Out of the ivory towers: How PhD students are training for the real world

Fewer than half of all PhD graduates enter academia, so preparing for the job market has never been more important. Suzanne Lynch finds out about a course that can help
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The Independent Online

Like many PhD students, Martin Griffiths wasn't sure what he wanted to do after his doctorate. It was 2005 and he was coming to the end of a PhD in physics at Liverpool University. "Along with the pressure of finishing up, there was also the worry about what to do next", he says. "Even though I enjoyed my PhD, I wasn't sure about staying in academia, and I wanted to explore other career possibilities. But I just didn't know what options were open to me."

Martin heard about UK GRADschool through his funding body and decided to sign up for a five-day residential course in the Lake District. It turned out to be one of the best decisions he could have made. "Even though at the time I couldn't really afford to take time off at that stage of my PhD, it was well worth me doing it," he says. "It really made me focus on my future and work out what would be my best move, career-wise."

Martin is one of many PhD students who attend UK GRADschools each year. Run by UK GRAD, a national association responsible for supporting the career and personal development of PhD researchers, GRADschools are open to research council-funded PhD students in their second or third year.

The aim of the schools is to help PhD students to identify their transferable skills, and to provide graduate students with training in teamwork, career planning and personal development skills. Schools take place at various venues all over the country, and range in duration from one to five days in length.

But although in theory the intention behind the GRADschools is undoubtedly worthy – to encourage postgrads to tap into their inner talents and abilities – in reality it's easy to be dubious about its merits. The mere mention of terms like "team-building" and "personal development", let alone the prospect of spending a week cooped up with a random group of PhD students, is enough to send many doctorate students running back to the lab.

So are GRADschools just another futile, if well-meaning, attempt to develop "soft" skills, or do they genuinely have something to offer?

Cora Beth Knowles is one former PhD student who was more than a little cynical about GRADschools. She attended a three-day GRADschool in Durham in 2004 while she was doing a PhD in classics at Newcastle University. "Courses like these aren't usually my cup of tea, but when my research council offered me the opportunity to have a few days out from the usual routine of my PhD, I thought, why not?"

When she arrived at Durham, Cora Beth was pleasantly surprised. "I couldn't believe how much I enjoyed the experience," she says. "The course was very well organized. We were divided into groups of 10, and were given mock-interviews, group activities and sessions on CV preparation. It really helped me focus on what career options were open to me."

Cora Beth also enjoyed the opportunity to mix with other PhD students from around the country and from different fields. "As a graduate student in the humanities, PhD life can be quite isolating – at the time I was the only person in my department doing a PhD – so for me, it was a great opportunity to meet PhDs from other fields."

The GRADschool was also a success for Cora Beth in another important respect – she met her future husband there. Michael, a PhD student in electronic engineering at the University of Birmingham was in her GRADschool group; after the GRADschool finished they kept in contact.

But, though you may not be guaranteed to meet your future life partner, one thing you will gain from a GRADschool is the chance to think seriously about your future career.

In today's job climate, that is vital. Less than half of all PhD graduates nowadays enter academia on graduation and it is estimated that only 20 per cent of PhDs will end up with a full-time academic job. This means that PhD students need to become more career-savvy.

"It's easy to become wrapped up in your research during a PhD, and many PhD students can suffer from tunnel vision," says Dr Charlie Ball, labour market analyst with the Higher Education Careers Service Unit (Hecsu) and co-author of the What Do PhD's Do? series.

"But it's worth dedicating time during your PhD to considering your career seriously. In the long term it will be worth it. In an increasingly competitive work climate, PhD students have to stand out from the crowd, and prove to employers that they've got what it takes."

Encouraging PhD students to identify their transferable skills and – more important – how to market these skills to employers, is one of the main objectives of GRADschools.

To this end one of the key components of the schools are the career-focused case study sessions. These three hour sessions focus on a particular industry, and are run by professionals in their field. The idea is to recreate work-based scenarios. The group then has to come up with specific solutions to the client's issue. One of the most popular sessions is "Adventures in Consulting", which introduces participants to the principles and practices of consultancy, a popular career choice for many graduates. During the session the group is introduced to a typical client scenario. Participants then have to apply real consultancy skills in order to come up with an innovative and creative solution to the problem.

A similar session is offered for the public sector. Students are given a scenario from the environmental sector and are asked to resolve an environmental incident. Using research and communication skills, they have to negotiate between the various stakeholders and pressure groups to come up with the best solution to the problem.

But, although one of the main objectives of UK GRAD schools is to help PhD students to make the transition into non-academic careers, they are also beneficial for those planning to pursue academic careers. The knowledge and contacts you gain could prove invaluable later in life.

Lucy Cragg attended a GRADschool when she was in the final year of a PhD in psychology at Oxford University. She is now an ESRC Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham. "I thoroughly enjoyed the GRADschool," she says. "One of the best parts of the course was the opportunity to meet other PhD students from different fields. It was a really good networking opportunity, and I made loads of contacts across different disciplines. I also found that it had a positive impact on my PhD. I went back to my doctorate relaxed, rejuvenated and really positive about my research."

Although GRADschools have proved popular with participants, they do have their limitations. One problem is that relatively speaking, only a small percentage of postgraduates get the opportunity to take part. The schools are only open to PhD students funded by the research councils, and because of the high cost per participant, only a small proportion of these get to attend. UK GRAD is aware of this, and over the next few years, the GRADschool system is to change. Although national GRADschools will continue to exist, more and more universities will be encouraged to run their own schools based on the flagship national GRADschool model.

"Part of the vision of UK GRAD is that skills training will eventually be embedded into research degree programmes, and that PhD students will be given personal and professional skills development training as a matter of course," says Director of UK GRAD, Janet Metcalfe. Thus, our aim over the next few years is to provide universities with the resources to run their own grad schools."

By devolving power to an institutional level, it is hoped that the GRAD school ethos will be accessible to a wider cohort of PhD students. "GRADschools are about giving researchers self-awareness about the skills they have, instilling in them self-confidence about their ability, and empowering them to demonstrate the value they can offer employers," says Metcalfe. "PhD students have so much to offer the job market. They just need to be able to confidently identify and articulate their skills."

A typical day at GRADschool

Morning session:

9am: Introduction by course director.

9.15am: Public sector case study involving a local authority in which students play different roles. This helps them to develop self-awareness and the ability to give and receive feedback, and gives them an understanding of their behaviour and its impact on others.

12.30pm: Lunch.

Afternoon session:

1.45pm: Commercial case study to develop and apply consultancy skills.

Students act as consultants. They develop self-discipline and thoroughness as well as the ability to be creative, innovative and original in their approach to research.

Evening session:

5.45pm: Review of the day. Allows the group to explore the roles they have played.