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How to valorise my PhD? First aid in planning your career path, Authors: Van Damme, I., Kerkhofs, S., & Nivelle, N.

In Belgium, the number of PhD students is steadily increasing, whereas the absorption capacity of the universities is too limited to allow all of them a long-term academic position. Hence, most Belgian PhDs will need to turn to other sectors in order to further develop their talents and their career.
Universities thus need to consider intersectoral (as well as international) mobility as a valuable professional step, and facilitate such steps where possible.

Hasselt University offers a wide range of PhD and postdoctoral courses in both discipline-specific and transferable skills. On top of that, it aims to (1) provide young researchers with information on various career possibilities, and (2) bring them into contact with companies, hospitals, government instances, etc. In order to reach these goals, the university’s doctoral schools decided to collaborate with two external organisations: the Flemish employment office VDAB and the regional Innovation Centre Limburg (ICL), which supports industrial innovation.
On May 23, 2012, a pilot project was launched entitled ‘How to valorise my PhD? First aid in planning your career path’. It was a two-stage project, aimed at PhD students and postdocs from across all disciplines. First, 10 young researchers were offered individual career counselling sessions by the VDAB, in order to help them define their competences, formulate professional goals and draw up a professional action plan. Second, they were brought into contact with various non-academic instances. The latter part was named ‘PhD 2.0: What’s next?’ and implied a one-day workshop on how to deliver an elevator pitch, and (a couple of weeks later) a panel session at which candidates discussed their career options with representatives from industry, hospitals, the Flemish government and employment agencies.
The positive evaluation of the project by both participants and organizers led to a structural collaboration between Hasselt University, the VDAB and the ICL, aimed at supporting young researchers in developing their professional career. On June 25, 2014, an extended and improved version of ‘How to valorise my PhD? First aid in planning your career path’ was initiated. The career counselling sessions are now offered to 25 young researchers each year, and an improved version of ‘PhD 2.0: What’s next?’ is organized annually. The following improvements were made to the concept:
(1) By a full English programme, the project was opened up to non-Belgian participants as well.
(2) ‘PhD 2.0: What’s next?’ is now compressed in a one-day package, including a workshop, a panel session and a networking reception. The workshop teaches young researchers how to best introduce themselves at a job interview. Based on the principle ‘practice makes perfect’, it involves rehearsing and polishing up the participants’ elevator pitch, as a direct preparation for the panel session. In the latter, the researchers introduce themselves to a non-academic panel as if they would in a job interview. A logistic change involved placing participants in front of the panel (rather than sitting in a circle as was done before) in order to better resemble a job interview setting. This small change turned out to have huge consequences, as the panel members suddenly started to behave as if it was an actual job interview! In this year’s edition, the young candidates were exposed to a barrage of questions and were really put on the rack, albeit with the best intentions. In turn, they were allowed to ask questions to the non-academic panel as well. Fifteen to twenty minutes were allotted per candidate, with a moderator keeping track of time and turn-taking.
(3) Whereas the pilot project only included participants of the individual career coaching in ‘PhD 2.0: What’s next?’, now all young researchers can apply.
Evaluations were unanimously positive, with an average score of 8.6 out of 10 for the workshop and 8.9 for the panel session. One PhD student wrote on his evaluation form: “I never learned so much in one day!” Several candidates already found a new job, partly thanks to the newly acquired skills and expertise. The non-academic panel members were also very enthusiastic about the initiative and the new formula. The fact that none of them charged us for their presence speaks within its own right.

In sum, with this initiative, we successfully bridged the gap between the university and non-academic sectors. The same or a similar formula can easily be applied in other countries, too. At Hasselt University, the organisation was in the hands of the doctoral schools, but other departments could take the lead as well. Collaboration with an employment office like VDAB and organisations like ICL is definitely an added value, but even universities in itself can realize a similar initiative. Also, research discipline doesn’t matter, as HR representatives from all possible sectors are typically happy to help. They get something out of it as well: They get into contact with young potentials who might be future employees.

Ilse van Damme, Stefanie Kerkhoff and Nele Nivelle are all part of Hasselt University's staff. While Ilse van Damme and Stefanie Kerkhoff are Doctoral Schools Coordinators, Nele Nivelle is a Liaison Officer.

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