Rachel Handforth


Doctoral study has traditionally been thought of as the start of an academic career, with doctoral students working as ‘apprentices’. However, the influx of PhD students into UK higher education over recent years, and the lack of investment in early career positions in universities, has led to increased competition for academic jobs. My research into the career aspirations of women doctoral students aims to highlight the internal and external factors that shape whether or not they choose to pursue an academic career. Their perceptions of academia are largely shaped by their experiences during the PhD, as well as wider, structural issues within academia.

Last week’s strike by UCU, the trade union for university staff, brought to the fore many of the underlying problems in UK higher education. They highlighted the increasingly insecure nature of academic contracts in institutions with a significant number of staff on casual contracts, as well as the persistent gender pay gap- where male university staff earn on average 12.6% more than female counterparts. In the same week, a Russell group institution advertised a humanities ‘teaching associate’ who would be employed on a ‘part-term, fractional (permanent) contract’, meaning the post-holder would only be employed for 36 weeks of the year.  The latest Academics Anonymous article in the Guardian highlights the challenges of living on a casual academic contract.

Women in academia are affected more than men by increased casualisation. They are more likely than men to work on temporary contracts, as well as and on contracts that are weighted more towards teaching than research (Morley, 2013)- in a system that gives higher status, and financial reward, to those working in research. In a higher education system that values and rewards research over teaching, it is easy to see how this contributes to the lack of women in more senior academic roles- just 22% of all professors are women (HESA, 2015).

My research examines the career aspirations of women doctoral students, and how their aspirations are shaped and changed over the course of their PhD. It is situated in literature such as a study by the Wellcome Trust, (2012) which found that despite initial aspirations of an academic career, by the end of the doctorate women were considerably less likely than men to want to pursue a career as an academic.

But why is this? Other researchers have found that women often do not receive adequate support or mentoring during their PhD (Bagilhole and White, 2013), can face overt and covert sexism (de Welde and Laursen, 2011), and those with caring responsibilities experience role conflict (Brown and Watson, 2010). In addition, a series of articles in the Guardian’s ‘Academics Anonymous’ pages highlights the difficulties facing those working in academia. These include institutional sexism, the rise in mental illness amongst academic staff as a result of overwork and stress, as well as the difficulty in maintaining a healthy work/life balance.

What does this mean for the participants in my study? In my interviews with them, their perceptions of academia are largely negative. Should they decide to pursue an academic career, they expect to encounter a range of barriers- from intense competition for jobs to having to move around the country to find work, and struggles in combining work with family life. Though they are passionate about their research and love their subjects, they perceive the environment within which they work as potentially damaging: “there are so many reasons not to be an academic, like the working hours and the expectations… the stress looks crippling at times”.

These negative perceptions of academia are clearly shaping their career aspirations- of those who had initially been eager to become academics, a significant number of them are reconsidering. Discussing the career options they have considered for after the PhD, one woman who initially had expressed a desire to become an academic told me that she was now considering roles outside of academia, as she felt that this would enable her to still do some research “without having to have the whole academic extravaganza of misery attached to it”.

Many of the reasons they give relate to working in an environment where they are expected to work ‘crazy hours’, are put under significant pressure to publish papers alongside working on their thesis, and are often expected to prioritise their work over everything else in their life. Significantly, participants often refer to viewing the behaviour of their supervisors or other academics in their department, and feeling that they want to avoid working in this way. One participant described how her supervisor frequently emailed her in the middle of the night and on weekends: It… really puts me off, I’m just like, I really hope I don’t become like that”This idea that doctoral students do not want to imagine themselves in academic roles because of their negative perceptions of academics around them, is of concern- and should make supervisors reflect on their position as potential role models for PhD students.

It is unsurprising that these negative perceptions of academia may well be discouraging women doctoral students from pursuing academic careers. The knowledge that competition for any kind of academic role will be high, and that these roles are likely to be temporary and require relocating, combined with the pressures to publish and expectations of working long hours may well mean that women choose not to pursue a career in academia.

My research aims to explore the factors which contribute to and shape individual’s career aspirations. Career decisions are taken for a variety reasons, yet it seems undeniable that doctoral students are discouraged from pursuing an academic career largely because of structural problems within academia itself. The increasing casualisation of academic work highlighted in the recent actions of UCU continues, and inevitably will have a negative impact on the aspirations and career decisions of doctoral students.


Rachel Handforth is a second year PhD student at Sheffield Hallam University. Her doctoral research focuses on gender in higher education in the UK.  She is undertaking a qualitative longitudinal study which explores the career aspirations of women doctoral students. Her research interests include auto-ethnography, identity, narrative research methodologies, and representations of gender in popular culture. She also works as a part-time research assistant in the Humanities Research Centre at Sheffield Hallam University, conducting research on representations of gender in popular music.