Professor Julie Sanders explains ‘why doing a PhD in 2017?
The present of Academia and the academics of the future.
Professor Julie Sanders explains ‘why doing a PhD in 2017?’
At the RoF conference last 16th March, we realised how valuable the skills we acquire during our PhD are in the most diverse career paths. We now have more options in mind, face a broader horizon, but are still unsure. So, we may now wonder, ‘what is there for me after the Viva?’ We met with Professor Julie Sanders, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, to ask her how we should look at the future and make what she calls “an informed choice”. Key words are: openness, interdisciplinarity, opportunity.
We as students need to understand that the world is changing, and with it the job market too. New global skills are required, we’re in the digital era, we need to be flexible and to adapt. In the future we will have not just one but many and multiple careers, and need to be prepared for that and try not to ‘limit’ ourselves. We need to understand that the PhD needs to be a full experience, it is not just feeling the pressure of needing to be at our desk all day long focusing on our own work, but “actually, it’s looking at posters, it’s going online, it’s going along to things. You need to make sure that for all that stress you don’t narrow down your options.”
And listen carefully: this does not only apply to students who wish to develop various skills and use the PhD “as a springboard for other kinds of careers”, but also to those aiming for a job in Academia. “Academics will need to have much more stretch and openness than in the past, certainly we’ll need to work in teams”, learn to adjust and ‘be open’ to the different institutions and discourses. So, do not assume that because you want to be in Academia you only have to engage with what looks like the pure academic stuff. The world is in transition, and “academics need to transition too.” Interestingly, the Research Councils are in fact beginning to encourage students to pursue work placements and cross-disciplinary activities, for instance. As Prof. Sanders says: “We need a little bit of that more diversity into the actual Doctoral experience.”
If we compare the UK system to that of the US, for instance, we see that timing here is very tight. Students should perhaps be given more time to ‘explore’ and should more easily find opportunities for cross-disciplinary encounter. The HaSS faculty itself is so “diverse”, ranging from Creative Practice to Business, from ‘traditional’ Humanities to STEM subjects such as Physical Geography. Students should be able to take real advantage of that and be ‘exposed’ to interdisciplinarity, by for example gaining digital literacy and understanding statistics, to be able to more easily navigate in today’s changing world. This means shifting mind-set, realising that we should not just concentrate on our specialism but fully engage in the transition. “And it’s not a crisis, it’s an opportunity.” And, mindful that “things change”, we need to seize it.
Sometimes PhDs tend to assume that they master their narrow discipline and know who they are, what they want. Here is what Prof. Sanders does not agree with: “you might go to a seminar given by somebody from another discipline, or you might do a work placement or you might do something around impact that completely blows your mind and you just didn’t know it was there. We need to keep enough light in there, in the Doctoral experience, to help it be an informed choice. You don’t know what you’ll be surprised by.”
And this is exactly why doing a PhD in 2017: it’s for the opportunities, whatever your plans are and whatever career path you’ll take. “Because of the massification of HE, the undergraduate degree is far more common and so some of the defining things become the next qualifications. These are also the spaces where we can start to build global competencies”, says Prof. Sanders. “The PhD is actually brilliant” because, if done well, following the right training, exploiting the right opportunities, it teaches us to work independently and collaboratively, to manage our own time, to manage projects. Thus, it prepares us for this time of ‘transition’.
When does a career journey start?
When we volunteered to organise this conference, our first goal was to remind us all that a PhD is a journey, not simply the making of a final thesis. It is a learning process, a constant challenge, which forces us to master new skills and familiarise with different tasks and environments. It is not just a phase in our lives, but a stage in our career journey.
In fact, this event is not just about careers, but about our journey into the career to which we aspire. From student feedback, we have discovered one thing: we all seem to know where we’re heading, but we do not know how to reach that destination. Thus, we have asked our panel speakers not to tell us what they do, but how they got there, where they stumbled and how they got back on their feet. And there is one thing we have learned from them which we want to share with you today: to remember that the future does not start tomorrow, it has already started.
