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European Journal of Higher Education
ISSN: (Print) (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rehe20
Phd careers beyond the traditional: integrating
individual and structural factors for a richer
L. McAlpine , I. Skakni & K. Inouye
To cite this article: L. McAlpine , I. Skakni & K. Inouye (2021): Phd careers beyond the traditional:
integrating individual and structural factors for a richer account, European Journal of Higher
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/21568235.2020.1870242
Published online: 11 Jan 2021.
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Phd careers beyond the traditional: integrating individual
and structural factors for a richer account
, I. Skakni
and K. Inouye
Department of Education, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK;
Faculty of Education, McGill University,
Department of Educational Science, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK;
University of Applied Sciences and Arts Western Switzerland, Lausanne, Switzerland
More than half of PhD graduates work outside academia. Yet we
know little of the nature of their post-PhD careers and the
conditions inﬂuencing them. Further, research to date tends to
focus on either individual factors (e.g., graduate perceptions of
PhD skills used) or structural factors (e.g., organizational interest
in hiring PhDs). Few studies examine the intersection between
individual and structural factors that actually inﬂuences career
trajectories. Thus, this study was an exploratory examination of
UK and Swiss non-traditional PhD careers in which we
conceptually and empirically linked structural factors to individual
experiences. The results provide a richer, more nuanced picture
of PhD career trajectories, showing, for instance, how structural
factors like distinct national economic climate and employment
patterns intersected with individual factors like job-seeking
strategies and job selection. The study’s originality lies in a
narrative cross-case approach that merged empirical evidence
from interviews with secondary data. We conclude by assessing
the value of using such an integrative framework as well as
suggesting areas for future research.
Received 11 May 2020
Accepted 16 November 2020
Career trajectories; individual
and structural factors;
non-traditional PhD positions
Globally, more than half of PhD graduates work outside academia (Heuritsch, Waaijer,
and van der Weijden 2016; Neumann and Tan 2011)–with some variation by country.
Yet, our knowledge of the nature and range of these post-PhD careers and the conditions
inﬂuencing them is still limited. One group of studies examines graduates’perceptions to
understand individual inﬂuences on career decisions and experiences, but without refer-
ence to actual work responsibilities, organizational structures or national inﬂuences: for
instance, perceptions of non-academic jobs as attractive (Neumann and Tan 2011), and
job satisfaction (di Paolo and Mañé 2016). Another group of studies examines structural
factors inﬂuencing PhD non-traditional
hires, using employer perceptions and desk
research, rarely reporting individual factors beyond discipline. Such studies have
focused on institutional motivation to hire PhDs (Herrera and Nieto 2013) and regional
© 2021 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
CONTACT L. McAlpine lynn.mcalpinectl.ox.ac.uk Department of Education, University of Oxford, 15 Norham
Gardens, OX2 6PY, Oxford, UK; Faculty of Education, McGill University, Montreal, Canada
EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF HIGHER EDUCATION
and national inﬂuences on hiring skilled workers (Garcia-Quevedo, Mas-Verdu, and
Polo-Otero 2012; Oyer 2006).
However, these studies fail to capture the intersection between individual and struc-
tural factors that inﬂuence non-traditional PhD career trajectories (Jiang et al. 2019-
careers generally; Pedersen 2014). Thus, we decided to conduct an exploratory study
of non-traditional PhD careers in the UK and Switzerland in which we conceptually
and empirically linked structural factors to individual experiences –creating, we
hoped, a richer, more nuanced picture of PhD career trajectories.
Career trajectory: integrating the individual and structural
While there are many conceptions of the individual and the structural, we view the two as
mutually constitutive (McAlpine and Amundsen 2018) in that individuals’lives and work
experiences exist within local through global practices and regimes –with both changing
through time. We characterize the individual experience as identity-trajectory (McAl-
pine, Amundsen, and Turner 2014) and the multiple regimes as nested contexts (McAl-
pine and Norton 2006).
Identity-trajectory emerged from a longitudinal empirical study of early career
researchers. It characterizes the ways in which prior learning experiences and motiv-
ations, situated in bio-historical time, lead to increasingly unique constellations of
individual thinking and action. A key element is situating work and career within
the broader life course (Levinson 1986), meaning that work decisions are made in
relation to life intentions and experiences. Agency (intention and emotional invest-
ment) represents variation in individuals’eﬀorts to create and work towards life
and career intentions, situated within the nested structural factors that are also
Career opportunity structures represent an individual’s knowledge, possibly inaccur-
ate or incomplete, about career possibilities; Horizons for action reduces the potential
opportunity structures as it represents how broader life factors, such as personal
values and family can inﬂuence career options at the time of job searching. Opportu-
nity structures and horizons for action are the principal way in which structural and
individual factors interact in identity-trajectory. The other is bio-historical time: the
relation between where the individual is in the career trajectory and historical
events that may impact life experience, e.g., the 2020 pandemic, the 2007-8 global
The model of nested contexts, based on a review of the PhD literature, characterizes the
interaction between three structural contexts within which the individual is situated. This
model has proven useful in exploring how individuals’experiences, thinking, and actions
are situated within structural constraints and aﬀordances. The micro context refers to the
workplace practices in which every day work takes place. It is nested within the meso
context, which represents organizational structures, polices, procedures and practices.
The micro and meso contexts are further nested within and interact with the macro
context that incorporates societal and economic climates, and national and international
policies and practices.
Identity-trajectory within nested contexts oﬀers a conceptual framework to analyse
what the research says about non-traditional PhD trajectories.
2L. MCALPINE ET AL.
