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.

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Are we Lazy Learners?

As part of my research, I am sometimes required to pay a visit to hospitals in the area to observe learning and teaching in the clinical environment. This sounds more grandiose than it is, so to distil it down: I watch teachers teach. This is always a fun and interesting task – I get to play-act as a medical student for the day while having none of the real world pressure of passing clinical exams, or, inevitably, saving peoples’ lives. With this in mind, I set off that particular autumnal morning with my notebook and coffee flask to clamber onto the rickety shuttle bus and play pretend at a hospital across the city.

I spent most of the day the sole calm member of an otherwise very nervous group of medical students, watching them take patient histories and attempt not to be bowled over by medical staff. This 6 week placement was their second of many more to come, so they were still awkward and tentative, slow in their hesitant shuffling through the corridors – very visibly juxtaposed with the rushing of smiling nurses and frowning junior doctors (wondering why they were frowning? this is why). They scurried through each ward looking for free patients to ‘clerk’ (to take a medical history), which they would then write-up, furiously making sure they recorded every tiny detail.

When I got down to chatting with these students, the main conversation topics were invariably exams – no surprises there – and their lack of teacher instruction each week. I must admit, I found the latter concern strange, interjecting: “Isn’t that the point?” I thought surely after almost two years of medical science lectures and poking needles into plastic arms, they would want a taste of the real thing. I thought they might want to be set free. I couldn’t be more wrong. They unanimously agreed that they wanted more supervised seminars and teacher led ‘ward rounds’, as preparation for their upcoming practical exams.

After talking to one of the resident doctors that day, I was told that this was a common response and that all the learners from that year group wanted more teaching, or, as they called it, “mollycoddling”. At a time where self-direction, discovery and action was required, only reservation and a cry for a shepherd could be heard from these young learners. Despite a disdain for lectures and teacher centric styles of instruction, they still wanted to be told what to do.

I knew from conversations with other medical educators that this stems from the ‘tick-box’ culture infecting modern education. Students are chewed up and spat out, uniform and undistinguished by the curriculum, in an attempt to ensure standardisation across the board. Students cry out for feedback, for a standard to bounce off, and are generally rewarded with such poor, unimaginative feedback practises that they don’t even want it when they get it.

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Photo credit: Conveyor belt 2 by Jon Rogers

It got me thinking: would I have really been any different at their stage? Well, no, probably not. Am I occasionally guilty of relying on a higher positioned instructor to tell me what to do? Most definitely. The hardest skills to learn are those which make the most enviable people successful: self-motivation, self-direction and self-regulation. Notice the recurring ‘self’. Have you ever wondered why there are so many ‘self-help’ books? Titles including, and not limited to, “The Secret”, “Black-Box Thinking” and “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. These kinds of books pretend to be clandestine by letting you in on the “secret to success” which only the author can omnisciently deliver.

These books are interesting and attractive because it really would be nice to sidestep the odious task of personal development through experience and critical reflection. Sign me up! Being a postgraduate researcher, I’d hazard that I’d be one of the first in line for such a solution with a crowd of similarly inclined comrades.

As the shuttle bus jerked and veered in heavy traffic back to the Medical School, I thought back to all the research literature I’d read months before about the behaviours of successful learners. Supposedly, the most successful students:

  • Set goals which were specific and clear.
  • Have clearly defined strategy for achieving their goals.
  • Can accurately monitor how they were progressing on any task and make
  • Reflect honestly on their actions and can make positive
  • Attribute their success/failure to themselves.

You may observe that these skills are contained within the individual. Ironically for a student looking to their teacher, it turns out it’s all down to you. We can only be led for so long: at some point after A-levels, or even university if you’re lucky, we must learn to operate independently as well as with others and under instruction.

There are no negatives to this kind of self-improvement. Unfortunately, it’s not so easy – don’t be fooled into thinking I am of those all-knowing authors. I have had my own troubles with self-directed learning (just ask my supervisor). Time, effort and opportunity are all ingredients required in differing doses to regularly improve ourselves, and we can’t always consistently find equal amounts of each.

