After several conversations with some PhD students recently, I was struck by one common thread, the lack of awareness or astuteness in planning or developing their own careers and lack of confidence in seeking help. Note, in this article, I use candidate and student interchangeably!
So why this article?
Many PhD students whilst studying for a higher degree approach their careers in a manner no different from undergraduate (UG) students i.e. they typically wait to the end of the PhD and then panic stations which manifests itself in last minute CVs, poor application outcomes and pressure to make career choices. With a PhD comes high expectations and sadly poor post-PhD career outcomes. Thus, it is imperative that PhD candidates understand the importance of the PhD.
As a PhD candidate, you need to view your project as a form of Project Management – think about it, you are given an idea or a project, you investigate challenges around the idea, often work with different stakeholders (sponsors, supervisors, other students, graduate school, community, peers at conferences etc.), proffer solutions and produce a report which you are expected to and usually defend to an expert committee.
How does this differ from a Project coordinator/manager in a business, clinical or engineering sector? A project manager typically gets a project, forms a team, works with the team to develop the idea (sometimes alone just like in a PhD), a process which includes a feasibility assessment (proposal stage during PhD), the main element and eventually presenting and defending the report to the clients (in this case the external examiners and often the project sponsors during the PhD).
So if the experience of the PhD student is similar to that of different roles in industry e.g. project manager, it is imperative that PhD students or candidates are better equipped to engage beyond the walls of academia, are responsive and supported in developing their own individual personal and professional skills.
Are we preparing our PhD students well?
I am not aware of any other sector where individuals have a two- or three-year hiatus where they do not actively engage in the planning of their careers like you’ll find with PhD students. Often, without proactive supervisors to challenge the PhD student to explore, seek and engage in professional development, many PhD students do not seek help and ferociously burrow into the “work” and forgetting they need to proactively plan life beyond the temporary work/degree (which is what it is!)
In an article published in Science by Adam Ruben (When PhD stands for Problematic Hiring Detriment), the line ““How…do I find an employer willing to overlook my most flagrant disadvantage: my PhD?” is the reality many PhD candidates are either willfully ignorant about or grossly unprepared for!
It is possible that a lot of these students respond to the type of mentoring or lack of, from supervisors and in some cases are beholden to the supervisors which really impacts their judgement on their own personal career development. Also, where supervisors are not good mentors, not dynamic, commercially-aware and engaged with the sector, the risk is that the PhD student is looking through a narrow lens and sometimes become a clone of the supervisor and exhibit the same traits.
The challenge for many of these PhD students, is that for every however many PhD students, there might just be one lecturing or one post-doc job and many have ended up working at grocery stores, stacking shelves, working in farms and in very low paid jobs (believe me, it happens more often than you think!).
For many, this leads to poor mental health, no mortgage and embarrassment. As some have said, they are forced to remove the PhD degree from the CV to get an entry level job.
So who is responsible?
This should be a collective responsibility however the final buck stops with the PhD student/candidate!
Unfortunately, Universities in the UK do not typically provide robust or tailored career support for postgraduate (PG) and research students as the focus is squarely on the UG student. The Graduate Outcomes Survey (GOS) formerly known as the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) only targets UG students and for many careers services, this is where all efforts are focused. Following discussions with many PhD candidates in the US , the challenges are not much different. It has also been identified as an issue in Canada – read here
I have questioned an challenged this lack of support for the PG student and research community at several UK institutions and Employability leaders’ events and will continue to do so but we are far from an ideal situation. Graduate schools and Careers/Employability services should be expected to provide adequate support for PG students and researchers (they are fee payers too!). In addition, PhD supervisors training should include helping the PhD student with better career planning and development.
For the PhD Student,
It is important that any student who is embarking on a PhD should learn to ask for help early on in the process even before making a decision on the PhD. Ask questions about the career support being offered by the PhD supervision team, the Graduate School, department and the University.
In addition, as a PhD student, you need to understand the value of external engagement, conferences and networking beyond your office, laboratory or studio to your career development.
Going to a conference should be more about the opportunities available to you not bouncing off on a high to present your “ground-breaking” research, getting drunk with your group/lab mates or shopping trips. Don’t get me wrong, both are equally important, but you do not want to be the PhD graduate working stacking shelves after four years of a PhD when you could have done that without a University degree in the first place.
Article that would interest PhD candidates ‘Improving Society not chasing academic kudos!’ – Guardian article
- If you are a PhD student, ask for help, always! This is a key strength and not a weakness
- Use a career planning or auditing tool to map your career journey. If you are not sure how to do this, speak to a career advisor.
- Understand the link between your PhD and your sector and build those links from day-1 of your PhD.
- Keep networking as your network is your net worth (click article here).
You can find other PhD career related articles on the hub or visit our career resources pages for more. The two articles below also provide useful advice for PhD candidates
- The PostDoctoral Conundrum – To Postdoc or not to PostDoc by Dr Victor Ujor (Click here for article).
- A PhD should be about improving society not chasing academic kudos by Julian Kirchherr (Click here for article).
About the writer – Emmanuel has a PhD in Microbiology and is a Senior Lecturer in Biomedical Sciences and Public Health. He leads research in the development of antimicrobial agents from natural sources and infectious diseases of public health concern. He is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (UK), he has taught at several UK Universities and delivered guest lectures and many Universities globally. For more about Emmanuel, visit the about us page here.
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