Apollo’s advice for PhD’s reflecting on their career

The number of PhD candidates increases whereas career possibilities within universities decrease (cf. Nature 2011 on “The PhD Factory“). Still, most PhD candidates have a strongly research oriented perspective on their career after obtaining their PhD, especially in the social sciences and humanities the primary focus is on a future in academia. How can doctorate holders develop a more realistic view and preparation on their career options and whose responsibility is this anyway? This was the starting point of a very interesting debate on doctoral careers in The Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany in which I recently participated at the Rathenau Institute.

I conclude that PhD candidates should decrease their expectations and ambitions about academic careers, but that their can and should be helped to transition to non-academic sectors. Universities, employers, and PhD candidates can all contribute to a better identification, training, and communication of expected skills that facilitate knowledge transfer outside academia. This is not to be seen as tending to the losers in the academic rat race, but as a valuable way of knowledge utilization and valorization, not to mention the professional fulfillment of doctorate holders themselves.

The question is: how does one go about building bridges to cross the gap between the dream of an academic career and the reality of opportunities outside the ivory tower? As the Rathenau Institute reports:

Doctorate holders should realize that their chances on the labour market are good. They completed the highest possible scientific education and are capable of pursuing a range of careers. Often they concentrate mostly on their specific expertise and research capacities from their PhD and forget about  possibilities outside university. They do not see the wide selection of general skills that they have also developed and which enable them to be successful in many more places on the labour market. […]

[Universities and] graduate schools have an important part to play in preparing PhD candidates for the [non-academic] labour market. Skills that candidates need there should be explicitly part of the PhD trajectory.

If you are a PhD candidate or holder and you are looking at your career with insecurity, doubt, or perhaps with fear and hopeless pessimism, I would offer you this piece of advice. To my mind, the key answer is the Greek aphorism from the Apollonian oracle at Delphi:

Know Yourself.

Step one is to be conscious of your capacities and the skills you have acquired aside from your specialism during your PhD. Knowing these by heart you are halfway there in finding a job and starting fulfilling career. Step two is to not keep this knowledge to yourself, but to show it to the world as well. Universities and non-academic future employers can help you develop this personal profile through training and mentoring.

While personal role model or mentor can be a tremendous help, I know it can be scary to contact a senior person in your field. You feel vulnerable to open up and discuss your insecurities and weaknesses, especially if this person is professionally close to you. A mentor in your field of expertise is in a position to give practical advise and concrete help, but you don’t know how what you tell about your “shadow side” may impact your future chances. Should you need a safer environment to clarify your qualities, your personal and professional profile, I would be glad to help you as an independent coach to sharpen your vision and provide you with a mirror.

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