5 ways to improve the effectiveness of PhDs

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Image copyright Jorge Cham, from PhD Comics

Having completed my PhD late last decade, it still seems to hold me in it’s irrevocable claws. Not the subject matter, I’m comfortable with that, but the process itself and it’s insufficient capacity to equip me and countless other PhD graduates with the relevant skills for the academic (and quasi-academic) realms of employment. I am also assured that I am not the only one who feels this way. Note I am not blaming the fine institution that is the University of Leicester, far from it. No, this academic deferentialism cuts much deeper to the very nature of what a PhD means in the modern job market. Universities are finding that postgraduates are the new money-making black, and they are seeing more and more through their revolving doors. Couple this with a decline in lecturing positions due to current financial conditions and the fact that more and more people are undertaking postgraduate education to steal a march on their competitors, we have a system that is rapidly becoming unsustainable (this notion is articulated with much more detail in this insightful post).

Hence, I think that it’s high time that PhD programs modified themselves for the age we find ourselves in, so as to increase the employability of the poor deluded souls who undertake them. This is because the sharp increase of PhD holders means that the academy cannot hope to employ them all, and so many are looking for jobs in the private sector and in third sector roles. Therefore, we need to accept the fact that having a PhD no longer inculcates us with an exclusive right to a pathway to academic employment. Hence, I suggest 5 modifications to PhD programme which would make them more competitive and increase the employability of their graduates across the range of job opportunities:

1. Paper writing with supervisor.
I know that this is common practice with some academics, but it is imperative that PhD candidates have academic papers out before they finish. And given the fact that the supervisor should have more experience in terms of paper writing, it should be a departmental requirement that a joint paper by supervisor and candidate is submitted by the end of the second year, that’s right, the second year. This encourages the student to write before the third year writing up stage, which is crucial as good writing only comes from good writing.

2. Proposal writing classes.
Granted, the PhD student may have had to write a proposal to get funding for the PhD, but this is not always the case and besides, proposals for post-docs and larger research projects are a world away from (heavily-aided by supervisor) PhD studentships. All departments have to bid for research money and hence there would be some academics who would have experience in bidding and writing proposals so why not impart this wisdom to those who will need it sooner rather than later? It is a most treasured skill and is needed outside academic circles as well as within.

3. Teaching.
Again, this is widely practiced within universities, but not ubiquitously. Lectures, tutoring and demonstrating need to be given to PhD students regularly, but of course rationed so as to let them study and write. Over-burden of teaching should be left to the junior lecturers. This benefits not only the PhD candidate but also the undergrads being taught, as this will invariably allow for a more relaxed and amenable teaching experience.

4. Go to the British Library.
Just go there – get a Reading Room pass and go while away hours reading, and the writing will just flow. The place is simply brilliant.

Image copyright Jorge Cham, from PhD Comics

5. Allotted time spent in other departments.
As my previous post noted, I think that disciplines are becoming more porous and hence there will be people in other departments on the other side of the campus doing very similar work to you, but you may never be aware of them. So, there should be timetabled periods where the PhD candidate spends time in associated departments. It may just be sitting in on a seminar, or arranging some sort of inter-disciplinary PhD meet up (probably in the pub no doubt), but there is a huge amount of benefit that comes from ‘fresh’ eyes on a problem.

These will no doubt seem common sense, and hopefully many PhD candidates already do these things. However, it is amazing the number of postgraduates that I come into contact with who don’t. Also, if you are a PhD student, it may also be useful for you to look at jobs.ac.uk every now and again, and do a search with the keywords of your thesis and see what kind of jobs in what kind of departments come up – the results may surprise you. It will also tell you a lot about what will be expected of you as soon as you’ve finished your masterpiece. PhDs (in the majority at any rate) are not what they once were, and we, as the academics that are charged with imparting knowledge, need to modify ever so slightly the programme so as to give the students a bit more weaponry to fight their way to their desired career. There is no doubt that they’ll need it….


Author: Oli

Human Geographer at Royal Holloway, University of London

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