Exactly how valuable is a PhD?

An article written by myself and Furaha Asani for Times Higher Education in October 2016 – link here: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/exactly-how-valuable-phd

PhD lettered on book spine

Currently, UK higher education is undergoing changes, and recent evidence suggests that change is extending to the career paths that some PhD graduates are taking. These higher education veterans have begun to buck the trend of staying on in their academic departments and are branching out of familiar collegial settings into industry.

Findings from RCUK and the Royal Society show that about 50 per cent of UK PhD graduates have opted to work in roles outside academia since 2010. Those who did stay in higher education research felt less secure and were dissatisfied with their future career prospects, the research found.

Another problem is that a PhD isn’t the golden ticket to higher earnings that it is perceived to be. Research by Bernard Casey shows that while PhD graduates earn 26 per cent more than those who don’t go to university, they only earn 3 per cent more than master’s degree holders. And in the case of one study in pharmacology, a PhD actually reduced earnings.

Since many of us will end up outside academia, it makes sense to gain transferable skills and experiences during our PhD. Employers want high level graduates with a plethora of skills after all. What we need is an alignment of all doctoral education contributors to support and empower us to realise the many opportunities there are for development. Therefore, as current PhD students and potential future employees, an important question to address is: how can all stakeholders add value to our doctoral degrees to help us to become more competitive in the modern knowledge economy?

Being cooped in a lab or an office won’t do much for our future employability unless we collaborate, create and share our work with our peers and with the public. There are many public engagement events and entrepreneurial competitions where doctoral brainpower can really be put to the test. There are the more subject specific options such as: the Pint of Science competition where students talk science in the pub, or the Biotechnology young entrepreneur’s scheme.

There are even more of these types of activities open to all students. Whether you study microbes or migration, you can get involved in 3 Minute ThesisFame Lab, and even Dance Your PhD. All of these can give us another string to our bows after graduation.

Supervisors are key to a doctoral student’s development and are role models for many of us. They have a great amount of influence over what we do and we often have to timidly seek their consent to get involved in anything extracurricular. If there is a culture in which all supervisors are encouraging and supportive of skills development, engaged students can access those great opportunities. It’s often forgotten that a doctoral supervisor isn’t a teacher or a boss, they are a coach. This can be challenging for distance learners but there are ways to tackle the distance and get the most out of the relationship, even if you don’t work well with them.

Many UK universities are actively encouraging postgraduates to learn useful skills for the wider working world. Many institutions have excellent teams of researcher developers whose job it is to help PhD students stand out from the crowd, funded by £120 million of government cash known as the “Roberts money”. This has led to the creation of THE Award-winning researcher development programmes such as “Think Ahead” at the University of Sheffield.

However, there are very real and complex barriers hindering us from realising these opportunities.

Competition for jobs is getting more intense: the number of students studying for a research degree in the UK has steadily increased to more than 112,000 in 2015, making up 5 per cent of all students at our universities. There are more issues close to home. National data from the 2015 Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES) survey found that, across the UK, PhD students were most dissatisfied with the “research culture” in their universities. Simply put, they found it hard to integrate and develop partnerships with colleagues locally, nationally and globally. While the survey only reached 40 per cent of the 2015 UK student population, for many, this conclusion may ring true, particularly part-time students.

Equally worrying are the troubling revelations about mental health in academia and among PhD students and the common factors likely to be causing it: imposter syndrome, self-funding, and problematic supervisors – to name a few.

While the focus for us PhD students will always be on our project, we should be encouraged and allowed to take part in activities alongside our research to give us that extra “oomph” when applying for jobs. There is plenty of opportunity, but what we need is to encourage uptake from all partners in doctoral education. If guided well, we can apply our skills to a whole host of different environments and take these new skills to the proverbial bank.


Education cuts protest in London – What really happened and what was it for?

November the 4th was the day of the “Free Education & Living Grants for all” student demonstration in London. The red paint dried quick on my freezing cheek, the air cool even for an early November morning. Everyone who was crammed into the students’ union bar had brought coats, scarves, gloves and fiery enthusiasm – supplemented by steaming cups of tea and coffee.

Up early on little sleep, I was grateful to have no responsibility as I wove between flustered organisers and union officers brandishing megaphones. From where I was sitting I could see the whole bar, uncharacteristically full of students for 7:30 in the morning. The signs and banners, creative in their denouncement of the Tory government’s new plans to cut higher education funds were propped against the walls and held above heads, before being carefully loaded into the bottom of the coach.


Picture: My demo sign.