Individual factors inﬂuencing PhD careers: identity-trajectory
Agency and prior experience: Each individual develops a diﬀerent set of career assets,
motivations, and intentions with thinking and action related to work largely aligning
with life thinking and actions (McAlpine and Amundsen 2018: UK and Canada
Prior work, including during the degree, may inﬂuence where PhD graduates take up
jobs (Herrera and Nieto 2016: Spain; Kyvik and Olsen 2012: Norway), while prior mobi-
lity also increases the likelihood of choosing to move again (Germain-Alamartine et al.
2020: Norway, Sweden, UK).
Further, during and after their PhDs, individuals vary in their goal-oriented career
activities (O’Meara et al. 2014: US) and their response to happenstance (Kindsiko and
Baruch 2019: Estonia), sometimes seizing opportunities even if risky to choosing not
to do so. Thus, while PhDs may have few clear strategies for learning about non-tra-
ditional careers (Thiry, Laursen, and Loshbaugh 2015: US), PhD graduates develop
and draw on their family and personal networks in seeking non-traditional employment
(Purcell et al. 2005: UK; Germain-Alamartine et al. 2020), with such strategies contribut-
ing to the perceived quality of employment (Germain-Alamartine et al. 2020).
Work/career situated in broader life course: Personal life factors like family (Valcour
and Tolbert 2003: US), management of work-life balance (O’Meara et al. 2014: US),
and need for ﬁnancial security (Scaﬃdi and Berman 2011: Australia) also inﬂuence
work decisions and experiences. For instance, concerns about family upheavals may pre-
clude moving geographically, or ﬁnancial insecurity may lead to taking any job on oﬀer
(McAlpine and Amundsen 2018). Alternately, lack of perceived job opportunities may
lead to mobility (Germain-Alamartine et al. 2020: UK PhDs only).
Opportunity structures and horizons for action: Notably, most PhDs and graduates
depend on anecdotal evidence for their knowledge of opportunity structures, and thus
have little sense of the actual labour market (McAlpine, Amundsen, and Turner 2014:
UK, Canada). This likely contributes to reported experiences of job mismatch and
under-employment (e.g., Heuritsch, Waaijer, and van der Weijden 2016: Netherlands).
Combined with horizons for action, such lack of knowledge can also inﬂuence
whether individuals work part-time or full-time, are self-employed or unemployed,
and hold a single job or multiple jobs within or across sectors (hybrid careers). Lastly,
over time, PhD graduates outside the academic sector change jobs within and across
organizations and sectors with greater frequency than in the academic sector (Auriol,
Misu, and Freeman 2013: OECD) –though why is not known.
Structural factors inﬂuencing PhD careers: nested contexts
Macro: This context incorporates the economic climate generally, and its eﬀect on career
trajectories. For instance, the 2007-8 global crisis had a dramatic negative cohort eﬀect
(Boulos 2016: France). Further, such events can lead to organizational (meso) disruptions
At the time of this study (2018–19), the global economy had generally recovered from
this collapse and the gig economy was growing (Hune-Brown 2018). Policies, both
national (e.g., ﬁnancial incentives to hire PhD graduates: Herrera and Nieto 2013) and
international (e.g., EU policies to encourage educational and job mobility), can be
EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF HIGHER EDUCATION 3
used to inﬂuence the highly skilled labour market. Such factors cumulatively aﬀect the
rate of employment and job possibilities for highly skilled workers (Oyer 2006: US).
When PhD graduates seek employment, they may look in the private, public and para-
public (NGOs, charities) labour sectors –as well as within higher education. Discipline
plays a role in hiring, with more social scientists in the public sector and more scientists
in the private (Auriol, Misu, and Freeman 2013; Barnacle et al. 2020: Australia). Further,
there are regional and national diﬀerences in PhD labour mobility: a) central-peripheral
economic regions within a country (Garcia-Quevedo and colleagues 2012: Spain); and b)
national diﬀerences, e.g., higher mobility in the UK than in Scandinavia (Germain-Ala-
martine et al. 2020).
In the non-academic sectors, we distinguish a) professionals, who do not do research,
and b) research professionals, whose major responsibility is research of some kind,
including programme evaluation. Over time, the jobs PhDs take progressively shift
from research professional to professional (Lee, Miozzo, and Laredo 2010: UK). In the
academy, a growing non-traditional PhD career path (Berman and Pitman 2010: Austra-
lia), that of academic professional,
entails research- and/or teaching-related responsibil-
ities, such as communications oﬃcer or academic developer.
All three positions can lead
Meso: Organizational factors inﬂuence the possibility that employers might seek PhDs.
For instance, previous hiring of PhDs has a positive cumulative eﬀect (Garcia-Quevedo,
Mas-Verdu, and Polo-Otero 2012) and managers are willing to hire individuals whose
education exceeds job requirements (Kulkarni et al. 2105). Such employers value critical,
systematic and analytical thinking, ability to handle complex problems, and leadership
(de Grande et al. 2014; Diamond et al. 2014: UK). Work experience outside aca-
demia can also be a crucial criterion (Diamond et al. 2014). However, many organiz-
ations do not view PhDs as adding value beyond a Master’s (Kyvik and Olsen 2012),
considering Master’s graduates as more amenable to their needs (Cousten and Pignatel
2018: France), and therefore unwilling to invest resources to ensure PhDs remain
(Adams et al. 2008: Australia).
Micro: The individual’s daily work experience also plays a role. Positive climate sus-
tains motivation; negative climate reduces investment and increases thoughts of
leaving (McAlpine and Amundsen 2018: UK & Canada). Academic professionals may
thus choose this employment since they enjoy the academic milieu (McAlpine and
Amundsen 2018), and use their PhD communication and research skills (Berman and
Pitman 2010), but feel unrecognized organizationally (Whitchurch 2009: UK).
