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Who influences the career decisions of PhD researchers?
Name: Caroline
PhD discipline: English Literature
Area(s) of work: University teaching; media; business (property management)
Year of graduation: 2001
Date of Interview: 24/06/2008

Now Playing: Who influences the career decisions of PhD researchers?
Careers advisers discuss the people who influence PhD researchers, in particular peers, supervisors and families. They debate whether supervisors are willing to be supportive of those who seek careers outside academia. They also talk about the comparisons PhD researchers sometimes make between their own careers and those of friends who moved into work after a first degree.

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Catherine: And so we're talking about the people who influence PhD students aren't we? In terms of their career planning and that supervisors are definitely one of those. Parents, other involved relatives, concerned individuals…  

Helen: Definitely their peers actually  

Phil: Other students, yeah  

Helen: Yeah I was talking to a student I have been working with, probably for about 18 months now, and a number of her friends have actually been successful in securing postdoctoral positions, and she said (actually she obviously consults with them because they’ve been successful in making that transition which is quite a huge achievement) and she said she actually finds their input and suggestions really helpful in terms of sort of reframing her experience and refining her CV and just preparing her, I think, for that sort of academic interview process.  

Catherine: And learning about how to apply for postdoc funding from somebody who has done it  

Helen: Because that's a minefield, an absolutely minefield  

Catherine: From someone who has done it recently and been successful it's very useful  

Helen: Because I think for somebody at that stage it just seems as though it's unobtainable and I think having an example of a peer that you can relate to, I think it sort of minimises the obstacles and the barriers presented by that career option.  

Catherine: Yeah. But while we're talking about continuing on an academic path, I think it is worth saying that many a supervisor would want their students to continue on that path don't they?  

Helen: And they do, yeah  

Catherine: Somehow knowing what the student has invested in getting to the end of the PhD, the supervisors don't want that to somehow be lost by not continuing their academic career. And there is a real sense that the supervisor wants to just help push the student on, just that little bit further, ‘you can do it,’ building confidence, encouraging them to keep applying for academic posts. And the student then sometimes thinks ‘I'm going to really let this person down when I say I've applied to something completely different.’  

Helen: And I think it is interesting you can partially sort of understand, I think the supervisor perspective, because obviously the academic world is their frame of reference. And so it would probably be slightly unrealistic to expect that they would be able to maybe understand, you know, the broader horizons beyond that. But obviously imposing their narrower view on the students they are perhaps unaware of the pressures that are there.  

Catherine: I sometimes wonder whether the students are actually perceiving that. And if they were to be open with their supervisor, maybe make a clear case of why the academic world isn't for them, actually the supervisors would be quite supportive. And it might be worth just testing that out sometimes to see, because certainly the supervisors I know would say ‘great, why not go off and make documentaries about whatever or do something related to your subject using something that you've learnt but not necessarily in an academic context.’  

Phil: Do you think it has got something to do with the way the student perceives the supervisor rather than actually what the supervisor will say?  

Helen: Yes I think it can be. I think it's the perception and not always the reality and I think it is very easy for us to make assumptions about how supervisors and supervisees interact and assume that they are imposing their own will on the student. But as Catherine said, actually in reality I've seen a number of students and supervisors where that just isn’t the case.  

Phil: No  

Helen: The supervisors have been very supportive of their students’ intention to pursue what might be perceived as a non-academic career  

Catherine: I think the other influence here is sometimes parents, isn't it, who have perhaps supported a student, perhaps financially, perhaps emotionally, perhaps by building confidence along the way, and then they don't understand why at the end of it the academic job isn't the goal. Because I think people have unrealistic understanding, it’s a sort of stereotypical rosy view of what an academic life might be, and don't understand why somebody who could achieve it might not want to.  

Phil: And what about other peers outside of the PhD group, the sort of friends, other students that didn't go onto PhD, what about their perceptions?  

Helen: That's a really interesting perspective because quite often what emerges from those conversations is ‘I'm doing a PhD, I'm in the third year of the PhD and I've got colleagues and friends and they are now earning £30,000 in the City – have I made the wrong decision? And I think that sort of throws into stark relief their own sense of ‘where am I going with this, what do I hope to achieve from it?’ and they start to make those slightly unfortunate comparisons between what is achievable at their stage and friends who have made the conscious decision after an undergraduate degree to pursue a defined career path.  

Catherine: Yes, and at that point students can sometimes feel a bit disadvantaged.  

Helen: Yeah  

Catherine: Almost, ‘why did I bother If I'm not going to pursue an academic career? but join one of those City firms and I'm going to be starting at a lower level than people who have been earning for the past three or four years’ and start to feel a bit undermined about what they’ve done and why they’ve done it. Later on, I think, once they're in work, that goes again and that feeling of it's all been worthwhile comes back but there are sometimes some choppy waters, aren't there, towards the end of the PhD and into the first role outside academia which is a bit turbulent.  

Helen: I think you're right, Catherine, I think sometimes there is a short-term disadvantage for a longer term gain  

Catherine: Yeah  

Helen: But I think trying to communicate that message to a PhD student who is feeling quite fraught and quite anxious about where they are and where they're going can be quite difficult. You were saying earlier, a lot of it is about a sort of counselling role and it can be possible to have that relationship with them. And I think it does depend as well on how they perceive their own relationship with their supervisor whether it is a very pastoral relationship or whether it is strictly professional because I think that is going to determine what other sort of frank conversations they have about their future and their future career path.  

Catherine: Yeah.

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