Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel is proving to be one of the country’s most stimulating thinkers. This entrepreneur, engineer, neuroscientist and educator has a way with words that enables him to talk about complex issues in an engaging manner. He makes the problems and challenges surrounding higher education, research and science actually interesting to people outside of the policy wonk/commentariat bubble.

He was busy recently explaining how universities “can get to the future first” and then later mounting a spirited argument around the future of the PhD.

In talk No 1, he said a university ought to be a “Factory of the Future”. Institutions can get to “the future first” not by predicting it but by training the people who make it unpredictable. This means students “need to be adaptable, well-trained enough to adapt to the jobs that are available, transferring their skills and capitalising on their core knowledge”.

With the future of work an unknown, it is not possible to make graduates “job-ready”, he said – instead universities need to train people to who are “job capable”:

“Job ready graduates might not be adaptable, and run the risk of being left behind in the ebb and flow of technology driven disruption. ‘Job capable’ graduates will ride the tides, as you would want them to do.”

He said we cannot expect to place every engineer into engineering, every lawyer into law and every scientist into research.

“What [universities] offer instead is something worth having: the capacity to adapt to change – and the appetite to bring it about. Our challenge is to explain that mission, and to excel at it: and we won’t achieve either unless we do both.”

This is just a small extract from his talk – it will be worth your time to read his speech in full here.

In talk No 2, while defending the PhD qualification, Dr Finkel made it clear that there is plenty of room for change and adaptation particularly as the doctorate is no longer a ticket to a career in academe.

“It is not enough for a PhD to have a big ambition in research and a superb depth of knowledge in their specialised field. At a minimum, they need to be capable of adapting what they know to the expectations of a non-academic job.”

Dr Finkel said he would raise the bar a few notches higher.

“As a CEO, if I am going to pay a premium for a PhD trained worker, I want more than the ability to execute my directions.

“I want an individual who can see opportunity in the places I don’t expect … who give me more than I ask for, by responding to the ambition as well as the letter of my directions … and knows no limit to their own personal capacity to achieve.”

Again, it’s worth reading the speech in full, which you can do here.

  • On the topic of the future directions of the doctorate, in the coming weeks HECG’s Managing Director David Wright will be giving his views in this space on the practical steps that can be taken to ensure the PhD can be adapted to be of true value to industry. Stay tuned.