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Grad students should think like entrepreneurs about their careers (essay)

Facing radically unstable futures, graduate students are an especially vulnerable population within the neoliberal academy. A diminished tenure-track job market is one reason that graduate students should think and behave more like entrepreneurs and less like apprentices.

In many corners of academe, this shift is already in effect. More and more Ph.D. students are finding ways to carve out varied and rewarding career paths for themselves. “Redefining the Humanist Entrepreneur,” a “Connected Academics [1]” panel at this year’s Modern Language Association convention, featured an eclectic group of Ph.D.s who’ve gone on to fascinating careers.

For example, Bradford Taylor [2] discussed his experience founding a wine shop [3] and noted that he’s found ways to put his doctoral research (which focuses on aesthetics and food from Hume to Adorno) into practice. He does this through a newsletter as well as in the day-to-day rhythms of the shop. Taylor’s career path is but one example of just how far we’ve come from the days of academic departments “placing” students.

While some MLA attendees may have shuddered to see yet another term from the business world on the convention’s program, I think “entrepreneur” is a useful way for graduate students to think about themselves. For one thing, they already have a lot of qualities that we associate with entrepreneurs. Richard Cherwitz, a professor in the rhetoric department at the University of Texas at Austin, describes intellectual entrepreneurs as those who “take risks and seize opportunities, discover and create knowledge, innovate, collaborate, and solve problems in any number of social realms.”

Graduate students need to apply to their career preparation the same entrepreneurial spirit they apply to their academic research. By thinking more like an entrepreneur (or a professional, CEO or revolutionary) and less like an apprentice, graduate students can better prepare themselves for a range of fulfilling and meaningful careers. Here are some steps you can take to do that:

Begin by evaluating your relationship with your graduate adviser. One of the most radical shifts in graduate education needs to take place at the level of the mentor-mentee relationship. Graduate students are still, by and large, treated like apprentices, working with advisers supposedly able to usher them into prescribed, defined careers. As the tenure-track job market dissolves, such a model becomes increasingly untenable. You should break free of the apprentice mind-set by moving past the outmoded single-adviser model.

Even if you have the best of advisers, she can’t help as much when it comes to alt-ac or compatible careers. And chances are she can’t place you in an academic career. Try as they might, graduate mentors can’t get up to speed quickly enough to train you for careers other than the ones for which they themselves were trained.

For the most part, graduate students have to find -- or create -- careers for themselves. Now that the majority of graduate students are headed for jobs that are nothing like those held by their adviser, it’s clear that even the most well-intentioned individual can’t give you the variety of career advice you’ll need. So you need to run your career search with the help of multiple advisers -- an informal board of directors, if you will.

Make sure such a board has a strong contingent from beyond your academic institution. Seek out career-service counselors, administrators, career coaches, corporate types and graduates who’ve gone on to alt-ac jobs. Do your best to develop multiple mentors for yourself, and keep in touch with them as best you can.

If you’re a graduate adviser, you must learn to cede authority to a plurality of advisers. Better yet, learn how to advise and mentor as a part of a team that includes members from various corners of the university, as well as those from beyond it.

Reject any discourse that figures your career using static metaphors. When trying to picture your career, you should see the Northern Lights -- not placement in a track. It’s not all or nothing. It’s not academe or bust. The idea of careers inside, outside or even beyond higher education may not make sense when you’re in the middle of your career.

At the “Connected Academics” panel at the MLA, Eric Wertheimer, associate vice provost of graduate education and professor of English at Arizona State University, noted that universities of the future will not police their boundaries “quite as piously as we do now.” So even if you do decide on a career beyond academe, don’t burn any bridges, and don’t assume your graduate training has no bearing on the work you’ll do beyond the professoriate [4].

Be aware of career choices made by osmosis. If you only hang with one group, you’re likely to absorb the norms of that group. So do a quick diagnosis: Whom do you associate with on a regular basis? Are they a diverse bunch with varying career goals? Do you pick the brains of those farther down the career track? Are you making assumptions about the kinds of careers you would enjoy? Have you done a self-assessment like the Clifton StrengthsFinder?

Learn to engage with people outside your field and the university setting. Compared with any other degree-holding group, Ph.D.s have the lowest rates of unemployment. But they also make up such a small percentage of the workforce that employers -- with exceptions that include scientific industries and consulting agencies -- may never encounter a Ph.D. as a prospective hire. If you are going to strike out in new directions, you’ll need to get used to interacting with people who may never have thought of hiring or collaborating with a Ph.D.

You can begin to familiarize yourself with organizations and people with whom you might like to work by regularly setting up informational interviews [5]. Depending on your schedule, you might aim for one a month. As you establish contacts outside of academe, reach out and make small “touches” with potential partners/employers throughout your time in graduate school.