This conference is our chance to find out what to do next, and, first of all, what to do right now.
Using time wisely and being prepared for life after the PhD
Have you checked out our award-winning Careers Service? If not – please take a look at the wide range of services which are available to help you prepare for life after your PhD.
Whether you’re applying to a job within or outside Academia, you’ll need a perfectly crafted CV and covering letter. Why not ask our Careers experts for advice and enhance the way you are presenting yourself to potential employers at one of the Careers Surgeries? Or attend the PG Careers Workshops: “How to write an effective CV and Covering Letter” on 18th January, 7th March or 9th May 2017 and “How to succeed at Interview” on 28th February, 11th April or 23rd May.
And there is even more on offer! Today’s professionals and academics need to be adept in the digital world - are you a digital researcher? Be prepared for your future career! Why not attend the PhD and Beyond Workshop Series and, in particular, The Digital Researcher session on 8th March 2017 at the Marjorie Robinson Library to learn how to enhance your social media presence? Start managing your online profile right now!
Researchers gain masses of project management expertise and are creative thinkers. Perhaps you have an innovative idea which you would like to develop - or maybe you are thinking of freelancing? If you are thinking of embarking on an entrepreneurial adventure, the Rise Up team is available to discuss what you have in mind and help you develop and enhance your enterprise skills!
Last but not least, do not forget that although you need a thesis to get a PhD, you need a lot more on your profile to get the job you really want. Why not take up the opportunities you are offered through the HaSS Faculty and the Careers Service to learn new skills (IT skills, but also specific academic skills, e.g. using a specific software or research technique, time and project management and much more), new languages (have you checked out our amazing Language Resource Centre? ) extend your network and open out new horizons. And the Researching our Futures conference will be an excellent place to network and explore!
Words of wisdom for PhD success with Professor John Goddard OBE, by Chris Whiting
On Friday 10th February I met with Emeritus Professor John Goddard OBE to discuss PhDs, careers and the future of universities and Higher Education. John undertook his doctoral studies in the 1960’s, in what may be claimed to be a very different environment to what we find ourselves in now but his career has been overwhelmingly successful due in no small part because of the range of skills and knowledge, which is so often pressed upon us during our postgraduate research. He founded and led Newcastle University’s Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies (CURDS) as a centre of excellence 1977-1998, subsequently he was made Deputy Vice Chancellor (1998-2008), and even in his retirement has been awarded the Leverhulme Emeritus Fellowship to continue to co-author The Civic University: the Policy and Leadership Challenges (2016) with Dr Paul Vallance. During these years John has also been a key contributor to research and policy making internationally.
For more information on John and his work at CURDS visit:
[The following article has been written based on this conversation, and although not verbatim, it has been approved by Professor Goodard as true to our original conversation.]
There is a lot of data about the careers of undergraduates, and even taught postgraduates, but there is probably very little literature or research available on the careers of post-doctoral people. Many seeking to undertake doctoral research probably have not considered the career prospects and have dedicated more of their concentration into their field of study. Subsequently, there are a lot of people who enter into quasi-academic careers, ending up on a series of short term contracts, moving from pillar to post, and never managing to get a tenured academic position.
We need to be aware that there is a lot less money in the humanities and social sciences, either in comparison to medical sciences or previous decades, and funding for post-doctoral positions has nearly all dried up. In many respects it is considered a natural route for the Post Graduate Researcher (PGR) to move into an Early Career Researcher (ECR) role because that is the nature of the environment that we find ourselves in. However, we need to consider the broader context in which we and our research exist.
What is the PhD for?
