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.

Extracurricular Skills for your Future Career

My article for the Doctoral Times newsletter, link to the full publication here: http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/ris/pgr/doctoraltimes 

Something I realised as I planned out this article was that I suffer from an aversion to the word “no”. Whenever I’m faced with an opportunity for a new committee position or a student representative role, I’m the first with my hand in the air. The same was true prior to my post-graduate degree: in my working life, I’ve had 15 different jobs, and even now I still work a few hours a week with the Careers service.

It may mean you don’t get chance to watch this season of “I’m A Celebrity”, but filling your time with extra-curricular activities, particularly committee groups – such as the PGR committee I chair – is the best way to learn transferable skills. Transferable skills are skills that are widely applicable to many different situations or contexts. This is vital to a doctoral researcher because our areas of study are usually limited, given the specificity of the projects we undertake. I believe my “extra-curricular” work has added value to both my studies and my future career prospects, and I want to convince you to explore these opportunities too.

I hadn’t been engaged in any societies during my undergraduate degree, so I wanted to get more involved in the University community this time around. I joined the Medical Postgraduate Society (MPGS) as a departmental representative in my first month, and subsequently took on the role of co-chair four months later. I learnt the skills needed to lead a committee – chairing meetings, organising projects etc. – on the job: there’s no better way to learn in my opinion! I also attended staff-student committee meetings, where I had to communicate effectively with tutors to bring about meaningful changes in teaching.

Eight months on, still in the same role, I have gained a plethora of skills: democratic leadership, organisation, delegation and event planning to name a few. That was how it started. Since then, I have co-founded the new Postgraduate representative committee (PGComm) and become PGR councillor at the students union. These things tend to snowball!

Whatever you’re studying, getting involved in your University is important. PGR students usually don’t get the chance to network; we always have lots of work to do, and very specific places we have to do that work, which can be isolating. The great thing about engaging with these kinds of society/committee activities is that you meet and work with people from across the whole university. Effective teamwork and communication are incredibly vital skills for anyone’s future career; these are what active participation in departmental or university wide committees gives you. Not to mention the million other skills and talents you’ll develop in those roles, with interesting stories to back them up.

This issue of the Doctoral Times is especially poignant as the careers landscape is changing for PhD graduates: many are looking less towards traditional academic roles and focusing on interdisciplinary careers. In my case, I don’t have a concretely set vision of my career path, but I’m confident that I’ll be ready for what comes my way in two years’ time.

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.

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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.

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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.

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Photo: Getty images.

I also met Natalie Bennett outside Westminster.

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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.

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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.

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