Don’t only shift your attitude -- act like an entrepreneur. Allow for more career possibilities by adjusting your habits, expanding your networks and diversifying what you make.

Look up key characteristics of an entrepreneur and then cultivate a checklist of ideas that make sense for you and your discipline. Have a big-picture list, with long-term goals like:

  • Get comfortable with pitching ideas, especially outside of academe.
  • Imagine and implement a crowdsourced project.
  • Get paid to write and think in public.
  • Cultivate a donor for a project you care about.
  • Actively seek out leadership opportunities.

Once you have these larger goals down on paper, you can then look into acquiring or honing the skills that will allow you to accomplish them. Map out a schedule of activities to do each week, each month, each year. Little steps can set you up for a variety of careers after (and perhaps during) graduate school.

Adding any activities to the already overloaded schedules of graduate students may seem cruel. But you needn’t do it all at once. And though it seems counterintuitive, when you spend a little time away from the specialized training that you’re getting in your grad program, you just might help yourself stand out in the tenure-track job market. One thing is for sure: the confidence you get by succeeding in multiple arenas outside higher education will help you fend off the deepest insecurities brought on by impostor syndrome and give you a sense of the many possibilities beyond academe.

Author Bio:

James M. Van Wyck is a senior teaching fellow in the honors program at Fordham University, Lincoln Center. He is also the inaugural GSAS senior higher education administration fellow at Fordham University, Rose Hill. He is a Ph.D. student writing a dissertation on 19th-century evangelical fiction.

Top universities abandon support for government plans

Geoff Maslen
31 March 2015 University World News Global Edition Issue 361

The nation’s leading Group of Eight research-intensive universities has done a sudden about-turn in its support for the federal government’s higher education reforms and called for an independent “depoliticised” review by the learned academies and employer and business organisations.
The nation’s leading Group of Eight, or Go8, research-intensive universities has done a sudden about-turn in its support for the federal government’s higher education reforms and called for an independent “depoliticised” review by the learned academies and employer and business organisations.

Although the group continues to back the government’s controversial plan to deregulate tuition fees and allow vice-chancellors to set their own, it is no longer endorsing Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s reform proposals that would have extended federal funding to for-profit universities and non-university colleges, creating a United States-style system in Australia.

In a release on 31 March, the Go8 says it has consistently stated that the current funding model for Australian universities is “broken” and that is why it has supported fee deregulation “as the only long-term sustainable solution on offer”.

But the group now says the Senate has twice voted down deregulation of fees while a funding crisis continues that can only worsen with time. So a solution must be found.

“The Go8 is concerned that a number of other proposals being floated as solutions do not tackle the core issue of long-term funding satisfactorily. There is speculation that a further review process may be under consideration [yet] higher education is already one of Australia’s most reviewed sectors.”

`Rats deserting sinking ship'

The National Tertiary Education Union seized on the release to describe the Group of Eight, in a wonderful mixed metaphor, as behaving “like rats deserting a sinking ship [and] depriving Minister Pyne of his greatest cheerleaders”.

“Pyne now has no option but to dump his incoherent and desperate attempts to push on with his unprincipled, unfair and unsustainable higher education policies,” declared union President Jeannie Rea. “It is time that university leaders and the minister accept that the senate’s refusal to pass the government’s higher education policy is because it is not supported by the majority of Australian voters.”

Rea said neither Pyne nor the vice-chancellors had convinced the public that fee deregulation would benefit Australia, given that it would leave some students paying A$100,000 (US$76,300) for a degree.

“As the chaos and uncertainty brought upon [the] vocational education and training system through open market competition and subsidising for-profit private providers has proven, making deregulation the centre of any tertiary education policy is inconsistent with having a sustainable funding framework,” she said.

Call for review

In its call for a "depoliticised" review, the Go8 says this could include the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Minerals Council of Australia, together with the learned academies.

“Such a review would also consider the full scope of university funding, including research funding. High quality research is vital for our nation’s future economic prosperity and the Group of Eight universities receive almost 75% of all competitive grant funding for research,” the release says.

The review should consider the nation’s willingness to invest in research in ways that enabled it to be undertaken without the current level of cross-subsidisation by teaching fees, it says. A review of this type had the potential to illustrate for the public and politicians in a much clearer way the issues currently facing the sector.

But neither the Labor Party Opposition nor Pyne have backed the review proposal. Pyne said 33 reviews into Australian higher education had been undertaken since 1950 and he could see no reason to hold another.

CEO highlights Go8 importance

In a newsletter to her vice-chancellors last week, Go8’s chief executive Vicki Thomson highlighted the influence and significance of the eight universities to Australian higher education and the wider community.

