PhD career capital


My sister is fond of reminding me that, in 1992, after returning from my first overseas trip to Europe, I told her I wanted a career where I could “get on and off planes and talk to people for a living”. It’s appropriate then, that I write this post while flying high above the red centre of Australia on my way back to chilly Canberra from tropical Darwin.

In the getting-on-and-off-planes-and-talking-to-people business, expectation management is crucial. Sometimes people ask me to do a one hour talk on:

  • How you got so ‘big’ on social media
  • What PhD students should do to be successful
  • What you’re researching right now

Of course, any one of those topics is a talk on its own – maybe even a course. In the past, I’ve tried to cover all three and just left everyone feeling confused. Now I spend time talking to my prospective hosts about exactly who is in the audience, what stage of the PhD process they are at and what I can offer them from my repertoire.

Delightfully, the Darwin hosts gave me an open invitation to come up to the tropics for a few days and talk on whatever topic took my fancy. However, they were immediately wary of the topic I suggested: academic employment prospects for PhD graduates.

“It won’t be too depressing, will it?”, they asked anxiously.
After a long pause I replied: “I’ll try to be upbeat.”

Look. There’s no getting around it. Talking about career prospects in academia, especially in Australia, can be depressing. I did my best to do an upbeat, yet informative and pragmatic talk about building an academic career. At the end I invited PhD students to come and talk to me, one on one, about their own career plans. I get most of my good ideas for blog posts from these conversations with PhD students, which are the very best part of any speaking gig. But in this case I had an ulterior motive.

Last year, with my excellent research collaborators Will Grant and Hanna Suominen, I helped design and develop a machine learning natural language processing algorithm (ML-NLP) that can ‘read’ job advertisements. I’ll call what we made ‘The Machine’ for simplicity’s sake (and because it’s kind of cool). The Machine can sort job advertisements along a spectrum of research skill intensity and display the results. The purpose of The Machine was to report to the government the demand for research skills amongst Australian employers.

Most employers are not familiar with the skills of PhD graduates as, until relatively recently, there’s been so few of them. As a consequence, most employers who are clearly looking for PhD level research skills do not list PhD as a qualification. The machine can see where an employer wanted a PhD graduate, but didn’t know it and can sort a huge data set much more effectively than a human and show us where the ‘hidden’ jobs for PhD students are outside academia.

We found lots of interesting things with our Machine, which I can’t tell you yet because we are still finalising our initial report and papers. However, the project has already moved on to a new and even more exciting stage. We’ve been given the opportunity to build a product, with the ultimate aim of (hopefully) providing a free, or at least very low cost, advice to PhD graduates who are seeking to work outside of academia – some 60% of you and rising.

As part of the ‘customer validation process’ I aim to talk to at least 100 PhD students and recent PhD graduates about what they are doing to further their career goals. In Darwin I took the opportunity to continue the talks I started with PhD students at ANU. These interviews are fascinating and are turning upside down some of my preconceptions about the way PhD students go about career building.

I expected PhD students to be confused, but some are confused about which of the amazing options available is the best one to take. Other people I’ve spoken to feel their options are very limited. Age, disciplinary specialty and caring responsibilities can restrict career options, but this seems to happen less than I thought. I expected PhD students to be anxious and worried about the uncertainty surrounding this next stage of their career. Many, perhaps the majority, of people I have spoken to so far are very worried, but  there are a small proportion who are not. While some of them freely admitted to being in denial, there are PhD students out there who don’t have the foggiest idea of what to do next, but are genuinely relaxed, even excited, by the uncertainty of it all.

Relaxed and excited by financial uncertainty? How can this be?

As a life-long Worrier, I find this lack of stressing about the future admirable. Worry About What Is Next consumed most of my PhD time and was part of the reason I rushed through it. While I’m happy to dwell in uncertainty in my research, I don’t like uncertainty about income. I grew up in a household with constant money troubles, which was, frankly, traumatising. The PhD was a time of tight rations in the Mewburn household and brought some of these unpleasant feelings back. Sometimes the uncertainty of What Comes Next made it hard to concentrate, so I went into a kind of denial. There were many days I felt like I was walking on a tightrope, just concentrating on getting the PhD done, too scared to look down or think too much about the future.

