Honesty About Academic Jobs

British professors urged to tell their graduate students that they can't assume a Ph.D. will translate into a "job for life."

December 19, 2014

Universities should have a “proper dialogue” with Ph.D. students from the start about the fact that they are “not walking into a job for life.”

That is the view of Dame Athene Donald, head of a Royal Society working group that has published new guidelines about doctoral candidate development.

Donald said the guidelines give a “clear statement” about the role of universities in managing the expectations of junior scientists at a time when competition for academic jobs has never been fiercer. Students should also take responsibility for establishing and managing their own career expectations, according to the document, "Doctoral Students’ Career Expectations: Principles and Responsibilities."

Donald, professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge and fellow of the Royal Society, told Times Higher Education that academia should be “honest and up front” about the fact that there are far more Ph.D. students in training than there are faculty positions for them to fill.

“If they don’t find out until quite late, they can be quite angry,” she said. “One of the key things is to make sure right from the outset that students know that they are not walking into a job for life. There should be a proper dialogue about what a Ph.D. is for [and] that it is not simply the first step in a logical career progression.” 

The Royal Society outlines its expectations for students, supervisors, career services and universities in the document, due to be published today. It says that students should talk to funders and career services about options available to them post-Ph.D. and find a mentor other than their supervisor – possibly outside academe – to regularly offer impartial advice. 

Supervisors should signpost careers information to students and allow them to take time out of their work to explore career options and to complete training, it adds.

Meanwhile, universities should offer appropriate training in transferable skills and arrange visits from people outside academia to outline alternative careers to students. 

There should also be a role for career advisers in providing a tailored service that specifically addresses the needs of different academic departments, it says.

“There are so many careers where science training is invaluable. We feel exposing students to some of this would be helpful,” Donald said.

She added that some universities and supervisors already do many of the things recommended in the document. But others may not have thought about the wider picture of training in doctoral education, with some supervisors focused only on getting research results out of students, for example, she said.

“It is not a question of putting blame anywhere. It is a question of saying this is what we believe, as the Royal Society, is needed to fulfill everyone’s expectation. The amount of extra time that this puts on a supervisor is really trivial, and they really should be doing a lot of it already,” she added.

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