Supervising, with the end in mind

By Katrina Gardner, Careers Manager for PGRs and Research Staff, and Dickon Copsey, Employability Officer within the College of Social Sciences.

Viewed from above, a pair of feet in converse pumps stand next to a three-way arrow.

Exploring PhD destinations

Over the years in our Careers and Employability roles, we have supported thousands of Glasgow PGRs to make successful careers transitions after their doctorate (and of course post-docs too). We have witnessed our graduates achieve career success in academic research and teaching roles and in a wide range of other professional sectors. These can include job roles in other sectors closely aligned with their prior research, and also less immediately obvious roles that match very well to the professional skills and experiences gained during their doctoral research. Some PGRs focus not on their research expertise but on other components of their degree when choosing their next steps, such as project management, communications, public engagement, teaching delivery and/or development, policy, consulting, coding, data analysis, and many more. 

If we look at annual ‘destinations’ surveys in the UK we regularly see more than 50% (across all disciplines) of our doctoral gradates progressing straight into professional roles outside of academia, although this does vary considerably between different disciplines. That only a minority move into academic roles reflects the extremely competitive nature of the academic job market and also, on a positive note, is a clear indication of how employable doctoral graduates are, across a wide range of sectors. Many recruiters view them, fresh from their degree, as highly capable and experienced researchers and professionals and therefore they can move often straight into ‘experienced’ or ‘’professional’ hire roles and ‘hit the ground running’. 

It is true that many of the PGRs who moved elsewhere were originally set on an academic career path – as our institutional PGR surveys confirm. However, it is not necessarily the case that many PhD graduates move into other roles because they ‘failed to secure’ an academic role

During the course of their PhD some decide against an academic career as their PhD experience has convinced them that this is not the right career path for them. Key issues mentioned regularly to us in confidence, include the lack of stability of academic careers, the lack of desire to progress on to a managerial (Principal Investigator) role, a poor work-life balance, and a perceived competitive environment. Knowing the factors you do, and don’t, want in your career are important.

Many others may take the opportunities offered during their PhD to explore other paths at our careers networking events and conclude that there are other equally fulfilling or perhaps more fulfilling careers outside of academic research and teaching. Having a sense of direction reduces stress, and it helps researchers to make good decisions about what type of professional development to engage with

And of course, many of you already know this as your students may have shared their concerns or career ideas with you. But could there be others who have lacked the confidence to initiate this discussion with you? 

How your Careers and Employability colleagues help you and your students

The development of career management skills is crucial especially during times of crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic and with the ongoing impact of Brexit. Furthermore, the fourth industrial revolution is likely to lead to major changes in the labour market in the next decade or so. 

In our roles we provide advice, guidance and encouragement to help PGRs explore the career options available to them. A vital part of our work is building up confidence and awareness in PGRs to ensure they are open to the full range of careers that fit their extensive skills sets, and also to ensure that they are able to articulate their skills and experiences in the application process. 

We encourage PGRs to take a career resilience approach to their career planning. This basically means using lots of the skills they already use in their research and applying them to their ongoing career management process, such as:

  • Coping with and addressing unexpected changes
  • Taking planned risks
  • Engaging in lifelong learning
  • Tapping into their network and keeping abreast of the labour market
  • Self-reflection and recognition of new interests and skills developed in new activities

Careers and employability colleagues will often have a range of personalised support and exploration opportunities, for example through confidential one-to-one career guidance and coaching, interactive workshops and online courses that facilitate access to peer networks to gain useful advice and new connections and allow PGRs to self-reflect on their career plans at their own pace. We also commonly organise events with employers and alumni to help them gain a first-hand insight into different sectors and the transition into work.

How can supervisors help?

Choosing a career, or ‘doing career development’ is not a thing that just happens at the end of the doctorate. And it’s not a think that happens just at the end of the doctorate. ‘Career’ it’s an ongoing, ‘emergent property’ and regular discussions, from the outset of the doctorate, enable opportunities to be spotted and taken up, giving agency to the individual and ultimately shaping extremely employable researchers.

Encourage your students to make time for career reflection and planning. PGRs can be prone to assuming that they should be fully focussed on their research and should not waste time thinking about themselves and their own development. Hence they leave it late in the day, and miss opportunities. Encouragement from a supervisor can make all the difference in making them feel comfortable spending time in this activity. 

Encouragement from you also to engage in career planning for not just academic career progression but for exploration of other professions can be critically important. PGRs will be reassured by knowing that you are fully supportive of their career progression plans not just in academia but also into other careers. See here, for a related post on how to write a great reference for your PGRs and postdocs.

We would suggest this discussion takes place (as a minimum) as part of your Annual Progress Review conversations. We suggest the following questions might enable a useful discussion. Use these, adapt, or write your own, as you wish: 

1. “Where would you like to be, career-wise, in five years’ time?” 

2. “What other options are there?” 

3. “What skills and knowledge do you have, and what might you need to work on, to achieve your goals?” 

Take this discussion as far as you feel comfortable to handle. And then refer on to your Careers and Employability specialist colleagues for in-depth and personalised careers advice and guidance. We will be delighted to speak to them and support them. 

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