This blog comes to you from the interdisciplinary Researcher Professional Development team at the University of Sheffield. We’ll be updating on researcher issues, national news and trends, key achievements for the team, and other things that research staff, and staff development professionals will find of interest.

women-talking-converted.jpgVia twitter (@kayguccione) I came across this anonymous article yesterday. It adds to a growing recent batch of articles in various places about the value of a PhD for life outside the academy. It describes very well the stats on the likelihood of working in academia permanently, and makes a clear call to reposition the doctoral degree as preparation for whatever should come next (like your UG or Masters is), rather than an academic gauntlet to be run where only the fittest (most stubborn, and most burned out) survive. I am all for this, in fact it’s part of the work I do, getting researchers to broaden their awareness of careers beyond academia — see v i s t a, and v i s t a mentoring (alternatives are available in other institutions). However, yesterday’s article offers the opinion that people aren’t talking about this issue, describing a “universal silence on non-academic career options.”

I’ve got to say, at heart, I am a firm believer in Education for education’s sake. I can say that glibly because it cost me nowt to come to university. But education costs massive bucks now, and a doctorate in financial terms – at best – represents 3 years with your living costs covered while you delay paying back your undergrad loans. At worst, a couple of years living solely on credit cards while you still don’t pay back your loans (this is my experience). Making money I’d imagine though, is not the most common incentive for engaging with doctoral study. And we are starting to understand how a doctoral degree is useful in so so many future lives, wherever you happen to end up working, and (according to preliminary data from our* work in progress study) it has value way beyond employability, influencing our communication, critical argument construction skills, our personal networks, and fundamental identities — how we see ourselves in relation to the world.

So as a person actively working and researching in this area, I am super-sensitive about the labelling of this complex discourse as a ‘universal silence’. I’m talking about it — and doing so with others, for example the EARLI special interest group on Researcher Education & Careers. I was at the meeting of this europe-wide group in September where our Keynote Prof. Lynn McAlpine called for renewed research focus on pathways of progression into post-PhD career destinations.

I draw then on my own work, on this sector research commitment, and on the work of a strategy group I belong to (of UK research intensive universities) who have collectively been debating how to better collect post-PhD destination data and track people through career transitions. In addition to those in yesterday’s article, I have a few more calls to action to offer. Let it be stated explicitly this is not a rebuttal of the article I read. That article constitutes a very real experience for the postdoc who wrote it — we are on the same side, we both want things to change for the better, we both want better for researchers. So I offer a few fragments of my opinion on points made in the anon article, based on lessons learned in the actual delivery of this kind of work:

“…there is a single-minded focus on academic careers. This is entirely forgivable among academic supervisors…”

I don’t think it is entirely forgivable. Attitudinally this sucks. And while I don’t want to shift the responsibility of ‘being a careers advisor’ onto supervisors and PIs (not least because we have two excellent dedicated researcher careers specialist advisors in our careers service), I think there is some responsibility here. In terms of signposting opportunities, giving permission, making connections to others in their network — this is what the supervisor does. If they did it with the student’s own career aspirations in mind, everything would be golden. Academics don’t need to have all the answers or know all the options, but as the staff member who spends most time, and exerts most influence, over the doctoral student, they do need to be aware of having dismissive attitudes and making judgements that make people feel uncomfortable at work. We are a product of our research environment. The careers advisor or researcher development professional plays a very minor role in the development of each individual, the supervisor is key, and ‘relationship with supervisor’ is the most likely factor in whether doctoral graduates feels their PhD was worth it or not (our recent data*). I can put on infinite ‘transitions’ workshops that no-one will come to if they are beaten into silent humiliation about their career choices.

“any university will have countless PhD and postdoc alumni who have moved into non-academic jobs”.

We (as a sector) are relatively good at collecting PhD leaver data, (see DLHE). It gets complicated though as lots of doctoral grads do a least a short post-doctoral position before transitioning to new roles. But we (as a sector) are really bad at collecting post-doc leaver data because no such mass destination data collection formats exist. Q: Who likes filling in optional leaver’s surveys? A: No-one likes filling in optional leaver’s surveys. Response rates are frequently less than 15%. Think also that 6-months post-leaving (enough time for leavers to be more likely to actually be in a next job) all the staff email addresses are dead. So while alumni groups do definitely exist, how do we get at them? A lot of my role is leg work, hours of time on LinkedIn and the like, finding people to recruit to be speakers and mentors. I get to know people who are applying outside academia while they are still here and I encourage them to keep in touch after. I spend my time emailing academic staff in target research areas to find out where their research staff and students went…and often…unless it’s academia, they don’t know. Here then is another place in which department cultures could be shifted to enable systematic collection of contact details.

