From PhD to professional: Seeking mentors, finding brokers

Sharing a personal journey of seeking mentors but finding mentors instead.

Pursuing a doctoral degree for most is not just about following one’s passion, but is likely to be motivated by a desire for a career in academia or research. However, finding an academic teaching or research position is increasingly difficult, not just in New Zealand but also in Australia and elsewhere. As a result, PhDers are often encouraged to think about their ‘transferrable skills’ and look at non-academic options. Regardless of whether one chooses the academic or non-academic route, moving from PhD to professional is more than filling out an application form. Developing an understanding of possible future careers and taking steps to be employable are crucial. While there may be guide books, seminars and career services to draw from, the most valuable resource, I believe, are mentors – those who have been there, done that, and offer advice that meets your particular needs and aspirations.

As an international doctoral student seeking career opportunities in a new country, searching for mentors seemed like an impossible task. For one, I didn’t have any established social networks in New Zealand. Secondly, at least within my faculty, there didn’t seem to be a culture which encouraged doctoral students to engage with faculty staff or the wider disciplinary community. Unless you had a pro-active supervisor, or knew how to get into the inner circles of your field, important opportunities remained invisible. This reality dawned on me early on and I began to consciously seek out individuals and interest groups that aligned with my research interests, in the hope of finding mentors.

I joined one particular research group and made an effort to attend its meetings and presentations as often as I could. After a few months of being an active participant, I was asked to help coordinate its meetings. Through that role, I interacted with a few academics who were in a field I considered as a career possibility. However, to approach these academics to ask them to become mentors was quite another matter. We did not meet in person as much as we interacted through email, since we were in different departments or different organisations altogether. Nonetheless, the occasional conversations over coffee or in a corner away from the crowd were helpful in some ways. For example, I gained an insight into academic culture in New Zealand (political and precarious!), and was able to ask one to be a referee on my CV (but as yet this hasn’t landed me a job!).

I also followed the widely promoted advice in books and from the mouths of career advisers – I attended conferences. Conferences are often touted as prime networking opportunities. But as I soon found out, for a conference newbie, networking was (at best) a few good conversations without any promise. This was particularly true for conferences that already had regular attendees. These regulars were part of an existing academic or professional community who were more interested in renewing ties and meeting important contacts, and seldom interested in making connections with those at the periphery. As challenging as it was for an outsider to break into a fraternity, I finally found a conference that made the challenge less difficult. This particular conference had a session reserved for doctoral students’ research, and included a workshop tailored for doctoral students. At least for a few hours in a three-day conference, there was a deliberate attempt at recognising those at the periphery of an established community of academics and practitioners. The academics who facilitated these sessions were friendly, helpful and inspiring. However, again, there were some barriers in approaching them to be mentors. They were there at the conference for a particular purpose and only for a limited time. They were not part of my regular and immediate environment. Most importantly, they had no obligations towards me and neither could I expect any.

By the start of my third year of PhD study, after having been involved several research interest groups, symposiums and conferences, I started to evaluate my mentoring-seeking efforts. What had become of these academic acquaintances? Could any of them cross into the ‘mentor’ zone? Mentorship, even in its simplest form, had to be intentionally and willingly done as part of an ongoing relationship in a shared context (see this resource on mentoring from the RSNZ). Why then bother chasing after these relationships that could take far more time to build than it would take to simply complete my PhD? Why not embrace the precarious and fragmented nature of academia, or many other contexts for that matter?

Given my frustration after my unsuccessful efforts to pursue a formal mentoring relationship, it was ironic that that my own PhD research was on informallearning and I had used the concept of brokering to understand how first year international students strategically approached peers and others for academic help. Despite the overtones of a task-oriented transaction, brokering was what I had been engaging in all along – the very thing I had mistaken for failed attempts at accessing mentoring. I had been doing the right things, but calling them by the wrong title.

I realised I had already cultivated several brokers over the past two years – individuals from specialised fields or who held particular positions, who provided useful responses to specific questions or predicaments. These brokers were insiders in the fields of my potential future career. I communicated with them as and when I needed to, sometimes in person, sometimes through email, but often through social media for those who were comfortably connected with me in those online spaces.

With this epiphany, I now have a different attitude towards mentorship. While I still recognise the importance of having a more formal mentor, I no longer have it as part of a to-do or wish list. I now view it as a bonus. It may happen that some of my brokers will evolve to become mentors in the future. But for this season of preparing to transition from PhD to professional, I appreciate the brokers who have already become authentic social and professional connections.


Getting the big picture of my PhD

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The Postgraduate Studies Office at my university recently organised a postgraduate development workshop for students. It was a jam-packed programme with concurrent sessions covering a broad range of skills and strategies a PhD student would need in the course of his/her studies, and beyond.

I chose both academic and non-academic sessions. The academic sessions I attended were on thesis submission & examination, and strategies for getting published in journals. The non-academic sessions were about careers outside academia, and career planning & interviewing skills. The highlight of the event was a mock PhD oral exam that aimed to demystify the process.

Here are my main takeaways of the day:

1. Non-academic pathways for PhD holders

I decided to do a PhD because I wanted to work at a university and be involved in research related to international students’ learning. The workshop opened up the possibility of being involved in research in a non-academic setting, such as a government agency. In a competitive labour market, PhD holders would be wise to be open to both academic and non-academic positions.

I’m certainly open to non-academic positions, but I wonder if the university can create links to potential jobs and employers though internships. Getting jobs in New Zealand is often through contacts and prior relationships. Internships would be invaluable to PhD students for both academic and non-academic jobs.

2. Networking to build a network

I’m also more aware of the need to participate in networking opportunities, although sometimes, I admit, they seem to be taking up precious time I should be using for reading and writing. And then there is the matter of keeping up with contacts, which appears to me to be fairly superficial unless there are regular encounters with them.

But network I must! The session on career planning reminded me how important contacts were in New Zealand. And although I’m far from completing my PhD, waiting till I complete it to start making contacts would really be too late! I’m not about to go to very possible networking event and I can’t – my time is mostly devoted to study and family – I’m making each opportunity and encounter count by making a good impressions (hopefully!) and offering to help whenever I can.

3. Being smart means being strategic

Being strategic as a student means to make the time and effort you put into your writing, reading, etc. as productive as possible. It sounds like one giant economics equation but it’s not.

For me, it’s about being focused to complete tasks for the day, plan ahead, and be flexible to change things. The workshop didn’t deal directly with this but the session on being productive in writing and submitting journal articles led me to think that it is about having focused and practical plans that will lead to results.

I’ve just completed the first milestone of my PhD – confirmed enrolment. And in the past few days, I’ve been refocusing my thoughts and energy towards getting ready for data collection,  and making plans about what reading and writing I want to do. As the year draws to an end, I’m glad there’s the summer holiday to relax and recharge for the journey ahead.