Wise words on the next step

Doctoral supervisors must be prepared to offer sound career advice, says Zoë Corbyn

September 3, 2009

It is par for the course that academics supervising PhD students will be called on for career advice.

There may be dedicated advisory services on campus, but the academic-student relationship leads naturally to such pastoral questions arising.

Yet are supervisors giving the right advice to their charges, and what exactly are the right words of wisdom to help a young person make good decisions about his or her future?

A conference held last month at Cumberland Lodge, titled "Is there life after a PhD?", considered just these questions.

While primarily an opportunity for the 60 or so postgraduate students attending to gain advice on how to proceed after a PhD, it also provided academics with a chance to consider their role in guiding students into the job market.

A range of speakers, from career advisers to past PhD graduates, offered advice to students and scholars to help them negotiate this potentially tricky area.

"Whether or not PhD students should be going to their supervisors for career advice, the supervisor is often the first port of call," said Owen Gower, conference organiser and a senior fellow at the lodge.

"But, on the basis of the anecdotes, it is probably fair to say that the quality of advice that students receive is sometimes very poor."

Dr Gower said the biggest decision facing most PhD students was whether or not to stay in academia.

Such students, he said, need advice from as many sources as possible, particularly as academics are not necessarily aware of the other employment options available.

How does he suggest academics handle such requests from students?

"Direct them to the careers advisory service, give them an honest appraisal of their prospects in the field, and suggest that they research the academic job market, including looking abroad.

"Get them to look at what they have done in their life so far that has given them the most satisfaction: is that something only an academic life can offer?"

Supervisors should stress that ending up outside academia does not make a PhD graduate a "failed academic", Dr Gower said.

"Remind students that getting a PhD makes them better able to cope in the non-academic sectors than other graduates. They are motivated and self-directed, able to analyse large amounts of information, clear-headed, articulate and tenacious."

Students applying for jobs must tailor their applications to emphasise the specific skills an employer wants rather than the "transferable skills" they have gained from PhD study.

They should also be advised to "publish, publish, publish", Dr Gower said. "Obviously academic employers will want students to have at least two peer-reviewed articles for any appointment, but other employers will value this, too."

He stressed the importance of getting the student to plan ahead.

"Suggest they look at their CV 18 months before their anticipated submission date and sign up to relevant job alerts," he said.

Networking can also be vital for employment prospects, something that does not always come naturally to scholars.

"Academics are sometimes slightly reserved about this, but if you want to stay in academia it tends to be quite cliquey," Dr Gower said. "If you don't go to conferences and meet the right people, then your prospects are lessened."

One speaker at the conference offering an autobiographical perspective was Graham Smith, a professor of politics at the University of Southampton.

"Academics are going to have a better insight into academic life than any career advisers, but we are not always best placed for giving advice about life outside academia," he said.

"Hopefully what an academic can do for a PhD student is to give them a realistic impression as to whether academic life is the right thing for them to be pursuing."

He stressed that a career in academia was not for everyone: "Academics are expected to be good researchers, good teachers and good administrators, and one of the things you have got to be able to do is balance those things - and that is difficult."

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com

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