September 25, 2012

The pitfalls and scourges of the ‘by default’ pre–conditioned academic

So, you have a Phd? The facts you know and are terrified to admit:

1. Academic jobs are greatly diminishing in number; I believe we’re all in agreement on this one.

2. Many PhD students and graduates are increasingly compelled to decide against academic careers due to, more often than not, unfulfilling doctoral experiences, poor supervision, and finger-pointing lack of mentoring and support by supervisors and relevant university-wide support services; I believe many of us will be in agreement on this one.

3. Nascent academic recruitment strategies require that early career academics have published triple the amount of their erstwhile counterparts seeking their first job a decade ago. Moreover, their potential for research excellence is shamefully dependent on, if not deterred by, their chances of (or even success in) income generation. As for their teaching abilities, they will always come second place in reputable research led institutions. Have I been crude enough or can you take more?

4. With the upcoming Research Excellence Framework, taking the above into consideration is paramount to your turning your PhD traineeship into a promising and rewarding academic career.

But what happens if there doesn’t seem to be a way into academia, or if academia is not for you? Hmmm! Tough one! In the current economic climate a great number of high calibre, intelligent individuals exit the academic bubble after years of hard work in research, analysis, and production of praiseworthy original projects, feeling lost for words (and actions) as to how to identify and pursue opportunities for employment, market themselves effectively, and commence potentially fulfilling careers . Poor employability and careers guidance by Academic staff and Careers Services that, let’s face it, have increasingly ignored this disenfranchised cohort, have contributed towards the intellectual inquisitiveness of doctoral candidates taking over any career curiosity, not to mention planning! As for employability… academic research will do, right? WRONG! Can you take more honesty?

In my personal experience as a doctoral graduate seeking employment outside academia, I was shocked and aggravated to realise how little value the British recruitment system places on early PhD graduates. As a Job Search Adviser working with PhD students, the reality check is even more tremulous! On a daily basis I witness the formidable scene of many PhD students/graduates, not only unaware of what’s out there for them, not only clueless as to how to market themselves effectively, but mainly accepting that they are ‘overqualified’ and ‘lack practical experience’. Playing the same tape that employers play non-stop, they have accepted their fate and are - unwillingly - willing to start climbing career ladders from way under their intellectual level, pursuing jobs that will allow them to build practical experience in most cases already acquired, yet oblivious to its existence. Let's put things into perspective then. You have a PhD? It’s not about climbing, it’s about embarking!

As I mentioned in my previous blog entry, a career choice is up to the individual to decide upon. It is your responsibility to search within yourself and outside to understand what your calling in life is. No one can do this for you. Maybe the exhaustingly ubiquitous intellectual activity as a result of your doctorate has desensitised any other pursuits of needs, wishes, and ambitions. Yet, the skills you have developed as part of this process can and should form part of your employability armour for whatever you chose to do. And if you still haven’t found the time to sit down and list them, I’m sure you’ll recognise in yourself a few of these:

  • Research, data analysis, written and verbal communication
  • Time, budget, and project management. Add ‘Supervisor Management’ on the list, as well!
  • Intellectual maturity, ability to process information in a timely and efficient manner
  • Ability to work with limited or no supervision
  • Ability to work in a team, using relevant lab equipment
  • Strong commitment and work ethic, perseverance and management of uncertainty (and change)
  • Natural (by this point!) aptitude towards high quality work, originality, excellence
  • Ability to effectively impart knowledge and deliver training
  • Administrative experience (organising module timetables, producing student and module progress reports, participating in departmental meetings, managing whole modules)

Have I listed enough? So, to conclude… the ‘let’s start over’ attitude, let’s face it, is completely unacceptable! You are a highly intellectual individual who had the guts to take up an unknown project, breathe life and soul into it, and create something potentially original world-wide, something that adds value to scholarship and beyond. You have worked under the most uncertain conditions, more often than not with no remuneration, and you still made it. You have built and enhanced a highly sought after skillset you are most probably not even aware of. You are a hard worker that dared to take the difficult route and you should be incredibly proud of what you have achieved. If all this applies to you think impact, think innovation, think initiative, think creativity and communicate your PhD via these prisms. At the end of the day, it’s all about how you market yourself. It’s up to you… have you got faith in the product?! And this is not only a message to you but a note to self, as well!

Stay positive!


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  1. Trish P.

