As part of the COVID-19 crisis, I suggested people learn something new during that time (see what to do when you cannot do experiments). In some form or another, I've seen people take up that advice. Some people just enrolled in an online course. The first that stood out to them. Others asked the social media monster for ideas. Others came to me directly and asked what you they should study and what they should look for.
Obviously, I agree with the advice. I gave it out after all.
However, the focus (within my sphere anyway) has been on free courses that offer certificates or qualifications.
And I think you should challenge both ideas. Just because it is free, does not make it better value. And just because you get a certificate, does not make it better either.
Let me explain.
Firstly, as an academic (or a PhD student) you don't need yet another qualification or certificate. You are already well qualified. You already have what it takes to succeed in most entry level jobs in many fields. Additional study, and qualifications might only reinforce to a prospective employer that you love to learn but cannot do. So, rather than looking for a free course that gives you a certificate that you can code in Python, or that you can build a webpage, go and do the thing. Code something in Python. Build a webpage. To put it another way, if your evidence for being able to fix cars was that you took a course, but my evidence was that I restored an old car, who would you hire?
So, experience over qualifications. By all means, do a course, but getting experience in the application of that course is far better. Even the PhD process itself is about experience rather than qualifications. You did the theory in undergraduate. In some cases you did more theory in your PhD. But you also put that into practice in the form of experiments, data collection, and data analysis. And in some places, that’s not even the end! I read recently that some people see a PostDoc as a “scientist with training wheels!”.1 So looking for and gaining more experience. Getting a PostDoc or tenured role is not about more formal education, it is about experience. Experience in the form of grants, publications, and students supervised. The same is true for other jobs. So, unless there is a statutory requirement for the qualification (e.g. dentistry, medicine, nursing, etc.), you don’t need the qualification or certificate.
Now onto price.
If you must do a course, free is a great price. But you can also consider it getting what you pay for. Offering something for free probably means there’s a catch at the end. Think about every social media channel – free in exchange for your information. The price is data about you. Even universities don’t offer their short courses, and professional development for free to staff, and students. In most cases one or more of the staff member, their school, department or faculty must pay.
Free most certainly means not the best quality. Given that the one thing we all have the same of is time, spending lots of time on a free course that is rubbish actually did cost your time. Your most precious commodity. Now, I’m not saying that paid is a pathway to awesome teaching and learning. But I am saying that free does not mean zero cost. It costs you in time, and probably data.
So, before you embark on some further training, have a think about the cost-benefit of that training. Maybe your efforts are better spent doing or trying rather than learning. Or maybe you’re better off undertaking some training that has lots of practical components, not just theory.
Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He has helped more than 200 PhD students, early career researchers, and established academics build their careers. He has provided strategic advice on partnering with industry, growing a career building new centres and institutes as well as establishing new programs. Richard is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.
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1 Why life as a postdoc is like a circling plane at LaGuardia Airport, Nature Careers Podcast, https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-03106-6, accessed 16 November 2020