Do Our Top Research-Focussed Universities Offer Students Enough?

Currently in my group at work there are 2 university students on a 1 year industry work experience program. They attend a middle-of-the-road university not part of the Group of 8 and not particularly known for its research prowess. However, if they choose to pursue a career in science, this year of industry based learning will put them a step ahead of other graduates, I don’t doubt this for a second. One outcome of this experience is that they may realise that a career in science is not for them, but this is not necessarily a bad result. Far better for a student to realise this before they have finished their degree and entered the workplace for real.

When I was an undergraduate I was keen to get some work experience (I wasn’t sure if chemistry what I really wanted to do with my life), so before my summer break between 2nd and 3rd year I sent off letters to probably about 20 labs asking for unpaid work experience. I thought it would be a good idea to ask one of my lecturers to act as a referee for me. He was happy to do it, but very pessimistic that anyone would take me on, almost to the point of discouraging me from even trying. Despite this I got positive responses from 2 labs, one took me on for 2 weeks, and the other 4 weeks. The experience I gained, not only in improving my practical skills, but also learning about quality, dealing with clients and modern lab instrumentation was invaluable and skills I never would have picked up during the course of my chemistry degree. And in case you were wondering – yes, turned out I did want to be a chemist after all!

Throughout the next 2 years I was still at uni, the academic whom I asked to referee for me continually encouraged me to do a PhD, despite knowing I was keen to enter the workforce. Universities get a lot of money for their PhD students, and are the future of their research and teaching programs so it makes sense that the academic staff encourage ALL undergraduates to continue their education through to PhD. But in my mind there are 2 big problems with this;

  1. Most students are not suited to PhD research, or an academic or research-based career for that matter.
    This is not me saying that some people aren’t smart enough to be doing PhDs (but probably some are not!). But everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, and many of the skills required to excel in a research environment cannot be learned. Ya either got it, or ya don’t. Students and their supervisors should have a reasonable idea of their suitability for further research before the honours year is complete, and a joint decision made over whether or not the student is a suitable PhD candidate. It’s wrong to push students to do PhDs ‘for the good of the department’, sometimes at the expense of that student’s future.
  2. There is little to no support or information for those who choose not to pursue a PhD
    The Discipline within the research-focussed, Go8, Nobel Prize-winning university where I got my degree had no industry ties that I was aware of. Since I have left, there has been at least one industry link set up. Although I believe doing a PhD was within my capabilities, I was clearly headed towards a position in industry and I didn’t feel like any of the academic staff would have been any help whatsoever in helping me choose a career direction or giving advice on the kinds of jobs available to chemists locally. The student guild career service was also woefully biased towards students seeking employment after graduating with humanities degrees (actually they probably need the help a lot more than us science grads – ha!).

Research-driven universities need to realise that although they attract top students, not all students can or should do a PhD and have a career in academia. It is not the university’s role to find a job for its graduates, however, they should not ignore the fact that industry is employing the bulk of them. As much as the ‘second-tier’ universities may be mocked by the Go8, they are compensating for what they lack in world-class research by providing their students with ‘real-world knowledge’ and very valuable industry exposure, ultimately making them more employable.

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