the unbearable silence of leaving the academy?

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.


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