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.

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.

pageant-egr conveyor A3

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!


Photo credit: Wikipedia commons

The incredible power of you.

Meta-cognition or ‘thinking about thinking’ means something different to everybody, beyond its literal definition. What is profound is that it operates in real time, it is impossible for us not to be consciously aware of what we are doing and like us, it is active. It is how we learn and it gives us an insight into how we view ourselves, which is an interesting and yet unnerving notion. The privacy that comes with meta-cognition is like nothing else, that constant dialogue and self-talk going on in your mind is almost separate from your physical self never mind other people. Writings on meta-cognition go as far back as Aristotle and is still discussed widely today; there are evolutionary psychologists that imagine meta-cognition as a survival tool. As you can imagine there are a number of different avenues I could explore in this post, instead I will talk about what it means to me as an individual who spends a lot of time sitting and thinking rather than…you know…doing.

To me, meta-cognition encroaches upon everything I know. It has given me constant opportunities to adapt every step and stumble in my life, large or small. Being actively aware of the things I enjoy or dislike has, as a sum total, made me into the person I am today. I have gained control of my life in a way that I never thought possible and learnt how and why I love the things I love. As a result, I have moulded myself into what I want to be (at least right now) through constant ‘touch ups’ directed by my own meta-cognitive thoughts and adjustments to my life.

I felt the power of meta-cognition most significantly when I started university. The ability to manage yourself can be incredibly freeing and transcendental as a young person since you’ve spent nearly 80% of your life under someone else’s ‘rule’ to an extent. Some of us do not manage well under these circumstances and are back home from university every weekend or inevitably drop out, I was lucky enough to thrive on my own and with friends and continue to do so today. There is the other end to this continuum; In fact, I prefer to be on my own most of the time so I suppose you could say I self-manage a little too well!

Self-awareness has also taught me a lot of unsettling things, things which you don’t understand are wrong until you are much older but can have a rudimentary awareness of at the time. My awareness of sexism wasn’t something I was particularly engaged in until a few years ago. I wasn’t an outright, outspoken misogynist but I made a lot of sexist jokes which I never believed to be problematic. As I learnt more about it I felt suddenly shocked at what I was saying or thinking, suddenly my light hearted jokey comments made me feel sick to the stomach. I found myself having a small conversation in my head about what I was doing and why I wasn’t okay with it, like two different people. Meta-cognition helped me challenge my beliefs and perceptions to many other issues, but that one resounded within me. It is painfully honest, you can’t escape your own thoughts and feelings, all you can do is learn and be better.


I think everybody can be more meta-cognitive and aware of themselves, it allows us to carve out our own niche and concentrate on our own thoughts rather than the thoughts and whims of others. They have their place but you have to come first in most cases. We invariably get caught up in how we can be special to the world, we forget the first step to achieving all round happiness is to appreciate our own nuances and love ourselves first. I think if you concentrate on how YOU work, you’ll be more equipped to love and be loved in return.

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!


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.

Transitions – “Variety is the spice of life”

Transitions are typically recurring throughout all our lives. There are big, confusing ones like going from being a teenager to a responsible adult (still haven’t hit that one quite yet), and smaller ones like trying a different brand of coffee – arguably life changing in my opinion. These are sometimes unavoidable, though we are in control as to how we deal with them. I relish the notion of unpredictability, and as a result will never get the same kind of coffee twice in a row. That may seem pretty trivial when you consider how some people brag about globetrotting or skydiving every weekend. I’ve never been travelling or lived anywhere else except Sheffield! I think we instigate and deal with as much change as we can handle versus what is essentially realistic and financially viable.

My own interpretation is the ‘small but often’ approach, small changes regularly leading to easier transitions through life as opposed to making big, scary decisions of the cuff. Although, I just got back from New York over Christmas and while I was there all I could think while sat in Central Park was, “I could definitely live here, why not?”


“Why not?” is a dangerous question. One that often precedes poor decision making. However, it was also the same question I asked myself before I applied to Sheffield University to study my PhD. “Why not?” got me to where I am now, it forced me to work harder and become the happiest and most driven I’ve ever been.

There are certain detriments to transitioning we must consider; depending on the size of the change they can be pretty significant. Your social life is an ever-evolving thing; we’ve all ‘lost touch’ with someone from school, uni or work as a result of making a change. I can say with regret that I don’t speak to anyone from school, college and only a few from my undergraduate course, by no means deliberately. When we move away and immerse ourselves in different activities those who you were friends with before may not always come with you. “A friendship of convenience” is a term I would use here to describe those kinds of friendships; because you are in the same place doing a similar thing you are sort of forced to be develop friendships, albeit good ones.

I am hugely jealous of those people who are able to maintain friendships from years ago; maybe I’m just a sociopath! You should never get caught up in the past too much, things are going to change and it’s often out of your control if it happens to be job or living related. Make the best of it, adapting and evolving is part of the human experience after all. January is filled with wistful talk of change and is therefore consisted of lifestyle alterations and modifications destined to last just as long as the leftover mince pies. Have a look at #ResolutionsFor2015 on twitter, compare them to your own and decide with an informed conscience how you will “spice” your life this year.

new year

Compartmentalising and dreaming, a winning combination

A comment this Monday morning from my supervisor that took about 2 minutes to process fully:

“Think about the big picture, but try not to get off topic!”

It’s no secret that PhD supervisors can often be purposefully cryptic. I’m not sure it’s all that helpful before my 10am coffee, but it did strike a chord with me. At the moment, I am writing my literature review for my project, “Hearing the Feedback Message”. For anyone who isn’t sure what a lit review is, it’s a large background piece which carves holes in previous research and identifies gaps in which to birth novel approaches to a common problem. Ideally. My task at the moment is to delve into my specific subject (medical education), extract as much key research on my topic (feedback psychology) and present as much of this data as possible in a coherent report. Narrow thinking is required to stay relevant, but as my supervisor says, that’s not all I have to think about. There is more to life I suppose!

As Christmas creeps ever closer the pressure of hand-ins and unfinished personal goals from the last New Year still linger on. Despite feeling as though you are working furiously, almost forcing these tasks to fruition, it’s apparent there’s something about the run up to the New Year that increases your productivity tenfold. I feel a pressure to get things right before 2014 turns to 2015 but getting my work precisely right isn’t the reason why I’m doing a PhD in the first place. I yearn for an assessment guideline to tell me how to write step-by-step, but the element of freedom you get from being free of these strict principles is liberating!

Coming up for air after immersing yourself in a subject – no matter what you’re doing – is a healthy thing to do. Now my focus is narrowing in this PhD I can’t help but look to the future to feed my motivation. I liken choosing a path for the next three years to being a savvy Christmas shopper; instead of just picking up the first garish jumper or knock-off Ray Bans you see, take your time, try some things on for size. Frantically reaching for any old career path might get the ‘Christmas shopping’ done in the short term, but will you be happy with it on New Year’s day? Or 10 years down the line? It would be very naïve of me to suggest I have any idea about where I’ll be in a decade, but I know I’ll have tried everything there is to try when I get there.