The training of doctoral candidates remains largely oriented towards academia. Given that increasing numbers of doctorate holders will eventually work beyond the academy, we need to rethink doctoral education. This article proposes several recommendations (‘rethinks’) emerging from empirical studies targeting collaboration, transferable skills and the relations between doctoral candidates and their future employers.
The past few decades have witnessed significant growth in the number of doctoral degrees awarded. Multiple initiatives have been implemented to broaden the education of doctoral candidates and structure their training. Nevertheless, the training of doctoral candidates remains largely oriented towards academia. Given that increasing numbers of doctorate holders will eventually work beyond the academy, it is clear that doctoral education no longer uniquely involves the training of professors but also the training of versatile professionals who should be optimally employable both within and outside of academia. This means rethinking doctoral education.
We propose several recommendations (or ‘rethinks’) emerging from our empirical studies. While doctorate holders’ transition to the workplace is a common concern across many countries, we recognise that different countries have different research systems. Therefore, the importance and the applicability of each recommendation will depend on the specific national policy environment.
1. Rethink collaboration
Successful collaboration starts with agreement on the desired outcomes for all parties and alignment with a doctoral candidate’s future career goals and prospects.
- Consider the type of collaboration. The type of collaboration can vary from very low levels of collaboration (such as sharing certain knowledge on a specific topic or working together in terms of a data collection) to intensive collaboration (such as product development), which may involve bi-directional learning opportunities. A study of 2985 doctorate holders from Belgium’s Flemish-speaking community has shown that collaborating in terms of data collection, use of tools, knowledge sharing and product development are associated with future employment outside of academia.
- Carefully choose the sector of collaboration. Collaboration should be well thought through, not only in terms of the scientific added value, but also in terms of career planning. Doctoral candidates can collaborate with academia as well as with sectors beyond academia, such as industry, non-profit, hospital, education and government. The research by Flemish universities shows that collaborating with a specific sector of the labour market (e.g. industry) during doctoral training is most likely to increase the odds of later employment in that sector (except for the government sector). Therefore, doctoral candidates and their supervisors should carefully seek and choose which sector they would like to collaborate with during their doctoral training.
2. Rethink transferable skills
- Structurally embed transferable skills training for all doctoral candidates, independent of their envisioned career trajectory. Findings from a study of 2055 doctorate holders from the French-speaking universities of Belgium point to a mismatch between the skills that doctorate holders have acquired by the end of their doctoral training and the skills they use on the job. The patterns of mismatch are very similar for doctorate holders whether they work within or outside of academia. Both groups can benefit from reinforcing skills related to working with others (e.g. collaboration and teamwork), management skills (e.g. project management) and communication skills. Transferable skills training is not only important for doctorate holders who plan to work beyond academia but also for those who stay.
- Pay particular attention to “collaboration and teamwork” skills. In the “Recruiting Talents”” study conducted in the Belgium’s French-speaking community, 614 non-academic employers were asked to check the six most important skills they look for in candidates for a position at advanced degree level (Master’s degree or doctorate). “Collaboration and teamwork” was the second most important skill as chosen by 65% of non-academic employers, coming after “scientific and technical expertise”. However, only 47.5% of doctorate holders in the sample indicated having acquired these by the end of their training. Therefore, encouraging and enhancing collaboration during doctoral training at various levels (e.g., inter-lab, inter-project, inter-university and/or inter-sectoral) may help their subsequent career transition.
3. Rethink relations between doctoral candidates and their future employers
- Reduce mutual stereotypes. Semi-structured interviews with 47 doctorate holders ( 27 men and 20 women, from all disciplines) were conducted in the Netherlands to investigate the perceptions that doctorate holders and employers have of one another. The interviews showed that during their application procedures, both groups held negative stereotypes of one another. For example, doctorate holders were considered to be very theory-driven but slow and lacking a more 'hands-on' attitude. However, after getting to know each other a bit better, both parties admitted that their stereotypes did not hold. Therefore, doctoral candidates and their future employers should get acquainted with each other at an earlier stage during doctoral education, for example through bi-directional intersectoral mobility opportunities.
- Paint an accurate and complete picture of jobs inside and outside of academia. In many cases doctorate holders continue to conduct or be directly involved in research, although perhaps with a different goal than during their doctoral training. Several of the transferable skills acquired during their doctoral trajectory, such as analytical abilities or training junior staff, prove to be useful and can be further developed in later employment. With a better balance between academic and transferable skills, including by emphasising that research capabilities have substantial value in both sectors, doctoral candidates can be equally well prepared for both academic and non-academic careers.
The 'future-looking' doctorate
We have argued the need to rethink the doctorate given that doctoral graduates work beyond the academy more often than not, and have proposed some recommendations based on our research. We hope to have convinced you that such ‘rethinks’ have benefits not just for those who move beyond the academy but also for those who remain, since academics are increasingly called to engage with society and conduct research which benefits society. Thus, the doctorate should encompass more than thesis research. In other words, while it is important to conduct doctoral research and track its progress, this is not sufficient. In our respective roles, whether as supervisors, program directors/coordinators or senior university administrators, we need to encourage early-career researchers to view collaboration with other sectors and communication and management training as essential to their professional development.
- Stassen, L., Levecque, K., & Anseel, F. PhDs in transition: What is the value of a PhD outside academia? Retrieved from: https://biblio.ugent.be/publication/8613201.
- Mortier, A., Levecque, K., & Debacker, N. (2020). You have a PhD! What’s next? The career paths of PhD holders. Retrieved from: https://biblio.ugent.be/publication/8661002.
- Woolston, C. (2021). Researchers’ career insecurity needs attention and reform now, says international coalition. Nature. Retrieved from: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-01548-0.
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