The purpose of a PhD is not to produce ECRs to increase the population of the university campus. The university has a responsibility to contribute to society through its teaching and research. We educate students so that they can get better jobs and work more effectively for their employers and their community (as well as being critical and thoughtful citizens). We undertake research that brings forth innovation, contributes to policy and challenges the nature of the world we live in. However, this is what universities are for (a subject I shall revisit in future blog with John) not the PhD itself.
Many of us in the humanities and social sciences will be undertaking lone scholarship, focusing intensely on our specialist subject to be the expert that we need to be to achieve our PhDs. We read and cite the works of the greatest thinkers that ever put pen to paper, and we desperately try to attain our own greatness in the light of these works. So often so that we forget these works are the result of a lifetime of study and not the result of their PhDs. Maybe you will go on to write your own master piece in your area of study but most likely this will be the result of many more years of study after your PhD.
So, what is it we are expected to achieve in our 3 years of study? Certainly, our research must be new, contributing to the body of knowledge, and we should emerge as the expert in our field but the real purpose of the PhD is to prove that we can operate at the highest level in undertaking our research. We delve deeply into our narrow specialist subjects and can too often fail to recognise how close we are to another’s specialist subject. When we regard this from an external position we can see how such in-depth lone scholarship can seem ridiculous and trivial. We must consider this external position to be occupied by an employer, collaborator or sponsor, and must adjust our manner and scope accordingly. Our research is proof of our knowledge within our narrow specialism; our PhD is proof of our abilities as a researcher.
What does it mean to be a researcher in the 21st Century?
An issue of the lone scholar is that they have no evidence of an ability to collaborate and work with other people’s ideas, and this is not a desirable quality in an employee. Often this can result in PhDs entering into low level positions after their studies in which to get this experience of working within a team. However, universities have reacted to this issue by creating the Doctoral Training Programme, which exposes the doctoral candidate to a broader range of contexts and experiences as well as providing opportunities for networking and collaboration.
The DTP gives us the opportunities to meet researchers from other fields, to share ideas and collaborate on research projects. The Researching Our Futures is a case in point, where the committee is formed of PGRs from Newcastle University from a range of disciplines in the Humanities and Social Sciences. In participating in creating this event we have proven our abilities to work within a team of other researchers, to reach out and collaborate with academics within our university, and network with others at other institutes, academic and beyond. We have developed and proven our entrepreneurial skills in creating a unique selling point to our conference beyond our own specialisms, marketing through various media and managing a budget. All of which was made possible by our engaging with the Doctoral Training Programme.
Perhaps it is unfair to imply these skills of networking, collaboration and entrepreneurship are unique to the 21st century. John’s career certainly shows how all of these have been incredibly effective and how he has instigated them within CURDS to be a centre of excellence. One of the fundamental philosophies in CURDS was to create a collective culture, an environment in which students shared ideas in lectures and seminars, collaborating on research projects, and welcoming guest speakers through which the purpose and reality of the research can be given context.
John states that a lot of the success of CURDS came from having a critical mass of academics behind the idea, under the banner of CURDS, providing validity and weight to the research undertaken, and the researchers who undertook it. This is the other issue with the lone scholar, a lack of critical mass. Although there may be a significant number of us across the HaSS faculty we too often isolate ourselves within our schools, departments or even just ourselves.
The university should not be run as a business but as an environment which facilitates the conditions for success. However, we as PGRs can take some valuable ideas and practices from business to influence our potential for success. Thinking as entrepreneurs we can consider what are our unique selling points (knowledge, skills or abilities) and how can we utilise them to the greatest effect. Thinking of our department/school/faculty as our employer, how can contribute to their success, thereby proving our value. We must network to find connections and collaborators, through these collaborations develop our research and ideas, and as a team (of stakeholders) sell these ideas to our colleagues and society beyond the academy.
We hope you will join us at Researching Our Futures to start these networks and collaborations.
Not sure what comes after the PhD?
Former HaSS PhD student Lorna Dargan shares with us her experience and transition from student to researcher to Careers Adviser for PGRs and postdocs. Here are some real-life based tips and useful advice on career planning and management!
