Studying for a part-time PhD in the Arts & Humanities while working full-time: some reflections by Rhiannon Sandy

I recently blogged on the topic ‘Should I do a PhD’ for students in the Arts & Humanities, and was pleased to see a healthy response by people reading, sharing and giving me their thoughts via Twitter.

This new blog comes via two related questions. First, the funding question. One of the biggest challenges facing a potential PhD student is to work out how to pay for the degree, whether through scholarships, part-funding grants (such as fee scholarships) or through self-funding. In my blog, I advised students to be cautious about the self-funding option, because it can be difficult to strike a balance between studying and working, and because this usually extends the time it takes to complete the PhD.

The second route to this blog comes from question the of what to do after you complete the PhD. I also recently blogged about the post-PhD job market, with suggestions for what students can be doing to try to stay in academia, and some alternative suggestions for related careers by early-career authors, Teresa Phipps and Rebecca Browett. This activity prompted a response from Rhiannon Sandy, who is currently studying part-time for a PhD here at Swansea University while also working full-time at the university in a non-academic post. Rhiannon wrote: ‘I don’t have to panic about not getting a job when I finish my PhD, because I already have one’. Her tweet struck a chord with me, since I certainly DID panic when I finished my own PhD!

Rhiannon agreed to write a blog on the subject, responding to the questions in bold. I hope current and potential future PhDs might find it an informative guide to what potential routes you might take in your studies and your work.

When did you first think about doing a PhD, and what made you want to do it?

I handed in my MA dissertation in September 2014 with no intention of continuing to do a PhD.  By the time I graduated the following January, I was already several months into a job as a hotel receptionist, but it turned out that my terrible sense of humour makes me ill-suited to a job in hospitality (a fact made patently obvious when a guest asked me “is that room free on 29th March?” and I replied “no, it’s £149”).   I realised what I missed most about being a student was the opportunity to do my own research, and I started giving serious consideration to continuing the research on apprenticeship indentures I’d started for my undergraduate dissertation.  I knew that this was a topic which has had very little academic scrutiny, so my research was sure to be original, and I really wanted to pursue it further.  Despite what Charlie wrote in his previous blog on titles not being a good way to make the decision, the fact that I could call myself Dr Sandy and graduate with a fancy hat on may also have influenced my choice.  I emailed my MA supervisor to ask whether he thought my project was worth undertaking, and he said he was happy to supervise me and would look over my thesis proposal (for which I will forever be grateful).

What did you think your options were with regards to funding/scholarships etc., and how did you navigate these?

Before applying to Swansea, I looked into funded full-time PhDs on various projects but found there were few which appealed to me.  One helpful piece of advice I was given, by someone who had already done a PhD, was not to apply for a project I wasn’t sure about – if I wasn’t certain I was interested in the topic at the start of the PhD, there was a risk I’d really, really hate it at the end of three years.  I also looked at funding from elsewhere so I could study full time.  Admittedly, I probably should have spent more time on this, but I’d already missed several application deadlines for 2015 and I was loath to have to spend another year dealing with miserable hotel guests, so I had to accept that I might have to study unfunded.  Wanting to stay in Swansea meant some options weren’t open to me – the Arts & Humanities Research Council had recently decided to focus PhD funding on universities grouped into consortia, and Swansea wasn’t in one.  I did consider applying to Cardiff (which is part of a consortium) and commuting, but as my supervisor had already agreed in principle to supervise me, I didn’t.  In the end I decided to study part-time and pay my own fees, get a job to cover my living expenses, and apply for funding as and when I could.  I was very fortunate in my second year to receive a generous bursary from the Economic History Society, without which I really would have struggled to afford to undertake any real research – my salary pays my rent and bills, but it doesn’t leave much to cover the cost of a 5 day trip to London.

