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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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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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