“Many skills developed during doctoral work are highly valued by non-academic employers…”

Or are they? Well, clearly yes at the individual level, the wealth of project management/leadership, problem solving, critical thinking etc etc etc (it’s a lot) that researchers bring doesn’t go unnoticed. But at the organisational level, very few employers recognise this systematically. Very few put out targeted recruitments for doctoral grads (and so would not pay the fee required to attend a doctoral careers fair), very few have an entry level (or salary) that is specific for engaging doctoral grads, very few actually even include ‘doctorate’ as a ‘highest qualification’ option on an application form — I guess this is legacy from when they didn’t need to. Hence it’s not well known or charted how many people across various sectors or employers actually have a doctorate. And that disables pattern-spotting and recognition of the (above and beyond a Masters) value. Here’s another role for alumni. Alumni aren’t just a source of ‘how I did it’ wisdom, they are also out source of influence within businesses, insiders who can get messages to recruitment teams, and can actively champion the value of doctoral graduates to employers. Here is an under-utilised concept that we need to find a way to tap into. I for one would be hugely interested to research empirically whether doctoral grads do better on grad schemes, or in organisational ladder climbing than Bachelors or Masters grads.

“it’s just not good enough that PhD graduates are forced to glean this information and advice from blogs. They are no substitute for direct training.”

True dat. Normalising preparation for career transitions is preferable to hiding it. Creating tailored workshops that demystify the career paths researchers want to know about is better than sifting the entire internet looking for snippets of info. But lets build awareness to what else is available online. As well as personal blogs (which actually some cases, can be a superb source of real-time insider info), there are #post-ac bloggers out there who do this for a living. There are super-specialists who really know their sector shiz. There are also some cheeky chancers who want to make a fast buck off a desperate researcher. If in doubt, do not enter your credit card details. I resist though, the idea of ‘training’ for career transitions. The T word may have been used by the writer to mean a classroom or workshop setting, so lets say benefit of the doubt. The trouble with ‘direct training’ is how can I train you to know what career you want? I get emails very frequently from researchers that say something like “I don’t want to be a researcher any more, what do I want to do?” How do I know?! I don’t know what I want to do let alone you. There are some things about career choice/transition that cannot be taught per se — this is why coaching is a fine skill for a researcher development professional, and also why we have researcher careers specialists (ask around you may have one in your institution) who can do 1:1s with you. Career choice is personal, its about growing awareness over time, trial and error, being flexible and adaptive, and often about compromises, side-steps, and best-fits rather than a straightforward training for a career path.

The article concludes: “The bottom line is that non-academic jobs for PhD graduates are the norm, not an unexpected consolation prize. And it wouldn’t need to be a huge effort for universities to greatly improve the signposting towards them that they currently offer.”

So I believe, actually yes, it would be a huge effort, and it’s one many of us make. Despite lack of awareness or recognition for our work and effort, we are trying to get it right for you, because we believe you deserve better.

* ‘Perceptions of value in the doctorate’. A research collaboration with Billy Bryan (@BillyB100), PhD researcher in Medical Education. We interviewed 24 PhD graduates across career roles. Data reported above is preliminary, the study is a work in progress.

Image credit here.

I’ve been working as an insider in research and academic staff mentoring programmes for a good fair bit now, and I’ve tried to anchor my work in the idea that mentoring is for any and all people who see a benefit to being part of the programme. There are also people for whom mentoring is not the right approach right now: perhaps it’s not the right time, maybe they haven’t got enough time to dedicate to such an involved form of development, or maybe they need a more specialist conversation (e.g. specific funding expertise, english language support, software training, careers service consultation, disability services, counselling services, HR specialists, occupational health etc). It’s my job to facilitate this understanding, and to signpost to alternative/complementary services.


Not signing up to the mentoring programme is therefore ok with me. Similarly I count it as a positive outcome if a potential mentee changes their mind after attending the induction session and decides that mentoring is just not what they thought, or not for them. Properly engaging people in their development is not about coercing them. No-one needs to be guilted into 3-6h critical career evaluation over a 6 month period.

