I was fortunate recently to attend a workshop on Career Strategy delivered by Dr Edwin Trevor-Roberts, an alumnus of the university at which I am undertaking a PhD. The workshop was so popular that they had to schedule an additional day! Not that surprising, given the figures I was made aware of at the recent International Quality in Postgraduate Research Conference in Adelaide, Australia. Those figures suggested that the traditional Australian trend of PhD graduates taking up academic appointments is declining due to reduced Higher Education funding and a general trend in universities of seeking potential employees who can generate income for them rather than just expend it. The Australian experience was contrasted with European trends that indicated a growth in non-university employment of PhD graduates. Each of the key-note speakers at the International Quality in Post-Graduate Research conference suggested that the European trend is likely to take off in Australia.
One of the engaging activities in the Career Strategy workshop was to discuss at the table of participants the questions that you had always wanted to ask a career consultant about post PhD career choices. This activity generated a number of pertinent questions from just and soon-to-be graduated PhD candidates. An interesting dilemma at the table at which I was sitting was the comment from a soon-to-be graduand that having a PhD in some disciplines in Australia was sometimes a hindrance rather than a help. This perception was later confirmed by the speaker and the advice was not to spend too much time in your career interview talking about ‘when you did your PhD’ and to focus more on how the knowledge and the inquiry processes acquired from undertaking a PhD could add value to a potential employing company. The concern resonated with a story I had heard from a recent graduate that at the high school at which they were teaching, the Principal refused to acknowledge the academic achievement of a doctoral degree. It seemed clear to me that that Principal of that school demonstrated some of the fear from a PhD graduate that Edwin Trevor-Roberts had mentioned. It also made me wonder why the Principal had not adopted an appreciative inquiry approach and celebrated this staff member’s achievement and publicized it as an advantage of the school that one of their staff had been successful in one of the highest levels of academic achievement.
The flip-side of this scenario is recognizing the importance of acquiring a PhD as an exemplar of learning and knowledge. It is important to make this feature of a research degree one of its saleable features when you are competing in the job market. One of the often overlooked features of a research degree is that the process you have undertaken to make a contribution to knowledge can stand as a separate entity to the knowledge the research process has generated. Regardless of which industry you approach, the process of investigation, of which you have become experienced through the grueling task of completing a research degree, can be translated into any field. The process brings with it a greater demand for evidence based thinking and an ability to communicate that thinking to a range of audiences and in a range of media. The ability to make transparent any part of a problem solving process, so that the process itself can be evaluated, is a skill that is useful in any industry and in any position.
For a supervisor or advisor working with their PhD students as they head towards the ultimate milestone of completion, it is important to help them recognize the individual industry contribution of the knowledge generated through their study as well as the trans-disciplinary process that they have undertaken which qualifies them for a much broader range of investigative practices that are limited to just the industry or discipline of their study.