Category Archives: postgraduate applications

Contemplating a PhD? Please read this.

My university allows high school students to shadow academic staff for their work experience. I think it’s a great idea. It got me to thinking though, what do they or anyone contemplating entering academia, need to know? Here’s my two cents.

The fundamental thing anyone contemplating academia needs to know is that there are many, many, many more PhD students than there are academic jobs. Stats vary, but only about 40 to 50 percent of the people who complete a PhD will actually get a job in academia. The few who manage to secure a job, almost always have to travel interstate or overseas to do so.

From my own observations, the few who break into academia have this in common:

  1. A lot of first-author publications, usually in high impact journals (essential).
  2. An ‘in’ with a research group – perhaps they did a mini-post-doc during their PhD at another lab or, secured a highly  prestigious scholarship often used to cherry-pick future employees (advantageous)
  3. Teaching experience (advantageous)
  4. Conference presentations, media coverage of one’s research, involvement with research organisations in the field (advantageous)
  5. Industry skills.  Many of the psych PhD’s I know who did manage to get an academic job also had a qualification as a psychologist which gave them an edge, particularly for the more applied type post-docs (possibly advantageous)

The more of these boxes you tick, the greater your odds of success BUT, it is entirely possible that you still will not find work in academia.

It is also very important to remember that not finding work in academia often has very little to do with your capacity to be an academic. With so many brilliant people completing PhDs and so little funding, the supply of PhD graduates is just way too high for the demand. So if you are one of the vast majority who have found a career outside of academia (not by choice) know that you  were just as capable as the people who did get in to the ivory tower.

I’m a big fan of being practical. So, given the odds of academic work are so low, what can you do about it?

  1. Choose a project and team that will help you tick those boxes I mentioned. From day one, develop a clear plan about how you and your team (your supervisor, research higher degree support services, uni career counselors, journal club, partner, family, friends) are going to get you ticking off those boxes. That plan will change, and repeatedly. But as they say, a dream without a plan is just a wish.
  2. Make sure you have a solid, viable, ‘Plan B.’ If you take one thing away from reading this post, please, please let it be this!  This is every bit as essential as point #1. The most obvious Plan B though there may be others, is to have a clear and viable pathway into an industry related to your PhD. How? Make connections, do internships, choose an applied project, do a research project proposed by an organisation involved in that industry and/or, do a double degree that will give you an automatic qualification in industry like I did.

I haven’t written this with the intention to scare you.  What I am hoping is that you might go into the decision-making about whether to do a PhD more informed. These issues are discussed far too infrequently in academia, despite their consequences for incoming PhD students.

Anything else to add? Any stories about breaking into industry, in particular?

Honourable Mentions

Leave a comment

Filed under academic culture, career, Clinical Phd, postgraduate applications, Reflections, Research

What the heck is a post-doc?

Before I signed up for a PhD, I did my homework. I wrote three different PhD proposals for three different universities and chatted to PhD students and lecturers about the academic career path. Still, it wasn’t until half way through my first-year that post-docs crossed my radar. At first, post-docs were a mystical phenomenon. Something that people spoke of in awed and sometimes despairing tones. It wasn’t until I attended my first conference that it became clear I had it all wrong.  Post-docs were not the optional extra I’d thought they were, but for most aspiring academics of my generation, a necessary step in pursuing an academic career.

So what the heck is a post-doc?

Post-doc is shorthand for a post-doctoral position. Essentially, this is the first academic position you earn following the submission of your doctoral thesis/dissertation. Job descriptions vary, but generally, a post-doc is a short-term contract or scholarship completed by someone 0-5 years post their PhD. They tend to last two to three years and to be geared towards research though there are exceptions. A post-doc can sometimes be more teaching based, reflect a combination of teaching and research and in psychology at least, clinical work too.

So it’s like doing a second PhD?

Not really. As a post-doc you’ve made the jump to independent researcher. Sure, you’ll have a boss to report to, but the buck stops with you as you devise, manage, complete and publish research projects. Unlike a PhD when we tend to pitch a project and apply for a scholarship, most post-docs will do the reverse, accepting a position offered and funded by the university and often with a set project. In the US post-doc salaries range from approximately 39,000 – 51,000 USD, in the UK £25,000 to £40,000, and in Australia from $60,000 to $82,000. As always though, there are exceptions to the rule and some post-doc candidates will  create these jobs, winning grants and using this money to pitch a post-doc to a university that they would like to work from.

How do I get a post-doc?