In the non-academic arena, 90% viewed their PhDs as relevant to their work (Thune
et al. 2012: Norway). However, Heuritsch, Waaijer, and van der Weijden (2016) reported
35% did not work at the PhD level, contributing to reduced satisfaction (di Paolo and
Mañé 2016: Portugal) –which suggests we lack information about other inﬂuencing
factors. Kyvik and Olsen (2012) noted ‘systematic and analytical thinking’and ‘handling
complex problems’as important skills for all types of positions. Benito and Romera
(2013: Spain) reported an interaction between micro and meso contexts: general satisfac-
tion as regards intellectual challenge, independence, and responsibility, but less satisfac-
tion as to beneﬁts and career advancement.
The notion of identity-trajectory within nested contexts oﬀers a framework for exam-
ining the interaction between the individual and the structural through time.
4L. MCALPINE ET AL.
them jointly is complementary (Elliott 2005) since both perspectives seek explanations of
behaviour, especially as regards intersection and inference rather than causality. Thus, we
decided to do an exploratory study of non-traditional PhD careers in the UK and Swit-
zerland to assess proof-of-concept of this framework in linking structural factors and
individual experiences conceptually and empirically.
We asked: How do national, organizational and day-to-day work contexts interact with
individuals’post-PhD non-traditional career decisions?
We used a narrative approach (Elliott 2005; Riessman 2008): ﬁrst, understanding each
individual’s unique career trajectory within his or her bio-historical time, contexts and
contingencies; and second, seeking underlying patterns across individuals.
Recognizing the macro-context of PhD careers, we collected data (late 2018-summer
2019) in two countries, the UK and Switzerland. These countries vary in geographic
space, population size and GDP, though with similar rates of unemployment for
By choosing the UK and Switzerland, we would see how diﬀerent structural
factors as described below might interact with individual variation to create post-PhD
The United Kingdom: The UK, encompassing four countries, has one de facto oﬃcial
language, English. Pertinent to this study are 10 economic regions –one in Scotland and
nine in England. In England, the regions of interest are three in the south and southeast
that are generally more economically robust than the north, and one in the northwest
that contains several large metropolitan areas. For instance, Manchester, a northern
city, is an innovative hub with relatively low unemployment (6.3% in 2017) but still con-
siderably higher than Oxford (3.1%), a university town in the south (Oﬃce for National
Statistics 2020). In Oxford, many work in higher education and the public sector, and in
2017–18 unemployment (3.1%) was lower than the national average of 4.1 (Oxford City
Council 2019). Also in the south, London has more ﬁnancial start-ups than
San Francisco. In Cambridge, another southern university town, there are many
medical technology and pharmaceutical research companies (Editorial, Financial
Times 2019). Comparing the distribution of professional and other occupations in
London, 25% of all those employed are in professional occupations (Oﬃce for National
Statistics 2020). In contrast, in Oxford, 39.4% are in professional roles; and in Manche-
ster, 19.7% (Oﬃce for National Statistics 2020). The other region is Scotland; its capital,
Edinburgh, had an unemployment rate of 2.4% in 201920, with 55.7% of employees in
managerial, professional, and associate professional and technical occupations (Nomis
Oﬃcial Labour Market Statistics 2020).
EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF HIGHER EDUCATION 5
Switzerland: This country, one-sixth the size of the UK, has four oﬃcial languages and
seven economic regions. In this study, we focused on two, the Lake Geneva region and
Espace Mittelland, which are largely French-speaking areas. The most dynamic Swiss
economic sectors are commerce, ﬁnance, and tourism followed by pharmaceutical
areas as well as mechanical engineering and metallurgy (The Federal Council 2019b,
2020). Swiss salaries are amongst the highest in the world (The Federal Council
2019a), which makes working there attractive. Overall, unemployment in Switzerland
is extremely low (2.6% in 2018) (SECO 2019), much lower than in the UK. This
overall low rate may be partly due to a shortage of skilled workers. However, in our
area of interest, there is an oversupply of skilled staﬀ–a) particularly teaching and edu-
cational jobs, ranked 27/32 of job shortage categories; and b) more generally social
science, humanities and natural science jobs ranked at 17/32 (Adecco 2019). Notably,
the proportion of part-time workers in Switzerland is the second highest (35%) in
Europe with an increasing rate of people who maintain several jobs concurrently
(7.9%) (FSO 2019). Given the small size of the country and the excellent public transpor-
tation system, it is easily feasible to live in one town and work in another.
After ethics approval, we sought PhD graduates in non-traditional careers by: 1) posting
recruitment ads via LinkedIn and Twitter, 2) contacting prior research participants,
contacting members of our personal networks to spread the word, and 4) making snow-
ball sampling requests. All participants had a) completed PhDs in one of the countries,
whether or not still there; or b) completed their PhD elsewhere and now working in one
of the countries.. Data were collected from October 2018 to June 2019.
The 24 participants (12 from each country) constituted: 12 males and 12 females, 18
social scientists (SS) and 6 science, technology, engineering and math scientists
(STEM); 14 were in their home countries and 10 from elsewhere, 19 graduated from
2011 onwards and 19 were still in the country where they graduated. Roughly three-quar-
ters had started their present jobs within two years of data collection (See Table 1.)
We collected data that integrated individual and structural factors reported to have an
impact on careers in two phases. First, we collected data from participants, focusing
on individual factors and those from the micro- and meso-contexts interviewees
would likely know. We used a short online survey prior to the interview (micro and
meso factors) to provide background: demographic information (gender, nationality,
current work location, etc.), and information regarding current work (job title, sector,
size of organization, etc.). The hour-long interview had ﬁve parts: 1) reasons for pursuing
a PhD; 2) career preparation and decision-making, when each participant created a
career timeline; 3) job-seeking strategies and experiences; 4) current work and relevance
of the PhD; and 5) future career plans.
