What’s your edge?


\"\"The other day I was reading a paper called “The crisis in Doctoral education: a sociological analysis” by Gavin Kendall which talks about how doctoral education has come to be seen as being in a perpetual state of crisis – even if this is not strictly true.

Debate flies thick and fast in the literature about the purpose of the PhD, whether it achieves this end and if we are going about it in the right way within our various universities. However, very little of this debate is based in anything like hard data.

Regardless of scant facts we have about the working lives of doctoral graduates, the great doctoral debate has spilled over into the mainstream press. Take as just one example this one from The Economist called ‘Doctoral degrees: the disposable academic”. These articles about the parlous state of the academic job market are naturally depressing for anyone doing a PhD. Yet, Kendall points out that this crisis narrative around the doctorate tends to obscure one important point: the unemployment rate of doctoral graduates is actually very low.

Kendell quotes it at 2%, but this is based on data from 1999. The newest, clean set of data I have is from the 2004 Australian Graduate destination survey (you have to pay for this data, so I don’t have the more recent version). Although this data is old, I’m given to understand that there has not been dramatic shifts in the overall picture since then.

10 years ago, only 8% of research degree graduates were ‘unemployed’ although 23% were seeking other work. 60% of graduates reported themselves as being employed in some capacity. You can see on the pie chart above where they were working: 41% are employed in public education, which accounts for universities, but of these only 26% were employed in academic capacity. Bear in mind that this is one data point, gathered 6 – 12 months after completion. We don’t really have much idea what happens after that, at least at a national scale.

Even if the unemployed figure is higher than the 2% that Kendall quotes, the basic point he makes is sound. If the aim of the doctorate is to produce gainfully employed graduates (you could debate this point, but I wont just for the moment), the overwhelming majority are gainfully employed in some capacity. But, as Kendall points out, doctoral candidates are highly literate and skilled individuals before they even start a doctoral degree. We should not be surprised they are working.


What isn’t shown in this data, however, is whether people are doing work they want to do, or if they have as much work as they would like. but I suspect many are working in other fields, in the so called ‘alt academic’ track or under-employed as casuals. This, I believe, is where the true angst amongst PhD students about the employment market lies. Many people are aware they will not get a job doing exactly what they want to be doing.

If your aim is to be a scholar of medieval history, for example, there is a vanishingly small chance you will actually achieve this aim. Most of us will have to do work that is only indirectly (if at all) related to our PhD topic – but is that such a bad thing? As my twin sister, @anitranot, is fond of saying “when we went to uni, our jobs were not invented yet”. This is literally true, at least for me, my sister Anitra, my brother in law Mark and many other people I know.

My sister studied to be a graphic designer, then became a manager of an art department in a large software development company, then a program manager in a graphic design school with around 40 teaching staff and thousands of students. This all sounds ordinary, until I tell you that the academic program Anitra manages has no classrooms, corridors, bathrooms or any of the other paraphenalia we associate with academia.

Anitra works for the Academy of Art, which will be familiar to anyone who lives in San Francisco as they seem to own much of the downtown area. While the there is a face to face graphic design program located on the SF campus, Anitra runs the cyber campus which has thousands of paying students, located all around the world, from Brazil to outer Mongolia. This totally online graphic design program turns over millions of dollars a year – but you probably have never heard of it (yet one example of the ‘hidden job market’).

Anitra herself works from a study in her house in Melbourne Australia, as does her husband, Mark Nottingham. Mark negotiates internet standards for Akamai, a large company located in Silicon valley which does, amongst other things, cloud computing. Both of them work ‘in’ the United States, just like I work ‘in’ Canberra but live in Melbourne, 512kms south.

Thanks to the internet, location just isn’t what it used to be.

Anitra studied graphic design. Her career trajectory is explainable by shifts in technology, but Mark and I are a little different. I studied to be an architect and Mark studied to be a photo journalist. Fast forward 20 years and I am a research educator and Mark flies around the world making sure the internet works properly (you’re welcome). Both of us are happy in our new careers.

As Cal Newport says in his fantastic book “So good they can’t ignore you”, passion follows skill. While we are told as young people that we should ‘live the dream that is you’ and follow our passions towards a dream job, Newport argues precisely the opposite: the more skilled you get, he contends, the more you will come to enjoy your work.

I would encourage down hearted doctoral students to give this idea some serious thought.

I am fond of saying to anyone who will listen: “no one wakes up one day and says I want to be a research educator“. I certainly didn’t plan to be a Thesis Whisperer. Like many of my other colleagues, I ended up here by accident. I say ‘accidentally’ because I think the only reason I got my first job in research education was that I could use Blackboard, RMIT University’s learning management system.

I didn’t love Blackboard, but I liked the conversations with students I had there. I became interested in online education and technology, which eventually led me to blogging and well … here I am. Passion follows skill. I love my career and can’t imagine doing anything else, but I can imagine doing it other places. I try to remember that my career is what I do; my job is what I’m paid to do.

You’re probably wondering what point I am trying to make. Well, in order for passion to follow skill you need to create the opportunity and space for it to happen. One way you can do this is to concentrate on your ‘unique selling proposition’.

According to wikipedia, in marketing parlance a unique selling proposition (USP) means you must convince the customer: “Buy this product, for this specific benefit.” I believe that you have more chance in that competitive academic job market if you sometimes run in the opposite direction to the crowd.

If everyone else is concentrating on understanding and articulating the finer points of Derrida and making heady theoretical arguments, go and get some statistical training. Work out how to use a pivot table (they are amazing), then come back and see if you can apply the pivot table skills to a problem in your field.

Likewise it is well known that many people are attracted to science because they don’t like writing. So why not concentrate during your PhD on developing your skills in writing? Get really good at it – specifically, get fast at it (this is possible – a matter of the right kind of practice). Get so good and so fast at writing that people want you on their team because your writing is your USP.

In short: become known for doing something that not many other people in your field can do. This is your edge. Use it and be open to where these skills might take you (you might not have any idea where that is yet, but have faith). To make best use of your USP you have to find ways to tell the right people exactly how good you are… but that’s a post for another time.

So I will leave you with this question: What is your edge? do you know your USPs? Can you talk about them confidently? If you don’t know them yet, what is everyone else doing and how can you be different? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments.