Informing and Advising PGRs on Non-Academic Careers and the Knowledge Based Economy (KBE)

By Dr Richard Hinchcliffe, Freelance Researcher Developer

The employability of research students is an increasingly important issue in the developed world as more PhDs graduate than can be employed in academic research – there are simply not enough jobs. Indeed the over-supply in some subject areas may be as high as twenty to one. Supervisors often only know of the destinations of graduates who have found academic positions and are not aware that many more PhDs go into industry or non-research education occupations. If you want to check this out for yourself you can find detail on the destinations of doctoral graduates in disciplines by going to the Vitae website ‘What do Researchers do? (https://www.vitae.ac.uk/impact-and-evaluation/what-do-researchers-do)

Pressure on Supervisors

Institutions of course have careers services to support student employability, but these may not be the solution for two reasons. Firstly, while careers services staff can give PGRs invaluable advice on how to apply for jobs, they may not have the specialist knowledge of the labour market for graduate researchers. Secondly, many PGRs perceive careers services as perceived (sometimes correctly) as being only geared toward undergraduates, and in consequence are reluctant to contact them.

Thus, the only people that the PGR may feel they can turn to for careers advice is their supervisory team and if they have little or no experience of non-academic or non-research careers then the discussion may not be fruitful. Or, worse, bearing in mind the stigma attached by some supervisors towards their students pursuing non-academic careers (see for example https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2014/may/23/so-many-phd-students-so-few-jobs and https://www.timeshighereducation.com/opinion/postdoc-blues-how-do-you-know-when-it-is-time-to-give-up), conversations can prove highly negative.

However, if supervisors and PGRs prepare for these discussions as they would prepare for any discussion about a research problem then the results can be highly motivating and successful for both parties. Future governments are unlikely to increase research funds but large corporations have a lot of cash and this is where future research growth is likely to be funded. Having your old research student on inside will have mutual benefits. What follows is a short precis of research into the area of doctoral careers and attitudes toward the KBE which I hope you will find illuminating.

The Cultural Issue

Good supervisors should be very supportive of their research students wherever their career ambitions may take them. Among other things, they can point their students in the direction of groups and support structures set up by enterprising early career researchers to support employability (see for example the Northwest Biotech Initiative, Cheeky Scientist, Vitae, Bio-technology YES and other similar initiatives that are popping up across the economies of the developed world). In the USA the employability of PhDs is often seen as a scandal as students often feel they are being sold an academic career without any hope of getting one. This has prompted Cornell Professor Leonard Cassuto to title his solution to the problem The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It [reference].

The Research

In the UK, recent studies include Hancock et al (2015), Walsh et al (2015) and Hancock and Walsh (2016).  These papers call for reform of the structure of the STEM PhD so that science based PGRs will, as Hancock and Walsh (op. cit.: 48) have put it, ‘…have a more realistically informed and reflexive approach to the debates about the contribution of science to the challenges facing contemporary society’ and are valuable reading for supervisors.  In the present context, the paper by Hancock et al (2015) is of particular interest. The authors surveyed 68 PGRs (at Imperial College London) and categorized their responses to produce a typology of ‘moral positions’ on academia and the Knowledge Based Economy (KBE). They identified four different outlooks, namely:

Scientific purists (10% of the sample)

Scientific purists were opposed to the ‘corruptive influence’ of the KBE. They idealised the university as an ‘ivory tower’, believing that a demonstrated distance from political, economic and social influences was needed to conduct scientific research in an unbiased and legitimate way.

Social idealists (15%)

‘Social idealists’ shared the anti-capitalist stance of the purists and indeed often began their studies with a purist outlook. But within first year of doctoral studies, a broader identity was formed, promoting an image of the university where scientific researchers work with external stakeholders to improve society and challenge inequity.

Pragmatists (50%)

These students held the most flexible moral position, recognising both traditional academic values and those of the KBE. Within this outlook, a distinction was made between ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ pragmatists.

Third-order capitalists (25%)

These fully endorsed the KBE view of scientific research, what Fuller has described as ‘third-order’ capitalism. Doctoral students with this outlook tended to be male, conducting research in applied disciplines, and had had considerable and varied work experience prior to undertaking the PhD.

This typology can be a useful tool for discussions between supervisors and PGR, as suggested below.

How to have the Non-academic career discussion.

Supervisors and research students should prepare for an open minded discussion about the place of the doctorate within the economy. To discover more about the place of the doctorate within the knowledge economy and gain insight in PhD employability there are three things that both supervisor and PGR can do:

  1. Read up and research on the issues;
  2. Form an opinion on your own moral positioning toward the KBE;
  3. Encourage your PGR to think about their moral positioning;
  4. Have an honest discussion as to each other’s opinions, why you hold them and discuss those more generally expressed in the sector;
  5. Support students to prepare for whatever career options are appropriate to their outlook

References

Hancock, S, Hughes, G. and Walsh, E. (2015): Purist or pragmatist? UK doctoral s. scientists’ moral positions on the knowledge economy, Studies in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2015.1087994 To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2015.1087994

Walsh, E., Hargreaves, C., Hillemann-Delaney, U. and Jizhen, L.  (2015) Doctoral researchers’ views on entrepreneurship: ranging from ‘a responsibility to improve the future’ to ‘a dirty word’, Studies in Higher Education, 40:5, 775-790, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2013.842219 To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2013.842219

Hancock, S. and Walsh, E. (2016) Beyond knowledge and skills: rethinking the development of professional identity during the STEM doctorate, Studies in Higher Education, 41:1, 37-50, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2014.915301 To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2014.915301

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