6L. MCALPINE ET AL.
Table 1. Characteristic of participants.
Pseudo Gender Age PhD ﬁeld PhD country Year of graduation
Size** Permanent or contract
Frances F 36–
HSS UK 2008 UK Private Professional Unknown Permanent
Felicity F 36–
HSS UK 2012 UK Para-public Professional Medium Contract
Alice F 31–
HSS UK 2019 UK Private Professional Micro Permanent
Amanda F 41–
HSS UK 2003 UK Para-public Professional Large Permanent
Jenny F 31–
HSS UK 2015 US Public Research professional Large Permanent
Matt M 41–
STEM UK 2002 UK Higher Education Academic professional Large Contract
Grant M 41045 HSS UK 2007 CA Private Professional Medium Permanent
Benjamin M 20–
HSS UK 2017 UK Private Professional Medium Permanent
David M 31–
STEM UK 2013 UK Private Professional Large Permanent
Susan F 35–
HSS UK 2016 UK Higher Education Academic Professional Large Contract
Samuel M 31–
STEM UK 2015 UK Higher Education Academic professional Large Permanent
Sandra F 31–
STEM UK 2011 UK Higher Education Academic professional Large Permanent
Eve F 31–
HSS Switzerland 2017 Switzerland Higher Education Academic professional Large Contract
James M 41–
HSS Switzerland 2013 Switzerland Public Professional Small Permanent
Béatrice F 36–
HSS Switzerland 2013 Switzerland Para-public Professional Large Permanent
Gwenaelle F 36–
HSS Switzerland 2013 Switzerland Higher Ed Academic professional Large Permanent
Bastien M 36–
STEM Switzerland 2012 Switzerland Hybrid: Private/
EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF HIGHER EDUCATION 7
Table 1. Continued.
Pseudo Gender Age PhD ﬁeld PhD country Year of graduation
Size** Permanent or contract
William M 36–
HSS Switzerland 2014 Switzerland Hybrid: Para-public/
Alexander M 31–
HSS Switzerland 2017 Switzerland Public Professional Large Permanent
Alicia F 36–
HSS Switzerland 2018 Switzerland Hybrid: Para-public/
Elizabeth F 26–
HSS Switzerland 2017 Switzerland Hybrid: Para-public/
Colin*** M 26–
HSS Switzerland Thesis to be defended Abroad Private Professional Unknown Contract
Edward M 36–
HSS Abroad 2010 Switzerland Higher Education Academic professional Unknown Permanent
Albert F 36–
HSS Switzerland 2016 Switzerland Higher Education Academic professional Large Permanent
*For Swiss hybrid participants, the most stable or largest proportion of their work was used.
**Size: micro (less than 10), small (10-49), medium (50-249) and large (more than 250)
***Info refer to the position Colin was holding until a couple of weeks before the interview
8L. MCALPINE ET AL.
After the interview, we asked for a copy of the participant’s job description (structural
factors: nature of work and whether PhD required). At this point, knowing the individual’s
context, weengaged in a second data collection phase for each individual using online data-
bases (e.g., OECD, European Commission, UK Oﬃce of National Statistics, Swiss Federal
Statistical Oﬃce). We collected additional macro and meso factors: a) company type, size,
mission and labour sector; b) geographical/ regional location and highly skilled labour
demand; and c) historical time. These data, alongside responses from the online survey
and the participants’job description, were used to characterize the participants’meso
and macro contexts to identify factors such as the economic state in the region/city at
time of employment seeking, demand for highly skilled workers, and the extent to
which PhDs or PhD skills
were valued in employer job descriptions.
For each participant case, all data were imported into the qualitative software MaxQDA.
We then analyzed as follows:
1. We created low inference case summaries integrating individual and structural factors
in English, our lingua franca, for each participant for use in the remaining analysis
(done by the interviewers: Author 2 the Swiss cases and Author 3 the UK ones,
with Author 1 verifying both the English and Swiss summaries.)
2. Individual case analysis:
a) Focusing on the UK data, we selected two cases with variation related to bio-his-
torical, individual and structural factors to use as starting points for our analysis.
b) We individually reviewed the two cases, returning as needed to the data, to gen-
erate individual themes related to the intersection between structural and indi-
c) We discussed the emerging themes to create a collective understanding.
d) We continued with the individual case analysis with the ﬁrst author verifying the
3. Cross-case analysis:
a) The ﬁrst author read across the 24 case summaries to seek emerging patterns of
intersection between the individual and the nested structural contexts –looking
for both similarities and diﬀerences.
b) As potential patterns emerged, the team returned to the data to verify and/or
reﬁne the pattern.
c) Once the patterns became ﬁrmer, we discussed them as a team to agree on the
ﬁnal representation of patterns.
We begin with three individual case summaries to highlight the distinctiveness of the
individual career paths in which diﬀerent bio-historic individual and structural contexts
intersected. This is followed by the cross-case analysis of patterns of similarity and
EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF HIGHER EDUCATION 9
Case examples: individual variation
Grant is a professional, Jenny, a research professional, and Bastien,
has a hybrid of pro-
fessional and academic professional jobs. Their cameos demonstrate that while the same
themes emerge in their trajectories, they are enacted diﬀerently as each individual nego-
tiated particular horizons for action within perceived opportunity structures (as well as
other unknown ones): a) meso/micro factors during the PhD on job intentions
(Neumann and Tan 2011; Kyvik and Olsen 2012); b) mobility choices (Germain-Alamar-
tine et al. 2020); c) institutional interest in hiring PhDs (Kulkarni, Lengnick-Hall, and
Martinez 2015; Garcia-Quevedo, Mas-Verdu, and Polo-Otero 2012); and d) career trajec-
tory shifts through time (Lee, Miozzo, and Laredo 2010; McAlpine and Amundsen 2018).
