This post builds on my notes and interpretation of Alex Hope’s keynote at the (very local) Faculty of Engineering and Environment Postgraduate Conference at Northumbria Unversity on 15 June 2017. The keynote was entitled: “Bridging the barrier between academia and the ‘real world’ — or how to get a job after your PhD”.
I share these augmented notes because the talk was both very inspirational and pragmatic, and spurred me to explore more resources on the topic.
The sky’s the limit? Look big, and don’t narrow yourself to a hard-to-secure, academic-only career path. Photo credit: “Opportunity” by D. Brandsma on Flickr, Generic Creative Commons Attribution.
Alex Hope’s example encourages PhD researchers to seize opportunities and strive to make a positive impact on society, whichever form this may take. His advice is not about pursuing a career in academia at all cost. Not only are there not enough positions for every PhD student or post-doc, likelihood is that you would thrive much more elsewhere: in industry/businesses, government, or non-profit organisations. You can also create or follow opportunities that will lead you from one to the other. In fact, a first or multiple experiences in industry can make you a very useful asset further down the line in higher education – you teach students on the basis of a solid (if perhaps partial) experience in the “real world”. Alex Hope is one of many Northumbria academics who have been equally comfortable in industry as they have been in research and higher education. So for your career in the 21st century, it is best to forget about linearity, and embrace opportunity.
A snapshot profile: Alex Hope is currently Senior Lecturer in Business Ethics at the Newcastle Business School at Northumbria University, and is also an expert in sustainable business (including Corporate Social Responsibility) and development. As a teenage rock star who skipped his A-levels to pursue his music dreams, nothing predestined him to become an academic. After his band naturally split up, he took up a degree in music management, became retail manager of the HMV music store in Newcastle for a few years, studied environmental management, did a PhD, and gained experience in both industry and academia, including through his own sustainable business consultancy. As Dr Sustainable, he has his own blog, and has blogged on many blogs (e.g. Thesis Whisperer). He is also active in many different types of organisations.
In a contribution to the Guardian Higher Education blog, Alex Hope takes stock of the fact that academic careers are hard to come by, and why it is a good thing to be more flexible. The term “academic career” may have become somewhat of an oxymoron: it is increasingly difficult to secure a lifelong career in academia in the same way as 30-40 years ago, when many of today’s superstar academics began their own academic career. It is more likely that one will shift between positions or “careers” between industry/business, academia/education and the third sector. Career flexibility applies to many industries. On the flipside, this is not necessarily a bad thing. There can be many different breeds of academics that are not bound to an academic institution per say. Manchester University’s Careers Service asks the question sincerely: Do you [really] want to stay in academia? The webpage probes further with the following questions:
- What do you want out of a career?
- What do academics really do?
- Is academia the right option for you?
It also reviews the alternatives: research positions in industry, government, international organisations, and the not-for-profit sector (NGOS, charities, etc.). Alex Hope suggests that industry jobs can often be much more rewarding, especially in terms of tangible outcomes that can improve places and people’s lives.
You can also consider teaching in schools as teachers are often in high demand (as is the case in many European countries). You can also work as non-academic support staff in universities. And of course all the industry jobs related to your discipline, as well as jobs where your diverse transferable skills would be highly valued. Whatever your preferences or capacities, your career path is highly unlikely to be set in stone.
Learn to glide, your career is not set in stone. Photo credit: “Opportunity” by Susan Frazier, Flickr, Non Commercial CC Attribution.
The US College Board , which provides extensive information about US colleges and their entry requirements, suggests the following five reasons to be flexible about your career plans:
- People change – you may want to move around different positions and organisations, especially as you gain expertise and confidence.
- The world changes – tomorrow’s jobs may not all exist today, including your own.
- There is no perfect career – every career opportunity has value and limitations, none will match your skills set and preferences 100%.
- You can only plan so far ahead – trust your lucky star or Higher Companion, uncertainties come with a wide range of opportunities
- Satisfaction is key – are you in it for the money or the passion? Either way, you might get bored and want to try something new.
