PhD Candidate? Develop a Career Plan or Stack Shelves

PHD labourAfter 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

Recommendations

  • 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

  1. The PostDoctoral Conundrum – To Postdoc or not to PostDoc by Dr Victor Ujor (Click here for article).
  2. A PhD should be about improving society not chasing academic kudos by Julian Kirchherr (Click here for article).

EAdukwuAbout 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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#MyPhDStory – ‘It takes resilience.’

StrengthWhy do we love stories so much? Could it be because of that powerful space it creates where our personal experiences  connects with someone else? We love stories in The Hub and in today’s article, Dr Yewande Pearse shares her triumps and challenges enroute to the qualification called a PhD! Amara got to learn about Yewande through her campaign and was (and remains) inspired by her journey. Enjoy!

APH: Please can you share your academic and professional background?

YP: I completed my BSc in Human Sciences at King’s College London in 2006. I then returned to King’s in 2009 to complete a Masters in Neuroscience with a Distinction. After my Masters, I worked as a Research Assistant for two years before taking up a PhD studentship at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience. I have just completed my PhD in Neuroscience, which aimed to explore the potential for gene therapy in multiple forms of Batten Disease, a childhood brain disorder.

In layman’s terms, can you share what your research study/area is about?

Batten Disease is a group of inherited disorders that cause profound neurodegeneration and predominantly affect children. The symptoms are progressively debilitating and include blindness, seizures, intellectual decline and disability, dementia, loss of speech and motor impairment, with many children eventually becoming wheelchair-bound. Currently, there are no effective treatments available for any form of Batten Disease. My research is about finding innovative ways to treat this group of diseases with a focus on gene therapy.

So what is your PhD story? When did you realise that you wanted to undertake a PhD and how did you get into one? Why did you choose your topic?

#PhDChat – PhD and Parenting: How to make it work!

PhD-DegreePhD candidates may have a lot in common but are by no means a homogenous group. In today’s #PhDChat,  we share the ‘behind the scenes’ stories of our successful PhD candidates and graduates. We hope that their honesty and openness will encourage and motivate you as you proceed on your journey. In today’s article, Amina, a final year PhD candidate shares her experience of combining parental responsibilities with studying full time as an international student.  

The pursuit of a PhD is a huge investment in your career and yourself. I had applied for a scholarship for Nigerian based academics to finance a PhD program that I had my sights on in the United Kingdom. When I learned I was successful, I was overjoyed yet pleasantly surprised, as it was keenly competitive. After the initial euphoria wore off, the enormity of what I was embarking on became apparent. This article is meant to share my experiences and offer some advice to mature students with similar plans.

Strain on Familial and Social Ties

A PhD will test your relationships, it is important to find balance. Working towards a PhD abroad will be even more exacting. Leaving my parents and other relationships for 4 long years; adjusting to a new culture and environment; the strain on my husband, our marriage and on our 3 kids as he travelled back and forth between both countries was going to be hard. I tried to minimize these challenges by relying on modern telephony.

Settling into the Program

Do a lot of research. Carefully examine details of the campus and community you will study and live in. I consulted widely before commencing the program, weighed the pros and cons with my husband, and we tried to mitigate all challenges. However, every PhD experience is different so we couldn’t foresee the peculiarities of my own PhD, particularly the severe and persistent economic crises that would make it almost unbearable.  I didn’t realise my campus was not even in the same county as the main campus of the University. This is where a little research could have made things easier. I was to be located in a beautiful rural campus a 30 minute shuttle away from the main campus which  itself was 45 minutes from the inexpensive home I secured prior to arrival. Relocating closer to my campus wasn’t an option, as it was expensive (yes, rural living costs a lot in the UK) and too isolated for my children.

Ok, what have I got myself into?!

#PhDAdvice – Developing an effective PhD-Supervisor relationship!

Image - PhD Comics
Image – PhD Comics

I have observed a few cases where PhD candidates either not completing or failing at viva stage. A common theme was a major breakdown in the relationship between the candidate and their supervisor(s). In this article, I share four ideas, from my experiences as a former PhD candidate who’s now learning the ropes of PhD supervision  that I hope can help prospective and current PhD candidates manage this very important relationship.

 Choose wisely – In the  PhD survival guide, I shared why it is important to spend quality time while making this decision. You’ll have a smoother journey if you have a good working relationship with your supervisor. I decided to join my PhD supervisor’s group after I had spent a year working on my undergraduate project with him. Some people call this luck but I call it choice. I decided to work with him and he decided to work with me.