JENNY; not UK citizen, PhD there; research professional, North America, public
Jenny is between 31-35 years old and married with 3 children. She completed her
humanities PhD in 2015. After her Master’s, done in the UK, she wanted to work in
health policy overseas and did so for several years in a global public sector organization.
She then decided to do a PhD to pursue her research interests, travel (live in the Global
South for ﬁeldwork), and ‘settle’with her partner who had chosen to do a PhD at the
same university. During the PhD, she considered an academic career, but during her
ﬁeldwork, realized her CV was viewed as ‘too policy’focused and that she lacked the
teaching experience necessary for an academic career. Instead, while ﬁnishing her doc-
torate, Jenny started part-time as a consultant in a research-based consultancy, which
she learned about through a professor (See Figure 1.)
Once graduated, Jenny continued part-time in as a consultant while having children
and moving to North America due to her partner’s work. Once settled there, she found
(though cold-calling) and took her present full-time job as a Researcher in a government
agency, starting in 2018. While a PhD was not required for the position, it was desirable,
Figure 1. Jenny’s career timeline.
10 L. MCALPINE ET AL.
and is recognized in her salary grade. Research, 60–70% of her job, includes basic
research, project development and management and programme evaluation. She ﬁnds
her PhD skills useful, particularly critical thinking, but lacked knowledge of how
ﬁnance and development work as well as how agencies interact –fortunately, she devel-
oped this knowledge in her part-time job. She is happy to be in a stable job with a good
work-life balance, but is concerned about how the national political situation is aﬀecting
her work and research, and is awaiting the next election. In the long term, she hopes to
again to go overseas with the family and work in the global health public sector.
BASTIEN; Swiss citizen, PhD there; hybrid career: a) a professional in private start-up
begun during PhD; b) since graduation, also academic professional in university.
Bastien is between 36-40 years old and married with one child. He completed his
STEM PhD in 2012. He did a PhD primarily to develop personal projects from
scratch, attracted by the freedom to pursue his own research interests. Bastien had no
speciﬁc career intention when starting his PhD. However, around the third year, he rea-
lized he did not like the academic culture, and decided to create a start-up related to his
PhD with a colleague. After three ‘funding turns,’the company is owned partly by share-
holders with six employees, and clients in private and academic labs in diﬀerent
countries. As CEO, Bastien promotes the product, hires and manages staﬀ, and commu-
nicates with clients. While the start-up draws on Bastien’s PhD, he had to develop entre-
In 2013, immediately after graduating, Bastien was approached and oﬀered an aca-
demic professional position in his PhD university: manager of a lab dealing with
medical-legal mandates. In this position, a PhD was required for legitimacy, but not
research, since he veriﬁes and approves the reports of lab technicians for legal purposes.
Bastien enjoys the job, given the positive work environment and the fact he is using com-
petencies developed during his PhD, for example, project management, problem solving,
teamwork and critical thinking. He started at 70%, but since 2016 he has worked at 50%
to spend more time growing his start-up. (See Figure 2.)
Figure 2. Bastien’s career timeline.
EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF HIGHER EDUCATION 11
Bastien wants to keep both jobs since they are complementary: the start-up brings
challenges and high stimulation whereas his position at the hospital brings stability
and more predictable workdays. The real challenge is balancing the two, since the jobs
are in diﬀerent cities, and more recently, with the birth of his child he wants to spend
more time with his family.
GRANT; not UK citizen, PhD there; professional, North America, private sector.
Grant, between 41-45 years old, is married with two children and lives in a large cos-
mopolitan city in North America. He completed his SS PhD in 2007. While earlier inter-
ested in an academic job, after getting married during the PhD to another PhD student,
he realized the unlikelihood of ﬁnding two co-located academic posts. Thus, when his
partner secured a postdoc contract in North America, they moved there. In North
America, Grant worked in various research professional positions in provincial govern-
ments, and as an academic professional. He found work by browsing online job boards
and contacting his network or potential organizations about possible positions. Two
years later, Grant’s partner acquired a UK postdoc contract, so they again relocated.
There he spent eight months as a research professional with a government ombudsman
before actively searching, and then cold-calling diﬀerent organizations through which he
found a professional post in 2012 at his present ﬁrm, an international executive place-
ment ﬁrm. The ﬁrm had just begun hiring PhDs but did not require a doctorate for
employment. In 2014, he submitted a business plan to establish and lead a North Amer-
ican expansion, given a) the organization’s openness to global outreach; b) his partner’s
expiring contract; c) a two-hour plus commute each day; and d) limited ﬁnancial and
career progression if he sought work where he lived. Thus, he and his family returned
to North America where his wife found academic work. (See Figure 3.)
As managing partner at the expansion, Grant does administration and development
work. He collaborates with another regional team on projects and builds the business
Figure 3. Grant’s career timeline.
12 L. MCALPINE ET AL.
by establishing relationships in values-based organizations. He enjoys the work despite
the travel that takes him away from family. His PhD ﬁeld is not linked to his work,
but several skills are useful, including interviewing and the ability to work with people
from diﬀerent sectors. A key skill he lacked and needed to learn was ﬁnancial manage-
ment. If Grant were to leave his job, he would return to a university, either in a
tenure-track position since he has continued to be fascinated by his ﬁeld, or as a
higher-level academic professional.
