Academic Futures: a new career route for postgraduate students?

Think Tank
The University of Lincoln is developing a programme to tackle the lack of professional development schemes tailored to the needs of postgraduate students interested in an academic career. Rebecca Sanderson explains the project funded by the Innovation and Transformation Fund that explores how to provide postgraduate students with more effective career development opportunities.

Earlier this year the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education Innovation and Transformation scheme funded a project at the University of Lincoln to develop a proposal for a new career route for postgraduate students.  

The project sought to provide an innovative and inclusive way to expose postgraduate (PG) taught and research students to wider academic skills, practices and processes whilst providing an opportunity to see the workings of a higher education institution at first hand and to provide a way for universities to identify, develop and retain talented postgraduates.

Initial explorations of higher education (HE) sector work experience and intern opportunities revealed a wealth of options available to university students. However, there were relatively few programmes offering professional development schemes tailored to postgraduate students interested in academic careers. What, if anything, could this kind of scheme offer to PG students?

To answer this question, research began with a series of semi-structured interviews involving academic and professional service staff members.  PG taught and research leads from each of the University Colleges of Social Science, Science and Art took part, along with representatives from the Graduate School, Careers and Employability Service and other professional service departments.  

A focus group involving part-time, full-time, international, UK based and mature PG students from across the colleges was also carried out and all postgraduate students were invited to participate in a survey.

Flexible opportunities

The research findings provided significant insights into the aspirations and experiences of PG students at the university.  Participants often had to balance potentially conflicting demands with their studies, for instance paid work, childcare, carer responsibilities and volunteering commitments, and so needed flexible opportunities to further develop their skills.

The majority of participants were interested in HE research or teaching careers, though focus group participants spoke of the competitive nature of the academic jobs market and feeling unsure about how to pursue an academic career.

Staff and students sometimes had strong opinions about what the scheme could and should offer to postgraduates, including bid-writing experience, improved understanding of research impact and transferable skills relevant to alternative careers.

Based on these findings, the project working group developed a proposal for a pilot scheme to run in 2016. Named Academic Futures, the scheme aims to provide a structured, paid professional development opportunity for PG students with an emphasis on developing skills and experiences relevant to academic careers.  

Rebecca Sanderson  is a postgraduate research assistant at the University of Lincoln. Further information about the project, including the project report and information for other HE institutions interested in developing a similar scheme, can be found on the project blog. The contact for the project is Ros Pepper.

The Innovation and Transformation Fund (ITF), supported by the Leadership Foundation and Hefce, stimulates projects to unlock and share good practice in order to advance efficiency and transformation across the higher education sector. The nine projects for 2014, focusing on engaging the higher education workforce in process review, performance and career management and development, are nearing completion and will be shared over the next few months.