So, are we lazy learners? I can only speak for myself, and a small sample population of medical students, but I would say no, we aren’t. It is more apparent that we are strategic ‘surface learners’, meaning that we learn only what we need to learn to pass a standard, such as an exam. Whose fault is this? Is it the draconian method of assessment that doesn’t inspire, or it those pesky, alcohol saturated students? I think a bit of both. It’s one thing to stare down the road less travelled, and understand the benefits of such a challenge, and another thing entirely to make you take the first step.
I will give the advice echoed in most of the books I mentioned, and yes, it’s nothing new. Take the initiative: Take control over your own learning to achieve your goals. Get out of your comfort zone: It’s rare that opportunities come delivered to you wrapped up in a sweet little bow, so get out there and say “yes” to a few more things. Don’t be a lazy learner: never be content acting as a passive vessel of information. Question more, seek new approaches and think outside the box, and above all, concentrate on growing as a person, not as a manufactured product of an educational machine. Vive la revolution!

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Photo credit: Wikipedia commons

The whip? Or the carrot and stick?

A friend of mine recently blogged about the importance of getting away from their PhD to get a much needed dose of perspective, at least for a little while. It really got me thinking about how I organise my time and more importantly, my brain capacity. Something which jumped out at me as I read was their feeling of guilt, particularly how we inflict this sense of guilt on ourselves. It’s a strange form of self-harm when we actively make ourselves feel bad that we aren’t doing enough; we’ve all done it, when we’re trying to lose weight or study for an exam. We essentially become our own slave driver.

I would say that a disproportionate amount of my thoughts when I’m not at the office is worrying whether I did enough work today, or whether I should be doing reading instead of watching Netflix or playing Assassins Creed. I do 9 hours of work a day on average and I still have these thoughts. The best thing you can do is immerse yourself in something that doesn’t directly involve your PhD. For my friend it was to drive into the countryside and have a well-deserved cuppa and cake, for me it can be a number of things; the gym, reading, gaming. Something I have gotten really into in the past month or two is my Post-Graduate society.

I recently became Co-Chair with a friend of mine and we ran our first event last week for Red Nose Day. Our bake sale raked in over £200 for comic relief and we all had our fair share of baked treats!

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Along with running the committee, I’ve had a teaching group and plenty of meetings to keep my mind from focusing fully on the endless abyss of work that a PhD entails. However, I do think we make too much work for ourselves, there is only a finite amount we can do in first year. What a lot of post-docs and professors will tell you is that your first year should be about “getting a feel for the area” and general contemplation for your project considering its ever evolving nature. This is harder than it sounds, you want to DO something and it can be incredibly hard to allow yourself time to  relax and reflect.

I personally think that the problem is, when I think about my PhD I visualise a 3-year timeline and fret about what I need to have done by when or whether my research is ‘ground breaking’ enough for it all to be worth it. I know full well this isn’t the best way to think about it and I never did this at undergrad until the last 6 months! Extra activities and volunteering in anything that isn’t my project helps me take things one step at a time. We tend to put too much worth on the end of the course and approach it with an all-or-nothing attitude, that all your time must be spent on attaining this goal. Becoming a well-rounded doctor with transferable skills takes a back seat and it shouldn’t. We need these extra little challenges to build ourselves up and keep us going as we complete each one.

Overall, I think it can sometimes be a good idea to give ourselves a metaphorical kick up the backside to get us motivated and working hard, but we should at least dangle a carrot and give it a nibble – something to motivate and reward us. You could use a carrot; I prefer a large dominoes order and a jar of Nutella.

“What will you do after your PhD?”

2015 has been… trying. There are certain decisions and commitments you make during the early part of a doctoral degree which are resoundingly crucial yet exciting. The ever changing formulation of a ‘question’ is an example of this – a direction in which the further you go; the harder it is to see any other method of getting to the end of the three years. January and February was the two months of toil I went through to carve out that all important research question. I really couldn’t face blogging at that particular time!