Three major patterns of interaction emerged from the cross-case analysis: a) macro and
individual factors; b) macro, meso and individual factors; and c) meso, micro and indi-
Macro and individual factors
Biographical time and multi-sector work experience: Eighteen participants (75%) had
worked in non-academic posts before graduating, which would have expanded their
knowledge of opportunity structures. Earlier experiences in diﬀerent roles and sectors
can inﬂuence a willingness to return to such positions (Kyvik and Olsen 2012). For
instance, Alexander (Switzerland) returned to the sector where he had worked before
the PhD, and Jenny and Brenda (UK) started work during the degree that they continued.
Location, job opportunities and mobility: The 24 participants found jobs in cities or
university towns, locations with low unemployment and potential for highly skilled
jobs, supporting Garcia-Quevedo, Mas-Verdu, and Polo-Otero’s(2012)ﬁndings.
However, the 12 UK participants were more mobile, corroborating Germain-Alamartine
et al. (2020). Of the 12 participants, two were located in North American cities, eight were
in southern UK (in two university towns and three large cities), and two were in northern
UK in large cities. In contrast, all but two of the Swiss group (Colin and Albert in France)
lived in towns in the small French-speaking area of Switzerland, with one of these unem-
ployed. Those in towns knew as Susan (UK) said: ‘I can’t just be very focused on a par-
ticular kind of role but need to search more broadly.’What is not discussed in the
literature and is highlighted in the Swiss pattern (and Bastien’s cameo) is that mobility
can be daily or weekly when individuals a) hold jobs in diﬀerent cities from where
they live, or b) have hybrid careers and need to travel to one and/or both.
Historical time, disruptive events, and individual work experience: Disruptive political
events occurred during this study: in the UK (Brexit) and in North America (political
dissension). Four of the 12 UK group, working in diﬀerent sectors, referred to the
impact of such disruption on their work. Amanda had diﬃculties advancing her work
given organizations were hesitant to ‘run new programs’given the uncertainty of the pol-
itical situation; Jim was having to plan for organizational Brexit upsets on top of other
regular contingencies, and Felicity felt the uncertainty created by multiple ‘international
political environments.’In North America, Jenny reported uncertainty about future work
created by upset in the organization’s funding due to national ‘political priorities.’No
such comments emerged in Switzerland, perhaps due to the decentralized political
system based on a principle of direct democracy and lack of disruptive political issues
EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF HIGHER EDUCATION 13
at the time of the study. Wigglesworth (2019) has noted organizational responses to dis-
ruptions, but not ramiﬁcations on employee experience.
The ﬁrst two sub-themes in this pattern (biographical time and multi-sector work
experience; location, job opportunities and mobility) highlight how factors likely not
within individuals’awareness can inﬂuence individual opportunity structures and hor-
izons for action. The third (historical time, disruptive events, and individual work experi-
ence) demonstrates how a macro factor can ﬁlter down to individual work experience
and create uncertainty. Further, while the ﬁrst sub-theme showed similarity in individual
prior experience of non-academic work, the last two highlight structural diﬀerences.
Macro, meso and individual factors
Sectors, regions, roles, and horizons for action: In the UK group, ﬁve worked in the private
sector, four in higher education, two in the public sector and one in a public private part-
nership. (See Table 1.) All worked full-time, with 11 permanent. The seven professionals
were mostly in the private sector; the four academic professionals all in large universities;
and the one research professional in a large public organization.
Of the 12 UK participants, seven held professional positions, ﬁve of which were in
private sector ﬁrms of diﬀerent sizes. Speciﬁcally, Benjamin and Grant were in
medium-sized international companies, David in a large tech company, Alice in a
micro-tech company, and Sandra in a company of unknown size in Scotland. The
remaining two professionals were in international para-public institutions: Felicity was
in a medium-sized university association, and Amanda at a large international organiz-
ation. This broad distribution demonstrates that PhDs can be found across all sectors and
diﬀerent organizational sizes. Grant represents the range of UK experiences: having
worked in many sectors, in one job-at-a-time. Unlike the Swiss group, none were in
hybrid careers, self-employed or reported periods of unemployment.
Of the Swiss group, ten were in permanent positions. Six worked part-time
Four were (partially) self-employed (Elizabeth, Alicia, Edward, Bastien)
and four were in hybrid posts (three of the four self-employed) –evidence of the
growth of contract work in Europe (O’Connor 2019) alongside the growing gig
economy (Hune-Brown 2018). Unlike the UK group, all but one worked only in the
public, para-public or higher education sectors, likely due to the predominance of
these sectors in the region (and possibly since 11 were social scientists). Eight were pro-
fessionals: one worked in the private sector (company unknown) and another part-time
(micro-organization), with two in large public organizations and four in large para-
public organizations. Six were academic professionals in large institutions. One was a
research professional. Bastien represents the Swiss pattern quite well, e.g., being perma-
nent in his university post, partially self-employed with hybridity making him full-time –
a situation which took time to develop. Similarly, Gwenaelle, a part-time lecturer when
graduating, looked for a part-time academic professional position to remain in higher
education. Unlike the UK group, three had experienced unemployment –with one
unemployed when interviewed.
In common across the UK and Swiss groups was the prevalence of academic pro-
fessionals. This suggests an interaction between individual and structural factors: the
former, sustaining access to desirable environment (McAlpine and Amundsen 2018)
14 L. MCALPINE ET AL.
and, the latter, a macro shift globally to a more distributed model of higher education
employment (Berman and Pitman 2010).
