Making time for Plan B (1 of 2)

July 12, 2012

I read with interest "Making other plans" (14 June), which provided an overview of the need for many with higher degrees to accept and prepare for careers beyond the academy.

At my institution, the University of Exeter, we offer a range of careers and employability provision for PhDs and postdocs, including a two-day "career explorer" programme. In addition, we recently co-designed and delivered a regional employability conference for this cohort with Bristol, Bath and Cardiff universities.

While those on the courses are often happy working in successful and ambitious universities with supportive supervisors, they also want tailored and professional careers guidance.

If we look at the world beyond the academy, many undergraduates will change careers five to 10 times in their working lives. However, such labour market "fluidity" is not always seen as applicable to those with higher degrees - but all are entering the same world.

One idea to break career-destination taboos is to bring researcher development teams fully into the realm of the modern university careers service. We need to profile more effectively the employers who want to utilise the skills of researchers, be this in universities or beyond. Not all sectors and industries actively recruit (or relish) those with PhDs, but enough do.

Postgraduate participants want to help build their own futures, but with input from careers guidance experts operating within wider professional networks. PhD students at Exeter realise that they are members of an international university operating in a global marketplace, so they have to be prepared to plan within, but also beyond, the leafy campus.

The Royal Society's 2010 report The Scientific Century: Securing our Future Prosperity, quoted in "Making other plans", shows that just 0.5 per cent of science PhDs go on to become professors. So can the vast majority of PhDs who don't "make it" in the academy really be seen as failures? I don't think so, and would contest the prevalence of academic cynicism in regard to broader careers.

But the fact remains: nationally, many PhD holders will need help navigating the labour market within and beyond the academy. Many will certainly go far on campus, but many more will need (and want) to have other careers. This in turn will mean students carefully researching and planning for those various options and transitions well before their vivas.

To them I say: expect everything (except weekends) to take more time than you think. Don't be a Dr Do-little.

Steve Gaskin, Employability and professional development manager, University of Exeter

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