‘Does feedback informed by self-regulatory learning microanalysis improve performance in undergraduate medical students when learning clinical skills?’

There are of course sub-questions galore which help you hold on to the far-flung hope that you won’t just become the ‘expert of nothing’, as some post-PhDs regularly quip. But, they’re right. Imagine all the knowledge there is currently in the world in a balloon, the sole purpose of a PhD project is to push past that outer boundary and add a unique spike of intelligence, bursting through to give a whole new perspective in that area. This is of course, less dramatic in reality. However, it is an incredibly quintessential factor in motivation to know that someday you will be the world expert in your topic (however large or small).

I’m not sure how my fellow students perceive the timeline of their projects, although most faculties will gladly give you a timeline riddled with deadlines and those all-important portfolio submissions. Constantly picturing the whole timeline is heavily detrimental in my opinion – by all means imagine the final result but don’t dwell upon it. There are steps and processes to go through, not all of which can be measured using a Gantt chart.

I have learnt to look at my time on my project in a segmented way; visualising a tower I build brick-by-brick (hopefully with a cap and gown at the top).

When I try to imagine my life after this degree I don’t see anything that resembles a particular job role or position; instead, I see an older (slightly haggard) version of myself perhaps wearing more jumpers with shirts underneath and sporting a big smile. I know I’ll end up somewhere, all I can really say when someone asks me the question I typed first on this post is: “I’m working on it”.

The decision of what direction to take may become marred with doubt and uncertainty. As with most things in life, it is the process which maketh the graduate not the 80,000 word thesis.

5 weeks in…

Going straight from undergraduate study to a PhD studentship was a lot like going from GCSE’s to A-levels; Distressing, jarring, and a hell of a lot harder, but exciting. Admittedly, I had accrued a decent amount of research experience (hence why I got the post in the first place) but the pressure valve was cranked up considerably, or at least I thought it would be. I spent a lot of time reading books such as “developing critical thinkers” (Brookfield) and  “Developing effective research proposals” (Punch) which gave me nightmares about a demon supervisor throwing hundreds of papers at me over their mahogany desk and kicking me out of their office. These were probably naïve choices for a fresh undergrad who hadn’t even graduated yet (I still haven’t). Admittedly, I worried myself too much before enrolment and half talked myself out of it!

A month in, these nightmares didn’t come to realisation; my supervisor(s) were nothing but supportive and understanding. I seem to have many ‘supervisors’, there are no shortage of experts (in many fields) in the medical education office, along with a few lively admin staff and an exuberant PGCert teacher to my immediate right who I can joke with intellectually and pretend I’m on ‘Frasier’.

I did have a chronic feeling that I was an imposter of sorts, feeling that I was going to be displaced any moment due to an admin error and that I was picked by mistake. A fellow PhD student, Rachel Handforth, at Hallam University (who inspired me to write this blog, check her blog out too!) expressed the same feeling of being somewhere she shouldn’t be. It has worn off somewhat but on the other hand I realised I ought to knuckle down.

However, the notion of knuckling down is perhaps an inappropriate phrase in this situation. Even though I come in to the office 9-5 Monday to Friday I don’t have a set amount of tasks to complete, I have a few meetings and administrative activities to please the Postgrad programme but otherwise I sit and muse upon reality 80 percent of the time. It’s a strange situation, the first few months are about adjustment and understanding the topic (so they tell me). I try not to worry about that too much; despite the guilt it can sometimes make you feel when you take 2 hours to read a 6 page research paper!

The social life hasn’t suffered (for now) and I haven’t fallen deep into depression yet so I’m taking that as a concerted victory for myself and my Xbox. I feel like I have a direction, albeit a vague one regarding my thesis but a meaningful one nonetheless.

Conducting qualitative research into the psychological implications of students receiving feedback isn’t an exact science in any sense so naturally it is rife with contrasting opinions and theories.  Of course this has its positives and negatives when it comes to my workload! It could however be much worse; I’m not in a lab which the other 73 PhD 1st years are. I have a desk with draws and a computer, what else could I dream of? The glamourous life of a PhD student.