Translating the research on post-PhD career trajectories into practice

By Kay Guccione – Head of Research Culture and Researcher Development at the University of Glasgow, Kelsey Inouye – Senior Researcher at University of Applied Sciences and Arts Western Switzerland, Sarah Blackford – PhD Careers Specialist, and Ruth Winden – Careers with Research Consultant at the University of Leeds. 

Event logo

In June 2022 the four of us hosted an event for the International Doctoral Education Research Network (IDERN). It was designed to bring together Education Researchers and Researcher Development Practitioners to examine the latest data from four studies on post-PhD career trajectories. The event aimed to help mobilise these new findings and recommendations, and spark ideas for practical activities.  

In this post we share resources and reflections from the event. 

The presentations were opened by Prof. Lynn McAlpine, Professor Emerita at both the University of Oxford, United Kingdom, and McGill University, Canada who positioned the PhD as a time to develop career literacy, and career mobility potential for graduates across labour sectors. In this Lynn’s short talk below she explores how these two concepts emerging from her research, ‘career literacy’ and ‘career mobility potential’ can be useful for doctoral researchers and graduates negotiating their career paths, as well as for programmes wishing to re-think their offerings. 

Professor David Feldon of Utah State University, USA then followed up by discussing the findings of two longitudinal studies of STEM PhD students. David’s data reports early career research experiences from matriculation to postdoctoral employment and identifies early predictors of career outcomes and satisfaction, as well as ways in which demonstrable skills acquired during graduate training relate to career attainment. Specific factors of importance include peer interactions, scholarly encouragement from others, satisfaction with supervisor advisement, and a sense of belonging. A video of David’s presentation is below: 

Dr Joyce B. Main, of Purdue University, USA, discussed the role of postdoc training in the career trajectories of social sciences and engineering PhDs in the United States. Joyce’s findings illustrated the long-term career trajectories and career transitions of PhDs who begin their careers as postdoctoral research scholars and showed that postdoc training can contribute to the attainment of tenure-track faculty positions and toward earning relatively higher salaries over time. Joyce suggests that sharing more information regarding long-term career trajectories can help prospective and current doctoral researchers with career planning and decision-making. Joyce’s findings will be published in due course, and her previous published works can be found here.  

Dr Isabelle Skakni, Head of the Doctoral Training Office at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Western Switzerland then focused on the readiness of doctorate holders for jobs outside academia and some of the challenges they may face when entering non-academic sectors. Drawing on insights from two studies conducted amongst doctoral graduates working beyond academia and the employers who hire them, she reported three key elements that can inform PhDs’ preparation for careers beyond university walls: 1. PhDs’ perceptions of the institutional support they received or would have liked to have received during their doctoral years, 2. the challenges they face when they start working in non-academic sectors, and 3. the employers’ perceptions of doctorate holders strengths and weaknesses with regards to the needs and expectations of their non-academic workplaces. Isabelle’s recent publication on doctorate-holders’ ‘organisational culture shock’ can be accessed here

Slides: How are phd holders perceived outside of academia?
Strengths
big picture
critical thinking
solving complex problems
rigour

weaknesses:
lack of teamwork skills
difficulty meeting deadlines
limited understanding of the realities of practical work
difficulty in applying knowledge and skills to concrete problems.

So, what do we do to put this new research data into practice? 

After the four research presentations we jumped into groups led by Sarah and Ruth, our Research Careers Consultants, to discuss the take home points that resonated with the audience, and to set ourselves practical next steps for action, in devising career awareness, agency, planning and support. These ideas are reflected by Ruth and by Sarah below: 

Sarah Blackford’s reflections: 

The disconnect between academia and industry and business is still alive and kicking in some quarters, and not in a good way! There are misunderstandings on both sides – doctorate-qualified employees are surprised by their new work environment and culture. On the other hand, those employing doctoral graduates, whilst enjoying their ‘big picture, critical thinking and problem-solving skills’, would like them to be better team players and to be pragmatists too (they want the best of both worlds). One of the participants in our discussion drew attention to the fact that doctorate-qualified employers are somewhat more attuned to the value of the doctorate in the workplace. 

The evidence for the value of peer-support featured in our discussions and David’s findings were very interesting in terms of being the only concrete positive conclusion relating to the factors that influence career success within academia. We discussed in detail how important peer support is during the PhD. 

I thought the first talk by Lynn was interesting, primarily because it was a different perspective on the ‘career influences’ work by Patton and McMahon. Whilst Lynn was going through her slides, it brought to mind a coaching session I had had only an hour before with a senior researcher, in which many of the factors about personal context and mobility, featured in our conversation. I identified factors such as personal values, financial security, work/life balance, moving house and family context, that had all been part of our coaching session.  

I think that being in touch with the research and theories that can underpin the Careers profession help us to find an anchor to the work we do, creating a framework for our workshops, and consultation sessions, as well as informing bigger policies and strategies for researcher development. 

Ruth Winden’s reflections: 

For me several things resonated: 

Firstly, the importance of the language we use to describe ‘skills’ is prominent. Despite our best efforts to find more meaningful descriptors, the terms ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ skills persist, especially amongst employers. No wonder that researchers, employers and practitioners are confused about which terms are the most appropriate and meaningful to use, what the different terms mean, and which of them accurately describe researchers’ skills sets. In my view organisations like LinkedIn also need to be part of this discussion, as LinkedIn is so influential in the employer and recruiter world, and an important partner in any professional or researcher skills debate. 

Secondly, the frustrating evidence from David Feldon’s USA study that those postdocs who could spend the greatest amount of time on their research were the most successful in gaining academic positions. Although not surprising, and certainly not new, this insight raises serious issues about equity, diversity, and inclusion in a culture of toxic glorification of overworking. Many postdocs who are not able to work around the clock will be just as talented as those who do. This inequality is not new – in the early 2000s the Dutch Research Council (NWO) was already sponsoring, highlighting and celebrating part-time academics, to create greater equity in research careers and raise aspirations. This issue is also linked to our current narrow success criteria in academia – if we recognised and rewarded researchers holistically for their contribution to research and research culture, including collaboration, communication, mentoring, leadership and impact and not just research outputs publications and research income generation, then we would give all researchers a better chance to succeed. 

And thirdly, Isabelle Skakni’s research showed how many PhDs and postdocs feel unprepared for careers beyond academia. Two aspects of her talk were on our minds as they inspire important priority actions: 

  • Supervisors are not aware of career options outside of academia. As institutions, we need to support supervisors and PIs to be able to offer some level of careers signposting, but we must also be clear about expectations. Of course, they have a role to play in developing their researchers’ careers. But they cannot be expected to have the breadth and depth of expertise of careers professionals. We need to protect our valuable specialist colleagues and help supervisors/PIs and specialists work in tandem. 
  • Leaving academia is still seen as a failure by researchers. The thought that changing career plans in academia is a failure is sadly still widespread in the sector. It will take a major culture change to overcome this negative perception. We need an open and frank conversation about the changing world of work – including academia. 

In summary, Ruth captures all our thoughts about the event when she says: 

All the sessions were stimulating and thought provoking whether they challenged or reinforced the dominant narratives related to researcher career trajectories. They were a timely reminder of how important it is to use research to inform our professional practice in Researcher Development. The event also highlighted the need for researcher developers to be given time to read and reflect on research as a core work activity, so they can develop their professional practice. In our sector, we see too much focus on delivery of high numbers of workshops, courses, and support sessions to hit KPIs, at the detriment of reflection and developing our research-led professional practice.  

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