This post is written in reflection after reading a recent paper in Studies in Higher Education (Hancock & Walsh, 2014)

Do you know what the ‘knowledge economy’ is? It’s the idea of viewing expertise, skills, and knowledge as an asset with a tangible value, like, it’s a currency that is export/importable and transferable across the UK and the wider global economy.

pipesSo how does it work, how do we transmit the skills and knowledge the nation needs to where it’s needed? Well, thanks to the recommendations of the Roberts’ review, we create highly skilled boundary-pushing subject experts within university PhD programmes, and train them to be good at both realising how ace they are, and communicating why and how they do what they do to others. So when they graduate they take that knowledge, and those skills, and apply it in other sectors, into business, into industry, into wherever the demand for experienced really smart people arises.

And we know there is a lot of demand in fact, and a lot of choice, in the sphere of employment for our PhD graduates and experienced post-docs, and we also know that about half of researchers leave academia within 3 years of their viva. Most PhD graduates don’t work in academia. As we hear from the v i s t a (careers beyond academia) leaders every time, employers like self motivated people who can project manage, they love good communicators who can show resilience in tough times, they’re mad for people who can juggle multiple priorities and still have their eye on the detail. That’s PhD graduates. See this in-depth report which confirms the crucial role doctoral graduates play in UK businesses. But hang on…

Does this match with your idea of why you came to do a PhD? Did you know you were part of a national pipeline to advance the knowledge economy? Were you thinking of the nation when you decided that you’d like to dedicate several years of your life to intense and personal study?

Did I hear…er no? So why did you start your PhD? And now you know all this what’s next for you? Because it might help you to make some wise choices about how you use the rest of your time here. And having some semblance of certainty about what your next steps are might also provide some much needed antidote to the surfeit of uncertainty your research projects are getting all up in your face.

So what are the big recommendations from Hancock and Walsh that you yourself can do something about?

(1) Look beyond the university and learn how other jobs work. I know loads of you are doing this – there is queuing out of the door for careers beyond academia sessions here in Sheffield and we’re not unique. What does your place offer that you can access? Placements, mentoring, seminars, volunteering, clubs, committees, events, something?

(2) Find opportunities to work with people from different disciplines and institutions and have a little wonder about the political and ethical values and drivers that surround your discipline, and how they might differ from those of other discipline areas. Go to workshops for researchers, training, socials, coffee, meet people, get chatting, sign up, join in, see you there!

Overall, make time to have a little think in your brain-tank. The knowledge pipeline is flowing yes, but you’re well smart, you can influence where you flow to, at what rate and with whom! Don’t sit back and get spit out of the end, you might not like where you wind up.

Image source

Hancock, Sally, and Elaine Walsh. 'Beyond Knowledge And Skills: Rethinking The Development Of Professional Identity During The STEM Doctorate'. Studies in Higher Education (2014): 1-14.