Helen: Catherine, when do you find that PhD students typically come to see your or access the service?
Catherine: The majority will come towards the end of their PhD time, and so some as they're finishing writing-up, realising that it is going to come to an end, and they are going to have to do something else. Some will be quite cool and relaxed about that, wanting to explore their options. Others will be feeling really anxious and then we might have much more of a counselling type engagement with them. With others it is a much more practical, you know, ‘what are my options, how am I going to explore them, where am I going to find vacancies, are there vacancies?’ you know, ‘what are the practical steps that one can take.’ Others have been through that process and are at the applying stage, and come with an application form or a CV for some feedback on it.
And it's very easy as an objective person to be able to tweak and refine those and help them to learn to present themselves better. Others, like the student I saw yesterday, came because she has got an interview next week and she really wants this job with a development agency and, you know, wants to talk about her own research project in terms of some consultancy work that she would do as one of their employees. And so we were refining how she talks about the benefits of her PhD in terms of the role that she is applying for, and how she can make the connections as obvious as possible to the people interviewing her.
Others come after they’ve been interviewed and either they share their joy at having been offered a post or it's to review what they could have done differently. There was chap I can remember who had had nineteen interviews for an academic post before he came to see me. We spent an hour together talking about questions, how to answer them, what an interview panel might need to be hearing about him, and he got the next job he was interviewed for, which was rather pleasing for both of us. And so I think students engage somewhere along that continuum, yeah.
Helen: I think that very much echoes my experience, its rare, I think, that I see perhaps first year PhD students and when I do, typically it's the student that has perhaps rather blithely gone from undergraduate degree to taught masters degree to PhD without having that period of reflection to really consider: ‘is this the right option for me?’ And I think they have realised, quite quickly actually, that academic research is something quite distinct and that maybe the academic career path is not something that they particularly want to pursue. That doesn't necessarily mean that they're thinking about withdrawing from the PhD, although occasional that happens, it's more likely that they're starting to think about other options that they could explore beyond academia. And so we start to have some fairly tentative discussions around skills, abilities, possible career options, looking at what other PhD students in similar situations might have decided to do; just, I think, sometimes to offer the reassurance that they haven’t reached a dead end, because they are quite often lacking a lot of confidence and feeling very anxious at that point in time.
But I think I would certainly endorse what you say Catherine about the crisis point; a lot of PhD students seem to come when there is something that they need quite urgently.
Helen: And yes it can be because they have an academic interview and they need some preparation. It is not unusual, I find, for these students, even if they are relatively mature, to have never really experienced an interview before in the way that we understand that. And I think helping them prepare and considering their technique and the sorts of questions they might face can again help reassure them that it is not an entirely alien experience.
Catherine: And I think it's interesting that they come to us to talk about that and not always their supervisor
Catherine: I think that depends very much on the relationship with their supervisor and how this feeling that they can be slightly more honest
Catherine: We haven't anything invested in their future;
we're not a parent wanting the best for them in that way. We're not in a
personal relationship with them, having those sorts of things invested, and
neither are we somebody who has supported them academically, with all that goes
on inside that about expectations for the future. And I think that is one of
the things students find refreshing about coming to somebody that they don't
know terribly well in order to get that sort of career support. In the
Helen: Or a counsellor
Catherine: Yes, I must admit that's not a term that I would use
Helen: I wouldn't use that
Catherine: No we tend to stick with careers advisor, but then say that we don't give advice.
Helen: I think you are absolutely right; I think the impartiality is of real benefit in terms of the work that we do, because I think maybe there are perceptions that we are identified with the institution at large, but I think a brief sort of explanation as to what we do and how we work helps to sort of reassure the researcher.
Catherine: And the complete confidence that that is done in
Helen: And it's confidential which is absolutely paramount, particularly with this new group. They are very concerned that conversations might be shared with the supervisors and with peers, and the implications of that in terms of their personal relationship with their supervisors, and so you have to tread a quite careful minefield at times I think.
Catherine: Yes. But I think knowing that we have that individual’s best interests at heart, not as part of the institution or as the department or as the supervisor, that we can be impartial about all of that.
Helen: Yeah, and I think also offering that sense of a more sustained relationship – it's not just a one shot.
Helen: I do see some students and they are concerned that they can only access the service once or have one guidance consultation and that's it. You know, they have to make finite decisions about their career at that point.
Catherine: Yes but that's not the case
Helen: That's not the case. And with some students it might, you know, that intervention is all you need. But frequently you do see students who you build up quite a long relationship with over a number of years and sort of see them through that journey both in those with academic aspirations and those with aspirations outside of academia.
Phil: I think it is really important that the student understands that the service is independent and that it is confidential. I was wondering, can you think of an example where a student has expressed concerns to you about independence or confidentiality or a relationship with supervisors?
Catherine: Students say things like ‘I couldn't say this to my supervisor’ yeah. The supervisor might have a sort of imagined future which has an academic career as very much being central to it, and a student who is saying ‘I'm not sure about that’ feel they can say that in our safe rooms that they wouldn’t say in their supervisors room or within the department or within the places that they socialise with other students. You know, it has a different feeling, I think, coming to a careers centre.
Helen: I think also they are very keen to avoid the perception of sort of disloyalty, I think, to supervisors as well. And I saw a student recently who had been an undergraduate, postgraduate and now had a PhD and the supervisor that they are working with is somebody that they’ve had a reasonably close relationship with throughout much of that time. And so obviously from the start of their undergraduate degree had a good working relationship and now had come to the realisation that actually academia is not a career path that they want to pursue and are very concerned about how that might be perceived by their supervisor and the feelings of disloyalty are really sort of beginning to emerge. Have you experienced that?
Catherine: Yes, and one of the things I think students think is that they are upsetting their supervisor by saying ‘I don't want the future that you've had’ and that somehow seems to be very personal and tied up with the supervisor’s own identity by basically saying ‘I don't like that.’