What I wish I’d known: PhD professionalisation

VIDA’s new advice series aims to offer practical advice to postgraduates and emerging scholars, and foster conversations within the community. If you would like to contribute to this series, or respond to any advice offered here, contact the managing editors

Sophie Loy-Wilson shares her advice for professionalisation during your PhD, based on a 2017 plenary talk she gave at the University of Sydney Postgraduate History Conference.

Last year I was asked to talk about professionalisation and the PhD or, put another way, moving from the PhD to job-land. Such a topic always comes with an anxious question mark behind it for anyone actually completing a PhD at the moment. Will I? Can I? Do jobs in the humanities (let along in history departments) even still exist?

My first response to this request was to pass the buck a little – ‘I feel a bit unqualified,’ I complained to someone, ‘I am not a senior academic, I’m right at the beginning.’  But the truth is that as someone who enjoys the privileges of a job in a history department, I should be asked to speak on this topic. I am a Lecturer in Australian History at the University of Sydney.  I completed my PhD at USYD in early 2012 and – via a series of casual teaching jobs at Deakin University in Geelong and Melbourne – got work back at what the Americans call ‘my alma mater.’

From PhD to job-land

Real estate at USYD is always difficult to come by but at the end of my PhD I got my own desk in a post graduate work space called the PG ARC.  For me, the PG ARC was far more than a work space, it was also a kitchen, a source of food – sometimes other peoples’ – air conditioning, respite from my share house. I remember walking into the PG ARC on my first day and someone had placed a sign on the public noticeboard that read, ‘University is easy. It’s like riding a bike. And the bike’s on fire. And the ground’s on fire. And everything is on fire because you’re in hell.’ Next to it another student had stuck a cartoon of a tiny human figure looking up at a monolith simply titled ‘PhD Lyfe.’

This, of course, is classic PhD gallows humour. It is amplified by broader commentary in the media and other places on the dire state of jobs in academia, talk of a sector in crisis, where getting a job is nigh on impossible and the future is bleak and insecure. We are all in a burning house of cards.

So here comes my first point. This talk can be immobilizing. At best, it builds comradery, at worst, it devalues your research and plays into popular stereotypes of humanities PhDs as worthless and indulgent. Often the PhD is popularly understood as a kind of hibernation den, sealed off from the ‘real’ world where real people have real jobs. Engaging with these representations can work to devalue the skills you are gaining by doing your PhD but might not be aware of yet (more on this later).

It wasn’t until I began applying for jobs and had to start staking a claim to my worth that I began breaking down the PhD as a clearly articulated training ground, not just an amorphous research journey. Part of the problem here is that unlike other jobs, we don’t do professionalisation well in academia. We don’t consciously map out the skills we were gaining by doing the PhD. At least in my case, it was all about being examined at the end, not about what I learnt along the way.

So how to value your PhD as a training ground? I have four suggestions:

1. Learn how to talk about what you do and why you do it

According to feminist educational theorist, Alison Lee, the product of the PhD is the person, not the thesis. Lee wrote of the ‘thick and thin’ story of the PhD – the thick story takes into account the whole person, the thin story just the document at the end. PhD students, she argued, are unique in that they manage a massive project from start to finish before they even start their professional careers – something very impressive to future employers.

She urged students to consciously document the skills they learn during the PhD:

1. project design, project management, budget management;
2. assessing risk;
3. judging the veracity of claims made by different types of evidence (vital in the internet age);
4. being comfortable with large project with broad parameters and the uncertainty this brings;
5. switching between macro and micro analysis and the uncertainty this brings;
6. the ability to communicate to different audiences.

Key to this process was keeping faith with yourself and your project and being aware of your own motivations for research. Being able to articulate why a research question is important kick starts the process of building your own personal authority as a researcher. (A. Lee and C. Williams (1999). ‘Forged in Fire: Narratives of Trauma in Postgraduate Research Education.’ Southern Review 32(1): 6 – 26.)

2. Embrace the practical

Because the PhD is too often represented as a mystical experience of intellectual discovery, PhD students are rarely encouraged to ask practical questions about the PhD process. What do you love doing? What do you hate? How practical is travel for you? What are your boundaries in terms of a work/life balance?  Do you have a partner and how long do you realistically want to be apart from them for research?

These are all questions which build self-awareness and self-worth, and provide the foundations for a sustainable research project that won’t risk wreaking damage on your personal relationships or self-worth. Asking these questions of yourself also positions the PhD as a job, rather than a hobby.

3. Ask for help and find good mentors

Most historians are open to cold emails. Many are flattered and want to help. When emailing, explain clearly why the work of historian X or Y is important to you, and how they can help you.

Ask if they would be happy to:

a) meet in person;
b) suggest a reading list;
c) attend your paper at a conference;
d) read a draft chapter of article;
e) suggest other historians who might be interested in your work; or,
f) organize a symposium with you.

Be prepared for rejection and be persistent.

4. Your secret weapons are your fellow postgrads

Don’t feel you are in a ‘do or die’ competition with your fellow postgrads. Learning how to think with other people, and how to translate your intellectual concerns within the parameters of their project and their research, is invaluable. This in turn helps with literature reviews, knowledge of your field, historiographical debates, writing quality, publishing etc.

All academic work is collaborative, we just don’t articulate this very well. There is no clear formula for balancing the social with the solitary, but the friendships you form during your PhD and the conversations you have are precious and worth your time.


Sophie Loy-Wilson is a Lecturer in Australian History at the University of Sydney. She works on immigration history, labour history and all things China-Australia. She especially likes using Chinese Australian sources and perspectives to re-write aspects of Australia’s past.  Her first book was published last year and is called Australians in Shanghai: Race, Rights and Nation in Treaty Port China

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