One of the first emails I received from my supervisor when I initially approached him about doing a PhD warned me not to expect to get a permanent academic job at the end of it.  I realised that studying part-time gave me the opportunity to forge a non-academic career at the same time.  I was on the University’s temporary staff register for over a year, and eventually I was in the right place at the right time to apply for the role I was covering – I’m now a permanent member of staff, with a salary, a pension and a job I actually really enjoy.  Luckily, I had a reasonable amount of administrative experience before I started applying for jobs to go alongside my PhD: I worked in a factory office and then for Swansea Council before starting my undergraduate degree, and did a summer of sales admin between my BA and MA.  The approach I’ve taken to fund my PhD might be more challenging for anyone who hasn’t got as much applicable experience, so for anyone considering it I would strongly recommend taking advantage of the work placement schemes run by the careers service at your university, which at Swansea is called the Swansea Employability Academy.

How do you manage the balance between your job and your studies? What helps and what gets in the way?

Being employed by the University definitely helps in terms of juggling working and studying.  Working regular hours rather than shifts means I’ve been able to set up a bit of a routine, which is very helpful.  I’m fortunate that my line manager is happy to let me having supervision meetings during work hours, and as I work in the library, I can just pop downstairs to pick up books.  A lot of my annual leave is used for conferences and research trips, and I do take days off sometimes just to do some writing and catch up on my research.  I don’t struggle to balance my job and my studies so much as my life and my studies: I’m always conscious that my non-work hours need to be used for my PhD.  Housework is a secondary concern, and if I’m in a really work-intensive phase I’m heavily reliant on the slow cooker otherwise I’d either subsist entirely on cheese on toast or bankrupt myself buying takeaways.  I also devote a lot of my weekends to my studies – which has led to me sitting outside with my laptop and a pile of books if the weather is really nice, otherwise I might never see daylight!  Although I try my best not to cancel social plans for the sake of study, I have had to give up playing roller derby because I couldn’t commit to training two or more nights a week.

What are your ambitions for after you finish your PhD?

While I have had to make sacrifices, and although sometimes it feels like an interminable slog, I think I made the right decision by going about my PhD the way I have.  Once it’s over, if I do struggle to find a job in academia, I know I will be able to fall back on several years of administrative experience.  I also have the option to abandon the uncertainty of short-term academic contracts entirely, and find a more secure job in a non-academic role.  As for what I want to do once I finish my PhD, I don’t know yet – I haven’t had time to think about it!

 

If you would like to hear more about Rhiannon’s PhD and career journey, you can follow her on Twitter, or post below in the comments section. As promised, I will be writing more soon on what else History students and students in the Arts & Humanities might like to do as an alternative to PhD study. Contrary to what some might tell you during your MA, getting onto a PhD isn’t the be all and end all: you can probably earn a lot more money and have just as much fun doing something else! Look out for this and other blogs in future weeks.

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Should I do a PhD? Some things to consider for students in the Arts & Humanities in UK academia

Should I do a PhD? That’s a question I asked myself about ten years ago, with the eventual answer ‘Yes, I should!’ and I have never regretted it. When I made my decision, there were many obstacles in the way, and I knew that negotiating them would be the biggest challenge of my life. Along the journey, I encountered many more barriers that I wasn’t expecting to find, and could have been better prepared for. There are already lots of useful blogs on this topic, including a really helpful Guardian article from 2012 (although perhaps a little old now) a good piece by jobs.ac.uk which has a brilliant downloadable guide which you can fill in to see if you think you are ready. There are also some really good videos, including this one by Professor James Arvanitakis and many more on YouTube (just search ‘should I do a PhD?). My favourite is this less-than-sympathetic offering, although don’t take it as the prevailing attitude amongst most potential supervisors!

I have been slowly collecting blogs on careers advice for PhD students and postdoctoral researchers in the last few months, and I’ve been wanting to write this blog for a long time. It isn’t intended as a comprehensive guide to everything you need to know before you make your decision, but I do hope that some of the points raised will help others. These experiences reflect my location working in the Arts & Humanities (medieval studies in particular) and in the UK, although much of what I have to say is, I hope, also relevant to other geographical locations and disciplines.

