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Roger Clarke's 'IS PhDs in Industry'

Archetypes and the Ambiguous Notion of 'Career'

Version of 21 November 2015

Notes for a Panel Presentation on
'Career paths after the PhD: in academia, industry, and government'
at the ACIS'15 PhD Consortium, Adelaide, 1 December 2015

Roger Clarke **

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As you emerge from the strange half-light of a PhD program, and launch yourself into 'a day-job', what archetype do you fancy aligning yourself with?

It's not clear that the current world still supports the quaint notion of 'a career' - as distinct from ideas and individuals 'careering through' a multi-dimensional space whose parameters keep changing.

This brief talk considers images like the IRD Nerd, the upwardly-mobile 'corporate man', the 'thought-leader' brand-name consultant, the specialist consultant, and the university-industry boundary rider.

Because plannable trajectories are likely to be in short supply during the coming decades, flexibility and adaptability will be critical. That implies the need to invest not only in the profile you project, but also in your real profile.

1. Introduction

I've been asked to contribute something about career paths in business and government for a PhD in Information Systems. There are some qualifications that offer a moderately predictable career path, even in today's unsettled marketplaces for labour. Electricians, diesel engine mechanics, wet-lab micro-biology researchers, accountants and lawyers can still follow well-trodden paths.

But a PhD generally draws people away from the 'settled' and 'well-trodden'. Just as your doctoral work has needed to push the boundaries, so too with your career-path. There are no simple statements that can be made about where you go next and what you do. So here are some complicated and hedged comments.


IS is a wide field, so let's start with an option that's primarily open to people on the 'software engineering', 'data modelling and database', 'constructive' end of the discipline.

One path that can be pursued is Industrial Research & Development, by becoming what could be called an 'IRD Nerd'. You can leverage your current grasp of research and development into the industrial space, further down the chain towards articulation, innovation and implementation.

We continually bemoan the backward slide of investment in public-sector and private-sector research laboratories, but there still are such things. But there's more emphasis these days on the particular category of micro-business called 'start-ups'.

Few people have the right psyche to participate in serial start-ups and make an entire career of it. But many PhD graduates have at least one 'wild ride' in them, and it's certainly an exciting way to set out on a career. A $28,000 p.a. PhD stipend is good preparation for the limited income that may be earned in such roles.

3. 'Corporate Man'

If you're in the broad mainstream of business-oriented IS, IRD Nerd is probably the wrong archtype. You need to consider large corporates and government agencies as targets, both as an entry-point, and as a long-term path. The excitement level is mostly a lot lower, but it's somewhat closer to the old idea of 'a job for life' and 'married to the company'.

To succeed, there's a need to convey two somewhat contradictory messages:

While he was Chief Scientist, Ian Chubb offered some thoughts on this. He described PhD graduates as "analytical, creative, independent and driven personalities" and drew attention to their experience of "answering and developing innovative solutions to novel questions". To an employer, that spells both promise and danger.

But Chubb also pointed out that PhD graduates "have skills in problem solving, project management [and] working within tight budgets. I'll say a little more later about 'profile', because 'corporate man' needs to tick boxes and fit into round holes determined by behavioural psychologists.

4. Consultancy

Large, 'brand-name' consultancy groups are generally more attracted to what Chubb referred to as "analytical, creative, independent and driven personalities". They may demand something approaching slave labour, particularly during the early years of employment; but they may also provide very strong foundations for a career, and of course look good on your CV.

Smaller, specialist consultancies may provide a great deal more job-satisfaction, because there are far fewer layers, and far less internal bureaucracy to contend with. The flip-side of the coin is that they are often far less robust, and far more dependent on each employee already having a broad range of expertise and skills, very effective personal time-management, and the ability to apply themselves to a diverse array of assignments.

One path that has been used a lot in the past, and is still viable, is to start with a large consultancy firm, develop your expertise, and either stay in the sector, move to or establish a small-scale consultancy, or move to other corporations or government.

5. The University-Industry Interface

During the last two decades, research institutions have been forced to unbundle and virtualise. There are far fewer permanent positions, and far more casual and short-term contracts. Many of the impacts of this have been negative, but some people are able to flourish in the space between research institutions on the one hand, and business and government on the other.

Few fresh PhDs are likely to be well-positioned for this when they graduate, but those with prior work-experience may be, and many people may gravitate into such boundary-rider roles one way or another.

6. 'Profile', or Why You Should Be Noticed

Whichever archetype(s) you're attracted to, you need to understand and manage your profile. Many people focus on appearances - and it's true that a sloppy LinkedIn or personal home-page can be a lot worse than none at all. But, to fulfil your promise, you also need to focus on substance.

* Check your coverage of professional expertise

You may know everything about your PhD topic, but make sure your beaming self-confidence doesn't convey to potential employers that you think you know everything about everything else as well.

Use the ACS mySFIA tool to check the areas where you have good coverage, some coverage, and inadequate coverage. SFIA clusters skills into:

* Recognise and address weaknesses

For example, many PhD graduates have operated as 'lone wolves'. If so, look for ways to build yout team-working and collaborative skills, e.g. by familiarising yourself with contemporary tools.

If you can't get experience in industry and government, there are plenty of opportunities to contribute pro bono to service organisations, both in the general community and in professional contexts.

My personal orbit includes the Australian Computer Society, Internet Australia, Electronic Frontiers Australia, and the Australian Privacy Foundation; but there are plenty of other places to invest effort and develop experience in working contructively with others.

* Demonstrate coverage of skills

Many employers are suspicious that PhD graduates have their heads in the clouds. They're likely to be more comfortable if they can see evidence of industry-based qualifications, e.g. in project management (e.g. PMBOK, PMP, PRINCE), info security (e.g. CISSP), IT management (e.g. ITIL).

* Demonstrate you can work with others

Individual achievement is good! But psychologists who work for employers (and who often have an effective right of veto in employment decisions) look for candidates with an appreciation of other people, and evidence of having worked within teams, on collaborative achievement.

* Ensure flexibility and adaptability

It's good to have a clear idea about what you want to do. But in many circumstances you'll need to be prepared to depart from your preconceived pathway and help fulfil the needs of the organisation and other people in it.

* 'Demonstrate your capacity for loyalty'

In being flexible and adaptable, you necessarily compromise your own needs to enable other people to satisfy theirs. But some organisations, especially large ones, may demand more than that. They may require you to suppress your personal preferences, and your principles, in favour of the needs of the corporation or government agency, or of a senior executive or the Minister.

For some people, the test may arrive well into their working-life. But entry-point psych testing might expose you as being too strongly self-centred, or otherwise unwilling to compromise your integrity. That may make some of the archetypes less likely alternatives for you - particularly 'corporate man'.

7. Conclusions

I had 6 years work-experience before I finished my first degree. Because I scored an Hons I, I quickly smothered it with a Masters degree. Employers then and now are suspicious about high scores in academic endeavours.

The mantle of PhD is many things, including satisfying, and evidence of intellect, effort and achievement. But it can also be an albatross around your neck, if you let it.

For success in industry or government, you need to complement a PhD with other expertise, and evidence of expertise. I suggest that you pick an archetype or two, and craft your profile - not just gloss it - to fit to those patterns.

Author Affiliations

Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor in Cyberspace Law & Policy at the University of N.S.W., and a Visiting Professor in the Computer Science at the Australian National University. He has served as a Director and Chair of for-profit corporations, and as a Board-Member, Chair and Secretary of the Australian Privacy Foundation, Electronic Frontiers Australia, and Internet Australia.

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