Managing the Career Expectations of Doctoral Students: New Royal Society Guidelines

The Royal Society has released a new set of guidelines that aim to improve the management of doctoral students’ career expectations. The document, aimed at students, supervisory teams, careers and training services and higher education institutions (HEIs), lays out a set of principles and responsibilities that the Royal Society believes should be adopted to help ensure that PhD students’ career expectations are clearly understood by all concerned and effectively managed.

The central thread running through the guidelines is the need for all parties concerned to be up front about the fact that while there are now more STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine and Maths) PhD students in the UK than ever before, the vast majority of them will go on to pursue careers outside of academia. According to Professor Athene Donald, who chaired the working group responsible for the report, it is vital to “make sure right from the outset that students know that they are not walking into a job for life”. As such, it is essential that HEIs enable students to develop a broad skillset and facilitate them to gain a breadth of experience that equips them for jobs outside of academia.

Principles and Responsibilities

In terms of general principles, the report suggests that as well as developing specific research skills, STEMM PhD is concerned with acquiring generic skills of “independent, creative and critical thinking, team-working, communication, personal organisation and self-awareness to enable students to contribute at a high level across all sectors of employment”. In order to enable students to develop these skills in a manner tailored to their personal career aspirations, they should have access to information, advice and guidance on career options, and the opportunity to access appropriate training. Students should also be able to interact with employers from beyond academia, and gain experience of a range of working environments in order to enable them to make informed decisions about their future careers.

In order to achieve these outcomes, the Royal Society suggests a number of expectations and responsibilities, not just for HEIs and their supervisory teams and careers services, but for students as well. Students should take responsibility for managing their own career expectations and actively seek advice and information on career options. A key recommendation is that they should seek a mentor who is not their supervisor, possibly from outside the faculty or HEI, to provide impartial advice and guidance, with HEIs playing a role in identifying, training and recognising mentors. Supervisory teams should avoid focusing too narrowly on research results, but should support students in accessing appropriate training for transferable skills, and allow students time to explore career options and gain experience outside of their studies.

Responsibilities recommended for HEIs in general include making explicit to students the range of careers available outside academia and incorporating consideration of career options into skills training of PhD students.  For careers and training services specifically, it is suggested that they work closely with departments and labs to provide a tailored service for students, enabling them to gain a clear understanding of the career options training opportunities available, and an appreciation of the generic skills they are developing.

Opportunities for Learned Societies

The recommendations of Doctoral Students’ Career Expectations: Principles and Responsibilities suggest a number of ways in which learned societies can play a key role in supporting students and HEIs to meet their responsibilities and expectations. In the case of the BES, membership (currently free for the first year for PhD students) enables doctoral students to access opportunities to gain experience beyond academia, for instance through policy placements or by taking part in public engagement activities. Events and resources such as policy training workshops and the new careers advice webinar series also offer appropriate training opportunities for a wider student audience. The BES is also able to work directly with HEIs through training courses tailored to the needs of NERC Doctoral Training Partnerships.

With the Royal Society’s stakeholder consultation indicating a positive response to the report’s recommendations from students, academics and HEI managers alike, the Principles and Responsibilities report provides further onus for learned societies to ensure that their career development offer is effectively promoted, and an excellent opportunity to build on existing relationships with both PhD students and HEIs.

Find out more about the BES’s Careers Work or get in touch with our Education Team