This morning I was working with the Researcher Development team on restructuring the section of our website aimed at research staff. Once we’re got some feedback from research staff and those who support them (please let me know if you want to give us your thoughts on our plans), we’ll have a busy summer developing new content, connecting to other support around the University and finding resources from further afield.
After spending the morning continually asking ourselves “what do research staff come looking for and what do they need to find?” I then dashed to join the SRHE “Postgraduate study and employability” conference which was happening just up the road. The reason for my haste was to catch the presentation by Dr Charlie Ball from the Higher Education Careers Services Unit on the postgraduate labour market.
Charlie and I go back a long way – we collaborated on the first ever analysis of PhD destination data and spoke on the phone most days trying to work out how to extract the information we needed from the information we had. I was delighted to hear that after much lobbying (and I suspect some tears of frustration) he has convinced the gods of destination data gathering to include a box on the form which PhD graduates complete which asks “are you a postdoc?” This, along with his excellent work over the last (ahem) years means that we have a much clearer picture of the paths that researchers take through their careers.
Since the very first analysis over ten years ago, we’ve known that over half PhD graduates leave universities on graduation and never return. Yes, really – immediately on graduation OVER HALF leave academia. We know that those who stay are mostly on fixed term research and teaching contracts (with clear discipline differences in career paths between STEM and AHSS). We know that of these, only a minority continue along the academic path. We know that PhD graduates and former research staff move into a wide array of sectors and roles. Compared to my own time as a postdoc, when our options away from the university or industries related to our research were a complete mystery, researchers now have a wealth of information about their options.
And yet… some of the old myths seem determined not to die.
One of the clearest messages I’ve had from our schools has been to be really explicit about the small number of academic opportunities available. One of the new developments on our webpages will be a section which highlights the different options and how widely employable researchers are outside universities. I have never seen the solution to the mismatch between the number of researchers we train and the number of academic posts, as taking steps to reduce the former. Instead I think we should celebrate the value that research training has to both the individual and their future employers. Let’s face it, populating the labour market with people with high-level critical analysis, a habit of behaving with integrity and personal tenacity is no bad thing.
Someone asked a question about what we it will take to ensure researchers transition more easily into the wider labour market. Charlie’s answer included the suggestion that a wider range of employers should be aware of the value of PhDs – something that is happening through secondments in doctoral programmes and projects like one run by the University of Aberdeen to place research staff for short projects with local companies. (Those of us who have been in researcher development for too long will recall this approach taken with great success by Cardiff University at the turn of the millennium.)
So, today’s post is in part a thank you to Charlie for his work over the last (ahem) years improving the quality of data about researcher destinations and disseminating facts which have challenged a number of assumptions, but also a wake up call to any researcher who thinks that a PhD or postdoc puts them “over the hump” of the journey to an academic career. It’s a counter to any local messages you hear that the academic career is the only real path open and that everything else is a failure or compromise. Or that there aren’t any interesting opportunities out there that would match your interests or values.
Rather tantalisingly (don’t judge me for finding destination data tantalising) he mentioned that comparisons of Bachelors, Masters and Doctoral level destinations show that some career areas appear to open up at PhD level – it would be great to know more about this and to be able to highlight these positive messages about the wider and added value of a PhD. In an attempt to revisit our youth we’re going to try to identify a new project to collaborate on, perhaps on this theme.
My PhD and postdoc experience have paid a dividend throughout my career, not simply because of choosing to work in researcher development, but because of the skills I gained through doing research AND the wider opportunities I took whilst at university. YOUR PhD and postdoc experience will do the same for you, but start preparing for what comes next. The data tells a compelling story. Start building your CV so it tells just as compelling a story about your value.