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Should all PhD researchers aspire to academic careers?
Name: Victor
PhD discipline: Archeology
Area(s) of work: Archeology and academic research
Year of graduation: 1999
Date of Interview: 08/06/2008

Now Playing: Should all PhD researchers aspire to academic careers?
The discussion concentrates on the skills required for working as a lecturer and for work outside academia. The group explore ways in which postgraduate researchers can manage their own skills training, and considers the extent to which postgrads are aware that they may not want, or be able, to work in academia after their PhD. They go on to discuss the traditional assumption that all postgraduate researchers will become academics, and challenge the idea that not pursuing this route is an indication of failure.

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Debbie: But aren’t these competing pressures quite often one of the reasons why its so hard to figure out what exactly graduates need, because on the one hand, I mean I would argue, well perhaps this is a very Oxford perspective, but I would argue you need the same skills to be an academic that you need to operate… I would say, in academia it is not other researcher’s problem solving skills that you use in research but also the communication skills and, you know, the career planning skills as well, because it is a very uncertain career path. But, you know, on the one hand you want to empower graduates to be skilled people, you know, to be effective people in the world, in academia or elsewhere. But on the other hand you’ve got this sort of idea of the knowledge economy and employability you know – skills. I think you are right to say that there are pressures coming from different places but sometimes I think those pressures are not meeting in a lovely kind of ‘oh good we need skills training’ kind of place but sometimes crossing over each other…

Cindy: It requires – it’s going to take several generations because what that requires is a sea-change in the appreciation and understanding of what academics have to do. When I was doing my PhD the assumption was that at some point someone would throw you in a classroom with you know 15 students and just say ‘well presumably you can teach them.’ And it has always seemed to me that if you are working through a traditional academic route through to a doctorate, you are sort of thinking about yourself, you know, you are thinking ‘I want to think brilliant thoughts and read great books. It’s all about how clever can I possibly be.’ And there is no assumption, because you get a first or because you get a doctorate, that you are capable in any way of teaching anybody. I think part of skills training is about this; it is about thinking ‘oh I’ve got to stop just thinking “I’m going to change the world in my own head” and start looking out to “where will I work and how can I get work? But also how can I be effective?”’ As long as academics are used to that model – where there is no training to work in academia, apart from being brilliant or being determined, then I think it is going to take some time and I think skills training will actually work back to change people’s minds I think about that. And so you are quite right, it is just going to take a while maybe for academics to work it out.

Ross: And I think one of the main issues here is that there is a view, not just from the PhD researchers but I think in the past from the skill developers, of this being something which is really imposed upon the researcher and therefore ‘you must do these things, just like you were in school, and come along to these courses.’ When this is only really going to take off and be properly done and effectively done when it is a case of the researcher just being able to stop for a moment to say ‘where am I, where would I like to do go, how do I get there and how can my institution help me develop the skills I need to get there?’ And that is when you will stop having this one-size fits all approach that can be… because the individual researcher can start to tailor it. I was brought into this area really because from my own experience where I finished by PhD and my whole expectation was I would then go onto to get an academic job and there weren’t any; nobody in my field retired that year, nobody died, no new jobs were created and I had to go out and get another job. And I felt very stupid that I hadn’t even thought about that and suddenly I was faced with this situation where I needed to consider how I was going to sell myself. And this is really how I got interested in the area. And working as a social scientist and someone who worked on his own in archives and in libraries, I found that some of the skills that often I felt came naturally to science based people who did things in laboratories about working with other people, about networking, about team working, all these words which I would run a mile from as PhD student. Suddenly I was having to face trying to learn these very quickly and when eventually I did move into academia I realised that these skills were things I needed in academia: to work in research, to get papers published with other colleagues, to meet people at conferences, to work with colleagues within the university and these were skills which I really had to develop on the fly. And I think I really would have benefited from early on. And so I think in terms of arts and humanities, often there are areas which I think are particularly in need of skills development which, you know, just because of the nature of how you are as a PhD student in those fields.


Cindy: I think it is interesting you saying networking and team building and all these things and you did run a mile from them – I think that is about also the nature of academics. Academia has been obviously for many years concerned with its own academic and intellectual integrity and if it is not too bold to talk about the professionalisation of academia, I think that’s what we’re talking about, in a way, seeing it as professional, like any other group requires skills and requires the development of skills. But when you say about ‘I would run a mile’ this, I think, is one of the key problems, particularly probably for arts and humanities students. I suspect in other disciplines there maybe a sense of a PhD as a useful vehicle for all sorts of things I want to do. I think arts and humanity students traditionally have undertaken a PhD on the basis they will become academics and therefore if you are suggesting a level of skills training outside the purely research based product, the thesis, there has been a sense of ‘Oh, so you think I’m going to fail, why should I know these things? I’m never going to need them, I’m going to be an academic.’ I think what has been a real hurdle to overcome is to try and explain to postgraduate students, particularly PhD students, it is not a signal that you will fail and you won’t become an academic, but you need these things whether you are an academic or not. And I think certainly I find that difficult in relationships I’ve had with individual students. I remember one student recently, I was the internal examiner, so I met her very late in the PhD process in that dreadful time when you’re struggling to make it work and if you don’t get through the viva straightaway you assume you’ve failed. And I remember having a long conversation with her saying ‘three months, just to do some minor amendments, this is fine, this is perfectly normal’ and she said ‘I’m so anxious, you know, what is this going to do to my future as an academic.’ It was only at that point just after the viva when I realised it had never occurred to her that she would be anything other than an academic. And I think that is one of the problems at that point I could say, when she already thought she had failed the viva even though she hadn’t, I couldn’t then say ‘ah yes and you might not become an academic.’ I think skills training has that problem, I think a legacy of an assumption of failure if you need to train for anything other than writing a thesis.
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