When a PhD doesn’t lead into “academia”

Tucked away toward the back on each issue of the journal Nature is a regular column offering diverse views on Career development. It is often an interesting read. In the 2nd August 2018 edition, the focus was on the thorny topic of attitudes towards PhD students who do not follow the traditional route into postdoctoral research and (potentially) a lectureship.

academiaIn his article, Philipp Kruger, an Oxford research student in the latter stages of his Immunology PhD, challenged the persisting notion that a decision to pursue alternative career paths after completion of a PhD was tantamount to “failure” (interestingly the original title, still the title for the PDF version, was You are not a failed scientist which has been altered to the slightly less accusatory Why it is not a ‘failure’ to leave academia for the online version).

Kruger was keen both to challenge supervisors who send out the message that completion of a doctoral degree was about “academia or bust”, and to promote opportunities for PhD students to develop a broader range of skills and experiences. Some of this will be about greater awareness of the transferable skills that are naturally being accumulated during the course of one’s research. These likely include:

  • Teamwork
  • Time-management
  • Project management (including prioritisation of tasks)
  • Written and oral communication skills
  • An ability to evaluate evidence
  • Resilience

These are skills that would be welcomed and appreciated by a broad range of potential employers.

On top of this, enterprising and pro-active students have the opportunity to garner a broader range of experiences, for example organising a small-scale conference, blogging or taking part in other public engagement activities. There are also more formal internships and placements, such as three month fellowships with the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) or with the BBC.

Supervisors are encouraged not to stand against their students taking up these opportunities, but rather to actively encourage and facilitate them to do so. A “pure” research careers is not for all (not least because there are fewer postdoc positions than there are graduating PhD students).

During a decade of running careers talks for undergraduate bioscientists, I have regularly included examples of alumni who have found fulfilling roles in “Careers from Science” as well as “Careers in Science”. Several of these have actually completed a PhD between their original degree and their current role. A consistent theme has been the fact that they enjoy their present work, despite in many cases not initially envisage this being where they would be focusing their labours. Flexibility and adaptability are important skills. Kruger would encourage supervisors to engender an atmosphere where students can push on different doors and see what might open up for them.



Use of social media in careers education

At the Higher Education Academy STEM Conference in April 2012 I gave a presentation about our Careers After Biological Science project at the University of Leicester. The focus of the talk was the pivotal role played by social media in recruiting speakers for careers talks, archiving various resources associated with those careers, and advertising their existence to a broader audience.

Slides from the talk are available below (or, in the event that they haven’t loaded properly, via this link )

Involving alumni in careers education

The December 2011 edition of Bioscience Education included an account I wrote concerning our Careers After Biological Science (CABS) programme at the University of Leicester. The CABS series of careers talks was started in 2007. Since 2009 it has been supported and enhanced by the Bioscience careers blog which includes copies of the slides used in the presentations, as well as a variety of videos and/or audio recordings.

As the Abstract of the paper states:

Graduate employability is an important concern for contemporary universities. Alongside the development of employability skills, it is also crucial that students of bioscience, a ‘non-vocational’ subject, have awareness of the breadth of potential careers that can follow from their initial degree.

Over the past five years we have developed the Careers After Biological Science (CABS) programme. Former students are invited back to describe their current role and offer practical advice to undergraduates who may be considering moving into a similar discipline. The speakers’ career profiles and associated resources are then collated onto an open-access website for the benefit of the wider community.

This project is characterised by two principal innovations; the pivotal role of alumni in the delivery of careers education, and the integrated use of multiple social media (web2.0) technologies in both the organisation of careers events and development of an open access repository of careers profiles and associated resources.

To read the full article “Here’s one we prepared earlier”: involving former students in careers advice click here.

Graduate employability: a growing concern

During the research for a recently-submitted paper, I decided to investigate the rising importance of graduate employability as a concern for universities (and the wider society). As an indicator of this trend I searched Google Scholar for articles with “graduate” and “employability” in the title – the results are shown in the chart below.

A survey of Google Scholar looking at the number of articles published over past thirty years with "graduate" and "employability" in the title

The increase in papers on graduate employability is striking, but probably not a surprise. Having done this research, however, I elected not to include the data in the paper. Why? My main concern was uncertainty about appropriate controls for the fact that there has been a general increase in information (specifically academic literature) during the same period. I was therefore uncomfortable about the dangers of over-interpretation.

Should I have worried? Is it a valid observation? What could serve as a legitimate control?  Any thoughts gratefully received.

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