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By Cally Guerin

In September I had the good fortune to attend the meeting of the European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction (EARLI) Researcher Education and Careers SIG at the Universidade do Porto in Portugal. This relatively new group met to explore the theme “Careers: Beyond the thesis and beyond the academy”.  Around 40 scholars from all over Europe and Scandinavia (and a few like me from further afield) spent two days discussing the complexities of the current labour market for PhD graduates. The SIG event was divided into two parts: first, there was a two-day writing/reading retreat; then the next two days were devoted to the formal SIG meeting.

As someone who organizes writing retreats at my own university, I was very keen to be a retreat participant this time. And as someone who did not know many of the other participants, it was a great opportunity to meet a few people before the main meeting began. I guess that a retreat like this in advance of an ordinary conference would see lots of people writing their 20-minute papers for the actual conference (which might, of course, be useful when academics are pressed for time). But the more formal part of this meeting was designed to encourage discussion about doing research into researcher education, so the retreat got us all into research mode by getting on with some of our own reading and/or writing.

The EARLI SIG meeting was designed to maximize discussion instead of reporting on current research in the usual conference mode. It seemed like very good use of time to create space for keynotes and panel discussions, and then devote the rest of the time to workshops on research methods. I’d love to see more conferences adopt similar practices, though I know that it is easier to persuade universities to fund the more familiar conference format with 20-minute presentations.

The first keynote speaker was Svein Kyvik, who spoke about the PhD and the labour market. He was able to present an optimistic picture from the Norwegian perspective, and emphasized the importance of the generic/transferable skills learnt while undertaking doctoral studies. From my own experience, one of the keys here is to help PhD candidates articulate precisely what those skills are, and then “sell” the skills they acquire to potential employers outside the academy. Sophisticated writing skills are an important part of this, as are things like project management and the ability to design robust research processes that can provide reliable answers to pertinent research questions.

Lynn McAlpine, the keynote speaker on the second day, focused particularly on careers outside the academy. Her nuanced work in this area with Cheryl Admundsen is fascinating and enlightening. Most importantly, they outline a process of decision-making around careers that recognize the influence of the external opportunities available to individuals, and how these interact with the personal circumstances of each doctoral graduate—pointing to very positive outcomes in many instances. Their latest book, Post-PhD Career Trajectories: Intentions, Decision-Making and Life Aspirations (2016), is essential reading for anyone thinking about these issues.

The round table discussion was also inspiring, making an impassioned plea for the importance of the social role of universities where concepts of justice and the public good prevail. I loved the metaphor for career trajectories used by Isabel Menezes (one of the local organisers from the Universidade do Porto): she warned us that post-PhD careers are more likely to resemble a butterfly flitting from one thing to another than an eagle soaring high in a straight-line trajectory. I take courage from this in today’s gig economy, where the idea of continuous, long-term employment is changing dramatically for many of our graduates.

The workshops at the EARLI SIG meeting provided space to think through some interesting aspects of researching and writing about doctoral education. Christiane Donahue shared her extensive experience of undertaking cross-cultural research, reminding us of the complexities and richness of this kind of work. Kay Guccione provided valuable insights into the processes and ethical dilemmas associated with embarking on research using social media. You can see more of her work at the Trust Me!/Predoctorbility website. Parallel workshops were also run on the topics of “Identity and narrative in a qualitative longitudinal study” and “Longitudinal mixed-method comparative approach”.

The conversations with colleagues from all over Europe once again reminded me of how different doctoral education systems can be in different countries, and also how much we have in common. In focusing on the careers ahead for doctoral graduates, it’s clear that there’s a lot to be learnt, but we are starting to get some very reliable and informative data about the role that our talented and capable doctoral graduates can play both within and outside the academy. If you were at the meeting, it would be great to hear from you about what else you learnt there.