Section 1: Motivations

Career Goals:

Wanting to be called ‘Doctor’, and dreaming of being a university lecturer is a strong draw, but the number of PhDs actually achieving that goal is low. True, you usually need a PhD to become a lecturer these days in the UK, but don’t see it as the only way of measuring your success after you complete your studies. I wrote on some similar topics recently, and there is an excellent set of resources from the University of Manchester on the same subject. If your main motivations is that you want an academic career, be aware as early as possible that this may not happen through no fault of your own. I know plenty of truly excellent and hard-working scholars who are currently out of work following their PhDs, so avoid telling yourself ‘I know I’ll make it because I’m really good and will try hard’. Do produce good work and do try hard, but also remember that it can be out of your hands.

Luckily, a PhD can lead to lots of interesting career routes outside of academia, such as working in non-academic departments in higher Education, public policy, etc. My favourite one on this is that Gordon Brown had a History PhD, and he became Prime Minister (regardless of how good a job you think he did!) So if you do decide to take the plunge, keep an open mind about career options, and do plan ahead during your studies.

Study Goals:

My favourite saying on this topic is as follows: ‘Lots of people want to HAVE a PhD, but not as many want to actually DO one’. As noted already, a PhD in the Arts & Hums can be a lonely and testing experience.

Perhaps the best reason for doing a PhD is the intellectual one: is there a subject that you have been obsessing about since your undergraduate degree? What questions have you been asking about it by previous scholarship, and how many more can be asked? This largely self-dictated research agenda is going to define the nature of your work during the PhD, and potentially, its successes among the wider academic community.

Another thing to think about is what kinds of projects stand the best chance of securing funding. Hot topics, anniversaries and popular themes of study are all good indicators. For example, Swansea university runs an excellent PhD on the 100-year anniversary of foundation in 2020, with projects on the history of science at the Swansea Student Experience between 1920-1990: both timely, and projects that appeal to modern audiences. Current popular topics in the Arts & Hums include things to do with the history of medicine, disability and mental illness, and also Britain’s relations with European neighbours. Projects highlighting people’s struggles with gender and ethnicity are often also well-received, if put together properly.

You also need to show that you are capable of doing this work. It goes without saying that if you want to study Old High German literature, you need to prove that you can read it in its original form, and the same applies to all kinds of sources. If you want to use original manuscript sources, have you been trained in their interpretation and use? If you want to do a project on art history, have you studied its theory before?

Section 2: Practical Issues

Unless you are one of small numbers of people who have done a Masters by research, the work involved in studying for a PhD is unlike any of your other previous degrees. Recent discussion on the topic has suggested that many PhD students I the UK never finish their projects, somewhere between 20-35% depending on which study you read. So, it is useful to know about what it is actually like to do one. A really great blog exists on findaPhD (a website you should definitely get to know better at this stage) but some extra thoughts:

  • Timespan: In the UK, a PhD is expected to take between three and four years with the aim being three, and the reality being more like four. You can begin a PhD at any time, and it is finished when you finish, even if your funding runs out and you’re not yet done. Unless you have very authoritarian supervisors, nobody dictates your rhythms of work and the timeframe of your research, and nobody will check up on you, (except your supervisors every so often).
  • Expected result: Imagine doing your undergraduate dissertation as the only module, and being expected to devote c.40 hours a week on it over three-four years, and then being expected to produce 80-100,000 coherent and persuasive words at the end of it. Then imagine being expected to explain and justify what you have written to two specialist academics for two to four hours as the end (an exam called your viva voce or often just ‘viva’).
  • Loneliness? You may be signed up for some language and skills classes in your first year (in medieval studies this is typically either Latin or a medieval vernacular language and then any of the main European languages that you don’t yet read) and you may be invited to join in with teaching from your second year onwards. On the whole, however, your PhD research will be carried out alone. You may be given space in a shared office (if offered, take it: the relationships you have with fellow PhDs can save your sanity) but they will get annoyed if you talk to them ALL the time instead of working.
  • Having to move? Because of the highly specialised nature of doing a PhD, you should want to study under the best supervisor at the best university, and that may not be the one you most recently attended. You may have to leave friends, family and partners, for an uncertain future in a new town, perhaps even a new country.

