Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the future. Perhaps it’s something to do with entering my thirties. Or perhaps it’s something to do with nearing the end of my PhD. Or perhaps it’s the realisation that I’m not entirely sure where the world is headed, and equally unsure about my place in it. I used to think that I could contribute to a better future, and I thought that a PhD might lead me down a path towards that improvement. These days I’m not so sure.
Last month I attended the 2015 Institute of Australian Geographers Conference in Canberra. This was my first visit to our nation’s capital since I was a little kid. (Where my only memory is of a not-too-pleasant encounter with an earthquake simulator). I was impressed by the scale of Parliament House, and tried to imagine public servants and politicians flocking through the halls (parliament was in recess when I was visiting). I tried to imagine what my role could be within this structure – should I be passing information to public servants? Meeting with politicians? Or forming picket lines out the front? How could I contribute to the change we need? And could it be done from within academia?
The postgraduate day presented some interesting points for consideration. Inger Mewburn of ANU (also known as the ‘Thesis Whisperer’) outlined a project to help improve the employability of PhD graduates in industry. Apparently, this thing I’m working on (the PhD) doesn’t equate to any particular skills in the eyes of those outside academia. A presentation by a recent PhD graduate highlighted this issue. He applied for an administration position at his preferred workplace, using his night-fill position at Kmart as work experience, because he thought he was more likely to enter the workforce at the administrative level than through his research experience. (He was right). The post-PhD experience in academia was similarly rosy. Someone presented on the perils of being a sessional academic – endless short-term contracts and the realisation that you will end up at Centrelink each Christmas when the university year draws to a close. The future, for me, does not look so bright.
The second part of the postgraduate day focussed on how to create research ‘impact’, in particular in creating a link between research and policy. Steve Dovers, head of the Fenner School of Environment and Society at ANU, spoke about the need for researchers to choose their place in the policy sphere. He described the decision as being ‘inside the tent’ – engaging in negotiations, providing advice and generally influencing others, or ‘outside the tent’ – communicating messages to the public, creating activist networks, using research to create pressure for an environment of change.
Could I be in the tent? Did I belong outside the tent?
During a conversation with my friend Micha (PhD candidate studying paleo-climate) about her support for Sea Shepherd she mentioned that she used to support government policy to solve environmental problems, but there didn’t seem to be any progress so now she turned to activism. I told her about the tent analogy, and suggested she had moved outside the tent. She responded with something like ‘that’s the thing. I don’t think I’m even at the campground. I think I’m still on the bus or something’. I thought about it for a moment and said ‘I think I’m still in the driveway’.
And that seems fair – it’s hard to picture where you think you can make a difference when the point of difference-making is so far removed from where you are. How do you plan a ‘strategic direction’ for your future when you don’t know where you’re heading and don’t know how to get there?
I like to conclude these little blog-post muses with some kind of solution. Luckily, in this case, a solution is forthcoming – at some point I’ll finish my PhD and Future Gen will necessarily have to deal with these issues. But in the meantime I can try to be more systematic in the way I prepare for that future. I can make myself as employable as possible in a raft of different industry areas (academia, government, consulting… entrepreneurship?) and I can keep myself informed of the scope of options for change. But most importantly, I can keep my chin up, write my freaking thesis, and think long and hard about that campground in the distance.