Sunday, April 22, 2018

Post-ac: Career Outside Academia for Graduate Students

The Australian National University(ANU) was awarded a Trade Mark for the word POSTAC (Number 1872576) on
19 April 2018). This comes out of research by Mewburn, Suominen and Grant (2017) on using Artificial Intelligence to read job ads and look for those requiring high level research skills.

The term post-ac is defined by Struve (2017) as an abbreviation for post-academic career: "any career outside of academia altogether" (citing Sayre, Brunner, Croxall & McGinn, 2015). Struve (2017) contrasts this with alt-ac: alternative academic careers in higher education, outside the traditional tenure-track teaching and research. Struve (p. 192, 2017) note:
"Most faculty members are ill-equipped to advise on alt-ac or post-ac career paths, assuming they are open to the possibility of their students pursuing a career other than a typical tenure-track position."
Higgins and Daniels (p. 238, 2015) attributes the popular use of the hastag "#postac" to a blog by Pan and Roberts started in 2011 (and that is the oldest reference to the term I could find in the literature). Pan and Roberts refer to "... practical ways the skills we gained as underpaid, overeducated academics might translate to other professions".

However, I suggest this, and most discussion of the relevance of a research degree to non-academic employment, suffers from a fundamental flaw. Discussion of the suitability of doctoral degrees for employment assume that the student is undertaking a research degree (commonly referred to as a "PhD"). It is also assumed that such students should reasonably expect to find long term employment in academia, or in a research position in industry.

However, not all doctoral degrees are focused on training research specialists. Australia recognizes this by having a second form of Doctoral Degree: Professional (commonly referred to as a "Doctor of discipline"). This requires research skills, but is intended for more practical application outside academia and research organizations. Also there is plenty of literature making it abundantly clear to doctoral students that, outside a few areas, their chances of employment in academia or research are minimal.

Encouraging students to undertake a Professional Degree, in preference to a PhD, would solve many of the problems around employment of graduates. The student would receive an education designed to provide skills and knowledge relevant to a job in a discipline. 

However, I suggest even those few undertaking a PhD and destined for a career in academia need more than just research training. University academics will spend a considerable part of their time teaching, supervising staff, making presentations to funders and administration. These are all skills not normally covered in a PhD, especially if the student spends their days working alone in the lab and only occasionally seeing their supervisor. I suggest that these skills should be included in the PhD curriculum, assessed by an e-portfolio and with formal coursework offered to the student. It should not be assumed the student will pick up these skills somehow thought extra-curricular activities.

This will result in a PhD looking not that much different to a professional doctorate. The PhD will learn in a group of students, not alone and have a team of instructors with qualifications in communications, teaching and project management, to work alongside the discipline supervisors. A benefit of this approach will be that the high rates of stress and mental illness amongst PhD students should be able to be addressed. It should also lessen the frustration and stress for PhD supervisors.


Higgins, S. C., & Daniels, M. (2015). Alternative Academics: Moving beyond the Academy. Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology & Heritage Studies, 3(3), 238-246. URL
Mewburn, I., Suominen, H. & Grant, W. (2017, August). Tracking Trends in Industry Demand for Australia's Advanced Research Workforce, Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science (CPAS), ANU. URL

Struve, L. E. (2017). Tenure-track, alt-ac, or post-ac: understanding career choice for women doctoral students in the social sciences (Doctoral dissertation).

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