Careers advisors fight back

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.


What do researchers do?

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.


One thing that struck me was how far we’ve come. When I was doing my PhD I can honestly say that I had no idea about what the likely destinations of researchers were. I knew quite a few people who had finished and I could count round them and say lecturer, teacher, researcher etc etc. What I now realise is that I was less likely to be in touch with those people who left universities after their doctorate and this gave me a very skewed picture of the careers that doctoral graduates were likely to take. Me and my fellow postgraduates rarely talked about careers anyway. Most of our conversation seemed to revolve around whose conceptual framework had collapsed that week. Conceptual frameworks, I learnt, were real buggers, up and down like a bride’s nighty. A good conceptual framework collapse was very much looked forward to as it meant that we could all stop work in order to consol the poor collapsee. If you were lucky this consolation might involve packing up the books for the day and an early trip to the pub.


On the rare occasions that the conversation did turn to careers we would typically divide the possibilities into one of four options.

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.

  • Selling out. [Spoken about in hushed tones only]. Once again arrogance and ignorance combined to create a mythical bit of very green grass on the other side of the hill. Occasional reports about PhDs who had been “lost” to the city or to the BBC filtered back to us. We all agreed that we would never “sell out”. The idea of giving up a life where you could spend your days debating the merits of Hardy vs. Gissing and experiencing periodic conceptual framework collapse seemed ludicrous. We were not going to take the 30 pieces of silver, oh no. Thankfully we were also blissfully unaware of what any of these jobs might involve or how one might go about getting one. Resisting selling out is really quite easy if no one is buying.
  • Not making the grade. We were aware that there were a group of doctoral graduates who wanted to become academics but who couldn’t find jobs. This group created much anxiety, some pity, but on the whole very little understanding. Pinning down the quality that enabled someone to make or not make the grade was very difficult. It certainly wasn’t something that we felt we could have an impact on through things like going to conferences, networking with academics, getting work experience etc. On the whole we felt that a correctly erected conceptual framework would banish all possibilities of “not making the grade” and redoubled our efforts in this direction.
  • The disappeared. Finally we knew that there was a dark shadowy world into which PhD students could fall. In this world they stopped worrying about their conceptual framework, got married, got a job and dropped out of their PhD. These people were occasionally glimpsed in Sainsbury’s and avoided if possible. One of my colleagues claimed to have read an epidemiological study that proved that dropping out of your PhD was catching. Talking to one of the disappeared was therefore a dangerous risk that was best avoided.  
    Gradually, as the end of my funding approached I managed to work out that I could actually do some things that people might pay me for. I got jobs and moved on eventually ending up in charge of training the University of Leicester’s new doctoral researchers. At this point I went to an event organised by UK GRAD where the first of the What do PhDs do? was launched. I remember Sara Shinton and Charlie Ball going through the numbers and pointing out that over 50% of PhDs leave academia immediately after their PhD. Even better we now knew (roughly) where they went and what they were doing. For me this was a life defining moment. The power of labour market data to blow away my assumptions and to undermine the way in which I saw the world (to collapse my conceptual framework if you like) was incredible. It helped me to contextualise my own life in a different way – I wasn’t an exception – I was actually in the majority. It gave me ammunition for conversations with my PhD peer group to try and convince them to abandon the ridiculously reductive view of post-PhD careers that we had. Finally it helped me to engage students in the training that I was running, debate academics about its value and to expand the range of learning outcomes that I was aiming for. Brilliant!

    Since then we’ve really started to fill in more and more of the picture. Tennie talked about the added value that the subject data gives us in this latest report, both for engaging researchers and for helping us to understand the subtleties. She noted how the Bio-medical discipline destinations mask very different career patterns for the subjects within it. Psychologist and medics break down in one way, nurses in another and researchers in physiology and pharmacology in yet another way. The increasing subtlety of the analysis enables researchers to gain greater insights into the opportunities that are open to them. When you add the career profiles in as well you start to see not only what people do first, but also where they go and what decisions take them there. There is more work to be done on this but it is already easy to see how this qualitative and longitudinal work will open up discussions further.


    So lots to look at and lots to be excited about. However, I thought I might just have a think about what is missing. We now know a lot more about the researcher labour market and researcher careers than we did when I was doing my PhD. Hopefully this is a message that is getting to researchers as well as just to policy people and careers advisors. We know what people do, we are starting to understand how their careers work, but what we really don’t know very much about is decision making. How do researchers make the decision to move down one career path rather than another? The way me and my peers thought about it was absurd but also a result of a strong prof
    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?

  • Let there be amplification

    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.


    By amplifying the guitar Christian had changed not just the volume of what he was playing. He had also changed the nature of what it was possible to do with the guitar – moving from chordal vamping to horn-like fluid single string playing. Later Muddy Waters and Bob Dylan would both find the same thing. When you amplified blues and folk music you didn’t just make it louder, you changed it all together. In fact you changed it so much that some people didn’t like it any more, got mad, booed and shouted Judas.


