I thought that the recent article In defence of careers advisers on the BBC website was rather good. I’m going to try and draft a comment on it and put something up and I wonder whether anyone else who is in the careers world might fancy doing the same. It would be great to try and increase public understanding of what the careers field is about.
My friend and colleague Tennie Videler gave a really interesting talk to the team at CRAC yesterday. She was introducing the What do researchers do? publications to a mix of people including both those who work on the researcher agenda all the time and those who have a different focus. The presentation was really interesting and I thought that Tennie pulled together the quantitative and qualitative publications in an interesting way. Just in case you haven’t seen them already I should probably briefly explain that Vitae have just produced two publications focusing on researcher careers. The first entitled What do researchers do? By subject was written by Karen Haynes, Janet Metcalfe and Tennie and looks the first destination stats of recent doctoral graduates. As a companion piece to this me and Tennie edited a collection of 40 career stories of researchers entitled What do researchers do? Career profiles. So I’ve obviously got more than a passing interest in both of these publications. But, up until now I’ve always been in the middle of it all – writing, editing and proofing etc. And when you are in production mode like that you sometimes forget to sit back and see what has actually been created. So it was really nice to see Tennie pulling it all together.
Lecturer. This is what we all expected to become. A mixture of arrogance and complete ignorance of the labour market in which we were operating allowed us to see the progression from PhD to academic career as being a pretty straightforward one.
essional hegemony which has hopefully been challenged in recent years. However, it is probably still not true that researchers feel able to make choices in an unjudgemental environment where all choices are equal. Choice is exercised in a social context and it would be interesting to map this out a bit more. Undoubtedly choices are made with reference to a mixture of factors: design and opportunity; pull and push and positive and negative. But how do all of these factors play out within the timeframe of a three to five year research degree. How do these then move on and impact on decisions in the first post-PhD contract of employment etc etc. There is interesting work to do here. Is anyone doing it?
I made a little comic strip to demonstrate how amplification could enhance the Vitae conference. People seemed to like it so I’ve now got to write some guidance for conference presenters and participants and work out the details.So now is the time to book yourself onto the Vitae conference. It will be a fully amplified experience.
Another day another buzz word. This time it is amplification that everyone seems to be talking about so I thought I’d give that a bit of thought. In the 1930s the guitar was used largely as a chordal instrument in jazz. See this film of Eddie Lang and Ruth Etting if you want to get a sense of the sort of thing that I have in mind. However along came the invention of the amplified electric guitar and pretty soon you had Charlie Christian doing things like Swing to bop.
Amplification also has the power to level hierarchies enabling the voices of those in the audience to compete with those who speak from the stage. The controversialist on the stage now has to compete with people problematicising what he is saying and potentially providing counter arguments and evidence. This is intellectually healthy and enables a multi-participant discussion to emerge around the conference, rather than a series of monologues probed by the odd question. Amplification democratises conferences and allows them to transcend geographical barriers. PhD students who can’t afford to attend top international conferences can now find out what is going on and even ask questions there. This increases the possibility of diversity of opinions and intensifies the clash of ideas.
ce and to allow us to make meaning actively and socially. This has got to be a good thing -surely.
I’m going to riff on the subject of benchmarking today. Unfortunately I’m not going to be able to offer up some sure-fire way of evaluating a training course or working out whether a government initiative has worked. Rather I’m going to indulge in a spot of semantic pedantry.For those who know me will hopefully testify to the fact that I’m not normally too pedantic. However, I’ve noticed that benchmarking has become a bit of a buzz word around my neck of the woods lately and I’ve now participated in three separate arguments about what it means. So I thought I’d have a quick rant to get this off of my chest. Wiktionary gives a couple of definitions.
1. a standard by which something is evaluated or measured
2. a surveyor ‘s mark made on some stationary object and shown on a map; used as a reference point
I suppose that my point is going to be that only definition 2 is really benchmarking. The other definition is really just comparison and as I will argue doesn’t really involve either a bench or a mark at all.
