Quarter of arts PhDs ‘neglect career development’

Many UK doctoral students view professional development as a ‘distraction’ or a ‘waste of time’, says study

August 7, 2017
Personal development

One in four arts and humanities doctoral students in the UK does not regularly undertake career development activities despite the growing difficulty of securing permanent academic positions, a study says.

Analysing responses from nearly 500 PhD students, the report by the Careers Research and Advisory Centre found that 28 per cent did not regularly engage in professional development activity, such as attending conferences, doing skills training or undertaking public engagement. Eighty-three per cent admitted to never having visited their institution’s career advisory service.

Many doctoral students view career development as a “distraction” or a “waste of time”, according to the report, One Size Does Not Fit All: Arts and Humanities Doctoral and Early Career Researchers’ Professional Development Survey, which was published by the researcher development body Vitae.

“Completing all requirements for a PhD in three years is incompatible with any substantial career development (i.e. teaching, presenting at conferences, publishing), so that the ‘employability’ factor undoubtedly suffers if completion is on time,” explained one fourth-year art and design PhD student quoted in the report.

“All these activities take time…and necessarily takes some time away from my actual research,” said a fourth-year area studies student who was funded for just three years of study. “Many of my colleagues have avoided doing very many of these activities for precisely this reason,” the student added.

Others blamed their supervisor’s lack of interest in professional development as a key factor for their non-participation, with 29 per cent saying that their academic mentor showed little or no interest in this area.

”The bitter truth is that supervisors do not really care about PhD students’ career planning or professional development,” said one law PhD student. “All they want from us is to do research and publish,” the student added.

Several arts and humanities PhD students observed that they did not participate in career development support because it was too generic.

“It’s frustrating to attend an event where the examples used or speakers are soil scientists and acoustic technicians using examples that are impossible to relate to except in the vaguest way,” said one third-year history PhD student, explaining that “if provision isn’t tailored it can feel patronising and it’s easy to disengage”.

With 53 per cent of respondents having had a previous career, many doctoral students complained that career support was too tailored towards younger students who had come straight from university.

“Careers services are available but I am yet to find one adviser with knowledge about postdoc careers,” said one PhD student, adding that “resources are condescending and aimed at…undergraduates.”

Other doctoral students said that it was difficult to properly engage with career development activities when holding down teaching fellow roles with high numbers of hours – the report recommends that institutions do more to consider unstable contracts of early career staff when designing professional development.

More broadly, it calls for a “cultural change whereby professional development is viewed as integral to the doctorate”, suggesting that dedicated career provision should include information on the range of available postdoctoral career paths, training in portfolio career management, guidance in identifying transferable skills and matching competencies to existing job specifications, and hands-on support with CVs, job applications and interviews.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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