Impact Blog

What does a future-ready PhD graduate look like?

July 2020
Dr Marguerite Evans-Galea AM
IMNIS Executive Director, Australian Academy of Technology & Engineering


Industry Mentoring Network in STEM (IMNIS) is a prestigious STEM industry engagement initiative that partners PhD students and early career professionals with an influential, high profile industry leader to prepare them to lead and excel within any part of the STEM ecosystem. In this article, the IMNIS Executive Director discusses why PhD graduates need industry mentors to preprare for evolving jobs. 

Convergence, impact and innovation are buzz words routinely used in all forms of media by educators, scientists, journalists and politicians. We all hear how automation, globalisation and collaboration are transforming employment, and how most jobs-of-the-future haven’t been invented yet.

This is all well and good, but what about the people? How do we make sure the future workforce is prepared for the pace of radical change in our society?

Unlike the technological advances disrupting our workplaces, people can adjust their mindset and change their ways.

In academia, with the immense pressure to publish (or perish) and get the data for that next paper or grant, it can be tough to invest in one’s own professional development. Tough for anyone, regardless of their career stage. But invest we must!

Today’s STEM research environment is exciting, dynamic and highly competitive. Academia is transitioning from traditional siloed research laboratories to larger consortia-style ‘conglomerates’, akin to small companies. Laboratory Heads have evolved into Group CEOs – pitching research, raising funds and attracting international collaborators, while strategically driving research and managing several small teams led by early career researchers. It requires an element of entrepreneurial savvy to succeed.

PhD graduates are expected to publish high-impact papers, develop inter-disciplinary cross-sector collaborations, share their knowledge freely while patenting and translating their discoveries, attract industry partners, diversify their funding portfolios, debate policy and clearly communicate their research to politicians and the public.

This is a big ask of anyone when there is little “how-to” training, but particularly those who are quieter, culturally or linguistically diverse.

Students are told a PhD provides excellent training and skills for any career. So we must inherently value the PhD within the broader STEM ecosystem. We know most PhDs will not – cannot – stay in academia long-term. So we must prepare our future workforce for the multiple career transitions they will need to navigate.

STEM research encompasses a range of dynamic roles where transferable skills are needed for success – technical, professional and interpersonal skills. Graduates collect their scrolls with world-class research skills, yet their professional or interpersonal skills are quite limited.

Many mentees have said they are now more motivated and organised in their day-to-day activities, act more professionally and feel there is ‘hope’ at the end of their degree.

The Academy’s Industry Mentoring Network in STEM (IMNIS) can help research organisations fill this knowledge gap in our future workforce and in the scientific leaders of tomorrow.

Mentors can make a difference. Mentors can support and guide another’s professional development. They point out gaps in our knowledge, strengths and weaknesses, and help their mentees identify and develop professional and interpersonal skills – all in addition to supporting technical skills development.

Sponsors can make a difference even more so. They actively promote an individual within an organisation and beyond, often risking their own professional reputation.

Many STEM professionals recognise, in hindsight, they were mentored and/or sponsored throughout their career – they just didn’t call it that. IMNIS aims to collect and analyse data around the impact of mentoring during the PhD. One goal is to determine the impact on career trajectories.

A number of IMNIS mentors strongly believe that if we do not invest in the development of our future workforce, we simply hinder our own progress – and I couldn’t agree more. I admire and respect the time and dedication our mentors devote to their mentees. Mentors are generous and most remain committed to their mentee long after the program has completed, and a number now actively sponsor their mentee.

But we must also expect our future STEM leaders to invest in themselves.

Their passion, drive and initiative are already clear since they are doing a PhD. And they must be encouraged and allowed time to develop their interpersonal and transferable skills.

This is why unwavering commitment from university and industry leaders, who already know the value of networking, has been so important. Networking strengthens existing skills and introduces us to new people and professions. It is crucial for jobs of today, and will be for jobs of tomorrow as well.

Major bonuses of industry mentoring include a more employable graduate who understands the broader STEM ecosystem, and is better prepared to engage and collaborate with industry and transition careers with confidence.

An unexpected bonus has been the “ripple effect” on the students’ modus operandi during their PhD. Students enter mentoring during the second year of their PhD. Many have said they are now more motivated and organised in their day-to-day activities, act more professionally and feel there is “hope” at the end of their degree.

Another unexpected bonus has been the connection with the PhD supervisor. A number of students have had opportunities to introduce their PhD supervisor to their industry mentor. This further expands networks in industry and academia, underpinned with the shared mission of supporting their student’s future success.

People are what make research and innovation happen. People determine our current and future success as a sector. People can also change our culture, foster collaboration and mentoring, and support the development of our junior STEM professionals such that we all succeed.

The opportunity for academia and industry to engage through IMNIS is a win four times over: for the PhD student, their supervisor, the university and their industry mentor.

Our recent survey has found that PhD graduates and students participating in the successful national IMNIS program are more likely to actively pursue an industry career. The survey results also show that IMNIS establishes enduring connections between professionals and researchers in industry and academia. IMNIS shifts perspectives and increases industry engagement, breaking down barriers between these two sectors.

This isn’t about me. It isn’t about you. It’s about all of us – we need to zoom out, see the bigger picture and make it happen. Now there are some buzz words I like!

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