Diary of a Postgrad student – Business vs Academia

I’ve come at my Masters in a different way. I spent 20+ years as a business consultant. I helped businesses improve. I trained people on how to interpret data. I ran a callcentre and was responsible for profit and loss.

And then I did a Masters in Psychology and it has been a bit of a shock to the system.

From the start the conversations and tasks have been about improving your CV and giving you skills for the world of work. But none of the stuff we’ve covered appears to be connected to the reality of working in the business space. It’s all about Academia

Let me give you a few examples here:

  1. Timekeeping: In work, if a meeting is scheduled to start at 9am, and you turn up at 9am, then you are late. You need to be ready to start at 9 so you need to turn up early enough to sit down and get ready. In my lectures, very few were there at 9am, including the lecturers sometimes! A lecture didn’t usually start until 9:15. I get that being a student is different from a job so you don’t want to be as tied down, but if you walk out of uni and into a job, where you turn up at 9:05 for a 9am meeting then you are not going to be doing very well! I used to tell my team that if they were late for a meeting it meant “I have something else to do that’s more important than you”.
  2. Presenting: From day 1 we have been asked to stand up and present. This is supposed to get us comfortable with presenting. At no point were we given any guidance on how to present, or how to construct a presentation. If you were terrified of presenting, you would be just as terrified after doing it 5 times as you are after once. You stand up, you present, and that’s it. No accountability. No follow through. You don’t ever do a presentation just for the sake of it in work. You present to communicate your results, and you walk away with actions. You present to pitch to potential clients, and you need to showcase what you do and get through to them. You present to a team to let them know where you are up to and where you are going. You never stand up, present, and take no further action. And you are presenting what you think and do, not what everyone else thinks and does. You need to know how to communicate in a way an audience understands. Nothing on my course has covered clearly communicating. In fact, the opposite…see the next point!
  3. Critically Evaluate: Most assignments are to “critically evaluate” something. I get that we are learning so we need to look at other people’s work, but surely to critically evaluate something, we must also think about it? If you offer an opinion on something in an essay, you must be able to find someone else who has already done research on that opinion/way of looking at things. If you can’t find someone else who has the same theory, then you are marked down for raising it. How is that critically evaluating something? It is merely doing an inventory of other people’s work. It doesn’t matter whether the work has a real world use or application, or even a basis. Because that is not important to get published. How can the field grow if we are only building on someone else’s hypothesis all the time? And that hypothesis has probably been constructed in a way to get published, rather than to make a real difference to the world.
  4. Analysing data: When you present your data in a work environment, they are not looking for what everyone else did, they want YOUR work and YOUR opinion. And just saying “it is so” is not good enough. You have to say “So what?”. What impact does it have? How are you going to act on it? There is a high degree of accountability, not just in doing something with your data, but also in making sure you communicate it clearly. If you have a team of 20 managers working for you, who started life on the phones in a call centre, and don’t even understand variation in data let alone standard deviation, and present them with charts showing standard deviation and confidence intervals, you are going to scare the heck out of them. You want the data to be meaningful. You want people to understand what you are saying so they can do something with it. Yes, in an experiment we need to control and measure and validate. But we’re missing the “So what?” at the end. Being able to interpret and change data is a more important skill than reading and reciting.
  5. Deadlines: You might get asked by your boss to pull together a presentation to deliver in the next few days. If you are lucky, you might get a week or two, but that’s unusual. At uni we are given weeks to do everything. One of the critical things to learn to do in work is to juggle multiple types of deadline. In uni, you have loads of time for your assignments and yet, how many people leave it to the last minute?
  6. Group work: A lot of work that you have to do involves being assigned a group/selecting a group. Group work is really tricky but a critical skill for any job you do. There is almost nothing you will do in the workplace that you are solely responsible for. Once more, no guidance is given on how to work in a group (see my post on group work for tips).

If there wasn’t so much emphasis on gaining skills to make you so employable, I could understand this gap more. A clear delineation between your degree and work would make sense. However, increasingly employers are shying away from graduates because they lack some of the core skills that are necessary for being effective in the workplace. Having done my Masters and mixed with so many Undergraduates, I can understand why.

A psychology graduate, going into a regular business environment (as opposed to clinical psychology or counselling), would have a bunch of habits and behaviours that they would need to un-learn to be effective. This is not good for the employer or employee.

I have spent my whole career mastering how to communicate simply and effectively with people at all levels of an organisation. From Managing Director to call centre adviser, I could get anyone to understand complex ideas and take action. I did this across the world.

I have just spent nearly a year having to go against everything I have learnt.

I have had to learn to write using complex language; avoiding putting things into my own words.

I have had to learn to report data using equations and formats that are only meaningful to people who understand statistics.

I have had to learn to present without any consideration for the “so what?”.

There isn’t a single thing I have learnt on this Masters that would be of any value back in my business role.

There isn’t a single thing I have learnt that has added to my role as a therapist or as a public speaker and author.

And this is why, when I’ve finished my Masters, this is as far as I am going.

I am not going to do a PhD. I would love to be Dr. Dawn Walton. But I am not willing to waste 3-4 years of my life to get 2 letters. Yes, it would make me appear more credible for speaking engagements. But a Masters will also do that for me. I will (hopefully) have a credible psychology qualification by the end of the year. That’s enough. Everything else I will have to achieve through hard work and running at closed doors.

Written by:

Hi, my name is Dawn Walton and I am a 44 year old therapist that lives in the Dundee area. I'm originally from Anglesey in North Wales, but I've lived here for 17 years. My first degree was in Computing at UMIST in Manchester. Now I'm studying a Masters in Psychological Research Methods with the aim of going on to do a Phd.

I love Starbucks and Pokemon Go. So they are likely to feature in my posts quite often!

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