A PhD project can be defined by intensive periods of solitary work, pressure, and intellectual struggles. It can also be defined by moments of incredible breakthrough, achievement and pride. A good PhD student believes in themselves, is resilient when confronted by challenges, but is also realistic. You shouldn’t aim to work for 70 hours a week and cut yourself off from the world. Some of my best work was produced after I’d spent the previous day playing football, or working in one of my part-time jobs, or just catching up on housework, so also remember that breaks from your work are equally important.

Section 3: Important Considerations

Where?

Ideally, you should want to study for your doctorate under the most specialised academic currently working in the field, regardless of where they are working. This isn’t always possible, and most academics with some knowledge will be able to help, but the connections and specific knowledge available via an expert supervisor cannot easily be replicated. In any case, it always looks good to move at least once during your career as a student, just to sample how things work and feel at different types of universities.

There are a few ways to pick where to do your PhD. The first is to find the best specialist, contact them explaining that you’d like to do a PhD with them and then going from there. The second is by finding advertised PhD positions on projects that already exist or by finding grants advertised for scholarships. Use the FindaPhD website for help with this. Some PhDs are supervised by two people in different places, with a ‘home’ supervisor and institution, and these can provide exciting opportunities to live and work abroad for a set period of time. Finally, a growing trend in Arts and Hums is the collaborative doctoral award, working with a museum, or a private company on something that benefits academic and the business/heritage sector, and these are also an excellent way to plan for future careers. Look out for advertisements via https://www.findaphd.com/ and http://www.jobs.ac.uk/phd

Fees:

To do a PhD, you are required to pay tuition fees, the same as any other degree. Where are you supposed to get this money from, if you are working on your topic for 40 hours a week? Many universities offer scholarships, but these can be highly competitive to get. A useful guide is offered by prospects.ac.uk but in a nutshell: sometimes these pay for your fees only (meaning you have to work somewhere else to raise living expenses) or sometimes these also give you a stipend to live off, usually referred to as ‘full funding’. Funding is usually awarded by research councils for particular areas, such as the Wellcome Trust for the history of medicine, or, most common for History, the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Some universities offer in-house research grants, but only the very richest and research-intensive locations are able to do this.

Some students also self-fund: this is an extremely challenging route, requiring you to balance your time between working and studying, and leaving little time for anything else except sleep. Be very wary of choosing this route, especially if you would have to pay even higher overseas fees. You may think of taking out a loan to cover you during this period, but most PhDs end with a stint of unemployment or under-employment, and you may not be able to make the immediate repayments.

In short, getting PhD funding can be extremely competitive. I know one currently completing student at an elite UK university who moved home after her MA, got a job in admin and applied for PhD funding every year for about three years before she was eventually accepted to pursue a great project, with full funding and has produced some great work. If I was being harsh, I could say that if you’re not attracting funding then perhaps others cannot see the future researcher in you and you might wish to think about other options. But I should temper that by admitting that the person writing this blog self-funded..! Perhaps the answer is to set a timeframe in which you hope to achieve support, and if it isn’t forthcoming, then be prepared for the next steps.

What to be doing next:

If after reading this, you are still on board and determined to strive for your goals, then great! There are several things you can do to take things further:

  1. Talk to your current/most recent teachers. Tell them you are considering the route and what kinds of topics you’re interested in doing. They will help you to realise if you should stay put and work with them some more, or if you should move. If the latter, they should be able to suggest some potential supervisors.
  2. Find a PhD supervisor: there is no best way to do this. You can simply trawl through the staff information pages of universities, or another way might be to look through your own bibliographies: is there a scholar whose work you really enjoy reading and who is still actively publishing (i.e., not dead or retired)? Most academics enjoy hearing from prospective students, so don’t be shy. If they aren’t forthcoming, you probably don’t want to work with them anyway…
  3. Think about how you will pay for your studies: this is related to 1, and should begin simply through a conversation with the potential supervisor.

What else could you do instead?

If you have read this and decided that the PhD route is not for you, then well done: you’ve probably just saved yourself a lot of time, emotion and money. But what else could you do with your degree, and what other careers exist that help you make the most of your skills and interests? I’ll be blogging again about this in the next few weeks, so look out for this.