    So why am I suddenly talking about amplification? Unfortunately it isn’t because I’ve been invited to tour with Bob Dylan. What I’m actually interested in is the amplification of face-to-face events through the use of internet technologies. Wikipedia has a useful introduction to amplified conferences, but essentially what we are talking about here is making what was previously a few people in a room talking a lot louder. By encouraging, enabling, or simply not being able to stop people using the internet while they are at an event the effect is that the impact of the conference becomes amplified.


    So if I stand on the stage at some obscure conference and say something controversial, it is no longer just the hundred people in the room who hear about it. Now someone twitters my utterance and it flys off onto the internet. If it is interesting enough it gets retweeted and zooms around my networks, possibly even landing with my boss, funder or any other person who (had they been actually present in the room) might have tempered what I was going to say. What is more the tweets and blog posts generated by the utterance are preserved online. My flippant remark has become not only today’s global news, it has been preserved for ever so that anyone who is interested in me (including potential employers) can Google it up and think “did he really say that?“. The effect of amplification has certainly been to turn up the volume of conferences, but as with jazz, blues and folk music, it has also changed the nature of them.


    For some people the changes brought about by amplification are worrying, they feel personally exposed and like their privacy is being violated. “I can’t speak without some ‘little brother’ reporting it to the world”. The negative aspects of celebrity are now available to us all, we can all be papped! Others are inclined to boo and shout Judas, feeling that the amplification destroys what was good about conferences in the first place. For them, amplification undermines the cloistered nature of conferences turning what should be private and open refection amongst like minds into a high risk reality TV show. Alan Cann recently sent me a Nature article entitled How to stop blogging that discusses this dilemma.


    So where conferences are amplified they have the potential to change, and I would argue, to change a lot, to become something very different altogether, which like amplified music, can potentially appeal to different audiences and fulfil a different social and cultural function. When bluesman Robert Johnson played juke joint dances in the 1930s only tens of people can realistically have been able to hear him and dance to the music he made. When Muddy Waters played the Newport Jazz festival in 1960, thousands of people heard him and danced and tapped along.  So at its most basic level amplification has the potential to increase the impact of conferences, opening them up to more people.


    How often have you spent weeks preparing a paper or workshop for a conference only to turn up and deliver it to ten (or even two) people? You might be scheduled in the graveyard slot or people might not realise how interesting what you’ve got to say is. Amplification gives you a greater chance of your ideas getting out there and being noticed. As this is one of the key purposes of going to conferences in the first place, this surely can’t be a bad thing. Those who cry foul and say this violates the opportunity to collectively form thoughts without being exposed, are perhaps over-emphasising the supportive nature of the traditional conference. Conferences are typically filled with all of your closest peers, so if you make a mistake in that environment you’ve got a pretty good chance that it will enter the collective memory anyway. The difference is that with an amplified event you’ve got more of a chance that the memory will relate to what you actually said.  


    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.


    Finally and perhaps most appealingly for me amplification has the potential to make conferences less boring. Conventional conferences are all too frequently dull as ditch water. You sit there listening to a variety of people drone on in a room that is too hot and crowded, opportunities for discussion are almost always squeezed out by poor chairing and everyone is too tired to concentrate because they stayed up too late. All of the knowledge we have about active learning and the value of peer interaction is dumped as we listen to the sages on the stages. When we go to coffee, dinner or the bar the conference starts to buzz again, but why does this useful bit have to be on the periphery of the experience? Amplification has the potential to bring the interactive buzz back into the main purpose of the conferen
    ce and to allow us to make meaning actively and socially. This has got to be a good thing -surely.


    So I’ll be pushing for conferences that I’m involved in to embrace amplification. I hope that others will do the same and embrace the potential of amplification when they attend conferences.



    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.

    What do non-HE employers think of researchers?

    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

  • Bystanders – who observe but do not participate
  • Participants – who engage with their leaders in either a positive or negative way
  • Activists – who feel strongly about their leaders and are energetic in support or opposition
  • Diehards – who are fully committed to their actions in support or opposition to their leaders to the exclusion of all else including their own best interests
    So think about yourself and your colleagues at work. Which of these categories do you fall into and are you generally active in support or opposition of your leader. These categories must surely interact in very interesting ways with how you are percieved by your peers and your boss and what kind of organisational culture they lead to. Kellerman deals with some of these issues in the case studies that she presents. What she doesn’t really deal with is how these interact with career. If we think about career both in terms of the movement between organisations and the movement around and within organisations it is clear that a Diehard is going to have a very different kind of career to an Isolate. Whether these categories are personality types or roles that one assumes and casts off is also something that Kellerman doesn’t really deal with, but would certainly be interesting to consider more. It might be interesting to look at some career histories and see how far people are fulfilling the same kind of roles in a variety of different jobs etc.