As a PhD student, should you be a ‘Yes Man’? Some thoughts on employability and the Vitae RDF

In the movie “Yes Man” (2008), we see Carl Allen (Jim Carrey) say ‘yes’ to everything. Carl becomes more adventurous and open, and it quickly becomes apparent that there are many benefits to saying ‘yes’ and going with the flow. At the same time, by saying ‘yes’ indiscriminately, Carl gets himself in some less-than-ideal, albeit hilarious situations. The point that the movie drives home is that it’s good to say ‘yes’ more, but maybe not to absolutely everything. It’s a great movie, really, as is any movie starring Jim Carrey.

As a PhD student, it’s easy to become a ‘yes man’. There are so many opportunities to work, learn, and help out in addition to doing the PhD itself. In 2020, the year that everything went online, it was even easier for us all to tune in to talks, training events, and meetings. In fact, I think I’ve said ‘yes’ to almost every opportunity that has come my way over the past three months and have only benefitted from doing so. In my case, additional learning opportunities have been coming from SGSSS, SDS, Napier’s School of Computing, Napier’s Research Innovation & Enterprise office (RIE), external parties, or in the form of suggestions from colleagues. I am in a very fortunate position to have access to so many opportunities.

From what I hear, though, the beginning of a PhD is like a honeymoon period. It is all about getting to know your domain and increasing your own capacity to act within it through a combination of formal and informal learning. There is time to explore rabbit holes in the literature and it is perfectly fine to explore what opportunities and resources are available locally and externally. ‘Yes man’ habits can continue beyond this honeymoon period, but in reduced measure, so as to allow for PhD work to be completed on time.

As a side note, the informal learning that occurs in educational settings has been referred to by scholars as the ‘hidden curriculum’. Readers interested in informal learning in doctoral education can visit The Hidden Curriculum blog which is, as its title suggests, a blog dedicated to helping PhD students navigate the hidden curriculum. The important role of social networks and social embeddedness in enabling informal learning in the hidden curriculum is a resounding note throughout the blog. In other words, if the curriculum is hidden, that implies that it needs to be uncovered somehow, and other people can both help us uncover it and mediate the learning experience.

That being said, there comes a time when one needs to channel their ‘Yes man’ PhD enthusiasm in productive, goal-oriented ways. A main driver behind that is time management, though employability was the main driver for me in deciding to reflect on what additional projects and responsibilities would be best for me to do. An obvious place to start when filtering commitments is to decide on a career path outwith or within academia early on and choose accordingly. While teaching, attending conferences, and producing publications are important in any PhD, engaging in these activities might matter more to students interested in developing a career in academia following their PhD more so than students looking to work in industry.

Having worked out what a student wants to do in general is key to success, I think, because it allows them to reverse engineer the steps that will get them closer to their goals. By reducing uncertainty, one can increase their proactivity. But even having gone through that vital first step, how does a PhD student decide what opportunities to pursue and which ones to forego? Cue my new favourite thing: the Vitae Researcher Development Framework (RDF).

I first became interested in the Vitae RDF when it was introduced by Napier RIE at one of their PhD  induction events and learnt that it can be used to aid and structure academic career development. I subsequently learnt that it is also a formal requirement to show engagement with the RDF and that this is tied into the formal milestones of my research degree. Having the RDF as a built-in progress indicator of the PhD is good because it means that employability planning is dealt with alongside other PhD progress indicators (such as the development of written outputs associated with the PhD).  

In brief, the RDF is a graphical representation of the essential development areas for researchers as illustrated in the RDF wheel above. There are four competence quadrants split into three smaller competence sections each. The full RDF toolkit also consists of an online planner, a training programme, and all sorts of additional resources that help researchers interpret the RDF and apply it to their own circumstances. These can all be found on the Vitae RDF website.

Starting out with the RDF Vitae can seem daunting but I found it to be pretty straightforward to use after speaking to a helpful member of the RIE team about it. The value of the RDF is that it can help link various engagements with learning outcomes. This is precisely how it gets you from being the ‘Yes man’ to being the ‘Student who says yes to the right things for them’. Not only does it get you thinking about employability, it also provides you with the information and structure to make sense of competencies and opportunities. So, rather than saying, “I went to five events, and they were great fun”, you could instead say, “I went to two events and I went there for a specific purpose. This purpose feeds into my general career aspirations and the competencies I want to develop. And it was fun.” Of course, this is not to say that a student should always be asking “What’s in it for me?” and not taking anything on that does not directly benefit them. It’s an argument for strategising one’s engagement with opportunities in addition to being helpful to others and open to new experiences.

Some key things to keep in mind when using the RDF are:

  • The RDF can be used flexibly and subjectively. Make it your own!
  • It can be used retrospectively and prospectively: to record areas where development has been on-going or completed, or to identify areas for further development.
  • It can be used to reflect on strengths and weaknesses, as well as on activities that you enjoy doing or don’t enjoy doing.
  • You don’t have to develop all twelve areas in one go – just choose a quadrant or two to work on and see how you get on.
  • Use lenses to guide your development. They will show you what areas are applicable to the career stage you’re in (student, early career researcher, senior researcher).
  • You don’t have to use the online planner at first, or at all. The online planner is there for systematic recording. It is time-consuming to complete but comes in handy when writing CVs, self-reflective reports, or training needs analyses.

Happy RDF-ing!

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