A few weeks ago I ran into a former student who had recently completed a PhD in a biology discipline and now works in technical sales. He’s a bright, outgoing, ‘emotionally intelligent’ sort of bloke. He did his PhD in a large, successful and well-funded group so he did all the things you would expect of a current PhD student in a STEM area. He had interacted with postdocs, supervised undergraduates, spoke at conferences, dealt with suppliers and technicians, worked away on his own project – no doubt doing lots of critical thinking and problem solving – and completed his thesis in good time.
It was interesting that when I asked him how he was getting on he launched into a description of the challenging ‘learning curve’ and made a hand gesture to indicate the vertical nature of it! Because, although he was bright and had worked in a busy laboratory, he wasn’t quite ready for the business culture in his new life. In particular, he was struck by the need to multi-task and the high level of expectation from both managers and customers. He was also shocked to discover that in terms of the science, industry was actually ahead of academia.
It was a fascinating conversation and although I’m sure that he will do well, it does highlight the fact that the transition from academia to the business world is a big and challenging one; and one that we in our permanent positions in academia don’t really know much about.
At the moment we are moving towards the structured PhD model as being the standard way of doing things – and I am largely in favour of the concept. But I don’t get the feeling that we’re doing it in a … structured way. It all seems very ‘patchy’. In some cases the structured program is well thought out and with a clear goal in mind, while in others it simply involves a dictat coming down from above – a funding agency or maybe some academic body – and this is acted upon at department level. Academics, being the generally cooperative people that they are, offer to give modules in whatever area they think they can. These vary from the highly specialised and technical to the generic but there is an over-riding sense that academics are coming up with modules because they have to, not because they feel particularly passionate about the concept.
I cannot believe that we are doing this in an optimal way. There seems to be nobody really leading on this, no national figure offering some sort of passionate case for why we should be going down the structured route. This is going to cost after all – in many ways.
As one commenter pointed out in this blog, one of the problems is that PhD students see the idea of compulsory fourth-level modules as a nuisance that takes away from their valuable research time. Perhaps we need to talk to PhD students more about this. It might be a good idea, for example, to hold a conference in which recent PhD graduates could talk about their experiences of making the transition from academia to industry/business. Personally, I’d love to hear what they had to say because to be honest, I’m in no position to advise anyone about making that particular transition. I think all of us academics would learn a lot.