So once we’ve got the people who want to be there engaged in the programme, it should be straightforward right? Hmmm, not so simple. Some thoughts on in-programme disengagement, learned the hard way through supporting mentees and supervising mentor practice. This is the unseen expertise involved in delivering mentoring programmes:

(1) My bad. I, as programme manager, matched the wrong two people together. Sometimes it happens. All I have to work with is what’s been declared on the mentoring matching form. To help your participants:

(i) Treat your matching form as a guided reflection for your participants, rather than designing one that’s ‘easy to administrate’. Create a document that helps participants sort their thoughts, articulate their career aspirations, and prepare their mentoring objectives.

(ii) Don’t chance it. First dibs on a match next time, is better than wasting time now with an inappropriate mentor.

(iii) Check your own assumptions. It’s good to have a matching buddy to add perspective. Just because I personally thrive on challenge and stretch, it doesn’t mean that that’s what all the mentees need.

(iv) Manage wish lists. A mentee with a long list of criteria for their ideal mentor is never going to be matched satisfactorily. Get back to the mentee and help them prioritise what matters most.

(2) Radio silence. A mentee applies, is matched, receives the welcome pack, and… never makes contact with the mentor. To help your participants:

(i) Make it clear from the outset who’s responsibility it is to make first contact. If you ask me it should always be the mentee’s responsibility, it’s their development after all.

(ii) Help them know what to say, “…now please get in touch with your mentor, who is waiting to help you. No need to explain too much, a simple ‘hello, I’m your  mentee, when are you free?’ will do.”

(iii) Make sure mentees understand that they don’t need to impress their mentor and aren’t waiting until after, for example, their research paper is submitted (or other meaningful career landmark).

(iv) Send emails e.g. at the 4 week point, reminding mentees they should have met by now. Time flies!

(v) Understand that meeting a mentor may for some people represent a very uncomfortable facing up to the reality of a situation, or a change or transition that brings an emotional reaction. For others it may be the first time they’ve talked about themselves with a colleague. Help mentees understand that managing that transition with a supportive person, is better than avoiding the issue.

(3) No Return. After one meeting the mentee never requests another. There’s a simple answer to most 1-meeting wonders: the mentee got what they needed and moved forward. Don’t worry about this it’s a positive outcome! For others it may be more cryptic. To help your participants:

(i) Check in. Ask them if they got what they needed, help them optimise it if not by giving the mentor some guidance on what they want to work on next time.

(ii) Rematch them if it’s an unworkable partnership, and help them manage the closedown of the old partnership. i.e. they email the mentor and copy you in “Dear mentor, just to say thank you for the meeting, X and Y was helpful to me, Z not so much, and I’ve got what I wanted and I’m moving on now, bye.” By cc’ing you, they leave the door open for you to follow up with the mentor: “Dear mentor, I see this has ended, is there anything I can help you with?” Managed endings are important, especially if you want to retain your mentors!

(iii) Check their to do lists! Very commonly a mentee comes out of meeting one with a to do list that represents a 5-10 year career development plan. Remind them that they don’t have to achieve all the actions before meeting again. In fact if they haven’t been able to achieve any, it’s the ideal time to check in and reevaluate/reinvigorate.

(4) Silent treatment. A mentee physically attends meetings but doesn’t seem to be present. Maybe they don’t know what they want to talk about, or perhaps there’s long silences, or the mentee says “I don’t know” a lot. Perhaps they keep changing the subject away from the difficult issue. Maybe you get feedback that they ran out of things to say to each other.  To help your participants:

(i) Remind your mentors that silence is fine, it represents that the mentee is thinking. Allowing silence is a mentoring asset.

(ii) Mentoring-style conversations where one can be open and honest can represent a style some people aren’t used to – as trust builds so will the depth of the conversation.

(iii) Remind your mentees what they can do to prepare for mentoring, offer self-analysis tools they can use. Share these with mentors to help them get a mentee thinking reflectively (e.g. values-base exercises, stress drivers questionnaires etc etc etc).

(iv) Get mentors to check their power-privilege. If I ask my mentee what they think the best way to do [the thing I’m an expert in] is, I’m setting up the assumption there’s a right answer, and that I know it and would like them to guess it. Hence getting an embarrassed “I don’t know”. This is person-centred development, not Family Fortunes.