Another clear interaction between individual and macro factors was evident in the
Swiss group; choices to be mobile or to reduce hours to prioritize children, were
made within macro regional/national factors. These factors included: 1) an oversup-
ply of highly skilled workers in their region (Adecco 2019);2)theprevalenceofpart-
time work in Switzerland leading to hybrid careers (FSO 2019); and 3) high Swiss
salaries (The Federal Council 2019b), perhaps making work in other countries less
Role, organizational need for PhD and employee assessment of need: Similarities
between countries also occurred regarding nature of work and job descriptions requiring
a PhD. Only four participants (Bastien, Samuel, Albert: Switzerland, and Jeremy: UK),
reported that their job descriptions called for a PhD. None was a research professional;
they felt that, above all, the degree provided legitimacy for their jobs. Only one (Jenny),
whose job requirement was for a Master’s (with a PhD preferred) worked as a research
professional –most of her colleagues also held PhDs. This supports the structural meso
evidence that employers do not always perceive the value or need for a PhD (Kyvik and
Olsen 2012), but also that organizations are willing to hire PhDs (Kulkarni, Lengnick-
Hall, and Martinez 2015), especially when they have done so previously (Garcia-
Quevedo, Mas-Verdu, and Polo-Otero 2012).
Still, the PhD was seen by the participants as subjectively useful: ‘I couldn’t do [the
job] the way I do without the PhD’(Grant). Eleven, mostly Swiss, felt they worked to
their full potential and half, mostly UK, reported the PhD an asset, consistent with
Benito and Romera (2013) and Sinche et al. (2017). While recognizing their PhD learning
in their work (e.g., critical thinking), they also noted skills and expertise they were
lacking, (e.g., ﬁnancial management, non-academic writing, commercial awareness,
HR management). This characterization of the value and gaps in the PhD across roles
and countries aﬃrms earlier reports (Kyvik and Olsen 2012: Norway), and suggests a
decade of ‘skills training’may not have prepared PhDs for non-traditional PhD careers.
Labour market strategies and agency (opportunity structures and job-searching strat-
egies):Hereweseediﬀerences between the UK and Swiss groups in developing knowl-
edge of and access to the labour market. All UK participants used a range of
strategies. All actively researched jobs: checking advertisements, listservs and organiz-
ational websites. Most also used personal networks to extend their search strategies,
depending on others to keep them in-the-know –though also recognizing the
inﬂuence of chance (Kindsiko and Baruch 2019). Two-thirds employed cold-calling,
phone and email (recall Grant and Jenny). The reason appears structural as ‘most pos-
itions are not advertised, particularly small companies’(David). One-quarter con-
tacted potential organizations to gain more information. Individuals also carefully
crafted what Benjamin called ‘bespoke CVs.’Note Alice’sstory:‘I had no idea what
opportunities were outside academia …So I went to a ﬁnance career and a tech
career fair [I liked tech] …Irealized I needed to meet more [tech] people …[so]
started my own Meetup group …to get known …that’showIgotmyjob.’These
accounts represent more strategic intentionality in job seeking than previously
reported (Purcell et al. (2005)–perhaps due to the more challenging job market
now than in 2005.
EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF HIGHER EDUCATION 15
Alongside individual career agentiveness (O’Meara et al. 2014), we also found organ-
izational employee-vetting strategies. Two in the UK group were contacted by headhun-
ters who had seen their proﬁles online. This demonstrates another intersection between
individual agency –maintaining a virtual presence –and organizational strategies. Still,
having been contacted did not lead to a job without persistence. In Frances’s case, no job
emerged at the time, but the headhunter suggested a possibility in a year’s time. A year
later, Frances followed up and secured a postion. Only one in the UK group (Alice) was
approached and oﬀered a job (through her Meetup group), so did not have a formal
Individuals in Switzerland acted quite diﬀerently. In fact, most, including those who
struggled to ﬁnd a job, tended to be less strategic –largely depending on their informal
networks (as in Purcell et al. 2005)–likely due to interaction between structural and indi-
viduals factors. For instance, none cold-called as it is culturally inappropriate (Switzer-
land is yours 2013) and only eight searched online. Interestingly, ﬁve were oﬀered
their current positions. As they were looking locally, they likely had well-established net-
works to aid in this regard (Germain-Alamartine et al. 2020).
Time, horizons for action, and job change: We looked to the 8 participants who gradu-
ated by 2012 to understand the intersection of career trajectory and time since gradu-
ation. Six ﬁrst took jobs in higher education that involved research in some fashion,
but all eight moved away from research over time. This often involved leaving academia
–though it did not preclude returning at some point, e.g., Sandra from the private sector.
Further, at only one point was one, Grant, doing research –in the public sector. This
highlights how time is essential for understanding careers: frequent job and sector move-
ment (Auriol, Misu, and Freeman 2013) and the shift to professional posts over time
(Lee, Miozzo, and Laredo 2010).
Overall, this cross-case pattern with its diﬀerent sub-themes echoes the ﬁrst cross-case
pattern (macro and individual factors) in that, at a meta-level, there are both similarities
between countries suggesting more macro global inﬂuences, and macro country diﬀer-
ences suggesting national policies, and societal practices –with both conditions interact-
ing with individual factors such as agentiveness, work-life balance, and job satisfaction.
Meso, micro and individual factors
Horizons for action, workplace climate and desire for change: The majority, like Jenny,
Grant and Bastien, were happy with their micro and meso work environments, their
responsibilities and their interaction with their colleagues. Their jobs were satisfyingly
demanding and potential stepping-stones to future work.
