What’s your edge?

The other day I was reading a paper called “The crisis in Doctoral education: a sociological analysis” by Gavin Kendall which talks about how doctoral education has come to be seen as being in a perpetual state of crisis – even if this is not strictly true.

Debate flies thick and fast in the literature about the purpose of the PhD, whether it achieves this end and if we are going about it in the right way within our various universities. However, very little of this debate is based in anything like hard data.

Screen Shot 2013-07-10 at 11.00.54 AMRegardless of scant facts we have about the working lives of doctoral graduates, the great doctoral debate has spilled over into the mainstream press. Take as just one example this one from The Economist called ‘Doctoral degrees: the disposable academic”. These articles about the parlous state of the academic job market are naturally depressing for anyone doing a PhD. Yet, Kendall points out that this crisis narrative around the doctorate tends to obscure one important point: the unemployment rate of doctoral graduates is actually very low.

Kendell quotes it at 2%, but this is based on data from 1999. The newest, clean set of data I have is from the 2004 Australian Graduate destination survey (you have to pay for this data, so I don’t have the more recent version). Although this data is old, I’m given to understand that there has not been dramatic shifts in the overall picture since then.

10 years ago, only 8% of research degree graduates were ‘unemployed’ although 23% were seeking other work. 60% of graduates reported themselves as being employed in some capacity. You can see on the pie chart above where they were working: 41% are employed in public education, which accounts for universities, but of these only 26% were employed in academic capacity. Bear in mind that this is one data point, gathered 6 – 12 months after completion. We don’t really have much idea what happens after that, at least at a national scale.

Even if the unemployed figure is higher than the 2% that Kendall quotes, the basic point he makes is sound. If the aim of the doctorate is to produce gainfully employed graduates (you could debate this point, but I wont just for the moment), the overwhelming majority are gainfully employed in some capacity. But, as Kendall points out, doctoral candidates are highly literate and skilled individuals before they even start a doctoral degree. We should not be surprised they are working.


What isn’t shown in this data, however, is whether people are doing work they want to do, or if they have as much work as they would like. but I suspect many are working in other fields, in the so called ‘alt academic’ track or under-employed as casuals. This, I believe, is where the true angst amongst PhD students about the employment market lies. Many people are aware they will not get a job doing exactly what they want to be doing.

If your aim is to be a scholar of medieval history, for example, there is a vanishingly small chance you will actually achieve this aim. Most of us will have to do work that is only indirectly (if at all) related to our PhD topic – but is that such a bad thing? As my twin sister, @anitranot, is fond of saying “when we went to uni, our jobs were not invented yet”. This is literally true, at least for me, my sister Anitra, my brother in law Mark and many other people I know.

My sister studied to be a graphic designer, then became a manager of an art department in a large software development company, then a program manager in a graphic design school with around 40 teaching staff and thousands of students. This all sounds ordinary, until I tell you that the academic program Anitra manages has no classrooms, corridors, bathrooms or any of the other paraphenalia we associate with academia.

Anitra works for the Academy of Art, which will be familiar to anyone who lives in San Francisco as they seem to own much of the downtown area. While the there is a face to face graphic design program located on the SF campus, Anitra runs the cyber campus which has thousands of paying students, located all around the world, from Brazil to outer Mongolia. This totally online graphic design program turns over millions of dollars a year – but you probably have never heard of it (yet one example of the ‘hidden job market’).

Anitra herself works from a study in her house in Melbourne Australia, as does her husband, Mark Nottingham. Mark negotiates internet standards for Akamai, a large company located in Silicon valley which does, amongst other things, cloud computing. Both of them work ‘in’ the United States, just like I work ‘in’ Canberra but live in Melbourne, 512kms south.

Thanks to the internet, location just isn’t what it used to be.

Anitra studied graphic design. Her career trajectory is explainable by shifts in technology, but Mark and I are a little different. I studied to be an architect and Mark studied to be a photo journalist. Fast forward 20 years and I am a research educator and Mark flies around the world making sure the internet works properly (you’re welcome). Both of us are happy in our new careers.

As Cal Newport says in his fantastic book “So good they can’t ignore you”, passion follows skill. While we are told as young people that we should ‘live the dream that is you’ and follow our passions towards a dream job, Newport argues precisely the opposite: the more skilled you get, he contends, the more you will come to enjoy your work.

I would encourage down hearted doctoral students to give this idea some serious thought.

I am fond of saying to anyone who will listen: “no one wakes up one day and says I want to be a research educator“. I certainly didn’t plan to be a Thesis Whisperer. Like many of my other colleagues, I ended up here by accident. I say ‘accidentally’ because I think the only reason I got my first job in research education was that I could use Blackboard, RMIT University’s learning management system.