    Thank you for writing this. I am one of those that started my post-PhD, non-academic career at a position much, much lower than I was qualified for. I still struggle with it. I got a promotion after 1 year, but I still feel like I’m not utilizing all of my abilities. When I was job hunting (and even now), I could definitely have used more advice on how to market myself and how to get my foot in the door without having to start at the very bottom.

    05 Oct 2012, 17:53

  2. Ioanna Iordanou

    Dear Trish P.,

    Thank you very much for your comment. I completely sympathise with you on this one. As I have mentioned in my blog entry, unfortunately academic institutions and their relevant support services have not been placing a lot of attention on PhD students and their career prospects. I am hopeful that this tendency is slowly shifting towards a more positivedirection for this incredibly resourceful, yet still ‘unexploited’ pool of talent. I will be proceeding with some more postings on how to effectively market yourself as a PhD student and PhD graduate which I hope you will find useful! In the meantime, I wish you best of luck with all your pursuits! Trust yourself and your abilities, it all starts from within!


    08 Oct 2012, 14:42

  3. Rob

    I really like your list of PhD skills. I’m going to be referring to it when I write my cover letters! I’m trying to leave academia for industry at the moment and so this post really resonates with me. Personnaly I find that interviewers have a tendency to act as though a PhD and 2 post-doctoral positions was just some extended undergraduate course; maybe they’re just testing me when they do that but it can feel pretty annoying.

    08 Oct 2012, 21:48

  4. Chris Humphrey

    Hi Ioanna, great post, your point about the importance of knowing how to market yourself is spot on! In my view making the transition to a post-academic career is 90% continuity and only 10% about re-skilling and knowing how to present yourself. As a PhD or post doc you are a professional X who can choose to change track from academia, to work for a business or in the public sector or for a charity. You are not starting from scratch!

    I’ve also put together a list of PhD skills, you and your readers may like to check out

    Best regards,

    09 Oct 2012, 21:58

  5. Anne-So

    Wow!!! Excellent post, so true! Fits perfectly to my own experience! Thanks a lot, Ioanna!
    I just refused a position in a CRO in France. They were very proud to offer me half of what I earn now, and a job normally advertised for a bachelor. I have a Phd with 8 years postdoctoral experience. And they sounded like they were giving me a favor in hiring me because I had no experience in clinical trial. Fortunately, i kept in mind exactly what you said: I refused to be influenced by the “overqualified but lack of practical experience” story….

    I will follow your bog eagerly, thanks again!

    10 Oct 2012, 08:06

  6. Ioanna Iordanou

    Dear Rob,

    Thank you very much for your comment. I understand and sympathise with your frustration! One PhD and two post-doctoral positions should, in theory, put you in the same level as minimum and assistant professor and, hence, an exceptionally qualified individual, who can work to high standards with limited or no supervision.

    I have come to the understanding that, as PhD students, we are taken for granted as potential academics who will be simply writing papers and books or spending endless hours in the lab, and, so, we don’t need any employability training. Being supervised by long-established academics who entered the academic sphere in an a lot less obstacle-heavy manner than current graduates does not make things easier , as, sometimes lost in their own microcosmic research world, they lose sight (or don’t even bother with) their trainees’ career prospects! Now, I’m not saying that this is the case for every academic supervisor but I bet many current PhD students and recent graduates out there will share similar experiences!

    So, just like every big venture, the change has to be instigated from within. PhD students AND supervisors must be able to recognise and understand the usefulness and significance of employability and enterprise skills for any career progression. It is only in this way that we will consciously strive to develop such skills, take their existence as a given, and use them to market and promote ourselves! Unless PhD students and graduates appreciate this, employers won’t.

    Here’s what currently goes wrong: during a 4-year (on average) doctoral experience we are trained to only defend the originality of our research project and the validity of our data analysis! [Some of us will be offered opportunities to teach, too!] We’re programmed to develop as potentially [global] leaders in our field when this field can be minuscule in the wide professional world. Because of this ‘grant prospect’ of our thesis, we are discouraged to recognise, let along pursue, the more irrelevant (PhD wise), yet substantial pursuits, like administrative tasks, networking, wider audience engagement, self-reflection to understand and ascertain our student needs and, most crucially, involvement in extra-curricular activities, while undergraduate students land excellent career and progression opportunities by demonstrating many of the above. If we, as PhD students, and our supervisors focus only on our limited research project and have nothing else to say about our incredibly valuable and rich doctoral experience, how can we expect employers to take us seriously?!

