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Increasing the ‘value’ of a PhD! March 2, 2012

Posted by qmresearchers in Academic Careers.
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As someone that has worked with Early Career Researchers for a number of years and, having completed a PhD myself, I know that undertaking a doctorate is an academically challenging and extremely fulfilling experience. A report out this month called ‘The Career Intentions of Doctoral Researchers‘ (from Vitae), shows that more than 90% of PhDs were satisfied with their decision to undertake a PhD and 70% would make the same choice if they had the chance again.

But, we live in financially challenging times and increasing numbers of people are taking both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. As individuals, government and employers dedicate more resources to funding degrees, Universities are under increasing pressure to ensure that their degrees (Bachelors, Masters and Doctorates) are the panacea for lifelong employability and success! In an attempt to ‘measure’ the value of a degree, next year sees the release of Key Information Sets which will look at a standard set of information for individual undergraduate courses (e.g. the salary of someone taking that course, six months after graduation).

So with regards to taking a PhD, how can we measure its ‘value’? Well this can be done from a number of perspectives including:

  • The value or impact of the research that is produced. For some, the impact of their research findings are easy to measure but for others they are more challenging. The impact of research is another important debate that is happening in academia.
  • The value of the degree to the individual. This may be with regards to their future career, the organisation they go on to work for and even their contribution to society as a whole.

As a Careers Consultant,  I am often grappling with the benefits of a PhD to an individual, particularly with regards to their future career. For those individuals that go on to pursue research and teaching careers, either in academia or beyond, the value of your research and teacher training is obvious. Most researchers are able to identify and articulate the value of their PhD in relation to these skills.

However, for those PhDs wanting (or having to) make a transition to an occupation that does not require these skills, it can sometimes be more challenging to make a strong case with regards to the ‘value’ of their doctorate. So what can be done? Well the first thing is to be honest and think very carefully about whether you do actually have the skills that some employers are after; these will vary depending on the job and sector. If it is a case of not being able to identify and articulate your skills then this is something a Careers Consultant can help you with.

However, if you genuinely do not have the skills or experience that you think you will need, then you will have to think a bit more laterally. The first approach is to think ‘how can I kill two birds with one stone?’ What can you do within your current academic institution or alongside your PhD that will both broaden your skill set and raise your profile within academia? Participating in activities that will both increase your chance of securing an academic career and broaden your skill set for other sectors is a win-win approach. So, good activities to get involved with are organising conferences, helping with grant applications or being a student representative. These can improve your project management skills, commercial awareness and team-working, respectively. Another approach, suggested by Sir Tim Wilson in his Review of Business-University Collaboration (28 February 2012) is the whole notion of PhDs and Postdoctoral Researchers doing internships for eight to twelve weeks!!! Although many PhDs and possibly supervisors may might feel that this is simply a distraction from research, a short period of time broadening your skill set in another sector may prove to be an invaluable springboard for your future career.

So in conclusion, a PhD in itself is certainly a valuable asset to have in many ways! However, do think carefully about its value beyond teaching and research and think about strategies for developing skills and acquiring experience beyond your current work and sector. You never know when you may want or need to change career direction.

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