Being ‘fit for purpose’ in the modern knowledge economy

“This is not your supervisor’s market”, asserted Donna Yates in one of our recent posts. But what kind of market is it then, and how can PhD graduates find their place in it?  Furaha and Billy reflect on the changing landscape of modern knowledge economy.

Getting onto a PhD programme isn’t like it used to be. Once upon a time, you had to be a member of the affluent social elite, or incredibly clever, to have a chance of wearing that floppy hat and gown on graduation day. That’s not all it got you:a PhD was your guaranteed entry ticket into an academic job, that’s why people undertook them in the first place. The career pathway was linear and simple.

Times have changed

The PhD student population is now more evenly scattered. Now, students from more diverse socio-economic backgrounds are studying for their doctorates. The typical PhD student now closely fits into at least one of these categories:  1. The future academic; 2. The ‘Take it as it comes’ PhD candidate; 3. The ‘Here for now, but leaving when done’ candidate; and 4. The ‘I have no idea what I want to do with my future’ candidate.

The category the modern PhD student falls into is itself not the issue. After all, no matter where we end up in the job market, we will be at least one PhD more experienced than three or four years previously. Instead, a new question faces us: are we fit for purpose in the modern knowledge economy? The answer comes down to two things: the job market and the value of a PhD.

Image credits: Thomas Hawk / CC BY 2.0

The diverse job market

Many PhD students chose their projects based on the topic they see their careers headed to and academia simply isn’t the top choice anymore: only around half of UK STEM PhD graduates stay in academic roles according to the Royal Society’s2010 report.A 2015 study in the USA found that around 40% of graduates go directly into industry. As the job market becomes more diverse and attractive, industry and other professional roles could become the most sought after by PhD graduates: research officer, market trends statistician, creative arts director, columnist, freelance grant writer. All new 21st century roles for 21st century PhD brainboxes.

These roles require much more than the typical ‘hard skills’ learnt in the laboratory or workshop. The big company CEO’s describe their ideal candidate as being a collaborator, a communicator, creative, and flexible. We PhD students should have these traits in buckets, what we lack is real world experience.

The currency of a PhD

Our currency is our skill set.We will likely spend a large amount of our PhD accruing skills and techniques in data collection and presentation and perhaps teaching, along with the odd jobs we take up on the side. A legitimate concern may be that we don’t match up to a counterpart without a postgraduate degree, but who has years of work experience. In fact, having a PhD may only earn you 3% more than having a masters. So how do we ensure that we are valuable to employers?

Academic skills don’t buy us a job inside or outside of academia like they used to. It now depends on how we use them in different environments; how adaptable and creative we can be with our current skills to show that we can solve the problems important to people and companies. We should be putting our intellectual powers into collaborations and challenges (such as the Young entrepreneurs scheme- YES) designed to develop ourselves and hone those skills CEO’s desire.

What’s stopping us?

There are some uncomfortable truths about student health surfacing in academia, the PhD student’s mental health is a particularly thorny one that hinders development. In some cases students may even harbour guilt and shame about their career aspirations, considering the amount of time and money that has gone into their project over the years. Some students may also choose to remain silent in fear of what their immediate academic unit may think of them should they reveal that after years immersed in studying Engineering, their dream is to become a rock star. More often than not, the focus can be only on getting the PhD done within three to five years, rather than personal development.

Being fit for purpose

Becoming fit for purpose needs to start from the realisation that while being chiefly an academic exercise, the PhD is a process of self development; it is mainly for this level of research that the Vitae Researcher Development Framework was instituted. While applying for and getting the job of your dreams is another matter entirely, it is possible to get the most out of your PhD and take those transferable skills to the proverbial bank that is the modern job market.

It is time for PhD students to know their worth and strive for their future career aspirations. Embracing these will actually empower you, and when managed properly, you should be able to handle your PhD to the best of your abilities whilst taking full advantage of self-development opportunities along the way.

When the time comes to wear that floppy hat and gown, carve out your own unique career path.

Text credits: 


Furaha Asani and Billy Bryan are both PhD students at the University of Sheffield Medical school. While Furaha is currently in her third year in the department of Infection, Immunity and Cardiovascualr Disease, Billy is in his second year in the department of Medical Education. They are both currently on the medical school postgraduate society, and can often be found discussing issues ranging from everyday sexism to fashion. While they both enjoy writing in their spare time, Furaha leans toward fiction and creative writing whilst Billy is passionate about communicating his research on how the feedback message can be improved.

3 thoughts on “Being ‘fit for purpose’ in the modern knowledge economy

  1. Reblogged this on Psycho-socialist research and Me and commented:
    Furaha and I have written a commentary on how PhD graduates fit into the ‘modern knowledge economy’. It’s harsh out there, but there’s so much students, supervisors, and institutions can do to carve out that niche! Thanks to Kay for inspiring us; a true ally to us wayward PhD’s.

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