Tag Archives: Academia

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

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I’m still here

It’s been a tumultuous year. I’ve discussed some of this before, but 10 months out I’ve some more perspective. Here goes nothing.

In January, I took an intermission from my PhD to travel overseas with a family member with a chronic health condition to assist them in helping another sick family member. I spent three months there. In those three months I did not work on or even think about my PhD. I didn’t have the time!

It took those three months just focusing on the day to day, removed from the world of academia to finally process what I had begun to realise in the the third year of my PhD; I wanted out of academia. It was a scary and a liberating realisation. It was liberating to decide that I wanted out because I could get off the merry-go-round of publish or perish and extra-curricula commitments designed to make me a competitive candidate for academia. Instead, I could focus on finishing my Clinical PhD and pursuing clinical work both therapy and assessments full-time rather than predominantly assessment work part-time as I had previously intended.

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I took some more time off when I returned home to recuperate from all the care-taking I had been doing. Then I began to consider how equipped I was for my new game plan. I had some concerns. Across the placements I’d completed and my research, I’d gained considerable experience with diagnostic and assessment work and good grounding in therapy for supporting children and their families. However, I had relatively less experience providing therapy to adults.  I felt that I had not yet had enough experience with adult therapy to rule this sort of work in or out, and that I could do with more exposure working with this population in an in-patient clinic setting to complement my previous experience in  community based psycho-social rehab work.

I voiced my concerns to someone in the department and was offered an extra placement that would give me the chance to support people with some of the most complex difficulties you can encounter as a psychologist and give me a greater breadth and depth of experience. The catch? The placement would clearly be very challenging, involved a very long commute and would finish just three months before my thesis was due. The placement was exactly what I needed, but the timing was awful. What did I do? I took the opportunity anyway.

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I’ve since started the placement and it was a good move. The challenges the clients who attend the clinic present with are complex but the supervision is excellent and I’m learning so much. Thankfully the commute is a little quicker than anticipated too. The work is also less difficult than I anticipated too.

As for the impact on my research, I can’t deny that there has been an effect. I’ve not written a thing towards my thesis, but data collection is getting there, slowly. So I just remind myself to do what I can and be kind to myself. It’s bittersweet watching my cohort enter the final weeks before they submit, knowing they will soon be gone and I will still be here. But next year, that will be me too: thesis submitted, job applications in, freedom awaiting.

This past year and my clinical work has reminded me of a favourite maxim of mine that I would like to share with you:

Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.

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Intermission

By the end of my intermission I’ll have been absent from my PhD for 5 months. Five months are a long time to be MIA from your PhD. When I return, I’ll have to get acquainted with my research, get my head round all the changes in my department and at the same time start the last year of my PhD. It’s all a bit daunting.

I think what scares me the most though, is that I’ve decided that I don’t want to go into academia any more. Don’t get me wrong, I love research; the intellectual challenge and the reward of finding out something new, especially when it has practical applications for helping other people. I was always one of those people who was 100% confident from the beginning that I wanted to be an academic. At university I found “my people,” made lifelong friends and had some fantastic opportunities along the way.  However, I’ve come to the gradual realisation that my priorities: family, friends, being healthy, having job security and enjoying the small things in life, are just not compatible with the path to success in academia. For me, it would mean post-doc hopping around the world on minimal pay for years while clocking the inevitable 50-hour (or more) work week in a highly competitive industry with the odds firmly stacked against me ever gaining a permanent job. I have a lot of respect for the people working within academia or aspiring to work in academia, and acknowledge that it is possible to make it all work, but I now know that it’s just not the path for me any more. I don’t regret doing a PhD and fully intend to complete mine, but I don’t plan to apply the skills I have learned within this degree in a traditional academic environment any more.   It has taken a little while, but I’m genuinely okay with this realisation.

I’ve been working on the ‘what next’ for a little while now. It’s still terrifying but not as overwhelming. At the moment, I’m toying with the idea of working as a part-time psychologist and part-time consultant, perhaps to some disorder or disability orientated organisation. Ideally, the consultant role would involve some research, perhaps developing and evaluating therapy programs. Alternatively, I’ll work part-time as a psychologist and part-time in another field drawing upon my media, communication and generic research skills. Who knows? That’s what I’ve got to work out now and that too is daunting. Which doors do I close? How? When? Who I can talk to about this? Who can offer me guidance about my options and how to proceed? And the more immediate question, what does “being a PhD student” look like for me now when the path I’ve been prepared for, is not the path I’m taking? IMG_1907

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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.

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So, what do you do?

You’re making small talk with a stranger and then it happens, they ask the dreaded question: “what do you do?” Most people aren’t fazed to be told that you’re a PhD student, as they shouldn’t be. However, while I’ve had mostly positive reactions, there have been some unpleasant exceptions and I’m sure I’m not alone. Have you ever had someone assume you have no practical skills, were a ‘professional student’  or completely unapproachable?

Sometimes your field of research can make things ‘worse’ when explaining what you do. Imagine for example how conversation might screech to a halt when you tell someone you’re doing a PhD and training to become a psychologist. Cue the panicked looks and chirping crickets if the person you’re talking to has a very stereotypical view!!

I wonder whether negative reactions we sometimes encounter about our careers might be our fault. In academia, we tend to promote our ideas but not so much the profession. Like many undergraduates, I’d thought that the role of an academic was to impart knowledge through lectures. It wasn’t until my honours year that I truly appreciated that for many academics, in addition to teaching, research was a huge part of their workload; not to mention supervising postgraduate students, managerial roles, committees  and general admin.

Equally, psychology is sometimes misunderstood – despite what pop culture tells us, I’ve never psycho-analysed anybody, read minds or interpreted dreams! I suppose that for both psychology and academia what we actually do and what people think we do, may not align.

What can we do then to bust the myths? There are various professionals and researchers blogging about what they do and breaking down the mystery and stereotypes. I also wonder whether it might be better to say what we actually do from the outset, rather than labelling ourselves PhD students or psychologists in training. For example, I might say that I work with people, trying to get a better understanding of their challenges, how we can work together to develop skills to overcome them and that throughout this process I’m guided by current understanding which I use to devise and test out new ideas, sharing what I’ve found with others. This explanation seems more informative than “I’m a PhD student and a psychologist in training” and more accurate than some of the stereotypes.

I’d be interested to hear your perspective. Have you ever had a negative reaction from others about your field, being a PhD student or an academic? What do you do about it? How have you seen ‘myth busting’ in practice?

~ Honourable Mentions ~

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