I didn’t love Blackboard, but I liked the conversations with students I had there. I became interested in online education and technology, which eventually led me to blogging and well … here I am. Passion follows skill. I love my career and can’t imagine doing anything else, but I can imagine doing it other places. I try to remember that my career is what I do; my job is what I’m paid to do.

You’re probably wondering what point I am trying to make. Well, in order for passion to follow skill you need to create the opportunity and space for it to happen. One way you can do this is to concentrate on your ‘unique selling proposition’.

According to wikipedia, in marketing parlance a unique selling proposition (USP) means you must convince the customer: “Buy this product, for this specific benefit.” I believe that you have more chance in that competitive academic job market if you sometimes run in the opposite direction to the crowd.

If everyone else is concentrating on understanding and articulating the finer points of Derrida and making heady theoretical arguments, go and get some statistical training. Work out how to use a pivot table (they are amazing), then come back and see if you can apply the pivot table skills to a problem in your field.

Likewise it is well known that many people are attracted to science because they don’t like writing. So why not concentrate during your PhD on developing your skills in writing? Get really good at it – specifically, get fast at it (this is possible – a matter of the right kind of practice). Get so good and so fast at writing that people want you on their team because your writing is your USP.

In short: become known for doing something that not many other people in your field can do. This is your edge. Use it and be open to where these skills might take you (you might not have any idea where that is yet, but have faith). To make best use of your USP you have to find ways to tell the right people exactly how good you are… but that’s a post for another time.

So I will leave you with this question: What is your edge? do you know your USPs? Can you talk about them confidently? If you don’t know them yet, what is everyone else doing and how can you be different? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments.

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46 thoughts on “What’s your edge?

  1. Jonathan says:

    For PhD candidates, underemployment should be a greater concern than unemployment. This is why I don’t find statistics about the employment rate of doctoral students reassuring.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Dear Ms Whisperer,

    According to the 2011 census, 89.4% of working-age Australian residents with a doctorate were employed. A further 8.5% were not in the workforce and not looking for work, while 2.2% were unemployed. This is obviously for the entire doctoral community, not just new graduates.

    We can get a sense of how this changes with age (clearly different to number of years since graduation). For under-thirties, the unemployment rate is 3.5%, but by the 30-34 age bracket it is down to the average. See http://i.imgur.com/ASZrLCu.png

    There is lots more that can be gained from looking at ABS statistics! Make the most of them! (I’d be happy to do you a guest post using census data if you’d like).


    Francis Markham

  3. robynM says:

    Inger I admire your optimism on this topic but I think there are some structural issues that need to be discussed and addressed. There are a lot of incentives for universities to graduate PhDs, not just the money they get when we finish, and there seems less of a discussion about what those PhDs do when they graduate. yes we know employment rates are higher for PHDs, but for those who are keen on an academic career a life of precarious employment awaits and universities are doing little to create entry level jobs for new post docs and are instead taking advantage of conditions in the international labour market to fill the few jobs that come up. Much of the research work in the university rests on the labour of insecurely employed post grads students (in conjunction of course with an ageing and overworked academic staff), which is OK when this leads to a job, but increasingly we know it doesn’t. The idea of an ‘industry relevant PhD’ is a bit of an oxymoron when we have ‘industry’ who are only interested in hiring people to fill specific jobs and not in developing and training. It might benefit the economy in the longer term to have a better educated population but in the meantime there are a lot of people who have invested a lot in their education for little return and much pain and angst. We need to talk about the Phd!

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      Totally agree Robyn. I’ll definitely do a follow up post to this one. The under employment problem and the lack of career structure in the highly casualised workforce is a huge issue. It’s getting lots of talk – but very little action…

      • robynM says:

        Its the subject of my rather depressing PhD on the casualisation of academic employment….happy to provide more information for a follow up post

    • Peter says:

      Very interesting comment, it really adds to this important discussion and I know that you have expertise in this area. Although i agree with much of what you write, I wondered what you meant by universities “taking advantage of conditions in the international labour market to fill the few jobs that come up”? Personally, I think it is positive for Aust unis to recruit internationally. If Aust unis can recruit overseas PhDs who have stronger research experience and records, why not? One would be naive to think that the Australian PhD is the best in the world.