If your PhD is funded, your PI is usually your de-facto Director of Studies and you may not have much choice in the matter. However just like when you attend an interview, the choice to work with an organisation is still yours. Two or three member supervisory teams are now more common so it is worth asking if there will be some leeway in choosing your other supervisor(s). For self-funded PhD candidates, you have a choice in where you spend your tuition fees, so do not be scared to ask for who you need. A PhD is an apprenticeship not indentured slavery (at least it should be).  Invest time in getting information about your supervisor, research group etc. Speak to postdocs. You can find them at conferences and early career researcher networking events. Ask questions;

How many PhD candidates have you supervised?

Who will be on the supervisory team?

How many successful completions?

How many didn’t complete and why?

Do your students publish during their PhD?

Do not be so ‘hungry’ for a PhD position that you dismiss the information your research pulls up. I know a PhD candidate who left after six months because she could not get on with her supervisor. Successful completion is Win/Win for all parties involved so choose wisely.

Be proactive –  After a skill training session I recently conducted, a 2nd year PhD candidate walked up to me and spent about 15 minutes sharing all the issues he was having with his supervisor. Poor communication, poor supervision, dismissive attitude…the works. I let him speak because I could tell he was very distressed and then I told him ‘Be proactive.’ I could tell he was puzzled by my response but I told him that the only part of the equation required for his successful completion that could be modified was his attitude and how he responded to the issues he was having with his supervisor.

#PhDChat – My Transition from Industry to PhD

Thinking about what next for your career or you are in the “i’m not sure”  what or where to go to next in your career? Well our transition reflections are back again! Our previous article showing a successful transition from a PhD to a role in industry spurred many of our readers on towards their search for their dream careers. In today’s article, new PhD candidate  in biomedical science, Ellena Elcocks shares her experience of transitioning from her degree to industry and back to the PhD.

As a failed medical school applicant out of college, I looked to the next necessary steps to get me into medical school via the graduate route. I chose biomedical science and it’s probably the most successful last minute decision I’ve made to date. In 2014 my first round of university ended and I proudly graduated with a 1st Class in Biomedical Science.

I spent the first 2 years of my BSc degree still on track to apply for graduate entry into medicine, and then my final year project began. I was smitten. Research was my jam.

Without meaning to be over zealous, I felt like what I was doing had meaning. My research project was focused at how bacteria in probiotics survive and how it applies in the real world. I was hooked! I started applying for PhDs and before graduating I had secured 3 interviews. Lacking the experience needed, I was unsuccessful with them all and I felt deflated. I went back to the drawing board and started applying to any and all jobs that would keep me connected to research.

#PhDChat – ‘I didn’t just survive my PhD, I enjoyed it!’

You’ve done the research, you’ve ‘birthed’ your thesis, the last step between you and your PhD is the much dreaded viva voce exam. You have to sit in a room for a few hours to discuss your research and convince your examiners your work makes an original contribution to knowledge and is worthy of a PhD. In this article, Dr Emmanuel Mogaji reflects on his recent experience of undertaking a viva.

I was given six weeks notice to prepare for my viva. Even though I was quite confident about my research and my thesis, my approaching viva examination appeared very daunting. I reassured myself by telling myself I was going to enjoy my viva and not just survive it. To prepare myself mentally, I read articles and listened to various podcasts available on different websites.

When I heard former PhD candidates reflect on their viva experience, I always had this idea they had just survived it  – akin to escaping from a lion’s den. I didn’t want to be like that, I wanted to enjoy every bit of it. My most important preparation though was reading my thesis from cover to cover.

I reminded myself of the following facts –

#PhDchat – So you want to do a PhD?

PhD-DegreeAs academics, we routinely come across students – undergraduate and postgraduate – enquiring into how they can get into a PhD programme. Our advice is always the same, do your research! In today’s #studentchat, Mohammed shares some advice for undergraduate students contemplating undertaking a PhD.

Research is fun! Contrary to popular belief, it is much more than hours on end based in a laboratory carrying out monotonous work. It is a much more wholesome and rewarding experience but it is not without its challenges.

I have been fortunate to be involved in research prior to undertaking my undergraduate degree. Now you may wonder, why burden oneself with extra work, isn’t working towards a first or a 2:1 enough? A decade ago, the answer to that question would have been yes. However today it is almost impossible to get into a PhD programme without some form of research experience under your belt. With this in mind, I encourage other undergraduate students to look out for opportunities to carry out some type of research from the beginning of their studies. You may be thinking, “I don’t want to do a PhD, let me get out and make some real money!” There is absolutely nothing wrong with that and no one should do a PhD if they do not really want to do it.  However, for those interested, remember that research in itself can equip you with a range of transferable skills that are highly sought after by different employers.