A PhD should comprise both education and training. It should not be slave labour or done in blindness about where it might be leading. But I fear these statements don’t always apply. In the research grouping in which I sit at the Cavendish, which now has quite a large number of attached staff and research fellows, we try to provide a programme both of locally relevant pedagogy and more general talks about research skills: topics students might find helpful, regardless of what they end up doing next. So, when it came to my turn to give the week’s lectures to the 1st years I chose to include material concerned with preparing for life beyond the PhD. In other words, I used the well-known Figure 1.6 from the Royal Society’s 2010 Report, The Scientific Century, to provoke thought.
It is the final number on the right hand side that tends to focus the mind of even the most confident student. Of the pipeline that starts off in science a mere 0.45% ends up making the grade as professor. Clearly a large number of STEM graduates never intend to stick around in science per se, though they may well use many of the skills they acquire during their degree in subsequent employment in management, banking, primary school teaching or retail – to name a few common graduate destinations. As a result there is a large drop in numbers very early on. But what about those who stay on and do a PhD. What does this cohort think about their futures?
For some I fear the answer may be they don’t think about their futures. Period. Not at all. Nor do their supervisors encourage them to do so. Once upon a time it may have been adequate to start contemplating one’s future as the ink metaphorically dried on the thesis-writing, but those were the days when a large millstone of debt was not likely to be hanging around the neck of the student and maybe they felt they had time to ‘find themselves’. Certainly I have had at least two students who were quite sure what they wanted to do upon completion was to head off to Australia and tread grapes by way of sunny relaxation whilst still earning enough to fund a subsequent trip around the Pacific. Indeed one of these students thereafter settled in Australia. But such easy-going times are probably past.
The time to start thinking about what next is very early on in the PhD, in order to give oneself time to explore one’s skills, strengths and weaknesses. Time to ask awkward questions of anyone and everyone (but most particularly the careers’ folk who are likely to know far more about life beyond the university walls than most supervisors) and time to try out a few things on the side as your research slowly gets going. Maybe you can find an opportunity to teach, to write for some local science magazine or get involved with Skeptics-in-the-Pub or more conventional outreach activities. Time to explore if there are options to get a placement in industry or in policy (various funders provide funding for 3 month placements with POST, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology). Time, in short, to think whether or not academia is for you and if not whether you might get more satisfaction elsewhere.
The trouble is that too often the message is conveyed and received that anything outside academia is Failure, writ large. Wrong. Staying in academia when it isn’t right for you, staying simply because you can’t think what else to do, or staying because you feel frightened to try out something new is the failure. As a supervisor it is never pleasant to say to a student you’d be better off elsewhere but that is quite often bound to be the case. Not everyone is cut out for research and it would be very boring if they were; it would also leave great holes elsewhere in our economy! But, as one blogger implied recently maybe the system is failing when it doesn’t kick people out fast, not when it does.
Students need to have realistic expectations about what opportunities there may be. Supervisors have a duty to try to instil this and facilitate exploration of opportunities outside the lab. I fear neither party always does a good job of adhering to these statements and that is when things go wrong. Doing a PhD may teach you all kinds of useful things but it should never be seen as an automatic passport to a permanent position. By default, by both parties burying their head in the sand, too often this unspoken assumption can go unchallenged and that’s when things can end in tears.
Maybe one of these days someone will sit down and work out how many students we actually should be training and for what purposes. There are many and diverse jobs that benefit from the skills of a PhD-trained individual, so consequently that would be a hideously complicated sum to attempt to do. There is no sign that the Research Councils (or other funders) think deeply about this as they assign money to this or that new fashionable field, Doctoral Training Centre or whatever, let alone looking across the STEM landscape and checking that the terrain is the right shape and doesn’t have pathological bulges or deep pits of absence. Without such horizon scanning, students and supervisors will continue to muddle along. But at the very least they should muddle along with some awareness that life outside academia should be scrutinised very carefully from an early point and that skills beyond the merely technical could usefully be acquired.
Some years ago the Athena Forum, which I was then chairing, produced a template for a bookmark with a set of ten questions designed to help postdocs think about their futures but it seems to me these questions are equally appropriate for students contemplating the great unknown. I reproduce them here:
- Are you on the right career path?
- Are you ready for the next step?
- How’s your life/work balance?
- Why do you enjoy what you do?
- What are your strengths?
- What motivates you?
- What is your next step?
- What skills and experience do you need?
- How can you gain these?
- Where can you go for objective guidance?
For students not to start seeking answers to these and related questions at an early stage is a recipe for subsequent disillusionment and job worries. These questions should be answered whether one is dead set on staying in academia or quickly realises that research is not one’s forte. Either way recognizing one’s strengths and weaknesses and the skills that could usefully be acquired on the side can only be beneficial.