diversifying post-PhD stories

vista.pngAs you may be aware we have a thriving offer at Sheffield for researchers seeking to leave academia behind and seek success in a new career track – it’s called v i s t a (see here). So we should, knowing that the vast majority of PhD graduates in the UK and globally won’t stay in academic roles. There have been calls to align career expectations with career prospects for a good many years now and times are changing for the better for those seeking to work outside university research environment. Researchers now have the full backing and investment of their universities through Researcher Development and Careers Service professionals, through the Research Councils, and the Learned Societies. We all want to support researchers in choosing and investigating their own way forward.

We are working on helping individual supervisors, cohort-based training models, and departments get on board with this too (here’s more on what depts can do – a blog well worth a read). As well as raising awareness about the options open to PhD graduates, it involves helping them shed some of the old ways of thinking about those who wave academia goodbye. By recognising that an academic role is just one of many options, and one requiring a particular lifestyle and set of working preferences that not everyone favours, we are slowly moving the away from the tired and erroneous labelling of people who leave academia as ‘failures’ who ‘didn’t make it’. Many people walk away from academia because to them it looks like a terrible job that they don’t want to do.

Two big parts of the v i s t a work are open to all researchers, in all universities, not just at Sheffield. And they draw on a more diverse population of successful ‘academia leavers’ than just our own graduates.

  1. v i s t a blogs are weekly career profiles, personal stories of leaving academia, posted every Friday morning at 9am. Read them to find out the why, how, and where to of choosing a different way to work. Narrow it down by using the tags attached to each post and fins stories form graduates in: Arts & Humanities, Social Sciences, Environmental Science, Physical Sciences, Engineering,  Biomedical Sciences. Don’t be afraid to read outside your discipline area though! Only a small sub-set of the career profiles here describe a job that is discipline specific. Many others have disciplinary analogues. Read widely!
  2. @careerpostPhD is our Twitter account, where we curate and share resources, opinions, articles and post-PhD chat. See this post by my colleague Steph Ward sharing the details of the July Tweet Chat we hosted – there will be more Tweet Chats on similar themes coming up very soon.

We in universities will naturally focus on the supply end of the equation, but what about the demand half, that keeps us in balance? Through a national researcher strategy group I belong to, I have had the recent opportunity to meet with Dr David Sweeney, Executive Chair of Research England. Research England’s mission is to create and sustain the conditions for a healthy and dynamic research and knowledge exchange system in English universities, which includes looking at the role of universities in producing graduates to fulfil the UK’s Industrial Strategy.

In our meeting we started a discussion on raising the profile of PhD graduates with employers, and to consider how they could recruit more PhD graduates, to better positions. Around 90% of graduates will leave the academy for these roles after all. The group intends to keep this conversation going and a priority for us is the gathering of a recent, reliable and valid national dataset on post-PhD destinations over time. Better information won’t solve all the problems of all the ‘lost’ researchers, but it will at least provide them with a map as they decide on their next move.

Knowing where our graduates are in a more systematic way would help us in Researcher Developer roles to access reliable data to inform our work, it would also, we hope, help us to find and recruit specific PhD graduates to work as our partners in this next phase of doctoral and postdoctoral development.

I can tell you first hand that seeking and recruiting PhD-grad (and ex-postdoc) volunteers to help me to deliver this work is an ongoing and difficult task which relies on me to be constantly expanding my own professional network to find PhD graduates ‘beyond academia’, and to reach out to them, and recruit them as volunteers who will share their stories.

I work hard to ensure diversity of PhD/postdoc study area, of work sector, and of gender. But often researchers leave me feedback like ‘we want to hear from international researchers who stayed to work in the UK’and‘please recruit more people from African nationalities or‘where are the LGBT PhD graduates?!’ I hear you, and I totally agree. Diversity is best. On your behalf I have taken steps to diversify my own networks (my key source of recruits, I literally spend half my time pestering people on LinkedIn and Twitter!), to reach out into new groups and to put out specific calls for bloggers. Still very much needed though are the experiences of:

  • International PhD graduates from non-EU countries
  • Disabled PhD graduates
  • Non-white PhD graduates
  • Non-binary Gendered PhD graduates

And so I am asking for your help to find these groups of PhD graduates, or ex-post-docs, from any university to write open access career profiles for the v i s t a blog, and/or who may be interested in engaging with our leaving the academy Tweet chats? Please share this blog post in your own networks, and if you fit the bill and are willing to volunteer a bit of your time, here is the sign-up form – your help would be of great value to researchers seeking to leave academia across the globe.

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