If I want to decide how tall my daughter is I can do a few things. The easiest thing that I can do is measure her. Well, I say easy, but actually getting her to stand still is not that easy, but you get my drift. So this approach will give me a number, but actually not a number that I care about a huge amount. What I probably want to find out is how does she compare to other children, is she freakishly tall or absolutely tiny? So, in this case I can invite her friend Amy around and I can work out whether Freya (my daughter) is taller or shorter than her. In this case, a little bit taller.
So far, so good, but comparrison only takes me so far. I could perhaps get 10 children and compare the heights of all of them. Better, but how do I know it is statistically valid? Have I just picked out 10 atypical four years olds? Ok lets push up the numbers, a 100? a 1000? some number that has a genuine relationship to the size of the population. Perhaps I could do some randomised sampling, work out the margin of error etc. But, hold on this is all getting a bit complex. I didn’t want to do all this. So I’m back to a rough and ready process that gives me some kind of idea about where I am. This is what we usually call a benchmark.
So wiktionary’s first definition calls upon us to mobilise some sort of standard. I could google up “how tall are four year olds supposed to be?” and see what I come up with. If I’m lucky (and in this case I probably would be) someone might have done the time consuming research that I described above and I can just compare my daughter against the UK four year old height dataset. If I’m even luckier they will have worked out an average of some kind for me. This would be an average, it wouldn’t be a “benchmark” or a “standard” (noun rather than verb) just an average.
If I’m not lucky I might google myself to some kind of tall supremacist site and end up concluding that she doesn’t measure up to the “standard”. Again this isn’t a benchmark it is just a set of things that someone has made up to conform with how they would like the world to be. A standard is a set of rules and regulations (marks definately) which you might decide that you want to conform to (or not), but again there are no benches here.
So what is a bench? Well it seems to me that the main properties of a bench are that it is solid and unchanging. You can put a mark on it and be pretty sure that it will be there in a month or a years time. So I could stand Freya up against a bench and put a mark there. I could then stand her up against that bench again a year later and work out whether she had grown, shrunk or stayed the same. I would have made a benchmark and it would have told me if she was changing. It wouldn’t have told me if she was tall, short or average. I need some of the other tools above to do that. It also wouldn’t have told me whether she conformed to a “standard” ie whether she fitted some ideal height. Thankfully I’m pretty happy that she is ideally Freya sized so that is all the standard that I need.
So, when we are talking evaluation, impact, benchmarking and so on I think that we need to just think about what we are actually asking for. Do we want to work out whether something is changing, whether it is like something else or whether it conforms to the way we would like it to be. If we can work this out, we are probably half way there.
When you talk to researchers about their career options the question that almost always comes up is “well, what else could I do?” Researchers tend to feel that they are over-specialised and that non-HE employers will be blind to their various charms.For those of you who don’t know, there has been a massive agenda in higher education around the careers and training of researchers. Many of us who have worked on this have spent lots of time talking to researchers and having the “what else could I do?” conversation. I’ve taken lots of different approaches when I’ve had this conversation myself. I’ve pointed out to the researcher all of their strengths, preached the gospel of transferability of skills, pointed them to destination data like the recent What do researchers do? by subject publication from Vitae and introduced them to people who can give case studies of career paths that aren’t the typical PhD>Post-doc>Fellow>Lecturer>Senior Lecturer>Professor type pathway. Vitae have started to gather some of these career stories together as a Career story portal – so check that out if you haven’t already.
What I haven’t really been able to do is to give a very definitive answer to the “what do non-HE employers really think of us?” question. I’ve worked most of my life in HE and so I don’t have an instinctive feel about what a banker, civil servant, lion tamer or pharmaceutical executive think when Joe PhDs CV lands on their desk. Whoop with joy? Mutter darkly about egg heads and coming up through the school of life? Or, as I suspect, scratch their heads and move straight to the “work experience” section of the application without any clear idea about what a PhD involves.
Thankfully I don’t have to go and live a thousand lives in order to be able to comment on them. Through the power of research, and even better through the power of research that other people have already done, we can start to form a picture of what non-HE employers think about HE trained researchers.
Clair Souter of the University of Leeds wrote the seminal EMPRESS: Employers’ Perceptions of Recruiting Research Staff and Students back in 2005. This study involved survey plus follow up of 47 companies. This study found that
- Some employer do target PhDs but there are relatively few of these
- Employers often don’t know how many PhDs they employ.
