From PhD to professional: Seeking mentors, finding brokers

Sherrie Lee, PhD Candidate, University of Waikato

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 informal learning 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.


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Sherrie Lee is from Singapore and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Waikato. She is the past president of the Postgraduate Students’ Association and currently serves as its mentor. Her research uses the concept of brokering to investigate the informal learning practices among first year international tertiary students in New Zealand. Prior to doctoral studies, Sherrie was a business communications lecturer at a polytechnic in Singapore. She writes about her research interests on her personal blog The Diasporic Academic.

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