An Academic Future?

For all walks of Academic, bar perhaps those senior enough to have stability in their jobs, there seems no end of concerns and neuroses about career prospects. These mainly concern job security, concerns about uncompetitive earning potential, and workload. There are any number of news articles that cover this, apparently to little effect as the system (in my 8 years experience) hasn’t improved one iota. In my experience of interacting with these folks, two of these three concerns could be accommodated. The work load is OK if it’s a subject that one can feel impassioned about. There’s a real motivation and pride that comes from believing that your work can improve lives and help people, we are after all mostly tax-payer funded, and I believe many are willing to accept a lower pay to do something they love.

The lack of job security, however, is another story. To an extent pre-30-year olds will, begrudgingly. accommodate this too. But when significant others, families, mortgages and a feeling of falling completely behind your compatriots start to settle in, stress levels rise. These are some of the highest educated, brightest folks we’re talking about. Sure, many seem socially restrained, but their drive and aptitude are world-class, they’d have to be to survive the PhD process, let alone the years of uncertainty that follow it. Now you might happily dismiss these people, it was after all their own decision to go down this path… but the tax payer has sunk a huge quantity of money into training them under the assumption that society at large will benefit from their work down the line. To provide this support and then not provide for the careers to realise the promise seems inefficient, shortsighted and wasteful.

Yet, what strikes me about the articles I’ve read is a fundamental error in scope. Most decry the lack of academic future. Some have focused on the specific issues including universities pushing more admin work onto academics to cut the costs of hiring support staff, overloading academics with teaching responsibilities to the point that research is compromised, or simply failing to provide any form of predicable and stable career path for research-only staff. Estimates average about 7 times as many PhDs trained as there are academic positions for.

A PhD is an education in a whole lot more than the specific research topic you became an expert in. In this journey one learns how to deconstruct a seemingly insurmountable problem into manageable components. There’s a fundamental requirement for application of logic here. You are trained in resilience, project management, self-reliance, and increasingly in team-work across disciplines. You learn how to solve problems no one knows how to solve, and become a world-leader in doing so.

The problem isn’t that there aren’t sufficient academic jobs so much as that academics aren’t educated in the full range of jobs outside of academia for which they can add tremendous value. Yes, there is incredible competition for academic positions, but I don’t believe that means we should train less PhDs – an educated populous can only be a good thing. It means their potential impact across society should be better realised. I know first hand that the academic system does a completely deplorable job of engaging industry and connecting these bright, highly trained people with potential employers who could benefit hugely from their skill sets. It is exactly this bridge that the NSW EMCR initiative tries to address, but we’re only unpaid volunteers.

From a policy perspective, if you want to realise the broader economic benefit of training so many PhDs, ease the competition in the academic system, prevent Australian PhDs from going abroad (having paid for their education yourself) and prevent the PhD program from being labeled a dead-end career, then I encourage you to make the relatively easy leap of facilitating industry engagement within universities. Currently, training for post-PhD employment prospects is something universities don’t really tackle at all. It would benefit the commercial sector to access these bright sparks, good for those sparks to feel valued and make a contribution, and would encourage more people to gain higher education. Everyone wins.