- Relatively few employers target PhDs, but many had noted additional benefits from those they had “accidentally recruited”.
- There did not seem to be much difference in terms of remuneration for PhDs
- If employers are looking for PhDs they will bypass HE careers services and look directly to academic contacts.
- There were some negative comments around specialisation, narrowness of interest, too deep in one particular area, problems of integration, too old to mould to business needs, lack of interpersonal skills and over expectation in terms of salary and career progression.
- There were also lots of positive comments including being worldly wise, more mature, having better analytical and research skills, better ability to work autonomously and good project management.
So a mixed picture in 2005 then. But since then the Roberts agenda around researchers skills and careers has really embedded in HE. So I think that we have a right to think that things might be changing and developing.
In 2006 Jane Simm and Mary McCarthy of the University of Sheffield conducted a very similar study which built on EMPRESS. Their Survey of Employer Attitudes to Postgraduate Researchers recieved 104 responses and found that
Where employers recruited postgraduates they were looking for : specialist knowledge, research/analytical skills, future potential and maturity.
Small and medium-sized companies seemed to be recruiting an increasing number of PhDs.
Where employers had concerns, they tended to be around lack of commercial awareness, over-specialisation, difficulty in adapting to non- academic work cultures and unrealistic expectations.
When the PhD candidates held industrial experience, they were considered to be highly commercially a
ware and showed great capacity to learn.
Employers practice with regard to salary was varied, but only a minority would start PhDs at same salary level as other university candidates, with most acknowledging that progression through grades was faster than for other candidates.
Since 2006 I haven’t seen much. We’ve had a lot of activity at the supply side of the researcher labour market with all the investment in skills and career advice. We’ve also moved into a recession that is likely to hit the demand side – but at the moment no one really knows. What has changed? I want to know!
Thankfully Vitae and the University of Sheffield have just launched a survey to investigate this. Have a look at Attracting and retaining researchers. Survey of employer practice and please encourage any employer contacts you have to fill it in. If we can make this the biggest survey of employers practice relating to researchers I think that we could get some really exciting results. Hopefully we might be able to say something about the impact of the Roberts agenda and to raise some issues about the recession. So any help in employer engagement would be appreciated.
I’ve just finished reading Barbara Kellerman’s Followership: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders. The central argument behind this book is that a riposte is needed to the continual focus on leadership. I know that I’ve been involved in numerous training sessions and schemes which offer “leadership skills” to a variety of audiences, generally those who do not lead in any conventional sense. Kellerman describes this as the “leadership industry”, something that she has been a part of for a number of year, publishing books such as Bad Leadership.
Leadership training/skills/courses/books are all very well, argues Kellerman, but, most of us spend a lot more time as followers than we do as leaders. We are part of organisations and managed by bosses. As followers we need to find ways of being that are productive, just as much as we do when we are leaders. Not only are most of us followers more than we are leaders, there are also a lot more followers than leaders. Kellerman argues that the focus on leadership has obscured what is often the real issue in organisations, how people are engaging with leadership, and therefore we need a focus on followership. What skills make a good follower and how should a follower behave? Followers have the power to make their leaders look good, bad or indifferent by the way that they engage with their leader, their organisation and their peers. Thought about in this light it seems amazing that people haven’t given a lot more thought to followership.
Kellerman sets the book in a broad historical context, arguing that there has been a movement towards increasingly flat hierachies and a move away from unquestioned authority. I found this argument rather questionable, Kellerman certainly assembles some evidence for it, but I would have thought it would be fairly easy to assemble evidence in the opposite direction and argue that populations in the West at least have become more quiessent (e.g. decline in voting, trade union membership, attendance on political and protest rallies etc). I don’t think that the trend is entirely in one or other direction, but I felt that Kellerman side-steps some of this complexity for the purpose of her argument. However, this isn’t really the main purpose of the book, so I felt able to move past my reservations on her claims for big historical sweeping changes.
What I found more interesting was her development of a typology of followership. She identifies five different types of follows who are differentiated by their level of engagement with their leaders.
Isolates – who keep out of things altogether