I hope you enjoyed reading, and as ever, I welcome comments. Please do remember that I have tried to offer my reflections, and I am not writing a rulebook of what works and what doesn’t work, because it would be simply impossible. Everyone is different, with our own challenges and motivations, so probably the best advice is to know yourself and know what will make you happy. Good luck!

From PhD to Employment, part II: thinking about non-academic routes with Rebecca Browett (King’s College, London)

A couple of weeks ago, Teresa Phipps, a postdoctoral researcher at Swansea University, gave her thoughts on non-academic employment routes for completing PhD students. Teresa really enjoyed the chance to reflect on her time as an outreach officer at the University of Nottingham: how her PhD had helped her to get the job, what the job had given her that academic jobs might not give you, why she returned to the academic route, and what might lie in store for the future. Well worth a read!

This new blog is based on a similar topic, with another post-PhD now employed at another high-level UK institution. Rebecca Browett completed her PhD at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, last year, and is now employed as Education Strategy Project Management Officer at KCL, and really enjoying her job! As for Teresa, Becca wrote in response to the following questions:

  • 1: How did you feel about your career choices and options as you finished your PhD?
  • 2: What job did you get, and what did it involve?
  • 3: What had the PhD training taught you that was relevant to the job? How did you make this relevant in the application stage and after?
  • 4: What happened next, and where did you career go from there?
  • 5: Do you have plans to return to academic research, (A: if not, why? – a chance to dwell on the positives of alternative careers here!) (B: and if so, do you think your current job has given you any extra skills that would enhance your academic work?)

When I started my PhD in 2012 I was full of energy and enthusiasm for academia. I was lucky enough to have a full AHRC scholarship to fund my studies and I was dedicated to following an academic career. By the time I submitted my PhD in September 2016, my love of medieval history was still going strong, but I had become increasingly concerned with the demands of working in an academic environment, especially concerning early career development and support.

In the final year of my PhD I applied for many varied posts, from prestigious research fellowships to short-term teaching posts, and was not short-listed or invited for interview. Despite publishing two articles in highly-ranked journals, teaching undergraduates and postgraduates at four universities (including being a module convenor), receiving external research funding and presenting papers at international conferences, I was not competitive enough for long-term, well-paid positions.

When I submitted my PhD in September 2016, I felt that I had two options:

  1. Continue teaching at multiple universities that, when cobbled together, would have amounted to 10 teaching hours a week and left me with enough money to survive, but not really live;
  2. Apply for posts outside of academia.

I really struggled with the decision but in the end I wasn’t willing to participate in what I thought was an exploitative work culture when I could find rewarding employment elsewhere. I knew that having the sacred monograph would probably make the biggest difference between making a short-list and not, and decided to make this a priority for the next year. I agreed to continue teaching for one term whilst also applying for alternative employment.

I applied for quite a few posts (mainly civil service and university admin) and ended up working as the HEFCE guide to Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) Project Officer at King’s College London. I honestly thank my lucky stars that I did so. The people I work with are fantastic and the last year has been an incredible learning experience that I have thoroughly enjoyed. Put briefly, the main aims of my job were to:

  • Research impact of learning and teaching
  • Coordinate King’s submission to the TEF (helping to write our submission, convening project boards, arranging events, attending Department of Education briefings etc.)
  • Manage communication strategies (marketing, websites, press releases and internal bulletins)

My working hours were the standard 9am – 5pm, with some evening events, but my day-to-day would include attending a variety of meetings and working in the office on reports and project plans.

I cannot emphasise enough how valuable my PhD and teaching experience were to me being appointed to the role and how much they have benefited me whilst in post. Initially, a large part of my job was to research, collate and analyse evidence of teaching excellence. This obviously closely aligns with PhD research! My PhD was good evidence of my project and time management skills, and my practice of lecturing undergraduates helped me to overcome nerves when giving large-scale briefings on the TEF and strategy development to members of staff. My experience in writing papers for publication helped me to write reports for our Academic Board and College Council. At interview and in post, my experience as an academic has only ever been seen as a positive and useful contribution.

