November 14, 2012

PhD Life Blog: Guide to Employability: Step 1. Be Original – Know Thyself

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This entry is published in the PhD Life Blog of Warwick Research Exchange. You can read the full article here.

On 16th December 2010, an article of The Economist entitled Doctoral Degrees: The Disposable Academic, caused much controversy by claiming that disgruntling doctoral experiences and brutalising career prospects render a PhD highly unnecessary and a ‘waste of time.’ The author maintained that universities take advantage of PhD students and use them as ‘cheap, highly motivated and disposable labour’ that will ‘do more research, and […] more teaching, with less money’ to conclude that ‘the interests of academics and universities on the one hand and PhD students on the other are not well aligned.’

Don’t believe everything you hear: You make your PhD, it does NOT make you!

It is not in the scope of this blog entry to agree or disagree with the Economist’s piece, although I know quite a few PhD students and graduates who would report similar experiences. In fact, as a PhD graduate, I could be the first to point my finger to an inept academic system that, I felt, failed me. What my gruesome yet invaluable post-PhD experience has taught me, however, is that systems don’t change unless mentalities do, and futures don’t alter unless presents transform. As professional researcher myself, then, I would like to begin by looking at you in the eyes and ask:

What’s your research in?
If I had a penny for the number of times I’ve been asked this question as a PhD candidate…! As doctoral researchers, I am sure you have built a well-oiled questioning machine, equipped with your inquisitiveness and intellectual curiosity. Research must run in your veins by now! But have you turned your questioning machine inwards? Have you really asked yourself what you wish to get out of your PhD? What’s the plan A? What’s the Plan B? (Yes, two options are better than one!) These are by no means trick questions nor provocative ones.

When students write applications for graduate schemes in the corporate world, one of the main criteria is to show commitment towards a certain career aspiration and specify how a three year graduate programme will contribute towards their career development plan. Just like a training programme in a large corporation, your PhD is your apprenticeship for your future career. Make no mistake here, a PhD does not have to be the means to an academic end only! Have you decided what you wish to do post-submission and how your doctorate will help you get there? Did you and your supervisor ask this question from the very kick-off of your PhD? Do you keep asking throughout? I fear, more than I know, that most frequently the answer is ‘no’.

Who are you? What are you?

As a Job-Search Adviser and Postgraduate Researcher Enterprise Skills Tutor, I work with PhD students who, more often than not, dismiss the above mentioned questions as too daunting, putting off their career decision plans for the post-submission stage. I have classified the hitherto most widespread tendencies in three main categories.

The Whatever-ers: those who have no idea of what’s out there for them and vast reluctance to find out.

The No Way-ers: those who have ruled out the prospect of an academic career as a result of, more often than not, poor doctoral experiences and, at some point, will consider their options.

The Default-ers: those who, moulded in the droning shelter of a PhD, got so desensitised by the intellectual process of proving something original, that lose sight of the wider picture, and inevitably follow the only – in their minds – route available to them, academia.

I have yet to meet the fervently steadfast PhD candidate who forcefully marches their way towards a predetermined goal via the doctoral route! This, I hope, is my loss rather than the norm!

Guide Employability: Be Original – Know Thyself
As a professional in the making, you’re better off researching yourself, your dreams, your needs and your aspirations. Identify what you want and start building your professional background in the same way that you are constructing your thesis, with passion, commitment, and, most of all, originality. Your PhD fate does not need to be as acrimonious as the Economist correspondent proclaimed. You don’t need to be one of the many! You don’t need to be dispirited, lost, and steered. Conditioning can be as dangerous as conformity and doctoral environments can be, ironically, prone to both! So take charge of the present NOW and steer it towards your desired future. It’s only when you know yourself and your needs that you’ll be able to make the best decisions for yourself and market yourself effectively.  

To be continued…

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