• April 20, 2014

The View From Britain

I thought you might like to hear something about your counterparts in Great Britain, where I was invited to speak with career counselors at the Universities of London and Manchester and to attend a meeting of a fledgling organization providing specialized career services to post-graduates in Great Britain.

Despite significant differences in our systems of higher education, British Ph.D. students and post-docs (sometimes called contract researchers) face similar career obstacles. Things are, however, looking up for them and we can, I believe, learn from each other.

Consider the following:

  • Despite a considerably smaller percentage of students pursuing a Ph.D. than in the United States, structural and market forces limit academic careers in the United Kingdom even more than here. According to the most substantial recent longitudinal survey, only 5 to 8 per cent of British Ph.D.'s hold permanent (tenure) academic positions 10 years after they received their degrees.
  • Virtually all Ph.D.'s find employment upon receiving their degrees. However, many go into contract research positions (usually three-year post-docs), and many of those go through three or more such positions without finding permanent academic jobs. Some are exploited in short-term teaching positions (equivalent to our lecturers or visiting assistant professors) both before and after graduating. This apparently serves to relieve senior faculty members of their introductory course loads and helps meet the increased teaching demand from a growing student population. Not surprisingly, many post-doctoral students are isolated, demoralized, and embittered, according to my counselor counterparts in the U.K.
  • Based on a survey of career services offices in the U.K., research Ph.D.'s are very rarely given specialized career services. Indeed, as in the U.S., career offices tend to focus on helping undergraduates, on the assumption that post-grads are "grown up" and know what they want. Moreover, all post-grads tend to be lumped together although needs certainly vary by type of program -- from highly vocational to medical, law, and business degrees to the equivalent of our arts and sciences Ph.D.'s. The latter, along with the post-docs, are the most likely to fall through the cracks.

Still, there is some hopeful news. Lobbying of both universities and government agencies by students, contract researchers, and career-service staff members is bearing fruit. Career-service advisers report that they have been spending more of their time with post-grad clients. What's more, the professional association of career counselors has formed a post-graduate students' committee to promote the welfare of your British counterparts.

In addition, national regulatory agencies have promulgated guidelines for better treatment of both research Ph.D.'s and contract researchers and have, in some cases, provided financial support to develop career programs and materials for them.

Some of these developments parallel trends in the U.S., where there has been a significant increase in the number of graduate specialists within career offices. An informal Graduate Career Consortium comprising major research universities has mushroomed from eight to about 20 members since 1996.

We graduate counselors can benefit from the exchange of ideas and expertise with our U.K. counterparts, with the ultimate beneficiaries -- we hope -- being you. But you shouldn't necessarily wait for action to filter down. If any of the following examples of U.K. programs and resources intrigue you, as they did me, then gather a group of your peers and make proposals to your departments, career offices, graduate schools, and professional associations. You could even try organizing some activities yourselves.

Some examples from the U.K.:

  • Several career offices actively seek out employers' input -- in developing materials and in setting up internships, work projects, and summer job partnerships, as well as recruiting relationships and career fairs. These were the skills identified by British employers as most valued: Using feedback constructively, "internal/external awareness," purposeful networking, influencing without authority, investigating resources, lateral thinking, and self-promotion.
  • Information technology is increasingly relied on. For example, some career offices use a computer program that automatically matches job announcements with the C.V.'s on file and mails them out to the relevant candidates. A newly developed interactive CD-ROM to help post-graduates develop career self-awareness and career-management skills can be accessed at http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/career
  • The "Graduate School," a week-long intensive course developed and supported by various National Research Councils, is offered gratis several times a year to science Ph.D.'s. It includes self-assessment exercises; games and simulations developing business understanding and skills; job search, resume, and interview advice; and exposure to potential employers from various sectors. Participants rave about the course's positive effects: increased self-awareness and confidence, broader career options, and greater effectiveness in the job search. Similar, though shorter, courses have recently been developed for contract researchers and Ph.D. researchers in Welsh universities. They are government financed and involve representatives from local industries and firms interested in recruiting from this talented pool.
  • The career services office at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology collaborates with departments to introduce aspects of career management and planning into the curriculum of "Taught Masters" programs (equivalent to the M.A. phase of arts-and-science graduate study as well as to professional degree programs). These programs are adapted to the needs and cultures of departments.

My U.K. colleagues, in turn, were impressed by the breadth of programs and services in the U.S., our Web pages and written materials, our extensive use of alumni for networking and programming, and our efforts to involve faculty members in professional development. Of course, it's all relative, and we know there's much more to be done than resources to accomplish it. I hope you will help.

P.S.: Last month's column elicited a book recommendation from Debbie Robinson, a librarian at the Clearwater campus of St. Petersburg College, who writes: "I must add another name to your list of futurists. Jennifer James, a cultural anthropologist, has written a wonderful book called Thinking in the Future Tense: A Workout for the Mind (Touchstone Books). She has a terrific chapter on spotting trends, among other things."


Margaret Newhouse is assistant director of career services for Ph.D's at Harvard University. Even though she cannot answer e-mail personally, Ms. Newhouse appreciates comments, stories, and suggestions. Please send your comments to ivorytower@chronicle.com

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