What are you going to do after you finish your PhD? Where do you want to go? Are you going to become a lecturer? These are all questions that I field on a regular basis. Rather than going with my instinctive response of “What the hell? I don’t even know what my PhD is about yet!”, I usually say something like “I don’t know, but hopefully something in conservation or consulting”. Apparently this puts me in the minority of PhD students in that I do not desire to go into academia.
This was a topic discussed at the New Zealand Association of Scientists conference I attended on the 26th April; you can also read about it in my previous blog post. One of the speakers referenced the Royal Society report where it stated that while about half of PhD students continue on with research, becoming early career researchers, most end up leaving academia for work in industry. This is despite most PhD candidates desiring a job in academia at the outset of the project. The question asked at the conference is how can we, as the scientific community, support PhDs and Post Docs so that if an academic career does not pan out they can successfully and relatively painlessly transition into industry? As one of the members of the emerging researchers panel said, when she was faced with the current situation, it is not unusual to feel like the best option is just to “give up”.
I am lucky in that I have a great team of supervisors (I have 4 ± 1 supervisors) who want my PhD to be more about preparing me for future work rather than me just churning out papers. They have suggested that I take opportunities to learn skills that will be useful in industry and that I take time to build connections inside and outside of academia. However, not everyone is as lucky in having such excellent supervisors. I have heard horror stories about supervisors who refuse to meet with their students and those who take no role in preparing the student for the future. What can we do for these students without supervisor support?
This is a place where student-led organisations can step in. The Te Pūnaha Matatini Whānau committee is well aware of these trends and are currently working on a number of projects to address this. The Whānau has connected with industry partners such as data analytic companies. The intention is for TPM Whānau members to be eligible to undertake internships at the companies. This will teach the members new skills and give experience that will be valuable in industry. We are also organising a data debate on the issues of data privacy between industry members and Te Pūnaha Matatini.
Ultimately however, no matter how supportive the supervisor is, it is up to the student to make sure that they obtain the experience and skills they need. As one of my supervisors said, “if you are smart enough to get to PhD level you are smart enough to look after yourself”.
With that I will sign off and go look after myself.
Jonathan Goodman is a Te Pūnaha Matatini Whānau committee member.