How to

The Accidental Academic

Did you stumble into academia or was your academic path well planned? What about your students? Have they become more strategic in light of increasing funding pressures? Can those already in academia help make the path less accidental?

As your academic seniority grows, people often seek your advice on pursuing an academic career. My own pathway into academia came though clinical curiosity. I had the good fortune to work in a clinical service that was located with leading researchers in my field. I often wonder if I knew then what I know now, would I have ended up in the same place? More importantly, with secure employment in academia being the exception rather than the rule, what advice should we be giving aspiring academics? The following information might help those considering an academic future.

What skills do you bring to a PhD?

In the earlier stages of decision-making, thinking about how to work to your strengths can be important. In a sea of graduate students and PhD candidates, leveraging any unique background and skill set can help you stand out. This can include real-world experience prior to commencing a PhD and background knowledge of the topic you are interested in. Dr Joanna Griffiths (lecturer at TafeSA) said ‘I wish I’d been a bit more knowledgeable prior to beginning [my PhD], I just jumped in’.

Depending on where you are studying, a background or research skills can become even more critical. In Australia, there is typically no coursework as part of a PhD, so research skills and prior experience are more important. Commencing a PhD straight out of an undergraduate degree can be a disadvantage later when competing for employment or postdoctoral positions with others who have additional life experience.

For some, the choice may be to develop those skills first to increase their options later with a PhD project. Lauren Richardson, a research assistant in the Department of Health (Epidemiology and Surveillance) and current Master of Public Health student (Monash University) made the decision based on advice to ‘skill up’ first, studying biostatistics and epidemiology to maximise what she can do in her planned PhD.

Why do you want to do a PhD?

As a potential supervisor, mentor or person ‘in the know’, discussions can focus on how a PhD fits into long-term plans. What skills are needed by the end of a PhD? What positions might be sought afterwards? During a PhD, candidature can be an ideal time to develop new skills, as long as the PhD research is designed with this in mind.

There is a range of career options outside traditional academic positions, working in health, government, industry or consulting. Advising PhD candidates to consider what type of work they might want to do after a PhD and speaking to those currently in these roles might help inform their decision-making. Is a PhD really necessary for the role, or could it even make you less employable? These days, fewer PhD graduates find themselves in academic roles after PhD completion.

What supports are available?

The supervisor–student relationship is critical to successful PhD completion. Advising students to take care in choosing a supervisor, meeting with potential supervisors first, reading their work, and exploring former students’ experiences can help determine if the supervisor–student relationship will be a good match. Developing the potential PhD research proposal with the proposed supervisor prior to enrolment can be a good first test of this relationship.

Lauren McFarlane, a PhD candidate at the School of Archaeology and Anthropology (Australian National University), also talks about the importance of formal and informal support networks, including ‘research groups and training events, either student- or admin-led’. As a PhD student with a small child and a job, Lauren has found that these networks have helped with time management and increasing connectedness in what can be a lonely path.

What are the costs?

Completing a PhD can take a financial and emotional toll. If your PhD may require extensive fieldwork, prospective students may need to consider if they can live on a PhD stipend without additional employment. Often travel is required to stay on the academic track, and moving to follow postdoctoral opportunities can be challenging for those with significant others or families. The highs and lows of research itself can also take its toll. According to Dr Griffiths, ‘there is nothing quite like the high when your research is going well, or the pit of despair you are in when it isn’t’.

As PhD candidates progress, in today’s competitive climate, timing can be everything. Eligibility for fellowships is often linked to conferral dates, so thinking through when to submit might have a bearing on how long you are eligible to apply for early career opportunities. Dr Monica Barratt, research fellow at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (University of New South Wales) recommends ‘If you are rushing to complete your PhD and you are planning to apply for fellowships, look at their rules’. A difference of a week in conferral date can mean an extra year to build your track record to apply for the next step.

My final advice for those considering a PhD is to choose a topic you love; you will be talking about it for at least the next three years, if not the rest of your career. Taking the time to find something that is a great fit for your background and your passion is a good investment. Sometimes amazing careers can develop through happy accidents, but knowing what you may be getting into always helps.

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