In this chapter, we make a number of recommendations for PhD Candidates based on recent research findings following a survey by Sonneveld, Yerkes and Van de Schoot.
Take initiative with your supervisor
Very few PhD candidates have reason to hope that their supervisors will offer them a job following graduation. As perceived by PhD candidates, supervisors heavily emphasize that PhD candidates are responsible for finding their own way in the labour market. Few PhD candidates believed that supervisors would assist them in preparing research follow-up possibilities for after completion of their PhD (e.g. as assisting them with grant applications for further research). The general perception in the Sonnveld et al. study was that supervisors provide little useful information about career options, especially outside academia. On the other hand, supervisors are in general considered to be very active in certain aspects of academic labour market preparation, for example in emphasizing the importance of publishing in international, scientific journals and in providing good opportunities for establishing international contacts.
PhD candidates who have just begun their PhD project may infer several recommendations from the findings of the Sonneveld et al. study. For instance, if students should notice that their supervisor takes no interest in publishing results in international, scientific journals, there may be a need to take action. PhD candidates who, at the end of their PhD, have had no experience whatsoever with publishing in international, scientific journals will compare unfavourably to the majority of their peers on the academic labour market. The same holds true for establishing international and domestic network contacts. Inactivity on the part of PhD candidates and supervisors in this respect places PhD candidates in an unfavourable position for gaining future employment. However, an inactive disposition on the part of the supervisor need not be the end of the matter. PhD candidates themselves can take the initiative to establish contacts, or activate their supervisor to help them establish a broader network (see for example Phillips, E.M. and Pugh, D.S. (2007), How to get a Ph.D. (Maidenhead: Open University Press) and this extract in The Guardian). It is advisable to hold annual assessment meetings between supervisors and PhD candidates, not only to discuss obtained results and the development of the PhD thesis, but also to go deeper into and career opportunities and aspirations beyond the PhD project. These assessment meetings are an optimal moment for such a discussion. It is therefore very important to prepare these meetings well, and know in advance what you want to accomplish in them.
Ensure personal adaptability to the labour market
In many cases, PhD recipients will, at least initially, have to settle for temporary job appointments. They will need to be adaptable in terms of their research area and should not expect to stick exclusively to their one thesis subject. In other words, they typically have to be highly resourceful. Results from the Sonneveld et al. study reveal that the doctoral training and supervision programme is not necessarily broad enough to provide adequate preparatory training for jobs in the private sector and academia alike. Many PhD candidates believe that the highly specific topic of their PhD research compromised their future job prospects. PhD candidates will therefore need to take initiatives to ensure that their preliminary trajectory is broad enough, and to increase their adaptability by looking beyond the training provided in their doctoral programme. Taking courses on subjects with a disciplinary foundation that extends beyond the PhD research, as well as acquiring teaching and research experience (also outside the research institute), are activities that PhD candidates should follow. Passively waiting is not recommended if a candidate wants to prepare themselves for a variety of labour market opportunities.
In this context, PhD candidates reported that neither they themselves, nor their supervisors had high expectations about acquiring extra research experience during the PhD trajectory. Their actual duties after completing the PhD programme prove that neglecting this aspect of professional preparation is unwise.
In addition to discipline-related courses and courses in teaching skills, universities and the NWO are more active in offering courses to build ‘transferable skills’, such as talent days and talent classes, which are applicable in multiple work situations. An examples of this are the Courses for PhD students at the James Boswell Institute (Utrecht). Given the survey results, it seems that only a very small share of the PhD candidates attends such sessions, even though they provide excellent opportunities to broaden one’s horizon and increase one’s opportunities to secure a future job.
One important lesson learned from this study is that PhD candidates can increase their labour market flexibility in a timely manner by:
- taking courses,
- registering with Academic Transfer (the international job site of Dutch universities),
- seeking career guidance, either from experts or from, for example, earlier PhD recipients and
- contacting senior researchers within and outside university settings.
It is advisable to put PhD candidates who just started their projects in touch with third and fourth-year PhD candidates as PhD candidates need not sort out all these matters individually. Organisations that represent PhD candidates (at the level of graduate schools or universities) can help by arranging mentor programmes between PhD recipients and third and fourth-year PhD candidates. Lastly, alumni associations of PhD recipients may be crucial in this regard.
The Utrecht Universisy also has its own programme to help PhD candidates to prepare themselves for the labour market after a PhD: PhACE.