Honestly, that’s something I’m still trying to work out. This post just reflects what I’ve worked out so far. From what I can tell, hunting for a post-doc is a highly competitive process with many people having to move state or even overseas to secure a position. What can give you the edge as an applicant also varies widely, though publications seem virtually essential. The other trick seems to be having an ear to the ground about what’s on offer. Post-docs typically aren’t advertised in the local paper but through specialist listings (which are often erratic) and word of mouth etc.

All I know is that I’ve decided that for me it’s challenge accepted. It may be near impossible, but I’m going to do my darndest to put myself in the best position I can to get a post-doc, because as much as I like clinical work, I really can’t picture myself not doing research too. Wish me luck.

Leave a comment

Filed under academic culture, Clinical Phd, Goals, PhD, postgraduate applications, Research

Ten tantalising days: Waiting, waiting and more waiting

I’ve sat my final exam and I’m now on holidays. It hasn’t sunk in yet that my course is finished, it’s surreal. I’ve been enjoying my holidays though. I went to a wedding yesterday and to the beach today with some friends. It was nice to just relax though I’m currently sporting a red nose because I got sunburned, again! Evidently, I’m channelling Rudolph and getting into the Christmas cheer early.
~

In ten days I will find out my Honours result. I’m feeling a mixture of emotions, just thinking about finding out is a little overwhelming. I want to know how I’ve done but at the same time so much hinges on this result… If you can remember what it was like waiting on your year 12 results, you’ll have an inkling of what it’s like for me at the moment. I can either ring up or go in person to uni to find out but I plan to go in. It would feel too weird to find out my final result over the phone.

I’m also awaiting word as to whether I’ve gained an interview for the postgraduate courses I applied for. I’ve heard back from one university already. I wasn’t successful in gaining an interview. Each uni looks for slightly different qualities though, so hopefully one of my other applications will be successful. I’m trying to remain both upbeat and realistic. If I don’t get in anywhere I’ll work on what I need to, to strengthen my application for next year. Until then, I’ll be counting down the days until the 30th and watching the postbox like a hawk. I could hear back from the other universities about whether I have gained an interview any time between now and about the first week in December.
Watch this space.

Leave a comment

Filed under exam, Honours year, postgraduate applications

The Finish Line Part 2: Binding, submission and postgraduate applications

Last minute hiccups are the last thing you want when finalising your thesis. Unfortunately I encountered my fair share. I had reached the stage where all I had left to do was to organise my contents page, appendices and print four copies of my thesis. Simple and stress free, right? Wrong! Microsoft Word 2007, a wireless printer and one particularly troublesome appendix refused to play ball. Thanks to some improvisation and my parents pitching in I managed to get it all sorted out and could have hugged the person who served me at Officeworks when they told me my theses would be bound within half an hour. All that was left to do was go home and tell all my friends the good news!

I walked into uni on the 20th of October grinning like a Cheshire cat. You could spot all the Honours students a mile away by our distinctive grins. I climbed the stairs to the School of Psychology with excitement, knocked on the Honours coordinator’s door and handed in my theses, I had done it! It felt amazing, I simply could not believe it. I found my supervisor to share the good news and the celebrations continued the next day as the Honours students and supervisors met at a local pub to let our hair down. When eleven o’clock came round that night it was clear that the last week had taken its toll on all the students. Most of us had left or were leaving in pursuit of some well earned shut-eye!

A fortnight has now passed but the satisfaction of having handed my thesis still hasn’t worn off. As always though there has been no rest for the wicked. My fellow students and I immediately entered the next stage of feverish preparation, applying for jobs and or postgraduate courses. I fell into the latter category having applied for eight postgraduate PhD, Clinical PhD and Clinical Masters programs. I found three potential supervisors, wrote two research proposals, produced countless synopses of why I wished to apply, detailed my work and voluntary experience and found some kind referees.

I have applied so widely because more than anything I want to continue my studies with psychology. Ideally, I would like to gain a position in a Clinical PhD program (at my current university) so that I can go onto to be involved in both research and practice. The competition is fierce though. On average there are a hundred applicants per course, thirty of these applicants are short-listed for an interview and only seven to ten people will receive an offer. It is a blessing in disguise that I  have an exam to prepare for and that shortly afterwards I will find out my Honours grade and whether I have made it to the interview stage.

My philosophy is to always do my best but expect nothing external to come from it.  This way if anything does, it is a pleasant surprise. By the same token, if nothing arises, I can be satisfied with the knowledge that I have given my best and have no ‘if only’ regrets. I must admit though I am finding it hard to remain so pragmatic about my postgraduate application outcomes, I want that Clinical PhD so badly!! Regardless, if I am not successful I will seek feedback, work on the areas I need to and apply again. All I can do in the interim is throw my energies at the exam, pray and wait…

Leave a comment

Filed under Goals, Honours year, postgraduate applications, thesis