academia, career planning

Help research students career plan as an academic

We recently posted a webinar about how academic supervisors can use coaching to benefit their research students.* It’s a broad call to action. But there’s one area where academic supervisors might feel out of their comfort-zone but can really add value: helping research students career plan. In particular, planning for any career that isn’t traditional academia.

There is plenty of useful content out there for PhDs looking to work outside of an academic context. There are specialists like Jen Polk (From PhD to Life) and Maren Wood (Beyond the Professoriate), plus more institutional resources, like the Prosper Project. And it’s good that there’s this flourishing of support because it’s a tough transition. Academic jobs, and job applications, are very different to other industries. But if academic supervisors are supposed to be sponsors, mentors, and coaches, there’s a role for them here.

Here are three things academic supervisors can do to help.

Treat non-academic work as exciting and interesting

Judgment. It’s one of the biggest fears for anyone thinking about stepping away from the precarious academic employment treadmill. For research students, taking that step can feel like an indictment of the years (and money!) they’ve spent on their research degree. It can also feel like a loss of a “dream career” in academia. Help your research students career plan in a way that develops other dream careers.

To do that, you have to believe that non-academic work is as exciting, fulfilling and interesting as academic work. If you’ve always been an academic, or you’ve been an academic for a long time, students might worry that you’ll judge their choices. Or just not understand them. Perhaps you only know academics, have never held a non-academic job, and can’t imagine non-academic work being interesting. But that seems very unlikely!

Talk about jobs you’ve had or considered. Talk about work you know your friends, family, or colleagues have found fulfilling. And talk about how skills learned in academia can help in those industries and roles. Make the path seem real and exciting for your students.

Be honest about where students are learning valuable skills and where they’re not

Universities’ contribution to student “employability” is a hot topic. And helping grad student “professionalisation” might well be baked into some of your project funding applications. But you should think carefully about whether you’re really delivering.

For example, lots of universities, and supervisors, claim succeeding at the PhD is great project management experience. It’s almost certainly not (although science research degrees will do better in this regard than most humanities ones). This isn’t to do down the serious work involved in completing a PhD to time, or at all. But it is to question whether there’s a genuine mapping between claimed “employability” skills and skills employers are actually looking for.

Some questions help test this particular idea. Do they manage a significant budget and report on it monthly? Are they learning to manage contributions from others and line up work-streams to a manage the project’s critical path? Do they use standard project management tools (even the basic ones, like Trello) as part of collaborative team-work? Are they gaining a project management qualification/certification? Would they have the deep, day-to-day experience an employer would expect of someone with three years project management experience in a professional environment?

Some other examples might be Digital Humanities projects that claim students are gaining “coding” experience when they’re doing very basic HTML mark-up less complex than the work required to run a WordPress blog. Or the idea that simply adding more service roles, like editing postgrad journals or organising conferences, will automatically boost employability.

Maybe all of these things will be useful. But it entirely depends what skills they actually need and want! Which leads us to point three…

Help research students focus their efforts

We can all struggle with saying ‘no’. We can all be tempted to take on new roles just to feel included or helpful. Help your research students focus on the skills that matter and leave to one side the roles that don’t help them get them.

Maybe they’ve already identified an area they want to go into, and there are specific skills they need to gain. Or maybe they’re playing to their strengths and could branch out. Help your students think practically about how to gain the most out of their time on a research programme. In particular, help them see that the thesis/dissertation is important but not the be-all-and-end-all. It’s okay for them to do work that’s “just good enough” if it frees them up to gain other skills and experiences!

If you’ve found this thought-provoking and would like to find out more about how to help research students plan for non-academic careers, you can always contact us!

*And, if you haven’t seen the video, you can watch it here: