Impact Blog

A PhD graduate, a plumber and a priest walk into a room…to talk about jobs.

November 2020
Dr Narelle Tunstall
Managing Editor, Graduate Research Impact

 

You might not have heard the one about the PhD grad, the plumber and the priest but I bet you’ve heard the one about how a “PhD is a detriment to future job prospects” or that higher degree training is a “turn-off” for employers?

It’s had a lot of airtime over the years and it was sad to see it doing the rounds again on Twitter last week.

Don’t you think we need a new edition of that old worn-out tale?

I know I’ve heard it way too many times before, as well as the lamenting that research graduates are too narrowly focussed with highly specialised knowledge about a niche topic.

Well, that last bit is usually true.

By definition, a PhD graduates’ knowledge is quite extraordinary, or as the Australian Qualifications Framework puts it “a substantial and complex body of knowledge at the frontier of a discipline or area of professional practice”.

And that knowledge is also sometimes very odd.

This is where I tell you the one about the priest who did a PhD in the spirituality of snowboarding!

(Cool priest. Unusual thesis.)

But what the worn-out ideas about post-PhD job prospects and employer perspectives doesn’t acknowledge is that a research graduates’ deep, specialised knowledge also comes with some incredibly rich and extensive skills and attributes.

 

Knowledge, skills and attributes

Which brings me to our plumber…well a plumbing business at least.

What does a PhD in computing got to do with a plumbing business?

Or for that matter, a PhD in history with a tourism business?

Or a PhD in psychology with science policy?

Skills.

“Expert, specialised cognitive, technical and research skills” to be AQF10 precise.

Skills that, during a research degree are applied to a very niche topic or discipline area, yes, but are also highly transferrable.

While the knowledge gained during a research degree might be very specialised, we need to consider the full spectrum of knowledge, skills and attributes that research graduates develop when they, or employers, are considering their future job prospects.

 

What do you develop during a research degree, exactly?

If we look at the Australian Qualifications Framework for Doctoral level degree (AQF10) the criteria to be awarded this degree (in addition to knowledge) includes “expert, specialised cognitive, technical and research skills in a discipline area to independently and systematically:

  • engage in critical reflection, synthesis and evaluation
  • develop, adapt and implement research methodologies to extend and redefine existing knowledge or professional practice
  • disseminate and promote new insights to peers and the community
  • generate original knowledge and understanding to make a substantial contribution to a discipline or area of professional practice”

Now that’s all very scholarly, but not a particularly helpful rendering of the wide-ranging abilities, approaches and professionalism needed, and expected, to do a graduate research degree in an Australian institution these days.

To get a bit more clarity on this, I think it is useful to look at the Vitae Researcher Development Framework. This framework was developed to articulate the “knowledge, behaviours and attributes of successful researchers” so they can reach their potential. It also provides a much clearer picture of the detailed capabilities research graduates are developing during their research degrees.

Take a look at the framework.

In addition to the knowledge base we’ve already spoken of, there’s a range of cognitive abilities (analysing, synthesising, critical thinking, evaluating, problem solving) and creativity required to do research, as well as personal effectiveness, the professional conduct and management to do responsible and ethical research, and the engagement and influencing skills to ensure the wider impact of research.

While the actual professional development of graduate researchers is likely to be influenced by a number of factors, such as the discipline/topic of their research thesis, their supervisor and/or the department they study in, it’s important this breadth of skills is not overlooked because in fact, these skills are in demand.

 

Research skills are the future ‘here and now’

In October this year the World Economic Forum published their latest Future of Jobs Report. Within this report they identify the 10 most wanted skills of 2025. When you look at that list, that tale about a PhD being a detriment to future job prospects seems like fake news, doesn’t it?

 

 

And while these top 10 skills of 2025 obviously aren’t only gained via research degrees, a research degree does provide many, if not all, of these sought-after skills.

Having a research degree in 2025 looks like it’s going to be quite valuable, but what our plumbing friend would probably tell you from their experience is – it already is.

 

Experience – the crucial link

Just like any other graduate, what many research graduates do need, in addition to their knowledge, skills and attributes, is experience applying their capabilities in different environments.

And that’s where programs like APRIntern are making a big difference.

The APRIntern PhD internship program not only gives PhD students opportunities to gain experience during their studies, but links businesses to “fresh ideas”, gives businesses access to exceptional talent, and also provides pathways for universities to expand research collaborations with industry too.

While APRIntern isn’t the only way research graduates are getting industry relevant experience, there are some excellent case studies on the APRIntern website demonstrating the importance of the capabilities research graduates are taking to industry and how businesses are gaining empowering innovations, as well as hiring some of the best and brightest talent in Australia.

 

PhDs and careers

So, next time you see negative comments flying around Twitter or hear people talking negatively about research higher degrees, I suggest you refer them to the World Economic Forum’s report and let them know, actually, research graduates have some of the most future-proof skills around. Or perhaps refer them to the APRIntern case studies to read the examples of businesses tapping into new worlds of innovation by accessing Australia’s brightest research talent.

And if you’re a research graduate worrying about your career, there’s two things I hope you will do as you are completing your research degree 1) apply those research skills to understanding just how transferrable your research skills are, and 2) use your creativity to imagine the diversity of ways you can use your skills, many of which can be just as fulfilling -or more- than working in academia.

Photo from Unsplash

3 comments

Susan Kinnear says:

Thanks for the article, Narelle – I am definitely going to use that top 10 skills list when talking with our HDR candidates!

Narelle Tunstall says:

Excellent!

Natasha Kitano says:

Thank you Narelle. This was incidentally the topic of conversation at the HDR Writer’s Lounge I facilitate last week. In breakout rooms on Zoom, I asked the students to guess the top skills in the next five years, and most of them correctly guessed skills around self-management, including resilience, stress tolerance and flexibility. They were spot on!

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