    Bottom line, it is us who should instigate the change of this predominant mentality! Unless we believe in the multi-faceted value of our academic work experience, make sure that it’s enriched with a robust skillset necessary in the current climate, and market it effectively as immensely valuable in order to complement the unimaginatively dry and practical professional world out there (nothing wrong with that by the way, yet the industry desperately needs people with robust critical, analytical and original thinking abilities) nothing will change. That’s the prism through which you should see and communicate your very relevant and outstanding, I’m sure, doctoral and post-doctoral experience, Rob! I will shortly be posting further on how to effectively develop and market yourself as a PhD student and PhD graduate, which I hope you will find useful! In the meantime, I wish you best of luck with all your pursuits! Trust yourself and your abilities, it all starts from within!

    10 Oct 2012, 09:23

  7. Ioanna Iordanou

    Dear Chris,

    Thank you very much for your comment! You are absolutely right, it’s all about continuity and, in my experience, this is where most PhD students/graduates find it difficult to see the link. You put it very well when you said ‘You are professional X’. That’s exactly how we should view ourselves. Only most of us prefer the use of the term ‘student’, which demonstrates lack of understanding of one’s qualities and potential as a professional, be it of academic or non-academic nature. The lack of skills awarenes and professional confidence I witness from PhD students on a daily basis is really upsetting, to say the least.

    I throroughly enjoyed your piece on PhD students skills and thank you for sharing it. The excerpt below is spot-on! “Capturing the transferable skills you have is a different way of thinking about your capabilities compared with say how many academic papers you’ve published. Yet as you start to think about yourself in this way, it can be surprisingly liberating and empowering! [...] It helps them to make a connection with the mainstream world of work and understand how they can market themselves to employers – as capable generalists rather than academic specialists.” The key is exactly this, to be able to present yourself as a “capable generalist” rather than an “academic specialist”. I will add ‘professional specialist’ to this, as well, as some PhD programmes will – hopefully – help you achieve this. In any case, it all starts from the ability to understand the existence of package of transferable skills. Unless you are aware of these, you cannot effectively communicate your skills and srengths to others and this is, in my experience, where the problem lies.

    Thanks again for your comment Chris!

    Best wishes,

    10 Oct 2012, 09:38

  8. Ioanna Iordanou

    Dear Anne-So,

    Thank you very much for your comment! First of all, well-done for recognising your value and worth, that’s hugely important and a great achievement, indeed!

    It is a tough professional world out there, constrained by the suffering economic climate and high unemployment at the moment, so employers do have a wider pool from which to chose. Obviously, it is up to you to decide on any job offer. The important thing here is to recognise the reason for pursuing a specific role. Is it purely to meet financial needs? Is there a possibility for further training/promotion that can lead to an idealy job once your excellent theoretical/academic background is complemented by the specific training/practical aspect? Is it because you would take any job because you simply need a job or don’t want gaps in your CV? [And the list goes on…] All these are valid reasons and no one could pass any judgement on them. The important thing here is to be able to distinguish the lack of correlation between your skillset and a lower-level job (and the potential consequences of this) when you consciously opt to apply for it, let along accept it! Well done you for being able to understand this!

    The next step for you Anne-So, iis to be able to identify those employers that will appreciate your expertise and skillset, undestand how you could potentially be adding value to their company with your outstanding background, and compensate you accordingly for this. I am in the process of compiling a list of such employers who openly pursue PhD graduates and, at some point in the future, I will be posting it here. I hope you will find it helpful!

    Once again, congratulations for appreciating you worth, value, and knowledge and standing up for it. I wish you best of luck with all your puruits.

    Best wishes,

    10 Oct 2012, 09:56

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  • Oh dear Ioanna your blog entries are always so inspiring to read…!! I have experienced the same th… by Terry on this entry
  • Dear Anne–So, Thank you very much for your comment! First of all, well–done for recognising your val… by Ioanna Iordanou on this entry
  • Dear Chris, Thank you very much for your comment! You are absolutely right, it's all about continuit… by Ioanna Iordanou on this entry
  • Dear Rob, Thank you very much for your comment. I understand and sympathise with your frustration! O… by Ioanna Iordanou on this entry
  • Wow!!! Excellent post, so true! Fits perfectly to my own experience! Thanks a lot, Ioanna! I just re… by Anne-So on this entry

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