Five suggestions for universal PhD ‘after-care’


One of the things that has become  obvious during lockdown is how much more we might do for PhDers contemplating their futures. If ever there was a time to start something better and more supportive for researchers in our care, now is it.

There’s obviously a need for much better advice and support for making scholarly careers outside of universities as Thesis Whisperer has recently pointed out. But there is also much more that we might do for PhDers who do want an academic career.

I’ve got a few ideas. And this is one of those if-I-was-a-higher-ed-policy-maker-I-would posts. But a couple of caveats before I begin. I am of course writing in a UK context, with some knowledge of other systems, but my wish list is pretty firmly located in my current situation. I also know that the things I am talking about are done in some places by some people, but they are not universal. Universal is important if the PhD experience is to be  equitable.

My premise is that care is a vital social – and pedagogical – value and practice, and that care for students is one of the things that higher education is meant to do. My argument here is a particular one – it’s not all there is to say about institutional care. But I am proposing that care for PhDers needs to go on after the ink on the parchment  is dry.

I’d like to see a much stronger emphasis on what I am going to call “after-care”.  What do I mean by this term? Well, after-care starts before the PhD is completed. And after-care is also beginning-care as the intention is to support the start of an independent academic career.

An underpinning principle of after-care is that it should be led by the goals of the PhDer or post PhDer, and be bespoke to their particular needs and ambitions. After-care is not about someone else deciding what the PhDer or post PhDer needs but is a combination of PhDer led mentoring and support.

Aside from the obvious PhDer teaching experience and internships I’d like to see AT LEAST the following five strategies implemented:

Mentoring during the PhD

  • Each and every final year PhD looking for an academic career should have a mentor who will support them to think strategically about career, publications and networks. The mentor will be able to offer and/or broker some opportunities for the PhDer that will help them make decisions and build their profiles and track records. The mentor may or may not be the supervisor; while many mentors will be supervisors, it may be that other people are better positioned to do particular work for particular PhDers. The mentor might of course work with a small group not just a single PhDer. Either way, after-care mentoring should be seen as proper counted workload.

Mentoring would continue at least until the post PhDer has found a proper job ( not hourly paid, not short term contract).

As well, there needs to be post PhD institutional support. Another caveat here – I’d love this to be a short-term set of suggestions, or better still, four suggested strategies that are not needed at all.  These four propositions are geared to a situation which is unacceptable – namely, that graduating PhDers take ages to find a real job. This is not OK; I support political campaigns against precarious academic work, as I hope you do too. But if the graduation-job gap is here and worsened by institutional responses to the pandemic, then…

The university in which the PhD is completed should provide:

  • Automatic library access for post PhDers while they are looking for proper post PhD work. Too many PhDers are just automatically cut off from university systems when they graduate. And many of them are stony broke when they complete their doctorates and can’t afford to buy books. Lack of access to new and old publications effectively stymies their efforts to continue their work. If the post PhD without proper academic work has library access, then they can publish from their PhDs and keep up to date with scholarly work in their field. And this gives them a better chance of getting a job.
  • Hot desk access. Many PhDers do not have home offices and rely on their university desk, computer and printer. This has become glaringly obvious during the pandemic – people are working on kitchen tables, on laptops while sitting on their bed, and in bathrooms. Being in shared accommodation makes the lack of office space even more acute. Access to university buildings and facilities is a small step to even out the uneven and inequitable serendipity of workspace.
  • Automatic inclusion in institutional information processes – seminars, lectures information about conferences and so on. Keeping in touch with other people as well as what is going on is important post PhD – it is very easy to feel isolated once you are not going into the office everyday.
  • Support for ongoing academic work. Information about where to apply for conference funding as an unemployed PhDer is essential. Even better would be a special fund in each institution, perhaps from alumni contributions, which would support immediate post PhDers without other institutional support to attend conferences to give papers. Regular specialist writing workshops designed to support writing book proposals, first grant applications and journal articles should be available to post PhDers through graduate and writing centres to supplement what mentors do. These workshops should be web-based in order to ensure access to PhDers who have moved away from the university.

And perhaps (2)-(5) might also be offered on a small cost recovery basis to post PhDers who are independent researchers or working outside the academy too.

Already doing this – great? Let’s spread the practice.

Already doing a lot of this but not counted in workload? Sigh. I reckon there’s a lot of that. Let’s make the case.

Got other ideas? Let’s share them.

And let’s try together to make universal PhD after-care a reality.