In a recent lecture at ANU, the esteemed research education expert Dr Margaret Kiley claimed that if we set out to design the Australian PhD from scratch we wouldn’t start from here. The PhD assessment (in most cases, a long form thesis), she argued, does not not necessarily develop the full panoply of skills we expect in a working researcher, inside or outside of academia.

One of the clever students in the audience absorbed the implications of Margaret’s lecture straight away and asked:

If that’s the case, what should I spend my time on? At the moment I spend most of my time reading and writing because that’s what I’m being assessed on. Should I be doing more?

The student’s question went right to the heart of an issue that has been frustrating me for some time: many research students are so busy writing their thesis they fail to take advantage of what the PhD experience offers.

We know this because only about 50% of PhD students who register for events at ANU turn up – and I know we are not alone.

During a recent visit to the UK I spent a great deal of time talking to colleagues about how they ensure attendance – some use a ‘three strikes and you are out policy”. I’ve yet to implement this policy, but sometimes, especially when I have trays of sandwiches left over and a catering bill to pay, I’m sorely tempted.

Whenever I think of cracking down on non-attendance I have to remind myself – I made this exact mistake myself. I didn’t really take advantage of all the opportunities I was offered because I was so busy writing. I often reflect on how much I disadvantaged myself with this attitude. I’m doing some research with my friend Dr Rachael Pitt at the moment on the text of job ads for academics. We haven’t published it yet, so I can’t share the findings here, but let me just say it’s a much wider and more interesting skill set than we thought.

This research work has got me thinking: if I was to design a PhD curriculum that prepared me for my working life now, what ‘extras’ would I have included? The list is long, but here’s just a couple of things I would have done differently:

Participated in the three minute thesis competition: they didn’t have this in my day, but how I wish they did. The skills honed by the discipline of explaining your PhD quickly, in plain language, are invaluable and easily transferable. I need to talk in sound bites all the time – impromptu speeches in committee meetings being but one example. You must be precise, persuasive and memorable in order to convince other academics or employers to take up your ideas: if you make them snooze, you will lose.

Attended every seminar, party or mixer event in my faculty that I could possibly manage: I’ll admit, I sometimes used family duties as an excuse to avoid these, especially if the topic wasn’t interesting. I now spend half my professional life at some kind of social event or function, regardless of whether it’s interesting or not. That’s what academic life is like: you can’t just turn up whenever you feel like it. Being present is important – it shows people you care about them and builds relationships.

Picked a PhD topic that played to my weaknesses, not my strengths: I did pick a conceptually difficult topic, but I made sure to do it in a way that aligned with my interests and existing technical skills. I realise not all PhD students have the luxury of designing their own project and I actually envy those people now. I often get bored, frustrated or otherwise blocked with my professional research work. Learning to stick with the hard things and stretch myself would have stood me in good stead, not to mention all the extra skills I would have been forced to learn.

Attended every technical training session on offer, even if wasn’t immediately useful: I had the chance to do an Nvivo course worth about $3000 during my PhD – for free. I didn’t take it up because it was for transcripts, not film data (studying gesture remember?). Now I want to go back and slap past self upside the head for such short-sighted thinking. I should have found a way to use it, if just for my literature review, because I have never had the time since to go back and learn it properly. Likewise Excel and even MS Word. I learned all those programs ‘on the job’, like most people do. When I meet the occasional person who is properly trained, and see how quickly they can solve problems, I suffer pangs of regret.

Done more workshops on ‘non research’ things: I only attended the first session of the Melbourne University course “crafting a professional identity” because the next two days I wanted to ‘catch up on writing’. I regret this now. Managing people’s impressions of you, online and offline, is one of the most important factors in getting ahead in academia. The blog is excellent bang for buck in these stakes: I would have been writing papers till I was 60 years old and not have come to the attention of the right people to help me with my career. That three hour session laid the foundations for the blog, even though I didn’t realise it at the time – I wonder what other opportunities I missed out on by being ‘too busy writing’?

What I didn’t realise all those times I was ‘too busy writing’ was that doing a PhD is one of those extremely rare opportunities in a busy adult life you get to concentrate on your own professional development. Consistently placing writing above other kinds of PhD activity is undergraduate thinking. I thought assessment happened when examiners read my thesis.

But the real assessment happens when someone reads your CV.

The mistake is a natural one if you think about it. By concentrating on writing the thesis I was employing a strategy that worked many times before. But if my subsequent experience is anything to go by, in a job interview no one will ask you what your examiners thought about your PhD, or even how long it took. And why should they? A PhD is a pass/fail proposition remember?

Prospective employers might be interested (vaguely) in what your PhD was about, where you got it from, or who your supervisor was, but they will want to know the answers to other, more pressing, questions such as:

  • Can you teach big classes?
  • Can you manage multiple, conflicting demands on your time? (those of you who are full time students need to think about this one carefully. A PhD on its own might not really be considered evidence of this ability).
  • Do you know how to use [insert particular instrument, software or method]?
  • Have you had any experience with managing people, or a budget?
  • Are you a productive, effective committee member?
  • Do you know the basics of performance or risk management?
  • Have you shown evidence of contributing to your professional community in some concrete way? (reviewing, journal boards, conference organisation etc)
  • Have you collaborated with people in your field? (ie: can you work with others to bring in the big grants?).

If you are not prepping to answer for these questions at the same time that you are writing your PhD you could be in trouble. So I’ll leave you with a couple of questions to mull over:

  • What are you doing now that will help you answer those prospective employer questions?
  • Without putting your PhD timeline at risk, are there things you could be doing now that would lead to a better, more rounded CV?

Love to hear your thoughts in the comments.