After her undergraduate degree, Lorna decided to start a research degree because she “just wasn’t ready to stop learning.” She enjoyed sharing her work with others and feeling independent. “I really loved doing my PhD”, she says, “your work comes from within yourself, it’s like and expression of who you are and all the things you are interested in.” But Academia is not just hard work, it is perhaps “a vocation”.
After some years as a postdoc, Lorna decided to leave Academia. “I ran out of things that I was interested in”, she explains, “I didn’t feel like I was learning anything new. It took me a really long time to get to the point where I realised this was not for me because it was technically a good fit on paper, but I knew it wasn’t the right fit.”
Lesson #1 - Don’t be scared of changing direction and transitioning
“It is not a failure to say: ‘I don’t like this.’”
Lorna recalls that the idea of leaving Academia scared her at first. “The process of leaving was a bit difficult”, she explains, “and inwardly I think I did feel a little bit of a failure, but eventually realised I just didn’t want to do it. It is not a failure to say I don’t like this. It’s not like you are not capable: you don’t like it.”
Lesson #2 - Look outside of your bucket
“I didn’t spend a lot of time making my academic career happen because I was in the bucket, so I was just thinking about the research project I was working on”
Lorna acknowledges that PhDs often “drift” in their careers and don’t think about them until quite late. “I never spent any time thinking about my career”, she says, “and I didn’t really see my career as a thing slightly separate to myself that needed thinking about and planning and a little bit of management. When you are a PhD student it’s kind of like your research is in a bucket and you’ve always got your head in the bucket. You need to take the bucket off your head and look up every now and then”. Every career needs planning and management, you need to understand what you want to achieve and how to make that happen.
Lesson #3 – It’s not either or
“All the qualities that make a good research student are all the qualities that make someone employable”
One of the biggest misconception about life after the PhD is that you either become an academic or you wasted your PhD years. This is of course not true and people with a doctorate have a huge set of skills which employers highly value. “Probably the biggest problem PhDs encounter moving into a non-academic job is just that transition and how to market yourself because if you are very used to speak the language of Academia that doesn’t always translate well into the job application”. Lorna herself admits that when she first thought of leaving Academia she had no idea of what she could offer to the outside world. She indeed found her first non-academic interviews quite hard: “an academic interview focuses on your knowledge and a non-academic interview focuses a lot more on your skills. I wasn’t really sure what skills I had and I didn’t really know how to talk about them.”
This is too often the case with PhD students, who tend to associate research skills with Academia only. But Lorna, for instance, uses different skills in her job at the Careers Service, especially those she gained through her research degree. She manages projects, plans and delivers workshops and training sessions, teaches, stages events, does consultancy and mentoring work, and a lot more. In particular, Lorna uses analytical skills: “when I am talking to a client, I am always analysing data, it’s just that the data is the spoken word. I am looking for patterns and meanings.” Her own experience shaped her definition of employability, which is clear and simple, but extremely powerful. “When I started looking at what employability meant”, she states, “I realised that the things that make a student employable are the things that make him or her a good student […]. All the qualities that make a good research student are all the qualities that make someone employable”, that is working independently, managing your time, your own learning and professional development, leadership, etc.
Lesson #4 – Explore and try out before committing
Once she had decided she was going to leave Academia, Lorna turned to a Careers Adviser. “When you don’t like your job and you haven’t liked it for a while you can start to complain about it a lot and you are always focusing on the things you don’t like. I wasn’t figuring out by myself what I wanted to do. So I went to a Careers Adviser who challenged me to stop complaining and think about the things that I did like. It’s the same with academic paradigms: one paradigm doesn’t end and a complete new paradigm starts, there are little bits of crossover.” Thus, she was asked what she wanted to take forward in her new job, and that was teaching. But, although Lorna had found out what she was passionate about, it was not yet clear to her what career path to take. In fact, it was only after shadowing a school teacher that she would confidently opt for HE.