      Also, without data to back it up, I can’t agree with the statement that “much of the research work in the university rests on the labour of insecurely employed post grads students”. Do PhDs or other post grad students actually do much research for their depts? I doubt it, at least outside the sciences. I actually think part of the problem with the PhD is that most of the research is done entirely in isolation of the dept research expertise (rather than some form of exploited, cheap labour),

      • robynM says:

        Hi Peter, my comment on the international academic labour market is that it is one significant component of why local PhD grads who want academic jobs are finding them so hard to get. Its both about Australian universities buying in someone with a great publication record but also at a cost that puts further budget pressures on to casualise. Of course this might seem rational in the short term but no one is concerned with longer term workforce planning. Its not an argument against the idea of an international labour market – just a statement about the particular set of circumstances apparent at the moment.
        My comment on the amount of research work done by post grads comes from the Go8s changing PhD paper – they suggest 57% of the research effort of universities is by post grads – of course this happens in conjunction with senior staff – but many of these senior staff are close to retirement and are burnt out from overwork, who is training the next generation? There is little about casual academic work that is preparing these staff for future academic roles should they want them

      • Peter says:

        Hi Robyn,

        I don’t really understand how recruiting internationally increases budget pressures. Apart from relocation costs, how is an international recruit more expensive? Perhaps I am missing something, but I can’t see how recruiting international post docs (over domestic) is even related to casualisation of teaching.

        As for the Go8 report, I don’t understand its methodology (“Person Years of Effort”) well enough to critique it. However, I suspect it refers to FTE human resources, rather than research output, and is probably indicative of the oversupply of PhDs rather than a heavy reliance of universities on them for research output. Research output is heavily skewed towards a relatively few prolific researchers, so I can’t imagine PhDs contribute greatly to overall published output. However, the point made by the Go8 is very relevant within the sciences where research output of senior academics is probably dependent on collaboration with PhDs (or exploitation?).

        I agree with your point about the issue of training the next generation of researchers. The poor conditions and opportunities for PhDs may mean unis will not have the best people ready to fill positions when babyboomers finally retire.

  4. Jennifer says:

    Thanks Dr Inger for another great post! I’m nearly finished with Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You and I’m beginning to see how to apply his advices in my new career. With your advice, I believe I have more to think about and improve myself further. Finding my edge and USP will be my next goal. Thank you for sharing!

  5. inplaneterms says:

    Dear TW: I’d like to share a recent conversation with a colleague of mine. She started out in academia (phd in CS), but now runs a large research team for a commercial organisation … she made an interesting point: unlike in her commercial work, when she was in academia, there was very little nurturing or career planning. As a student, you work on your thesis, submit and then: WHAT? From an institutional perspective, there is little guidance for creating an elegant transition post phd … it could be the case that the onus is on the individual to define their own path, and their own USP’s. However, I think it would be useful for universities to give phd students a “heads up”: it really is no longer enough to just be a Dr, you do need to be somewhat strategic about the next step… ideally, before you finish your thesis 🙂

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Hi InPlaneTerms

      People like Kerstin Fritsches are trying to address this short-fall by providing commercial training for post-docs. Kerstin’s business has been developed directly from her own post-doc experience – which mirrored your friend’s, by the sounds of it.

      It is a pity that more universities aren’t stepping forward to provide these services themselves.

      Please note that I don’t have any commercial relationship with Kirsten’s company, although she has written some great posts for my blog.

      PS: Love your ‘research vide’ post – spot on!

  6. Jennifer Eagleton says:

    Although I suppose most people do a PhD to be an academic at a university, but this is not always the case. A PhD is useful for learning about how to research, builds up expertise in a subject as well as confidence to undertake other tasks, employment and whatever.

    • Ros says:

      I think that’s something that’s easy to assume, but I wonder if it’s actually true. It’s different in different fields, obviously, but there are some industries where PhD’s are good for getting jobs. One unlikely example of this, perhaps, is in the US where churches often advertise for pastors who have theology PhDs. I’m sure that in the sciences this is also true.

  7. ashlipro says:

    Both of your broad contentions – ‘underemployment vs. unemployment’, and ‘push your USP’ – should be kept in mind by anyone working in a knowledge industry, not just PhDs.

    But I do wonder to what extent is Newport’s contention (‘passion follows skill’) applicable to budding PhDs? Is it:
    1. One enjoys writing more as they go along?
    2. One enjoys the particular subject area more as they go along?
    3. One enjoys the research process more as they go along?

    If a PhD student’s increased enjoyment comes from 1, then they’re entirely liable to grow disillusioned/disheartened from 2 and 3.

    • robynM says:

      yes that’s an interesting report and buried within it this comment,
      ‘Research students are sufficiently intelligent to be aware that they have only a small chance of obtaining permanent academic positions’

      • Thesis Whisperer says:

        I agree! Although a recent report from the European students association surveyed PhD students and found out that while most were aware of the problems getting a job post PhD, around 80% of them thought they would avoid them. I will try and dig it out.

  8. oxforddphile says:

    Great Post and something that is easily forgotten in Academia! I just had a minor academic set back and suddenly realized, apart from my academic work, I have no USP. All of a sudden, I’m beginning to wonder what would happen if I left Academia right now… all my jobs and all my accomplishments are completely academic. Finding a non-academic USP definitely has to be on the agenda right next to writing a Thesis. Thanks for the reminder!

