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Musing on the purpose and practice of doing a PhD

Professor Rachel Spronken-Smith is the Dean of the Graduate Research School.  When she is not running the School, delivering support to thesis candidates or rolling around in the $21 million Scholarships’ budget, she is supervising students and researching about higher education.  <Phew, I’m exhausted just listing her tasks!>  Rachel has untold wisdom about the thesis experience and we nabbed her from her busy role to share some of that with you.  

musing from the deanWhy are you doing a PhD? An easy question – right? It is one that could be answered in a variety of ways. For some it is an opportunity to investigate something they are passionate about – to further knowledge and develop intellectual thinking. Other candidates might see a PhD in terms of credentialism, opening up better jobs and higher salaries. Some may wish to become an academic and of course the PhD is the entry level qualification for most academic jobs.

So take a few minutes to think – why are you doing this?

Once you have identified your main motivation, my next question for you is – how can you make the most of your doctoral study? Your answer will likely depend on your motivation for doing a PhD. For example, if your PhD is seen as purely an intellectual pursuit, you may be content to focus solely on your research. However, it would be wise to stretch that intellect by engaging in departmental and university seminars and lectures. If you are seeking a particular career beyond your PhD, then what is that career? What are the skills you will need? How can you foster these skills during doctoral study? If, for example, you think you would like to be an academic, then during your doctoral study you should be seeking opportunities to learn about:

  • Teaching and also practice teaching – seek professional development opportunities on lecturing and course planning for example, and offer to do guest lectures or become a tutor or demonstrator during your doctoral study
  • Publishing – try publishing some of your doctoral research and perhaps consider writing a publication-based thesis that includes publications as chapters or as appendices
  • Writing research grants – offer to assist academics or shadow one through the process
  • Administration – volunteer to be a student representative on departmental or university committees.

But academia is not for everyone, and indeed the job market is very tight. RAchjelFortunately doctoral graduates are in demand in a range of careers including government, non-governmental organisations, and business. Depending on your interests you may need to seek professional development opportunities to help secure such jobs. For example, if interested in business, then look for internship opportunities and professional development courses on entrepreneurship, project management and financial skills. For government positions, you are likely going to need excellent communication skills and the ability to write in a range of genres. So again, be proactive and seek opportunities to develop your communication skills. Some skills – such as networking – are important no matter what career choice you make, and you should ensure you try to develop this skill and attend events where you can practice (remembering that most people are not born networkers and feel very uncomfortable at such events).

I worry when I see PhD candidates buried in their offices or labs and not taking the time to engage in the opportunities offered by their universities. Doing a PhD is a privileged time, but I do understand that candidates are often under a great deal of financial pressure to complete in a timely manner. Thus I think there is a risk is that you can focus too much on your study and ignore the activities being provided to support your journey and your professional development. So my plea to you is to think about why you are doing a PhD and what you hope to do once you graduate. As you focus on this endpoint, consider how you might develop the skills to best equip you on this future path and then be proactive and seek opportunities to develop these skills.

Professor Rachel Spronken-Smith, Dean, Graduate Research School

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