Career Options for New PhDs

In article by Clarie Arnold in the Guardian today:

In the past, when academics looked at their career progression, there were clear cut stages of development. An individual who is intelligent, hard working, and got along with their colleagues, would work through those stages: starting with a PhD and moving into post-doctoral work. They would then move into teaching and lecturing, with the ultimate aim of becoming a professor with a research team of their own. While the career path is no longer that straightforward, there are still options for those who are committed to a career in academia.

That’s interesting enough, but not particularly insightful. According to Arnold there are two career paths: fame and higher management.

First, fame:

One way is to embrace and pursue a career as a global researcher, operating in an international context. In order to achieve this, it is necessary to be the absolute leader in your field. The global research market is very competitive, so for an academic unable to compete in an international arena, this may not be the best option.

You could be TV famous, too:

For those who are building an international reputation, there is also the option of becoming a television or ‘media don’ – an intellectual who is active in the public eye. These individuals not only need to be leaders in their field, but must get to a stage where they become a “brand” in their own right.

Or you could go into management:

One feasible career move is to cross over into higher education management and consider roles such as dean or vice-chancellor, which were traditionally the preserve of academics nearing the end of their career.

Let’s unpack here.

In an environment where there are fewer ‘traditional’ academic jobs, the career paths recommended by Arnold are even more scarce, higher pressure and require vastly more time and resources. And, in the past at least, have required starting from the base of a traditional, secure, academic position. How a new PhD graduate with little research experience, few publications and no established management track record can become internationally renowned or allowed to manage an organisation the size and complexity of a university is clearly left as an exercise to the motivated reader.

Back in the day, if someone posted something to a newsgroup that was outrageous but presented with a veneer of sense, we’d call that a troll. Once a few people had taken the bait and responded with outrage, the OP would gleefully post: YHBT. YHL. HAND. I keep refreshing the page at the Guardian, but I don’t see that yet, which can only mean one far more distressing thing: Ms Arnold, a management consultant who “specialises in organisational strategy, change management and leadership development for higher education” is serious.

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5 thoughts on “Career Options for New PhDs

  1. Gah! Surely it’s almost impossible to become a famous intellectual without being a good academic first, requiring years of work with international collaborators, etc. Unless they’re engaged in science communication or science education, I can’t see anyone becoming a world famous scientist from such a low base of output. We all (at least on the internet) know who Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson are but they were accomplished astrophysicists/cosmologists before they became famous as science educators/communicators. Bill Nye’s a little different, as he’s a massive nerd who got into performing. I don’t know that we can expect PhD graduates to become actors in order to get work. There’s an overlap (Joel Gilmore of Brisbane’s Impro Mafia (the group I’m involved with (nested brackets lol)) works in renewable energy research) for sure but it’s very hard to be Adam Spencer or Karl Kruszelnicki let alone Bill Nye.

    As for management? Way to kill your career. Maybe taking a spot on some faculty commitees to do with teaching and learning, but you don’t get made Head of School at the age of 35 after publishing ten papers. And if you do, you won’t be spending your time doing any research, so when you get sick of it at the age of 40-45 and are looking to get back into actual academic work you’ll have a handful of papers from ten years ago on your CV. Do universities hire researchers based on their capacity to restructure a minor pathway of study in a generic undergraduate course?

  2. I think Ms Arnold is getting mixed up between the role and the pathway. You can specialise in research that is international, and maybe in 20 years you will have an international reputation and “be a brand in your own right”. I know a couple of people who have done this. Or, you can start getting involved in management and in ten years become a head of department, then maybe be a Dean or Director of a service unit, and then set your sights on senior management. But you won’t get there in less than 20 years. And it’s still academia. And, of course, most people in this world don’t get to ‘the top’ (duh – it’s a pyramid), and don’t want to. They want a satisfying, interesting job, and maybe it will build into a satisfying interesting career. Over time.

    There are many other options in Australia for people with PhDs – if you want to work for a company you could eventually run Telstra like Ziggy Switkowski. Or go into the public service and become the Head of a government department. Industry takes up a lot of technical PhDs and the arts and media take a lot of humanities people. Many mature PhDs (which is about 40% of Australian graduates) return to their earlier profession in a different position. This isn’t the case in the US or Canada, where a PhD is considered only useful for an academic career and most people doing it are young and fresh from their undergraduate degree.

  3. Pingback: 18th September 2012: Career Opportunities | Alex Burns

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