(v) The phrase “it looks like topic X is off limits for you, is that right?” can be useful in checking/acknowledging you’ve noticed deflection. Follow up with “So what would it be useful to focus on instead?”

Interested in attending or commissioning some short mentor skills development workshops that build practice in some of these areas? See here.

Image borrowed from this article on mentoring basics.

I have been thinking a fair amount over the years about the writing process, whether in preparation for PhD sessions or through my own struggles. During the last couple of weeks, we have been running PhD inductions across the Faculty of Science, inviting some academics to share their experience of the writing process and receiving contributions from Katherine Clement, who is one of the new writers in residence working with undergraduate and PhD students, Postdocs, fellows and academics from the biological disciplines in our faculty.

“Becoming a researcher is…becoming a writer”

Read the rest of this entry »

The gang mystery_incwere stumped. Researchers kept joining the university and then vanished into thin air!

Was there some dark laboratory in the basement where they were all held captive and never saw the light of day again? It appeared some of them seemed to be able to escape to attend various development sessions but sadly some never did. Read the rest of this entry »

With the sunshine seemingly over and autumnal nights closing in, I’ve been reflecting on development events which took place over the summer and in particular the success of the Think Ahead: Sheffield Undergraduate Research Scheme (Think Ahead: SURE).  33 summer research projects took place over a 6-8 week period in the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry & Health and the Faculty of Science, with undergraduate students gaining valuable research experience to set them up for the final year of their studies and, in some cases, to support applications for further study.  Read the rest of this entry »

As many of you will know, the Researcher Professional Development Team has a Twitter handle @thinkaheadsheff.  Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been looking after the account and as a result, I came across what I found to be a really interesting article. This isn’t always easy as the speed of traffic and new information that comes across the home feed is staggering to a luddite like me. Read the rest of this entry »


I must admit that I ummed and ahhed about posting this entry. For a start, I’m still in pretty deep denial about it already being September, and the fact that the new academic year is about to begin; and, for another thing, I’ve touched on my approach to resolutions and goal-setting before in this blog, and I was conscious that I could be about to repeat or, maybe, entirely contradict that post. But, actually, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about my New (academic) Year’s resolutions, and, from talking to other colleagues and researchers, I’m not alone. Read the rest of this entry »

IMG_1137.jpgThrough my thesis mentoring work, PhD supervisors write to me most weeks and ask — with varying tones of enthusiasm and frustration  —

“how can I support/encourage/motivate/force my student to get their thesis written?”

I tailor my reply to the cues I pick up from the emails, the context, timing, relational aspects. I ask for more detail about what’s been happening. Sometimes I coach the supervisor, sometimes I coach the student. Read the rest of this entry »

As the build up increases to the Paralympics, Channel 4 have launched a trailer called, ‘We’re the Superhumans’ which is receiving a lot of positive press and has even been described as the “best TV trailer ever”. It is great in so many ways; uplifting, insightful, educational and inspiring, it really shows what people can achieve. But one aspect of it left me feeling very frustrated. Throughout the trailer people are singing, saying or signing the words “yes I can” but at 2 minutes 15 seconds the shot goes to an office with a ‘careers’ sign on the door and a man is his 50s, wearing a grey suit, is talking to a schoolboy who is a wheelchair user and saying, “no you can’t”. It only lasts a couple of seconds and then returns to the previous, positivity but the message is very clear. Careers advisers will tell you what to do, or more likely, what you can’t do, they’ll judge you and will ultimately trample all over your dreams and aspirations. Don’t take my word for it, have a look yourself. But do come back and read the rest of this post! Read the rest of this entry »

olympics imageI thought it was particularly apt with the current fantastic success for team GB at the Rio Olympics that I talk about ‘Going for gold’. Only I’m not talking really about how we can win Olympic gold medals, but actually awards for improving the research environment for our early career researchers at the University.

All this talk of ‘winning gold’ at the moment had me wondering how many of our researchers actually realise the huge amount of time and effort some of their colleagues are giving to improve the research and career environment for them both at department and university level.

When I say the words ‘research environment’ many people often think about the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in 2014 which contained an assessment of the research environment via a narrative containing information on a unit’s research strategy, people (staff and students), income, infrastructure, facilities and collaboration. But this isn’t the only process a University is involved in to recognise and encourage development of the research environment… Read the rest of this entry »