The void between the PhD and an academic career

October 2016


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Dr Inger Mewburn questions whether the modern PhD needs to be better aligned to the needs of an academic workplace.

Mind the gapWhile the academic workplace has changed significantly in the last 60 years or so, the fundamental structure and nature of the PhD has remained relatively static. This creates a mismatch between the readiness of PhD grads for the academic workforce and the expectations of employers. Do we need to think about changing the PhD so it better prepares postdocs for employment? Or do academic employers need to take a reality check?

Associate Professor Inger Mewburn from the Australian National University says it is one of the big issues confronting postgrads following the completion of their studies and research.

In a post on her popular ‘Thesis Whisperer’ blog site, Mewburn discusses how the notion of a conventional academic career has changed. Back
in 1980 ‘conventional’ would see a student
complete his or her PhD, accept a permanent position as a lecturer and work at the same university from there on.


The ‘new normal’ academic

The ‘new normal’ academic, says Mewburn, has done a decade or so of adjunct teaching work, and/or a ragtag bunch of jobs that last anywhere from a week to three years – the ‘post-post-postdoc’ or the ‘portfolio career track’.

She points to some unexpected upsides to the new normal academic career. While jobs are based typically on the area of a person’s research expertise, people are usually required to learn new things fast and work out how to adapt to different university settings. Moving from one place to the next can turn people into very effective academic networkers.

While transience may offer this sliver of silver lining, ultimately Mewburn suggests the hypermobile academic life can be physically and emotionally taxing.

Such was the experience of Mewburn’s friend and fellow academic Rachael Pitt, who spent the better part of decade working for the neo-liberal university system, which Mewburn likens to a “bad boyfriend” because it offers little in the way of loyalty and job security.

With funding running out and another contract nearing its end, Pitt began musing about the difficulties and general tediousness of the academic job application process.

She had noticed that many job ads seemed impossible to live up to, or had conflicting, ambiguous criteria that were difficult to evidence. Selection criteria asking for both “a PhD and evidence towards submitting for your PhD in psychology” and “evidence of expertise in psychology?” appeared conflicting. Statements like “Effective organisational skills to plan and organise work to meet competing deadlines and ability to work independently with minimal supervision, showing initiative and flexibility” seemed impossible to evidence.

“I guess you could write some lines about why you are awesome at that stuff, but why should someone believe you?” questions Mewburn, “Wouldn’t it be better just to ask your referees if you had these attributes and capabilities? No wonder many PhD students who are exploring the academic job market are so confused and demoralised.”

Each application requires a response to the key selection criteria, a lengthy cover letter and a CV. Each application is bespoke, so every rejection letter represents hours, sometimes weeks of work. Mewburn advises against trying to make the process quicker by cutting and pasting between applications because, while each ad asks for essentially the same things, they ask in different ways.


Connecting the dots

Mewburn and Pitt began connecting this problem with what is being taught in the PhD. Pitt had discovered that academic employers were often unhappy with PhD graduates after they hired them.

“We found this both odd and ironic: academics design the PhD experience, put students through it, evaluate the outcomes and then employ around 40 per cent of the graduates – and they are unhappy with them? What the hell is going on with you academic employers?” asks Mewburn.

One obvious solution could be to change the PhD so that it better matches academic employers’ expectations.

Mewburn says that although there is some innovation around the edges, most PhD programmes still ask for the production of a long thesis document which shows you can think, be creative and write academically, but is decidedly not evidence that you can teach, sit on committees, write peer review, and design curriculum or any of the other myriad tasks with which you might be confronted at a university.

Dr Mary-Helen Ward says that despite the well-structured approach taken to research by PhD students, much of what they learn from their PhD study is unstructured and ‘accidental’ in nature. This makes it difficult to quantify and evidence exactly what is learned and achieved through the completion of a PhD.

Mewburn and Pitt became preoccupied with this notion and together they started looking at how the PhD might be redesigned to explicitly include more of this “accidental stuff”, as Mewburn puts it.

They analysed the text in ads to see what the jobs were asking for and see if they matched what was being taught in the PhD. Their research culminated in a paper titled ‘Academic superheroes: a critical analysis of academic job descriptions’ published earlier this year in the Journal of Higher Education and Policy Management.

The paper queries the nature and purpose of the PhD, including its role as preparation for working in academia. It observes that while academic work has changed a great deal in the last 60 years, the doctoral curriculum has remained relatively static.

“While there is increasing interest in matching PhD programmes to ‘real world’ needs, there is a surprising lack of research to inform research curriculum development at this level,” the abstract reads. “If we take the position that the PhD is still the best way to prepare for academic work, what skills and attributes should we help graduates develop for this destination?”


Unexpected findings

Mewburn and Pitt uncovered two unexpected findings. The first is that academic employers want people who play well with others, dispelling the myth that you can be, in Mewburn’s terms, “a clever, productive, asshole academic – and get away with it”.

“This might be true when you are well entrenched somewhere and management are too scared to get rid of you, but watch out on the way through the door,” she says.

Many ads they analysed were very explicit about wanting team players who could carry their burden of the emotional life of their department, including counselling students and other staff members in times of crisis. Other ads signalled that they want academics who will treat their non-academic colleagues with respect and courtesy.

Mewburn says that job short lists usually involve some informal checks on people.

“Your reputation is always in the process of being made – and not just with your academic colleagues. Good admin people know everybody; they are often highly trusted and excellent sources of gossip. If you are the type of person who is ‘too busy’ to treat everyone, regardless of status, with respect, you might be in trouble.”

The second finding was that academic employers want your network – but probably not for the reasons you think.

“A big and solid, peer-to-peer academic network is like gold. You can get early news on jobs, warnings about funding cuts and other valuable intel, as well as a ready supply of people you can work with.

“But it’s not just your academic network that academic employers are after. They want your connections outside too. If you have worked in a practice-based discipline such as architecture, nursing, education or the like, universities can get you to use people you know to help them place undergraduates in intern programs. Other departments are interested in what consulting monies you may be able to raise or even what philanthropy you might be able to encourage.”

Mewburn says many PhD students are warned that if they ‘step off the academic road’, and become one of the 60 per cent who don’t go into academia on completion, they will never launch an academic career. However, she says that while this might have been true in the 1980s, the ads tell a different story.

“I suspect that if you go ‘outside’ and actively maintain your ties by collaborating with academics, you might find yourself in an excellent position 10 years down the track should you decide to come back.”

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