Flexibility is key. In my opinion, these advice can apply to anyone at just about any stage of their career paths. Likewise, Jeff Brenzel, Dean of Undergrad Admissions at Yale University, argues that it is not what you study that matters necessarily, but what you get out of it. While the advice applies mostly to prospective college applicants, it can possibly apply to more mature professionals who want to shift career. The real question is: “Have you become a flexible, adaptable, resilient person who is quick down the learning curve in exploring a new subject?”
Thriving (or surviving) as an academic also does not guarantee that you will make “an impact” on society – i.e. that what you do as a professional will help improve society in any significant measure. The pressure to publish in academic journals, for example, may actually prevent from reaching out to those who most direly need your knowledge and expertise. Journal articles, although valued by research frameworks, are not necessarily the most effective way of getting your message out there. Only few people manage to publish in highly-read academic journals such as Nature. Wild claims circulate in cyberspace that up to 90% of journal articles never get cited, depending on discipline. On the London School of Economics Impact Blog, Dahlia Remler tries to sort the wheat from the chaff in the claims. While some claims may be exaggerated, the point remains that academic publications do not seem to be the most effective way.
Research output is shared more widely through other channels: blogs, professional magazines, mainstream newspapers, exhibitions, public talks. The Conversation is a great international blog that showcases research in a highly accessible way; the website brands itself as demonstrating “academic rigour” with “journalistic flair”, and covers all manners of issues. Think also TV, Youtube, Twitter… You can also check altmetrics, which provides a more diverse view of how your work has been cited or mentioned digitally, including on social media.
So, as a PhD or post-doc intent on getting a career in higher education or research, is it really still a good idea to put all your eggs in the same basket? Probably not. In the Guardian HE blog, Alex Hope indicates that
“We need to become more agile both in terms of employment and our modes of communication. Academic tenure is the past – flexibility is the future”.
Flexible does not need to mean pursuing paths that contradict your own moral or ethical values. Instead, have faith in your own capacity and interests:
“Follow your dreams, develop your ideas and let the rest sort itself out”.
So how do you make it happen?
To stand out from the crowd, you may want to become a hardcore academic, or a flexible and entrepreneurial chameleon equally at ease in multiple careers.
Stand out, be a chameleon! Seize the opportunities to blend in the most unlikely settings. Photo credit: Marco Verch, Flickr, Generic CC Attribution.
TEACH. If you really want to shoot for the academic stars, then teaching experience is key. This means: take every teaching opportunity, all forms of teaching, and be original and innovative in your teaching approach. If you don’t like teaching, then consider research-only positions (which are not much secure). Academia is much more about passion then it is about job or financial security – although some PhDs DO sometimes land lectureships straight after (or even before) submitting their thesis (colleagues and acquaintances of mine for example). I reckon knowing how to teach can also help you communicate information in a pedagogical way in any setting, not just in formal education.
BE VISIBLE. Digitally and in person. Network, call, visit, give talks, and stand out. Get out of the office and meet people where they are. Tell the world. (all easier said than done perhaps).
ENGAGE. Your students, colleagues, clients. Who cares about what you do? So what? Tell others why it all matters, aim for diverse audiences, especially those who would benefit from knowing. Be proactive.
GET INVOLVED. Network, volunteer, sit on boards, seek out external appointments, fellowships (e.g. Higher Education Academy), show evidence of external engagement and making an impact in society.
TRANSFERABLE. Whether you land an academic position or not, your thesis is only part of your training as early career researcher. The PhD is not just an output that will get dusty quicker than most printed books. It is also about process, and what you make out of your contribution to knowledge. It is about: training, experience, making connections, and sharing your research in multiple media and formats.
SUCCESS IS MESSY. Beyond completing your PhD within a reasonable timeframe, the learning process will be all the richer if punctuated with risk-taking and stocking up on valuable skills. A post-doc colleague of mine shared his experience that the only way to learn new things is by putting in time and effort, which often means evenings and weekends. You have make learning happen.
In parting, check out Dr Sustainable’s 10 top tips on how to survive a PhD from Dr Sustainable, or why “Finished is better than perfect”. Enjoy. Keep calm. And move on.
Open Sesame! If the gate only seems shut, try opening it. Photo credit: “Opportunity” by Kathy Kimpel, Flickr, Generic Creative Commons Attribution