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Graduate Spirit Alumni Dialog Series: Increasing Intersectorality In European Doctoral Education

The Graduate Spirit (GS) project aims to improve the quality of European doctoral education in the Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH) in response to the reality that most doctoral graduates ultimately find employment outside of the academic sector. Meeting the needs of a changing labour market requires greater emphasis on the EU Triple-I recommendations on doctoral training: to be international, interdisciplinary and intersectoral.

Alumni networks are long-established means for engaging alumni to support current students; providing greater opportunities for networking and for research collaborations; raising the visibility of educational institutions; and fundraising. Successful networks also provide valued benefits to alumni for a mutually beneficial experience and long-term engagement. However, many alumni networks are often very broad in scope, open to all disciplines, and in the Graduate Spirit we found no networks specifically designed for PhDs in the SSH.

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As part of a series of Graduate Spirit activities to test and evaluate innovations for their added value to European doctoral training we ran a series of four international online Alumni Dialogs in February and March 2020: “International Insights on Career Paths after a Doctoral Degree in Social Sciences and the Humanities”. The objectives were to:

  1. Determine the value of an alumni network specifically focused on SSH.
  2. Review the strengths and weakness of current education support systems, including training and networking opportunities, as perceived by former graduate researchers and students invited to the dialogs.
  3. Establish how graduate schools can better support the transition from academic research to professional careers in other sectors.
  4. Identify the factors needed for the success of a specialised alumni sector.
  5. Determine the suitability of virtual platform for running these types of events.

This activity also sought to capitalise on the international network provided by the
nine European universities that make up the Graduate Spirit consortium. Fifteen alumni participated individually by an online conferencing application.

The format of the events was to provide each alumni the opportunity to share their professional path and to reflect on the factors that supported their transition to a career outside academia. This was followed by a general discussion and Q&A session.

The main findings and recommendations of this series are:

  1. The idea of intersectoral alumni networks focused on SSH was met with mixed responses. On the one hand they can be valuable to offer guidance to PhD-researchers wanting to change to a professional sector. PhD supervisors and academic staff are generally not in the best position to provide specific advice and guidance on the professional requirements and expectations of non-academic sectors, because they lack personal experience in these. This is exacerbated by the fact that many economic sectors are experiencing profound changes and innovations. Alumni are also better positioned to provide appropriate information and support for professional contacts. On the other hand, in terms of their own networks, the alumni we spoke with felt that an alumni network from their Graduate School would possibly be too general to be of use for their own career. Also, especially the PhD candidates from the large umbrella schools did not feel a direct loyalty and sense of community with the school. This was markedly less with the smaller schools such as CEU and Heidelberg.
  2. Experiences of our participants with the kind of skills and support they received from their school varied. All participants emphasized the importance to decide early what one wanted from life after the PhD and prepare as soon as possible for outside jobs. Some PhD candidates felt that the pressure of the PhD hardly gave them time to do so, others reported support from supervisors. All training activities, however, were felt to be too incidental and touching on skills rather than training them.
  3. GS can support in providing training for the transferable skills needed in other sectors, and all have stablished training programmes to this aim. It is important to be responsive to the changing requirement of job markets, e.g. switching from traditional project management skills to agile management. GS can also assist by encouraging early reflection on career choices and options after a PhD, to help doctoral candidates prepare better. GS could also expand their current activities by helping PhD candidates to prepare and practice their networking skills and to open up the PhD trajectory to include internships and other forms of on the job training.
  4. Doctoral researchers have a very important role to play in shaping their own future. Almost all participating alumni related the importance of activities and interests outside of their doctoral research for gaining new skills and contacts, and for increasing awareness of the possibilities in other sectors and of the skills needed to be successful in other careers. They also reported that they acquired many skills during their PhD but that these were hardly recognized and identified (neither by themselves, nor by their supervisors) as skills. The transition to other sectors therefore requires exercising introspection and “translating” the experience in a way that is meaningful to employers in other sectors. And it is important that a PhD degree is also a very transformative personal journey that can be very positive in its own right.
  5. Virtual conferencing solutions are very effective for running dialog series and workshops and a good way of bringing together an international panel of speakers. The current PhD candidates that participated in the seminar all reported that …. It will be important, therefore, to set up such meetings with very focused goals so that expectations for alumni and PhD candidates are clear and the effectiveness is maximized. Virtual conferencing like we tried for this proved to be extremely structured and efficient but seems to lend itself less for prolonged networking and socializing. However, it proved difficult to engage current doctoral candidates, possibly because the event was not part of any of the curricula but perceived as an outside event offered by an outside partner. It would be important to establish such online intersectoral support events as a standard part of the curriculum.

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