Phil: I mean, I think its interesting that there has clearly been a great increase in the number of people with qualifications at all sorts of different levels; I was looking at some stats the other day which suggest there are as many people doing postgraduate courses now as there were doing undergraduate course in 1964, which is a real change, in a sense. And so there has obviously been some sort of qualification inflation over the past sort of 40/50 years. And there are two ways of looking at that; I suppose one is to say that ‘are my qualifications worthless’ but another way is to look at it in terms of ‘well the PhD could be seen as an asset in a market that needs these sort of positional goods.’ I don't know what you think about that?
Helen: I think it really, really depends on the employer and also the sector that the student is interested in. I think we certainly spend a lot of time in helping PhD students reframe their academic experience for a non-academic consumer. But sometimes I feel it can be something of a spurious exercise because we invest a lot of time in helping PhD students understand the skill set and those other rather uncomfortable terms, but actually a lot of employers have shown us that they are looking for people with experience of something quite concrete. And it is quite difficult to actually overcome that barrier.
Catherine: But then you get to the stage of thinking of the PhD as a job; ‘I've spent 3 years planning out this research project, writing this up in this way, and I have something marketable and manageable that I can show to a potential employer.’
Phil: It is a mini career in itself
Catherine: It is – it’s a job
Helen: I think again though it is going to depend on the employer; not everybody will perceive it in that way
Catherine: Yeah and students sometimes find it difficult to present it in that way don't they
Helen: They feel quite uncomfortable; they feel it is some artificial exercise and they can't possibly consider three years of very hard work and quite intensive research as work experience just because it doesn't have payment.
Catherine: And some things that employers seem to be looking for, like teamwork, some students find hard to evidence from a PhD although there are so many ways that it can be a team activity
Helen: Absolutely. You were talking earlier, Catherine, about PhD students getting involved in conferences
Catherine: Mm Helen: And seminars in their department and that could be an excellent way of demonstrating collaborative working and approaches Catherine: And using the department as a group of colleagues to engage with, to work with, to share ideas with; it’s just like working in any other department, working on the project that you then have responsibility for, as you do in work.
Helen: But of course they don't have to just draw exclusively on academic experience and one thing we are sort of keen to encourage PhD students to do is look beyond the immediate environment and see how they can sort of draw on other, perhaps social, activities that demonstrate some of the skills the employers will be looking for.
Catherine: And then teaching that has been done along the way is a huge asset, isn't it, in terms of something else to offer. Organising conferences, the admin side of that; sitting on staff/student committees – you know there are lots of other ways to evidence things just from the academic world, let alone the outside sort of social…
Helen: Because the admin role – actually I think PhD students often undermine how significant that can be, not just in terms of preparing for an academic career but also outside.