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  • Dr Kathy Barrett

Conference report: Academia as the Alternative Career: developing researchers for a range of future

Dr Kathy Barrett is The University Lead for Research Staff Development at Kings College London and is a member of Researchers14.

Towards the end of October this year 55 Researcher Developers and Careers Consultants for Researchers gathered in Coventry for the 4th Annual Researcher Education and Development Scholarship (REDS) Conference. This year the conference was focussed on contextualising academia as the ‘Alternative Career’, inviting participants to consider how we are developing researchers for a range of future selves. The conference programme and slides can be found here.

The limited data we have on the career destinations of PhD graduates tells us that most researchers (up to 90%, depending on discipline) will not work in academic roles long term. Consequently, raising early awareness of the value of a PhD across diverse potential career paths and enabling researchers to make choices about how to access the complex systems of support and institutional resource is paramount in encouraging engagement with the value-added opportunities we provide through our development services.

Lawrie Phipps, Senior co-design manager at JISC, opened the conference and set the scene by encouraging us to consider the language we use from within the academic sphere to describe post-PhD careers in various sectors, asking “What is it about academic culture that encourages or condones language that implies you are a lesser being if you either don’t have a PhD, or you decide to pursue a career that enables you to branch out in other directions?”

As a group we were not able answer to this, which is not surprising as it is such a deep-rooted and complex issue. What we did consider in the pursuit of an answer is how Schein’s model of organisations applies to this behaviour, where our underlying assumptions (and there are many) will influence our organisational values and our language. For example, the way in which we talk to each other will necessarily lead to (and in return be influenced by) our ‘institutional artefacts’, such as our mission statements. Should we therefore be approaching the questions about language from the viewpoint of the assumptions we make about the academic sector and its place in society? These big questions led us on nicely to consider the bigger picture of the role and value of the researcher in society.

Where do researchers go, and how useful is the PhD when they get there?

In society, researchers exist not only in academia but also in all other sectors. Emma Day from Euraxess was keen to make the boundaries between academia and other sectors more porous and consequently had done some research looking at what might be needed to deliver this Emma’s findings show that:

  • Researchers may move into new employment sectors frequently,

  • Researchers based in academia often have very little knowledge of what happens outside their immediate environment and

  • ‘Business’-vs-‘Academia’ stereotypes are generally unfounded.

Euraxess have used these findings in developing toolkits to enable those in and beyond academia to increase awareness and consequently porosity of the boundaries. See their website for more details.

Making the transition between academia and other sectors could be easier than we think. It seems that there are many similarities in the way skills and knowledge are perceived by graduates and their managers across employer areas. So said Emma Compton-Daw from Strathclyde who had explored this with a survey of 32 PhD graduates working beyond academia. Basing their survey on the Researcher Development Framework (RDF), they asked participants’ how they perceived that their employers valued their skills and knowledge. They found close similarities in RDF Domains A (Knowledge & Intellectual Abilities), B (Personal Effectiveness) and D (Engagement, Influence & Impact), but some important differences in Domain C (Research Governance & Organisation), namely in ‘infrastructure and resources’, ‘financial management’, ‘risk management’ and ‘ethics, principles & sustainability’ – though at this point in the study, there was no data on why researchers outside of the academic environment felt that these areas of competency were of less value to them.

Kay Guccione (Sheffield) and Billy Bryan (Technopolis) have surveyed 270 PhD graduates to test their previously published model of Doctoral Value. They showed that the value doctoral graduates placed on their PhD was influenced in the biggest part by the relationship with their supervisor, and also strongly by whether they had access to ‘extra-curricular’ professional development activities, for example outreach, committee membership, teaching and tutoring. Their preliminary survey analyses interestingly showed that postdocs as a group felt the PhD was less worth it than PhD-graduates working in sectors beyond academia. They will test this as their analysis continues.

If researchers are unaware of what the alternatives to academia are and those who leave are generally happy with their decision, what can we as researcher developers do to facilitate that transition?

Within all the workshops and across the whole day we were each encouraged to share our concerns about how we support researchers to make good career decisions.

Cristina Devecchi and Anthony Stepniak (Northampton) presented their comprehensive programmes ‘Succeed@8’ and ‘FEASST@8’ which are codesigned with student partners to create a development experience that considers ‘more than skills’, and addresses the interplay between skills, attitudes, competencies, motivation, personal development, and the economic and geopolitical forces which shape the available opportunities for growth. They are huge advocates of ‘learning by doing’ rather than viewing development as something that takes place in a training room. They invited us to work with students as colleagues to help them make a real and meaningful contribution to the research environment.

Stephanie Ward and Kay Guccione described their v i s t a mentoring platform at Sheffield in which researchers can connect with mentors who have made the post-PhD transition to a different sector. Mentoring is a more personalised way of introducing a researcher to the classic information interviewing technique and can provide a mechanism to circumvent the potential negative thoughts conjured up by the word networking. Ward and Guccione found that rather than gaining information about new sectors, it is the letting go of the perceived academic ‘good life’ which is potentially the greatest block to changing career sector, and that this is an area that should be explored more (e.g. raising the visibility of positive career transition stories and role models) if we are fully to support our researchers.

To make this transition out of the academy easier, Danielle White and Anna Seabourne (Huddersfield)are developing a workshop based around Wenger’s theory of Communities of Practice, incorporating how and where researchers spend their time and how this influences their career decisions. Sarah Moore (Sheffield) demonstrated a contrasting approach that used creative methods to ‘reimagine becomings’, including fictionalised accounts, concept maps, cartoons and videos or photography.

If all of this puts too much pressure on researchers, they would do well to attend the wellbeing workshop described by Jo Collins from Kent. We were sold this workshop as the opportunity to play with LEGO, which appealed considerably to many of us. Jo’s objective in this workshop was to use creative methods to explore what is going on in the research environment for our researchers and where the tensions might lie. These can often be surfaced by providing a more abstract vehicle for discussion with peers, hence the LEGO, and can also lead to researchers recognising that they share a lot of their concerns, resulting in them feeling less isolated.

To summarise both the researcher career predicament and our own uncertainties about moving our provision forward we were treated to a performative take on career development. Kieran Fenby-Hulsefrom Coventry rounded off the event with a rousing cabaret-style presentation combining historical literature and songthat spoke to the plight of the researcher and sent us all home with thoughts about whether or not we too might branch out and do new things.

A huge thanks go to the Coventry hosts, Dr Heather Sears, Dr Magdalena Jara, and Dr Kieran Fenby-Hulse. If you have questions or suggestions about the REDS Conferences, please contact Dr Kay Guccione, the conference series director.

The location and date for the next REDS Conference will be announced in January, I hope to see you there to debate some more of the current tensions in developing researchers.

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