Thursday, May 14, 2015

How Academics Talk to PhD Students About Their Future Matters

English: Oxford University DPhil graduand, wea...
Oxford University DPhil graduand (Wikipedia)
by Nick Hopwood:

I am delighted to post this guest piece, written by Kim Goodwin @KimAroundTown

It has made me think about how we welcome and orient research students. There are challenging realities we have to confront, but the way we introduce these can deflate, disempower and suggest we have low expectations of students. Or we can try to build a sense of opportunity, agency and possibility.

So over to Kim:

Recently I interviewed a successful creative practitioner who had entered university as a mature age student. At the commencement of his course the welcoming academic stood in front of the 100 strong class and said “only two or three of you will have a career in this industry.”

This did not sit well with the practitioner, who admitted to me he never warmed to the academic. The following year, out of interest, the practitioner returned again to the first year welcome and heard a different speaker, the head of school, say “at the end of this degree you will have a myriad of different career options that come from the skills your will learn here.” Needless to say this was received much more favorably.

To be fair both of the welcoming speakers likely had the same underlying message, that to be a creative practitioner today is a challenge and many will work in different fields from the one they originally planned. Yet the language chosen made all the difference.

One signaled the slamming of the door of opportunity, before he even had a chance to peak over the threshold, while the other spoke of a tantalising future that that awaited if he just pushed the door open. Nearly ten years after he started university, now successful in his chosen field, those words remained as a pivotal moment in the practitioner’s career journey.

This had me thinking about my welcome to what I call #PhDlife. On one hand it was impressed on us that a PhD was the beginning of a new career (as opposed to the end of our student days), we were embarking on a type of ‘researcher graduate program.’

On the other hand we were told that we would lose half our friends, our health would suffer, we’d put on 20 kilos, our marriages or relationships would falter and we should plan to see a psychiatrist. Most importantly we were advised, on more than one occasion, that most of us would not have an academic career, regardless of publication record.

Like my interview subject these words have stuck with me over the past 18 months. PhD candidates are a relatively savvy bunch, we understand academic opportunities are slim and hard to get, while we also understand the labour market and the valuable skills we accrue through our research.

But to tell us that most of us will not succeed in working in an area many aspire to creates a feeling of hopelessness right from the start. Worse, we may start to look at those working in similar areas to ours as potential competitors for those covetable academic positions instead of possible collaborators in the disciplinary conversation to which we want to contribute.

As we all know for many undertaking a PhD is a challenging exercise, emotionally, physically along with intellectually. Learning to cope with peer feedback, rejection, staying motivated and establishing and achieving long-term goals requires discipline, a strong self of self and resilience.

We ask that those guiding us through the PhD process choose your words wisely, not shielding us from the realities of the world post #PhDLife, but helping to enlarge our field of vision to see all the opportunities that await us.

Kim Goodwin @KimAroundTown

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