“The Go8 universities educate 25% of all higher education students in Australia and teach more than 40% of the nation’s engineering and science students, and more than 62% of all Australia’s medical, dentistry and veterinary students,” Thomson wrote.

“And of course we excel in research. In 2013, our research funding was A$2.4 billion or two-thirds of all research funding to Australian universities. More than 30,000 research students were enrolled at a Go8 university, and over half of all research degree completions were from a Go8 university."

She said these facts and figures showed why the Go8 had put so much effort into encouraging politicians to deal with the funding crisis affecting higher education.

"The percentage of students and the percentage of research the Go8 is responsible for, the value we push out into the economy, means that bad public policy or panicked band-aid political decisions which are not an effective long-term solution, negatively impact on the Go8 more than other universities," Thomson said.

University World News

Universities and colleges face wholesale reforms

Jan Petter Myklebust
30 March 2015 University World News Global Edition Issue 361

The Norwegian government has begun the biggest higher education reforms since 1994, when 98 higher education institutions were merged into 26 university colleges. Minister of Education and Research Torbjørn Røe Isaksen said he expected significantly fewer universities and university colleges would exist in the future than the 33 institutions today. The Norwegian government has begun the biggest series of higher education reforms since 1994, when 98 higher education institutions were merged into 26 university colleges.

Minister of Education and Research Torbjørn Røe Isaksen said he expected significantly fewer universities and university colleges would result from the reforms than the 33 Norwegian institutions today.

“The time is now ripe for this reform,” Isaksen said. “I have not met with one single person who has expressed any regrets about the 1994 mergers.”

Under the changes, 14 universities and university colleges are to be merged into five new universities or university colleges. The largest of the new institutions will be the Norwegian University of Technology in Trondheim.

A national commission of experts delivered a report on reforming the higher education system in 2008, but this was shelved. The plans were taken up again by the new Conservative-Progress Party government after it won the 2013 election, following eight years of a “red-green” coalition government.

White paper

The present government released a white paper setting out the new reforms. It appears to have based its structural change on similar reforms in Denmark, Finland, Sweden, England, the Netherlands and Switzerland, where the focus was on turning university colleges into universities, often through mergers.

A major aspect of the Norwegian reforms is extending teacher training to a five-year masters programme. This will require greater collaboration between the universities and university colleges.

Isaksen used the terms “robustness” and “less fragmentation” several times during his presentation of the reforms. He said Norway had too many smaller higher education institutions with little demand for all their programmes. Some had problems attracting highly qualified staff and consequently produced little research and too few graduate students.

”In particular, the ability to compete for and attract external funding for research is very limited. Hence, the pre-conditions for active participation in international research network cooperation are not present,” he said.

There was also a need for changes to generate education and research of high quality, with more robust research groups in which several should be world-leading, Isaksen said. This would provide a more effective use of available resources and thereby contribute to regional development, with better higher education and research competence across the country.

Although the universities of Oslo and Bergen will not be involved in any mergers for the present, they are included in discussions regarding 22 other institutions, both private and public colleges, where mergers and other collaborative options will be discussed.

The earlier programme for transforming university colleges into universities stopped when the present government took office in 2013. Although this scheme will now proceed, the criteria for achieving university status has been tightened and new universities will require their doctoral programmes to have at least 15 doctoral students each, and over time graduate at least 15 candidates each year.

Academic recognition of masters and doctoral courses will be transferred to a national quality assurance body called NOKUT. This will act under more direct control of the ministry.

Similarly, the head of the universities’ governing boards will be appointed by the ministry and selected from outside each university. At present, a university rector is chair of the board and he or she can be elected by the university staff – although this gives academic staff greater influence over the election than administrative and technical staff, or the student vote.

Norway will now follow the other Nordic countries where the education ministries have long appointed the head of the university boards. From now on, Norwegian rectors will be appointed by the board.

Financial consequences

The consequences of the reforms on institutional budgets will not be known until the government’s budget for 2016 is presented in October. University and college allocations are composed of a basic component of 70% and an incentive provision of 30%.

The basic component is historically subject to several parameters and the incentive is based on four: the number of research contracts awarded from the Research Council of Norway, the number of doctoral candidates graduating; the number of publications produced by academic staff; and the research income from the European research programmes, where the latter is matched by the same amount as the institution is receiving.

Two expert commissions have been analysing this financial system, the Productivity Commission and a university financing commission. Both have proposed revisions that will be considered by the government when preparing its 2016 budget.

Rector of the University of Bergen, Dag Rune Olsen, said the point of the reforms was to improve quality: “Mergers will in some cases be rational, but these cannot be a goal in itself. A merger is one of several instruments that can be used and not the only one. For the University of Bergen and the other higher education institutions here, this means a great degree of autonomy for the way ahead.”

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