I’m starting to wonder: what separates those students who are consumed with anxiety from those who aren’t? I think the answer lies in what the unworried do.

To help me unpack this, on the long plane flights to and from Darwin, I re-read part of one of my favourite books on career building: So Good They Can’t Ignore You, by Cal Newport. If you are wondering about how to build a post PhD career and haven’t yet read this book, you really should.

Newport’s book is aimed at unsettling what he calls the myth of passion based career advice. Don’t follow your dream  he says: passion follows skill, not the other way around. Newport’s basic point is that happiness in a job is a combination of freedom, mastery and connection. If you are great at what you do (mastery), you are likely to have more autonomy (freedom) and the last is obvious (it only takes one bully to ruin your working life).

The best part of the book is where Newport discusses the concept of career capital. Most great jobs, he argues, require skills that are both rare and valuable. If you have rare and valuable skills, you will have a good stock of career capital and always be in hot demand.

This started me thinking about my own career capital. My biggest ‘asset’ is this blog actually – it demonstrates my expertise to a large network of people on a regular basis. Being known as a good communicator is a clear asset in academia, but I need to be more than just a blogger. Many people can write well, but I can write fast. I honed this skill over a period of more than ten years, basically just by reading books, teaching writing to PhD and writing a lot – on the blog and elsewhere. I also have some solid skills in analysis. Many people can analyse and interpret qualitative data, but most seem to do it without using software tools. By knuckling down and learning these tools – the latest of which is machine learning – I can tackle complex projects in short time frames. Being fast is vital because, as Newport points out, there is always a ‘cloud of other expectations’ in academia, just waiting to rain on your research parade.

To develop skills that are rare and valuable, Newport argues, you must be prepared to take a ‘craftsmanlike approach’ to your work. This involves spending time to get really good at your craft by stretching yourself, just a little bit, all the time. The aim of all this practice is to get so good they can’t ignore you. Newport gives many interesting examples of craftsperson-like approaches to work (I hate that making this term non-gendered makes it awkward, but the patriarchy oppresses us all). The examples he gives are mostly male, but they are varied: from banjo playing to making computers, so I’ll give him props for range.

What I am beginning to see in all the people who are genuinely excited about the uncertainty of their PhD future is a commitment to their academic craft – whatever that might be. They talk about writing papers to learn the tricks of academic publishing. They seek out opportunities to teach. They go to conferences and watch other people speak, so they can learn how to be good at presenting. They talk about just loving a technique, or approach to research – after working hard for years and years to master it. The attitude is ‘work the skills, the rest will follow’.

I wish I could go back and tell PhD Inger this. I did work skills and indeed, the rest did follow. If I didn’t end up in academia, I’m sure those rare and valuable skills would have found a home somewhere else.

This is clearly a kind of mindful practice involved in this craftsperson’s attitude – a willingness to be in the moment and stay with the struggle of learning a rare and difficult skill. Worry can make concentrating difficult, so maybe this is a way through for those of you who, like myself, fret about the What’s Next. Ask yourself: What rare and valuable skills can I develop? Look around you: what is the work that most people avoid? People avoid hard things. Get good at the hard things – you’re very clever, so this will be easier for you than for many people.

I’m looking forward to sharing more about our ongoing research and development soon. I’d love to speak to you if you are willing to share with me your own approach to your post-academic career. You can send me an email at [email protected]. I’d love to talk to people of all stages – including people who have graduated and are looking for work, but I’ll leave you with a few questions to see if we can have a conversation here too:

What is your career capital? The valuable and rare skills you have developed up to and including your PhD. How do they make you so good they can’t ignore you? Are you

Is your career capital transferable to another kind of job outside of academia? If so, have you worked out what that job might be?