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      You’re welcome – and I’m sure there are many more strings in your bow than maybe you realise. I found the careers centre at my old uni ran really helpful courses to help me articulate my skills in different ways. One of the things I realised about myself while doing them is that I am creative and that this is actually something employers want. I suspect many PhD students, if not all of them, are highly creative. Learning how to talk about what I can do with my creativity was quite empowering for me.

  9. phlogistan says:

    Interesting article Inger (saw it on LinkedIn). Based on my experience, where the USP is positioned in this article is incorrect though: your USP should be defined in terms of value, not benefit. That is, what’s your value proposition?

    It’s easiest to think of this as a continuum: feature benefit value. A trap for young players is to try and figure out the value directly from the features.

    For example, in warmer areas, there’s a higher than (global) average number of cars sold that are white (“white” being the feature). Why is this? White cars reflect more light, therefore retaining less heat (benefit). As the white cars retain less heat, in-car A/C doesn’t have to be run so cold, leading to two outcomes: lower petrol consumption, and longer periods between re-gassing of the A/C. Both of these are value propositions of white cars in warmer climates.

    For any readers wanting to find non-academic positions, your value proposition is key to finding interesting employment. And knowing how academia tends to lag commercial buzzes and trends by a couple of decades, I’m predicting that value propositions will be the next Big Thing in academia in about 2020.


  10. dr_eff says:

    Great piece Inger & some equally informed comments from readers.

    I think it’s easy for many PhDs to be blinded by the goal of finishing the thesis, often to the detriment of considering career prospects beyond casual teaching & marking. I too would’ve fallen into this category were it not for my scholarship funds drying up at the same time as finding out my firstborn was on the way. These incentives combined were enough to force my thinking outside the proverbial academic ‘square’.

    Thankfully my institution had a great postgraduate careers advisor at the time who helped me spruce up my cover letters & résumé, which subsequently assisted in landing my first two jobs as a researcher/writer (both were small private businesses). More interesting than any of this was that I stumbled across this valuable service by chance & desperation – it was not information proactively pushed to student researchers. Likewise, the private sector opportunities available to PhDs with various transferable skills were not put forward by senior staff. I leave it to your imagination to draw the myriad plausible conclusions as to why this may have been the case… no doubt supervisors themselves are at times blinded by their own goals of getting students to completion.

    No single party is at fault or to blame. Rather, it appears to be a deficiency in how the system is set up. An innate inability to acknowledge the big picture. More PhDs than there are academic positions; supervisors aren’t by virtue career advisors; highly-casualised academic workforce, etc. Systemic tunnel vision? You bet.

    PhD students are seen as students and often little more. Perhaps the strong ones may even be perceived by senior staff as a threat or competition for grants and other resources? You be the judge. The jury’s out on this one.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      Really interesting points, thanks and yes – delightful informed discussion is one of the best things about blogging. I know the best thing I did for my career was to hold on to my part time job while I was doing it. Essentially the PhD was a ‘union ticket’ for me – but I know it’s different for many people.

      Definitely lots of food for thought (or another post) in that last paragraph 😉

  11. Peter says:

    I think there is a big difference between bachelor and PhD education. The idea that “when we went to uni, our jobs were not invented yet” makes sense for broad and liberal bachelor degrees, but does not really sit well with the PhD. Many people know exactly what they want to do after the PhD: academic work.

    Having a unique selling proposition is probably beneficial for getting an academic position, but my guess is that applicants with a record of peer-reviewed publications and experience with teaching, are going to win in most cases. Ironically, perhaps having peer-reviewed articles and teaching experience is actually a USP for an Australian PhD graduate? (I don’t know of any Australian university that includes teaching or peer-reviewed research as a formal part of their PhD)

  12. J says:

    Interesting post, Inger.

    I am reaching the finishing line in a few months. Over the last few months, I have asked myself the same question: “What is my edge?”

    My main supervisor tells me that my strength is in writing. I am told I write well. Writing has always been an interest in mine, which is why I have have ventured into writing op-eds, and articles on websites, and magazines. But, these articles are typically out my field. I write because I like to and want to express my opinions.

    However, I don’t think having good writing skills (which really are functional skills) as a USP that will get me anywhere in the job market in my field. I don’t see myself as a bad researcher. However, I don’t see myself as good a researcher as my peers as well.

    Besides, I have always wondered how does one sell writing skills as a USP? The pieces of work you distribute are always going to be “perfectly written” regardless of how long you took to write them.

  13. Carol says:

    getting to the “pointy end” of my PhD I am ALWAYS thinking about my edge. Especially as I am now reaching an age when many retire and I still want (and need a career). I can see many opportunities in my thesis and ways it might go and the opportunities that might eventuate. My edge? mmmm still working on it…

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