Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Doctorial Students Should Plan for a Non-academic Job

The Thesis Whisperer, Professor Inger Mewburn, has suggested that "... for the next 18 months at least, academic jobs will be scarce – at least in English speaking countries where universities are exposed to the international student market" (September 2, 2020). As a result she suggests that academic staff will need to look for jobs outside academia. I agree with this advice, but suggest it should be the default for doctoral students in all disciplines, all the time: doctoral students should be trained, like all students, to look for a job outside academia.

The Thesis Whisperer suggests most academic supervisors are not good at providing career advice, which is a little unfair, as that is not their role and they are not trained for it. As it happens I do help provide students with career advice, but this is as part of a team, after training and with specialist career advisors employed by the university. As someone who has worked outside academia, I can add my own direct experience to this. The clients for student projects and many of the tutors I work with are also from industry and provide an outside perspective.

As the Thesis Whisperer points out, there is a myth of academia as being a secure and harmonious career. But this, I suggest has never been true. Academics have always had to compete for resources, both within their institution, and externally. Since the foundation of Australia's first university, academics have had to make close contacts with industry, form partnerships, obtain research funding and scholarships. Our universities were created to provide trained professionals to work outside the universities and a pool of research talent to solve real world problems, not as isolated ivory towers. Those academics who train people for jobs in demand and solve real world problems will continue to prosper.

Australian universities may have less money from international tuition fees to subsidize research in the next few years. However, that should not come as a surprise to anyone in the Australian university system. Regular warnings having been issued over the last few years as the international student numbers grew. To reduce the risk, Australian universities engaged casual staff for teaching, as well as academics on short term contracts. Without the fees from international students these staff can no longer be engaged. However, those on longer contracts and "tenure" cannot relax.

Those research and teach at Australian universities need new skills. Online working and teaching is not a passing fad. Academics who are waiting to return to a golden age of sitting in the lab waiting for students to turn up will find themselves unemployed and unemployable. Academics need to be actively engaged on research projects of relevance to the Australian community and industry, otherwise no one will pay for that research. Academics must be ready to teach students who are out in the field, or a job, most of the time, as that is the most useful form of education.

This morning I delivered the last of my six part weekly webinar series on Higher Education After COVID-19 as part of the Microlearning Series curated by Manisha Khetarpal at Maskwacis Cultural College in Canada.  In this I suggested that education should be designed like the flexible platforms now used for making cars globally and the student should learn primarily on the job or at a campus which looks like a workplace, not a campus.

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