The excitement and energy in the air was as thick as the slowly descending fog, and was equally immovable. No one could get to Westminster fast enough, and similar scenes were seen in student unions across the UK. The unions in Sheffield had brought the most students to the demonstration on London’s Malet Street, outside UCL – 162 in total. We were told this as we got onto the coach and it lifted our spirits for the four hour journey ahead.


Picture: One of three Sheffield coaches to London.

This student protest was set to be the largest since 2010 and 2011 when plans were initially announced to lift the cap on tuition fees to £9000 and to abolish college student’s weekly allowances. With the added recent announcement of Theresa May’s new immigration rules making it much harder for international students to study in the UK, the leap from college to university is becoming more perilous without extra personal funding. But there was hope: demonstrations in Pretoria were successful in causing a halt to increasing fees. Other efforts by new Labour’s shadow vice-chancellor, John McDonnell, halted Tory plans to cut tax credits for working people. Everyone on that coach wanted to emulate and further these successes – maybe these cuts could be stopped.

I stepped off my coach and straight into the fervor of the many thousands in attendance on Malet Street. The March itself was a thing of beauty. People were chanting, singing and cheering to the tune of the event organisers. Posters and signs waved furiously in the tumult of protesters – I held mine up with them as the wind brought the burning smell of lit flares to my nose. Larger than life piggy bank creations were held up by groups, delivering a double entendre to the prime minister in a deliciously apt manner.


Photo: Getty images.

I also met Natalie Bennett outside Westminster.


Picture: Natalie Bennett (Green party leader) and I.

As we congregated on the narrow street outside the department of business, skills and innovation McDonnell took his small and humble stage to reinforce the goals of the march. He fanned the passionate flames we all felt inside as a collective while simultaneously calling for a peaceful protest. His Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who had supported the demonstration with multiple statements, had revealed months earlier his administration’s first full policy plans to tackle tuition fees and fund maintenance grants; pledging 10bn – 7bn for tuition fees and 3bn for grants. Everyone, including McDonnell, knew this would be an excellent time for his party to pick up some young hearts and minds, to show the current government there is power in fairness. It’s worth mentioning, however, that this wouldn’t automatically become policy if labour was elected.

After a brief period of more chanting, we started to notice people running on either side of the road toward the front of the building. Some protesters who had covered themselves in all black and marched as a solid group had made their way to the front. As the police attempted to ‘kettle’ and contain some of these individuals, tempers snapped, and a few shoves started a few small scuffles. A large group high tailed it away from the incident, equally fearful of protesters and police alike.

Around 12 people were arrested. Some – mostly students – say the police were at fault, and others blame the protesters whole heartedly – see The Guardian, Independent and Evening Standard. This is a chicken and egg scenario: Police typically aren’t violent without provocation, and people typically aren’t anti-police unless they’re overbearing. In this case, people were forced together with high tempers and very different goals, and nothing good comes from that. It’s worth remembering that Police budgets are also being slashed by the Conservatives. What I can confirm without a doubt is that these more violent protesters were a minority, and overall the protest was good-natured and peaceful.

Our group was calmly ushered away from the building, and reconvened there 40 minutes later, making calls to gather together our large Sheffield numbers. The street was immaculate; no-one would be able to tell whether a protest had been there, or a quaint food market. The active and swift removing of our mark on London felt poignant – only time would tell what impact we would have on the government’s plans.


Picture: Where the rally started and finished. Westminster Abbey, Victoria Street.
As our fires and energy withered, we climbed onto our coaches and settled in for the long journey home, with intermittent exclamations of pride and disgust heard over soft snoring: the headlines were now rolling in. The focus of the news bulletins blurted such over-inflations such as “students lay siege to London” and “protests turn nasty”. This gave the false impression that we had brought catapults and battering rams to the doors of Westminster or resurrected Guy Fawkes in time for bonfire night. The calm, polite interviews some of our party had done earlier in the day, along with the photos taken of our well-mannered protest, were forgone by media outlets in favour of the more dramatic shots of protestors pinned to the ground. But are we surprised?

There’s not a student in the UK, at least that I’ve found, who thinks they should be paying more than £9000 a year for their education, and I know of no-one who thinks we should be taking the grants away from those who need them. You are no more or less deserving of your education, of pursuing your dreams for your future, if your parents earned less money than the average Tory. Who are we, as a country, if we ask students to sink into up to 60k of debt to educate themselves? Who are we if we send away those who can’t afford to live while studying on the loan they’re offered – who won’t make it to graduation once their maintenance grants disappear? We must take a long hard look at ourselves and decide who we want to be, then make our voices heard.