Published: 29 August 2014

Viewpoint: Life after a doctorate

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Dr Jenny Rivers is the University of Liverpool’s Research and Knowledge Exchange Manager for the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences:

“Highlighting the challenges of doing a PhD and the negative experiences of those who have struggled to secure an academic position – as reported in the Times Higher Education this month – is important if we are to manage expectations of prospective doctoral candidates.

However, we must seek a balanced view in order to set appropriate expectations and identify support mechanisms for researchers at this crucial early stage in their career.

In re-thinking the future of the PhD and its role in higher education, whether leading to academic positions or otherwise, there are many things that universities can do to better prepare doctoral candidates for life post-PhD.

Seeking continued employment within academia may be an attractive option, and there are many positive examples of academic experiences that could be shared. However, often only a very low proportion of PhD graduates move into an academic position and it is not the right career path for all doctoral candidates. There are other opportunities for well-qualified PhD graduates, often in fields and roles they wouldn’t expect.

I never thought I would be Research and KE Manager at the University of Liverpool’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences after the thrill of scientific research in biochemistry, but I use the skills I developed during my PhD every day. Having the doctorate gives me the credibility I rely on to perform well in my role, as well as having an understanding of academic values and motivations.

Beyond this personal reflection, we are doing much more across the sector to provide exposure to the world beyond academia. Activities include placements and internships; a local scheme for research students in the School of the Arts placed candidates with cultural and creative sector partners, as well as engaging with research funders to plan and support targeted funding schemes.

A good example from Liverpool is the Arts and Humanities Research Council Cultural Engagement Fund and national showcase event providing short term postdoctoral fellowships with cultural partners for recent PhD graduates and the Wellcome Trust Institutional Strategic Support Fund, which allowed postdoctoral researchers in biomedical sciences to develop skills and build networks to enhance their career prospects.

There are also formal training arrangements and collaborative studentships through doctoral training centres, as well as informal networks and opportunities that allow students to hear about the experiences of others.

There is more that can be done to tailor support to the needs of individuals or groups within discipline areas and it is vital this occurs in collaboration with supervisors and researchers sufficiently early in the PhD. This would ensure that opportunities for skills development and wider exposure to a variety of career options, particularly beyond academia, can be captured.

Through doctoral research, universities are training the future generation of research leaders, practitioners and policy makers with a substantial contribution to make within and beyond the academy.

In shaping the future of doctoral training and in the context of a changing research landscape, particularly in terms of demonstrating the impact of academic research, universities must understand and embrace their role in preparing doctoral graduates for life beyond academia, alongside ensuring that they are appropriately supported to achieve their doctorate.”

Read the Times Higher Education article here.

Read Dr Rivers’ response, Academia and beyond: life after a doctorate, here.

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