Bridging the gap: how to enhance PhD programmes for non-academic careers

As more PhD students express interest in non-academic career paths, it’s essential to evaluate the relevance of traditional PhD programmes for alternative opportunities

Dennis Relojo-Howell's avatar
2 Jun 2023
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PhD at university needs to be more practical

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University of Edinburgh

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In 2020, after a seven-year journey following the completion of my master’s, I finally decided to pursue a PhD (in psychology). Before doing my MSc in the UK, I worked as a university lecturer in psychology in the Philippines for more than three years. In the interim, realising that I’m not cut out for academia, I set up a small media company and launched a YouTube channel – both of which met my financial needs.

But the gap between my academic background and my non-academic pursuits became increasingly apparent as I delved deeper into my new ventures. I quickly realised that most of the skills and knowledge I acquired during my MSc were not applicable to either running my business or maintaining a YouTube channel. For instance, I had to independently learn how to register a company, create a business plan, manage a project and/or even create a website from scratch. And most of the things I learned about running a YouTube channel were gained from watching YouTube tutorials. This experience led me to question the potential benefits of pursuing a PhD, particularly since I never intended to follow an academic career path.

As more PhD students express interest in non-academic career paths, it’s essential to evaluate the relevance of traditional PhD programmes in preparing graduates for alternative opportunities. To better equip students with the skills and experiences necessary for success outside academia, integrating practical experiences into these programmes is crucial.

Traditional PhD programmes have emphasised research and academic skill development, primarily preparing graduates for teaching or research roles within academia. But this narrow focus may not adequately prepare students for non-academic careers where practical skills and experiences are more valuable.

Psychology PhD graduates, for example, may pursue careers in human resources, marketing, research, government, charities and much more. Traditional PhD programmes, however, are unlikely to provide enough, or any, practical experience in these fields – leaving graduates underprepared for the demands of the job market. This potential disconnect between academia-oriented PhD programmes and non-academic careers is exacerbated by the oversupply of PhD graduates and the dissatisfaction among business leaders with the skills and knowledge that PhDs bring to the table.

Incorporating internships, fieldwork and other hands-on experience into PhD programmes can yield numerous benefits. These opportunities offer students invaluable real-world training, allowing them to apply their theoretical knowledge in practical settings. By offering specific modules focusing on practical skill development, such as project management, data analysis or communication, PhD programmes can further equip graduates with the necessary skills to succeed in non-academic careers. This vital connection between academic learning and industry requirement makes graduates more adept at navigating non-academic environments.

Some PhD graduates may even venture into the world of entrepreneurship, following in the footsteps of tech giants such as Google, which originated from “BackRub”, a 1996 research project initiated by founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin when they were both PhD students at Stanford University. Ana Barjasic, the founder and CEO of Connectology, and a PhD candidate in behavioural science at LSE, has shared advice on how to start a business while doing a PhD that reflects on the value of learning new things.

Pursuing a PhD isn’t just about producing excellent research or obtaining a qualification; it’s about driving societal change through years of diligent research. Like entrepreneurs, PhD students must be intrinsically motivated, confident in their skills and optimistic about their research outcomes. They often work independently, needing self-efficacy to handle diverse tasks and optimism to face challenges. PhD students, akin to entrepreneurs, must convince others of the relevance and value of their research while building a reputation through blogging, pitching, teaching and more.

Creativity is crucial, because they must also produce original research and sometimes even find alternative funding sources such as crowdfunding. PhD students often blur the lines between work and personal time, with their research permeating all aspects of their lives. The key difference between entrepreneurs and PhD students is vision. Although university research plays a significant role in innovation and the global economy, incentives and goals for PhD programmes often focus on submitting and defending a thesis rather than creating marketable products or services.

To tap into the entrepreneurial potential of PhD students, academia’s business model and mindset must change. Research impact should be measured beyond publications, incorporating the creation of new production units and fostering collaboration among researchers, institutions and companies.

Practical experiences also foster networking and relationship-building with professionals beyond the academic sphere. These connections can play a crucial role in securing job opportunities and easing the transition from academia to industry. Graduates with hands-on experience are likely to be more adaptable and marketable, possessing a wide range of skills that appeal to diverse employers.

Universities can integrate practical experiences into PhD programmes by forging partnerships with non-academic organisations and offering internships and fieldwork opportunities that expose students to various professional settings. The Professional Internships for PhD Students (Pips) scheme, for example, is the work placement element of the UKRI-BBSRC Doctoral Training Programme – offering students work experience in an area outside their PhD project.

By making practical experience a degree requirement (or elective option), its significance is underscored – encouraging PhD students to actively seek these opportunities. Universities should also offer resources and support, including career counselling and workshops, to aid students in exploring and preparing for non-academic career paths.

As the landscape of PhD programmes evolves to meet the changing needs and aspirations of PhD students, universities must adapt and respond accordingly.

By weaving practical experience into PhD programmes, graduates will be better equipped to enter the workforce with the necessary skills and knowledge to succeed in their chosen fields. As a result, universities can help ensure the continued success and relevance of PhD programmes, as well as the growth of their PhD students – both within and beyond the realm of academia.

Dennis Relojo-Howell is managing director of Psychreg. He is a third-year PhD student in clinical psychology at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

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