However, two Swiss participants, William and Alicia, were especially not satisﬁed with
one of their hybrid positions, experiencing stress, and lack of recognition of their exper-
tise. Feeling under-employed (Heuritsch, Waaijer, and van der Weijden 2016), they
wished to leave, but this desire came up against structural concerns. Each was
unhappy in the stable public or para-public job forming their major income, with the
smaller part from contract higher education posts. Alicia hesitated to look elsewhere
since she needed the ﬁnancial security, given limited mobility and pregnancy. William,
hoping for an academic post, realized he needed to build his academic CV before he
could be competitive given his limited mobility. These examples suggest in hybrid
16 L. MCALPINE ET AL.
careers individuals may weigh the relative merits of two sets of meso organizational
factors against their personal needs and desires and settle for less work satisfaction in
order to ensure ﬁnancial security. These results support previous critiques of research
on job satisfaction, that it needs to be linked to organizational sector and mission
(Herrera and Nieto 2016), actual work (Barnacle et al. 2020), and life circumstances
(McAlpine and Amundsen 2018) in order to be meaningful.
We conducted an exploratory study of non-traditional PhD careers in the UK and Swit-
zerland in which we conceptually and empirically linked structural factors to individual
intentions and experiences. We did so using ‘identity-trajectory within nested contexts’
as a framework.
There were limitations in the design. The choice of countries was somewhat opportu-
nistic and we did not use purposive sampling given our intent to capture a range of jobs
across labour sectors as this was a proof-of-concept exercise. This meant we could not
seek employer perspectives to capture meso perspectives. Regardless, the cross-case
analysis demonstrated consistent patterns (Guest, Bunce, and Johnson 2006) which
proved a good assessment of the proof-of-concept of the framework. The study’s orig-
inality lies in the narrative cross-case approach that merged empirical evidence from
interviews with secondary data. The resulting patterns of diﬀerent types provide a
more robust, yet nuanced, representation of the complexity of the intersection of individ-
ual and structural factors.
The diﬀerences between the two countries highlighted distinct career structures rep-
resented in diﬀerent macro national/societal policies and practices. The similarities
across countries suggest similar macro European and global structures also play a
role. These two contexts interact with each other and intersect with individuals in
bio-historical time. In other words, the evidence was clear that post-PhD lives and
career trajectories intersected with nested contexts structural factors not just in the
present but during the PhD, very early on inﬂuencing opportunity structures and hor-
izons for action.
We tracked variation in individual career experience in relation to the nested contexts
to examine the interactions. The results highlighted the complexity of these interactions
and thus the challenge of research design. Fortunately, the framework provided a sensi-
tizing scaﬀold in the design of the data collection tools and in the analysis of data.
However, the desk research for speciﬁc meso and macro factors was often diﬃcult
which may help explain why such studies have rarely been reported.
Further, as noted earlier, there were limitations that call for caution in interpreting the
patterns of similarity and diﬀerence. These limitations could be taken up in the design of
future studies. Further, though we incorporated factors reported in the literature, we did
not examine all of them, particularly the intersection of national policies with insti-
tutional mission, and hiring policies. So for future research, we suggest:
.Studies of regions in diﬀerent countries that share common regional labour markets in
order to examine the intersection of macro factors (global and national policies and
trends) on organizational structures as regards diﬀerences in PhD hiring
EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF HIGHER EDUCATION 17
.Bounded organizational case studies sampling both employees’and employers’per-
spectives about the nature and value of PhD skills to examine the interaction of indi-
vidual and meso/micro structural factors in one speciﬁc context
.Organizational cases across sectors, chosen purposively to compare ones that hire
PhDs intentionally, those that hire them perchance, and those that do not hire
them at all in order to understand organizational inﬂuence on decisions to hire PhDs
We hope others will see the value of examining the interaction between individual and
structural factors in examining post-PhD non-traditional careers as well as the value
of using an integrative empirically derived framework.
1. We use this term to diﬀerentiate it from the traditional PhD career expectation of an aca-
demic doing teaching and research (increasingly preceded by research-only or teaching-
only contracts). While most non-traditional careers are outside academia, a growing
number exist in academia, e.g., researcher developer, communications oﬃcer.
2. Country location included to show range of countries –mostly European.
3. There is next to no research on this role.
4. We excluded teachers and researchers, since these are traditional roles.
5. Studies use diﬀerent lists of skills; those reported here are representative.
6. See McAlpine, Castello, and Pyhältö (2020) for an analysis of the inﬂuence of these contexts
pre- and during the PhD on post-PhD possibilities.
7. 3% in the UK (Vitae 2020) and 2% in Switzerland (FSO 2018).
8. This study was part of a larger research program on early career researchers, and during data
collection we had asked if they would be willing to be contacted again.
9. These included research, communication, and analytical skills.
10. All participants chose or were given pseudonyms.
11. More than 90% is considered full time.
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the author(s).
This work was supported by a European Erasmus plus Programme under the project ‘Researcher
Identity Development: Strengthening Science in Society Strategies’[grant number 2017-1-ES01-
Notes on contributors
Lynn McAlpine is Professor Emerita at the University of Oxford, UK and McGill University,
Canada. She is internationally recognized for her research –conducted in Canada, the UK and
Europe –which examines how doctoral students and post-PhD researchers engage in and learn
to do research –further, how they navigate their career trajectories both in and outside the
academy. She receives frequent international invitations to do workshops and keynotes that
explore the implications of the research both from pedagogical and policy perspectives.
Dr Isabelle Skakni is a Research Associate at the Lancaster University Department of Educational
Research and the Head of the Doctoral Training Oﬃce at the University of Applied Sciences and
18 L. MCALPINE ET AL.
Arts, Western Switzerland. Her research focuses on early career researchers’training and pro-
fessional identity development as well as PhD holders’career trajectories and experiences in
Kelsey Inouye is currently completing her doctorate at the Department of Education, University of
Oxford, and works as a Research Associate at Lancaster University. Her work focuses on doctoral
writing, agency, and early career researcher development.
L. McAlpine http://orcid.org/0000-0002-5361-1361
I. Skakni http://orcid.org/0000-0001-7704-7737
K. Inouye http://orcid.org/0000-0002-3961-3811
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