650 so you need any help you can get.

I asked people if they would be available for a quick phone call because I wanted to learn a little bit more about the organisation and the job in order to be able to write a better application. I never asked anyone to revise my application or give me any kind of insight knowledge that would put me at an unfair advantage compared to other applicants.

Everyone I contacted was happy to talk to me and these 30-minutes conversations proved to be extremely helpful for two reasons. Firstly, by preparing some interesting questions (”What does your daily routine look like?”, “Do you have a business strategy that underpins your work?” etc.) I learned a lot about the organisation, their culture and working style, their priorities and dislikes, and that indeed helped me to write a stronger application. Secondly, having had a friendly conversation with someone on the inside (didn’t matter so much at which level) might have helped (?) to end up on the pile of applications that were considered for the next round.

You will still have to go through the formal interviewing process, and your skills and competencies will be analysed fairly, but a recommendation or just a contact within the organisation can help enormously.


Sit down and write the application

Once you have made your phone call and you know a little bit more about the organisation and the specific role requirements, it is time to sit down and write the application. Nowadays most application processes are competency-based and every effort is made to eliminate assumptions, stereotyping and other forms of bias from the recruitment process. Recruiters are interested to know how you have handled situations in the past which are related to the knowledge, skills and abilities required for the job. Recruiters work on the principle that: „Past behaviour predicts future performance“. If you have successfully demonstrated certain knowledge, skill and abilities in the past, the chances are that you are likely to be able to do so again in the future.

The recruitment process of the British Civil Service, for instance, is entirely based on this principle. Applicants are asked to use the STAR approach (Situation, Task, Action, Result) to talk about their past achievements. This approach might seem very weird and rigid in the beginning but if you get behind the logic of it, it is very useful and I would definitely recommend everyone to have a look at it.

Here are some common mistakes that applicants tend to make:

  • Not providing a specific example of how they have demonstrated a competency in the past;
  • Not explaining clearly what the result/outcome/impact of their work was;
  • Using “we” instead of “I”, making it impossible for the recruiter to know exactly what their specific contribution was (opposed to what the team did);
  • Using passive language;
  • Exceeding the word count.

Ask for feedback

It is common practice these days to ask for feedback from an interview, particularly if you have been unsuccessful. It is very likely that you will just get a standard response or that giving individual feedback is not possible, but if you get it, it can service three important purposes:

  1. It will put your mind to rest – you may wonder why you didn’t get the job – they will tell you – you were a strong candidate but the successful candidate had more experience, or could evidence their skills more effectively.
  2. It can open other doors – you may have been exceptionally close to getting the role – sometimes employers make room for another person – following up shows that you are a professional and are interested in how you can improve your performance. They may be able to recommend another role for you within the organisation
  3. It may give you some important pointers in how to improve for next time.

Jobs in international organisation

Finally, here are some examples of international organisations that continuously recruit people through their young professional programmes. Please be aware that all of these programmes are highly competitive and getting through the process can take many months or even years.

  • Young Professionals Programme (YPP) – the general young professional programme of the United Nations
  • United Nations Volunteering (UNV) – it is called volunteering but you get paid
  • Junior Professional Officers (JPO) – JPOs work in UN organisations, the World Bank and other international organisations and are sponsored by their respective governments so you can only apply for positions advertised by your own government. In Germany, jobs are advertised twice a year on this website.
  • UK Civil Service Fast Stream

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