My career has developed quite quickly in the last year. After project managing and helping to write King’s TEF provider submission I was asked to manage the development of King’s new Education Strategy. This involved supporting the Director of Student and Education and the Vice-Principal of Education on a daily basis. I drew up project plans, arranged meetings with key stakeholders, developed engagement opportunities, organised and ran workshops and helped to write the strategy itself. My background definitely came in handy when discussing work-load models, practicalities of teaching and value of research with academic staff. The strategy was approved by Council in July and I am now the Education Strategy Project Management Officer, responsible for implementing the strategy and aligning it with TEF.

I’ve managed to keep a toe (or two!) in the academic sphere. Twitter is a God-send and helps me to feel connected to the medieval and academic communities. I’ve attended a few conferences and seminars, but I did have to use my annual leave allowance. Once my colleagues within King’s knew that I am/was an academic, they have been incredibly kind and supportive, inviting me to writing retreats, seminars, offering to read academic job applications etc. I’ve approached a publisher and am attempting to revise my thesis into a monograph, but it is quite difficult to manage alongside a full-time non-academic job.

I am torn about returning to academia. I really miss teaching and research but I also really enjoy my current role. It is rewarding and valued; the thought of returning to precarious, short-term contracts is quite unappealing. In this past year I have been able to see how my work has made a real and positive impact on the university and the student experience. As someone whose research was quite niche (Anglo-Saxon saints’ cults — primarily my main man, St Æthelwold), it was a refreshing change!

However, like I said, I do miss research and teaching. I miss going into an archive and discovering something exciting that was previously overlooked. I miss the smell of manuscripts. I miss discussing Vikings and miracle stories with students. I do believe that my current role has also given me a lot of extra skills and knowledge that would be beneficial in an academic post. I’ve worked in a close capacity with university senior leadership, know about university administration (exam boards, PSRBs, planning rounds etc), have a deep understanding about TEF and REF, and have developed a keen sense of the type of academic I would like to be. I was recently long-listed for a permanent lectureship (which gives me hope for future applications), but I am honestly unsure about whether or not I will return.

For any PhD students worried about what to do when they finish, I would say to do what is right for them, but also not to panic about working outside of academia. There are lots of rewarding and interesting jobs at universities where your academic background will be valued, and which will also add value to you for future academic job applications if you want to return. Knowledge of TEF, quality assurance and programme administration will always be a tick in the plus column for someone applying for a permanent lectureship.


Thanks to Rebecca for her thoughts! If you would like to share your own experiences of the post-PhD employment sector (where in academic or non-academic routes) then I would love to hear from you. Please post below, or email Charlie Rozier: c.c.rozier@swansea.ac.uk to discuss writing a follow-up blog to these two recent editions.

I have been reflecting a lot on this issue in the past few weeks, and aim to provide some of my own thoughts based on what we’ve heard from Teresa and Rebecca. Look out for this in the coming weeks!

From PhD to Employment: thinking about non-academic routes with Teresa Phipps

Following on from my last blog about getting an academic job after your PhD I thought it would be good to think about other options. With more and more people gaining PhDs, but not quite so much increase in the corresponding number of academic jobs, there must be some give. Usually, it is the PhDs, who often I think sadly walk away from academic with a sense of regret and sometimes even anger. I don’t want to link to any blogs on such topics: we’ve all seen them, and can find many by simply searching the internet for ‘why I’m leaving academia’, etc. Instead, some rays of sunshine, courtesy of my Swansea University History colleague, Dr Teresa Phipps.

Teresa began a non-academic job as she finished her PhD at the University of Nottingham, and then later gained an academic post at Swansea. She wrote this blog in order to share some of her experiences, and positivity, in answer to the following questions:

1: How did you feel about your career choices and options as you finished your PhD?
2: What job did you get, and what did it involve?
3: What had the PhD training taught you that was relevant to the job? How did you make this relevant in the application stage and after?
4: What happened next, and where did you career go from there?
5: How are the skills developed in your job relevant to your current research post?
We hope you enjoy the post: please do share and feel free to add comments or questions!

