What Price Work Experience?

What do students know about life beyond academia? I touched on this in my last post, and this week two reports have been published which are relevant to this theme and the overall ‘student experience’, loosely interpreted. Vitae published a report on ‘What do researchers want to do: the career intentions of doctoral researchers’  which has some results which may seem surprising to those who have followed earlier blogposts from OT bloggers including myself (for instance here). The second report was commissioned by the Government and headed up by Sir Tim Wilson. Entitled ‘A review of business–university collaborations’  it looks at the whole interface between business and universities, including examination of the implications for both undergraduates and postgraduates.  These reports both make telling comments and recommendations, implicitly and explicitly, about how students – during both undergraduate degrees and their PhD’s – are exposed to and consider life beyond academic walls.

A couple of posts written earlier this year on OT from Jenny Rohn (here and here) and Tom Hartley elsewhere  have suggested that there are insufficient openings for dedicated postdocs who want to find academic openings. Although that may still be perfectly true, the Vitae report suggests that actually more people stay in academia after their PhD’s than intended to do earlier on, with approximately twice as high a percentage staying on to do research in HE in the biological (27%)  and biomedical (23%) sciences than set out intending to do so during their PhD (13% and 12% respectively); the difference is much less marked in the physical sciences (19% versus 16%). Perhaps this merely says that the more you do biological research the more you learn to love it and that undergraduate degrees give you no indication of the joys of exploring something no one has ever considered before. However I must admit I was very surprised to find the following as Vitae’s recommendations:

Recommendation: In order to assure a flow of talent into research in higher education and beyond, government, funders and institutions should consider how to most effectively promote research careers to young people.

Recommendation: Institutions should explore how to promote doctoral research opportunities and research careers to high calibre students, in the light of potentially increasing competition from employers from non-higher education.

If the anxiety expressed by Science is Vital and many others about the bottleneck in careers for postdocs progressing to independence is real, as I’m sure it is, then these recommendations may not be wisely applied in the sciences. Otherwise we may just find the situation degenerating further.

A point of concern raised by Vitae is that remarkably few postgraduates had troubled to visit their careers’ service, approximately a third of those interviewed in their final year; a staggering 40% had never used the service at all at any point during their stay at university. Nevertheless, despite this omission, two thirds seem to have thought they would have benefitted from doing so (and those who had done so seemed broadly satisfied). More women than men seemed to think they would have liked more support on this front, but often the desire was to have had it before they ever entered university. With the cutting of careers’ advisors at school (a website seems to be regarded as just as good by the powers that be) this situation is not likely to improve.

One final point of note from the report is the relatively low numbers of students who had undertaken any work experience during their PhD’s; in the sciences the average was around 12%,. Indeed students in the physical sciences had almost the highest percentage overall – as high as 43% – who had never participated in any sort of work experience at either undergraduate or postgraduate level; only arts and humanities students had less exposure at 45%. This topic ties in directly with several of the recommendations from the Wilson report (there are 30 substantive recommendations in all) about work experience at different points in the academic pathway:

Recommendation 4, paragraph 4.5.2

Ideally, every fulltime undergraduate student should have the opportunity to experience a structured, universityapproved undergraduate internship during their period of study. Where such internships are paid, government should examine the feasibility of supporting companies that host students through a tax credit or grant mechanism. Where internships are unpaid, universities should use their ‘OFFA funds’ to support eligible students rather than condone a policy that could inhibit social mobility.

Recommendation 5, paragraph 4.5.2

The governmentsupported graduate internship programme should be continued. However, recognising the constraints on the public purse, it is recommended that only companies entering into the graduate internship programme for the first time are supported by a oneoff subsidy. Repeated graduate internships are for the company and/or the university to fund. For the avoidance of doubt, the use of a university’s ‘OFFA funds’ should not be permitted to support unpaid graduate internships.

Recommendation 16, paragraph 5.6

All fulltime postdoctoral research staff should have the opportunity to benefit from 8 to 12 weeks’ of work experience outside academe every three years during their contract. They should receive career guidance from the university’s professional staff each year of their employment as an integral part of their appraisal, and be encouraged to attend a short intensive enterprise skills programme alongside postdoctoral staff from other departments of the university. For the avoidance of doubt, these measures should be integrated within the contracts of postdoctoral research staff and, where possible, embedded within external funding arrangements.

So, work experience should be seen as integral and every student should have the opportunity to benefit although, as can be seen by the qualifying statements in these recommendations (which I have deliberately quoted in full), the source of funding is likely to be a tricky issue. However, the Wilson report was specifically asked to consider university interactions with business.  Just as was the case in the Willetts roundtable I attended last year discussing postdoctoral careers this, I feel, narrows the field of opportunities in ways that I think are unhelpful. The current scheme of internships at POST offers PhD students the chance to look at science policy and interact with politicians and civil servants. Two of my own students have participated; one is now working in science policy but the other found it interesting although not for them. Both students found the exposure to this very different world informative and valuable. How are we going to get more scientifically literate politicians, like my own Cambridge MP (Dr) Julian Huppert, trained in physics and chemistry, if we don’t let students get closer to Parliament upon occasion? What about science communication or journalism more generally? What about school teaching? Surely we should be doing more to offer opportunities away from the usual meaning of the word ‘business’ for students as well as expose them to the world of industry and commerce?

The Wilson Report covers far more than just this narrow emphasis on work experience, and highlights the importance of strong, sustainable links between our universities and industry for innovation and the economy. These points have been touched on by many recently in the blogosphere and I’m not going to consider this here. I simply wish to reiterate that there is much more we, collectively, in the universities and in government can do to equip students for the world beyond academia in the broadest sense. Our economy rests on far more than just innovation and we won’t have any of the entrepreneurs of tomorrow if we don’t have bright, articulate and accomplished individuals entering the world of teaching, journalism, politics, government and communication (and probably many other career paths too) to inspire and inform them. I do hope if and when BIS seeks to introduce the work experience that both Vitae and Sir Tim Wilson are pushing for, and finds the funds to make such a scheme happen, it will have an appropriately broad view of what ‘experience’ might include.

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One Response to What Price Work Experience?

  1. Grant says:

    My head so full of things that I probably won’t make much sense (!) right now, but one chord it strikes with me is that I’ve suggested in the past for students take a year out of academe either prior to starting university or (perhaps better) before post-graduate studies. Part of the thought for me was to encourage thinking beyond just timidly plodding the straight line. Some might discover that they are happy outside academe and just keep going there. It may help some to test what they want to do, sooner. I spent a year in a small computer company before I decided to go back and get a Ph.D. (For what it’s worth, my work in the company was developing original low-level systems that interacted directly with the hardware working on a 4-CPU system with my code burnt into EMPROMs and all the rest of it.)

    I agree that the internships should look wider than ‘business’. (One other kind of internship that occurs to me as I am writing this is to administration. Not strictly outside of academe but a side-effect might that a few better appreciate ‘the other lot’!)

    I’m a little surprised at the suggestion of work experience at the post-doc level. It’s an interesting idea and the spirit of the thing looks good, but I wonder what those who would offer these positions think? – It might benefit the science community, but how willing would businesses (etc.) be to offer such short stints? (Some might feel that it’d take too long them to get up to speed to be of real productive use – ?)

    I strongly agree with your thoughts that “[…] there is much more we, collectively, in the universities and in government can do to equip students for the world beyond academia in the broadest sense” – I’ve argued as much on my own blog.

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