What is a PhD for?

What is a PhD for?

As the College of Social Sciences Employability Officer, Dr Dickon Copsey works with academic staff on a wide range of work-related learning initiatives. He also delivers a wide variety of lectures and workshops to undergraduate and postgraduate students aimed at supporting them to reflect on and develop the key transferable skills they will require in their chosen career paths. Dickon also coordinates the College's Researcher Development Programme for postgraduate researchers. (www.glasgow.ac.uk/cossemployability)

Photo of Dr Dickon Copsey


I wanted to start with a question. A very easy, straightforward one. “What is a PhD for?”

Simple, right?

Not really. Despite the fact that the PhD in the UK context is a relatively new, 20th century phenomenon, I am no longer sure that we – universities, research councils, students, society - are sure what it is.

In the past, the PhD was simply an academic apprenticeship assessed by means of the thesis and the viva. I.e. the focus was entirely on content.

Now, our focus on content has shifted to competence; i.e. it isn’t just what you produce, it is how you develop as a person while you are developing this content (your transferable skills).

In fact, for the last 15-20 years, since the Roberts report (Set for Success 2002, which highlighted the need to prepare students for careers beyond the academy), we have shifted our focus from the PhD as a product to the PhD as an experience, from the content being supreme to the competence of the individual being equally important[1], and from preparing for a career in the academy to preparing you for a career in or beyond the academy.

And I suppose all we see around us is a result of that. Our Researcher Development courses and support are designed to help you develop your broader transferable skills, for use now and in the future – no matter what career path you pursue.  

Two people working together at laptops with paper.

From my perspective as employability officer, this is a good thing.  It’s important for you to think about your holistic development and skills beyond pure research as well as looking for opportunities to mix with other students and build networks beyond the academy.

It was good for me personally. Teaching alongside my PhD (which was in German film) kept me going both financially and psychologically during my PhD. Working in secondary schools for a Widening Participation programme (which aimed to inspire and support students from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply to university) challenged me to learn to communicate in simple and clear terms. My experiences there are what led to my job now.  

But it’s not all rosy, because we still expect you to complete your PhD in 3 years, demonstrate academic mastery of your subject and at the same time, become this super well rounded, multi-skilled, interpersonally-effective star communicator who can work anywhere.

So how realistic is this?

For me, this is the biggest challenge of the PhD and the biggest challenge facing universities. How do we balance the academic expectations of the PhD with the personal and professional development expectations of our funders and the broader job market?

(and that’s before we even start discussing distance PhDs, PT PhDs, self-funding PhDs, caring responsibilities, etc….)

There is no easy answer. But I would suggest three possible strategies, for Institutions, for supervisors and for PGRs themselves, for dealing with the realities of the PhD today:

Plan, plan and plan some more

You need strong time management skills to balance complex and competing demands. PGRs should take a look at the project and time management courses offered through their Graduate School.

A question I would ask though – is do we need more personal and professional development advisers? i.e. our supervisors are there for our APRs, we have Katrina in Careers for career planning, but what we need is something in the middle, that helps you navigate your path through research methods and transferable skills development, around work experience and building your networks, and then finally onto the realisations that will help you build your careers.

The Art of the Possible

Be realistic about the scope and scale of the PhD project itself and that PGRs are equipping themselves for a variety of career paths – not just an academic one.

This is a message for PhD supervisors as much as for students themselves and is something we are embedding into our PGR programme.

How can we make sure that there is proper recognition and allowance given to the time that PhD students spend developing their professional skills and getting involved in those “side activities” like conference organisation and teaching, volunteering and community building, part-time jobs and internships, that we know are crucial in nurturing skills and networks for later life.

In the College of Social Sciences we tried to do this in a very small way through our researcher development programme, which supports students across the three years of the PhD to develop a broader set of professional skills and regularly ask themselves questions about their future career plans and workplace readiness.

Embrace the change

Finally, we need to accept that the PhD is moving through a period of massive change[2], driven by the skills agenda, job market conditions, and emphasis on completion rates and Quality Assurance. In this context, we need to

a.       shift the focus from PhD as a product to PhD as a process and ensure that this process is made transparent to students even before they arrive, and that we provide both academic support, and personal and professional development support, through each stage of that process.

b.        It may also be that in this shift of focus from product to process we need to envisage different forms of the PhD going forward that recognise the much more diverse group of students and student expectations we have entering the PhD today.

[1] The Roberts Report (2002) concluded that institutions are not adapting quickly enough to the changing experiences of existing students, the expectations of potential students or the need to prepare students for careers beyond the academy.

[2] New Variant PhD: The changing nature of the doctorate in the UK (Chris Park, Lancaster University, UK

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