The predominant method for delivering training within a PhD is through apprenticeship-style approaches. Essentially students are asked to “see-one-do-one”. In an environment where learners are immersed in the culture for large periods of time (40 hours per week for more than three years), apprenticeship-style works very well. Indeed, errors are often seen early and corrected.
This approach is in stark contrast to most learning to that point – where students have listened to a sage on the stage (researcher or experienced person talking about their findings/experiences); death by powerpoint (usually lecture-style teaching) or chalk and talk (high-school, university tutorials and wet-lab teaching).
However, when it comes to non-research training within the PhD the approach is much different. There are few master-apprentice relationships (and mostly they are informal mentoring); and only a small number of student-teacher interactions (e.g. the guest lecturer to a careers day). The lack of opportunities and/or support to develop non-research skills, transferable skills or similar has been identified as an area for improvement in many PhD programs.
Indeed, with the vast majority (over 90% in US1, UK2 and Australia3) of PhD graduates working outside academic research, the need for support is no longer nice to have but essential for success. If left to their own devices, students often muddle their way through the development and refinement of these skills and experiences. In many cases, it is only clear what was needed or important once the destination (a non-academic or non-research role) is reached.
Thus, two things are needed to bring non-research training up to the level of training commensurate with the rest of a PhD:
Opportunities - to identify learn, test, develop, refine non-research and transferable skills.
Guidance - from a non-academic mentor, coach or teacher as the new skills etc. are learnt, developed and applied.
To apply these two components to your PhD program is relatively straight forward.
In respect of opportunities they mostly exist in and around the PhD already. Budgets need to be created, and books balanced. Research findings need promotion in the public as well as the scientific domain. Conferences need to be organised. All of these things give PhD students opportunities to develop their non-research skills. However, students are unclear what might be valuable outside research, and having these opportunities pointed out to them is of great help.
This is where the guidance comes in. Having a mentor, coach or supervisor outside academia, yet familiar with research helps translate research experiences, and opportunities into translatable ones. Furthermore, a guide familiar with the enhanced PhD program (e.g. present at careers days, knowledgeable about non-academic writing) can help link the monthly information sessions into a cohesive whole. A whole that links writing, to social media, to job hunting, to grant success. Filling gaps for students who might have been absent or missed the point of a key part of the seminar. Of course, most people think that anyone can be a mentor or coach. That is true to some extent. However, an academic – indeed a career academic – necessarily lacks the external experience to bring everything together. Indeed, the reason students are raising the need for additional support is because they are not currently receiving it. This could be due to limitations on time, expertise or both. A free coach or mentor especially if they are not aware they are playing that role – necessarily lacks suitable motive to meet often enough with the students. Thus, paid coaches or mentors, might be a good starting point, using a group coaching and videoconferencing approaches (to keep costs lower).
1 American Society of Cellular Biology
2 The Scientific Century
3 Employer Demand for Researchers in Australia