Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Taking a PhD into the real world

Here in Canberra, the “Science meets Parliament” event is running.  I am not attending- the luminaries and power players can do their thing, but out on the wrong side of the tracks, our factory needs to keep putting lasers on sharks for the good of the economy.  Luckily, some of the scientists there have taken to twitter, so snippets and thoughts are able to escape.  Given that engagement is one of the things on their agenda, I thought I would chime in.

One of the topics mentioned was non-academic careers for recently graduated science PhD holders.  As someone who has worked in academia, industry, and government since graduating a long long time ago, I figured I’d take the opportunity to chime in with my two cents.  Note, however, that this is only 0.000022% of the attendance fee for the event, so discount this advice accordingly.

As a result of the deprofessionalization of science, there are no longer copious private sector basic research jobs for scientists to graduate into.  They do still exist, but not nearly in the numbers required to take all the PhD students who are excess to the requirements of the academic machine. 

The other problem with this retreat by science into the ivory towers of academia is that people in the real world- including employers- are less likely to really understand what scientists do, and what specifically a PhD graduate has to offer.

When a person leaves university with their PhD in hand, they generally have three things:  A tacky outfit (gown, hat, etc), a body of in-depth knowledge that makes them the world expert in a very small field of study, and the ability to do research.  Only the third of these is a salable skill, except in extraordinary conditions. This puts students leaving academia in a very different boat than those continuing on to a post-doc, where expanding or leveraging your field of PhD study (the second thing) is standard practice.

As a result, PhD-holding job seekers can be a bit disoriented.  This leads to all sorts of sad situations, including those where graduates leave their degrees off of their CV’s in hopes that this makes them more employable.  However, this is a suboptimal solution.

Furthermore, being able to figure things out which aren’t known is a really useful skill in a variety of situations.  Even with Wikipedia in our phones, understanding basic derivations lets us estimate things faster than fingers can tap screens. It lets us solve problems that may not have ready solutions published in a publically available place; it lets us adapt to changing circumstances where the underlying issues are constant, but the specific combinations of problems is changing in a way that makes simply looking up a solution impossible.  Being able to figure out how the world works is a useful, marketable skill, but to be valuable to us we need to make sure that we don’t devalue it.

There are a few things that scientists entering the normal workforce need to remember.  Firstly, in private enterprise, time is money.  There is a bad habit in poorly supervised PhD programs to devalue a student’s time- basically tell them to take however long it takes them to do some particular task.  In private enterprise, where the accountants will be tracking your billable hours and balancing project budgets, it is very important to use time effectively.  Ask for help, communicate with your colleagues, copy what your predecessor did; all of these things are preferable to spending a week proving that you can independently derive shit. 

The corollary to this point is that you need to value your time, and make your employer and clients value it as well.  Earning a PhD takes years of study and effort- an outlay similar to becoming a doctor or a lawyer as a postgraduate course of study. Business people generally assume that things are- to some extent- worth what they cost; a person who charges himself out at marginally more than grad school rates will give the impression that he has little to offer.

Of course, the academic meatgrinder doesn’t want any of this to happen.  As long as academia thinks of PhD programs as molds for the next generation of instructors to be injected into, it will try to make them as cheap as possible.  This is why PhD graduate supply is high, demand is low, and employment tactics like adjuncting place downward pressure on wages and conditions.  Universities don’t want PhD’s to succeed; that will cost them money down the road.

Luckily, those of us in the Earth Sciences are in a position where, at least in Australia, there are plenty of other opportunities around.  Impoverishing your students only makes sense if you plan on eventually hiring them; if most of them are destined for careers outside of academia, then an academic institution gets the most benefit by having graduates get rich enough that they want to give money back to their schools. If enough scientists become professionals of some description or another, then the schools will eventually think of use as being more like lawyers than English majors, catch on, and put some effort into professional development of research students.  Until then, though, it is up to us to help each other.


Anonymous said...

Good thoughts. One challenge is convincing post-grads themselves that not everyone will become a Professor and they need to think about life outside of academia. Several years ago I was in a lecture hall packed with post-grads where a Dean of Research very bluntly told everyone that none of us would ever get tenure because it was becoming an extinct concept. I believed him and took a chance to get the hell out, but most of my colleagues that day kept believing that somehow, if they just wrote another paper or three that semester or picked up another lecturing gig at half-pay they would one day be the lucky one to get the golden chair in the ivory tower when Professor Nearly Dead White Guy finally retired.

There was some professional development tentatively creeping in toward the end of my academic time and it would interesting to know if that is a more fixed part of the curriculum now. I would suspect that, like many large tradition-based organisations, it has been slow going because the new ideas and training gets thrown on the bottom of the pyramid in an ad-hoc take-it-or-leave-it kind of way rather than where it's really needed at the top. Hard to get traction with professional development if after a few days you return to your desk and your supervisor and their peers aren't the slightest bit interested in what you've learnt...

Chuck Magee said...

The fundamental problem is that many academics have little respect for industry workers, and many industry managers have little respect for academics, so they spend too much time sneering at each other to maximize their shared untility.