Monday, August 15, 2011
Much attention has been paid to the problems graduates face in finding jobs in the current economic climate. However, spare a thought for PhD students who, especially in the humanities and social sciences, may be in an even worse position. At the heart of the problem is the adverse effect of the government's cuts on universities, traditionally the primary destination for newly-minted doctorates.
"The academic job market is extremely tight … even postdoctoral researchers and lecturers are starting to contact us about alternative careers because they are worried about their employment prospects," says Terry Jones, a careers adviser with the Careers Group, University of London.
The problem of PhD students unable to find academic jobs is a global one. Military and diplomatic historian associate professor Nicholas Sarantakes, who runs In the Service of Clio, a blog about career management for historians, predicts that "the job market is going to get worse for PhDs over the next five years. Graduate programmes are overproducing each year and the surplus is getting bigger and bigger. At the same time, colleges and universities are downsizing their faculty and increasing their workloads. Supply is increasing at the very same time that demand is decreasing".
Sarantakes is keen to encourage students to consider jobs slightly outside traditional academia, such as working as librarians. Indeed, he teaches officers at the US Naval War College. Overall, he says: "There are many different jobs that will allow them to write and research and then make the transition to a faculty position. Creative thinking is a requirement for professional advancement and there are a number of places where a PhD can work and still make contributions to their field."
Jones agrees, and believes that part-time lecturing, or teaching individual courses, can help students gain contacts they can then use to win more permanent academic positions later.
Opportunities also exist for work in the private sector. Global talent broker MBA & Company, which connects firms of all sizes and across the world with experts, currently has 286 PhDs on its books. One example is Homayoun Dayani-Fard, who has a PhD in computer science from Queen's University in Canada, and has done work for a range of clients in the financial sector, including Coutts. The PhDs are a small proportion of the 6,500 people MBA & Company represents, but founder Adam Riccoboni says: "It's an area we're seeing more growth in."
Riccoboni, author of a book Buy Me!: 10 Steps to Selling Yourself Every Time, believes there are several steps that those with doctorates can take to make themselves more attractive to potential employers. In particular, he believes it is important to combat popular negative stereotypes of PhD students as verbose, individualistic and lacking emotional intelligence.
For instance, he suggests that students emphasise the communication abilities honed while giving presentations on their research. They should take advantage of the global economy and consider a wide geographical range of employers.
Jones agrees that negative perceptions can hold job-seekers back. "Although I don't want to generalise …many employers question the commitment of those who have spent seven or more years in academia," he says.
However, he thinks that this is unfair: "In reality, research students are constantly chasing deadlines and thinking on their feet … every new line of inquiry is in effect a mini-project."
Because of this, Jones believes that those job hunting need to make it clear that they have general skills as well as subject-specific knowledge.
Sarantakes's advice is very similar. "The PhD holder needs to emphasise skill-sets obtained from the degree: writing ability, foreign languages, research skills and an ability to set long-term goals and meet them," he says. "Those are the kind of skills that banks, news publications, law firms and advertising agencies can use."
However, he remains concerned that professors and supervisors are still giving the impression that students will automatically get an academic job, "because that is what they did and that is what was done before them".