The message here is to take advantage of all the possibilities the Careers Service offer, to make sure you are making the right choice. Students have the possibility to apply for various work experiences, volunteer work, shadowing, trainings, all worth a try. And why not attending events and fairs? “I think, even if you want an academic career it’s worth coming to recruitment fairs”, suggests Lorna, “because it’s a good way to practice your networking skills. Come to a recruitment fair and practice talking to people you don’t know” – and find out whether you actually enjoy it or not.
Lesson #5 – Get there (and get there early)
“It’s not just going to happen”
Here are Lorna’s top tips to plan your career.
1) Think about it early.
Explore all the options, network, research.
2) Make sure you know what it really means.
Have a clear picture of what is required in a specific career, and ponder on whether that fits your expectations. Lorna acknowledges that many students have an idealised picture of life in Academia, for instance. “For a career in Academia you need to be really clear about what that actually involves […], whether you are prepared to make the sacrifices to make an academic career happen, because you have to give up a lot to make that happen.”
3) Put some effort into it. Your career “is not just going to happen”. Plan carefully and take action.
4) Once you have a plan, talk about your plan.
Lorna’s best piece of advice is to come and talk to the Careers Service. “It’s good to talk about your plan with somebody who is not your supervisor because we are not invested in the outcome of your plan, so we are a bit more objective.”
What if you don’t have a plan?
The Careers Service can help you, even if you do not have a plan. “I think one of the misconception is that you can only come and see us if you got something in your mind”, says Lorna. “If you do not know what to do, come and talk to someone. I think there’s a limit to how much you can figure out by yourself. We are not here to tell you what to do because we don’t know you as well as you do but we can help you think about your problems from different angles and perspectives.”
Lorna joined the Careers Service in 2007. She had previously worked as a Research Associate in the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape at Newcastle University, where she researched government policy discourses government around social and urban policy; as well as teaching on several undergraduate and Masters modules.
In 2007, she moved into the Careers Service as a module leader on the Careers Service's "Career Development" module. She now works as a Careers Adviser. Lorna is the Careers Service lead member of staff for working with researchers. She is also the link Careers Adviser for the university's postdoctoral research staff, postgraduate students in the faculty of Medical Sciences (FMS), and students in the Schools of Dental Sciences, Psychology and Medicine (MBBS).
Why to join a conference organising committee?
One should join a conference organising committee for two reasons: the practical experience and the personal journey. If there is one thing that the Researching our Futures conference has taught us all is that we should use our time at university wisely and develop our skills. Getting involved in event management is definitely one of the best opportunities to push ourselves to our limits, which I suggest you with all my heart. But my advice goes further: before you do, make a list of all the things you do well and all the things you don’t. If I had given this exercise a try myself, the ‘this scares me’ points would have without a doubt exceeded the ‘I am fine with this’ ones. Then, once your event is over, and after you have had some rest, please make another list. I am sure you would not just find yourselves in front of a more positive evaluation, but of a series of notes giving yourselves suggestions for improvement. Experience is not making a task easier and easier, it actually is growing awareness, retrospection, evaluation, it is understanding what went wrong and finding a way to fix it, managing and surviving crises, changing your plans and attitudes. And these are essentials skills in research.
When I joined the RoF committee, I was enthusiastic about the possibility to ‘create’ and ‘shape’ a new event, the first of this kind. We had to ask ourselves what the university wanted from us ‘inexperienced’ students, what the students wanted from the university, what this all meant and how to make it happen. It was scary at first, it took us a long time, but we learned a lot on the way. But only now I realise, thinking back on my experience and on the RoF speakers’ advice: is this not what researchers do? To tackle problems and solve them? Aren’t researchers entrepreneurial, analytic and creative? Yes, they are. Yes, we are. Yes, you are. And you have the right skills to make anything happen.