I submitted my thesis in September 2014, and passed my viva in December with minor corrections. These were completed in January 2015, and I graduated in July. However, at the time of my viva I already knew that I would be starting a job in university outreach in January, so there was little time to reflect on the outcome of the viva or the next steps to take in developing my research. I worked in this outreach job for almost two years, before moving across the country in late 2016, to work as a research assistant on a project that was a perfect fit for my research. This means that I’ve had experience of two very different roles and ways of working in the few years following the completion of my PhD. Both jobs have been enjoyable and valuable in their own ways, and the skills and lessons I’ve learned transfer across a range of situations. I have written this blog in order to offer some advice to people coming towards the end of their PhD studies, or ECRs weighing up different options, though it should be noted that my experiences are of course unique to my own situation.

My journey towards gaining my first non-academic job was a fairly simple one. Towards the end of my PhD, I applied for various academic posts, postdocs and fellowships, and several non-academic posts within my university and elsewhere. I applied for most of the academic posts/postdocs because I thought it was the right thing to do, rather than because I particularly believed in the projects I was proposing, or in my ability to do the job. I was also very aware that the academic job market is extremely competitive, having watched friends who had already completed their PhDs balance multiple part-time contracts simultaneously, or go from one fixed-term post to another. So I wasn’t particularly surprised or disappointed that none of these applications were successful.

My own philosophy on where I wanted to work also helped. I had always been open to the possibilities of various types of work outside academia, and I still am. I never felt that I was doing a PhD solely to become an academic; rather, I found it a really enjoyable way to spend a few years, an opportunity to research something that I was really interested in, and develop my skills in conveying this to others. I’ve always enjoyed working with people, and academia can be quite solitary in many ways, so the possibilities of other jobs were also appealing for this reason. I’ve always loved working with children and young people, and had a lot of experience in various roles built up over my time at university. So it was probably a combination of these factors that led me to apply for several outreach jobs over the course of a few months. I had an interview for one, which was unsuccessful, but a few weeks later I had another interview and was successful in securing a job as an outreach officer working with local primary schools. For both interviews I had to do a presentation, which was something I was well-practiced at, thanks to my experience of presenting at conferences. While I was able to draw on my work experience and volunteering in relevant areas, I also had to think about how to demonstrate that my experience and success as a researcher made me the right fit for the job (more on this later).

I loved this outreach job, so much so that it was really difficult to leave and I spent most of my last week crying. I think it is really important to make clear that I didn’t see working in outreach as a stop-gap period, or something that I ‘settled’ for while I was hoping/waiting to return to full-time academic work. I’ve encountered this attitude among PhD students who talk of “just” doing something else (“I’ll just be a teacher” – as if teaching is easy!) when other applications fail, and among academics who found it hard to understand why I had “given up” on academia, or that any other job couldn’t be as fulfilling. Obviously, I needed a job after finishing my PhD, so there were practical issues involved here, but I also found this job hugely valuable, rewarding, and fun, in ways that are completely different to research.

My job involved working with local primary schools based in areas that traditionally had low rates of progression to higher education. I was part of a team that ran sessions in schools and on campus designed to raise children’s aspirations, increase their knowledge of university and support the primary curriculum. As someone who believes passionately in the power and importance of education, and who had such a positive experience of university, it was never difficult to deliver these messages. Seeing children’s attitudes and ideas about their futures change over the course of a session was just fantastic. The job involved working as part of an enthusiastic, inspiring, hardworking team who are always looking to improve and innovate, as well as working alongside a range of academics and students from across the university. The team I worked with came from a range of backgrounds, from teaching and working in museums to others who had worked in a wide range of positions in HE. While everyone had been to university, some had done postgraduate study while others had a wealth of more vocational experience. This diversity added to the team and meant that everyone had a unique perspective to offer, and I felt that my experiences as a researcher and university teacher were valued particularly when considering how best to work with academics and students. As my first proper ‘grown up’ job, I learnt a huge amount about working professionally as part of team, planning and delivering events, time-management, communication skills to name a few.

While this seems very different to PhD research, I was also able to apply much of what I’d learnt over the course of my PhD, which I had to demonstrate from the outset when I applied for the job. I think this can be something that many people struggle with, especially if (like me) you’ve gone straight from school to undergraduate and then postgraduate study. I’d had summer jobs and worked throughout university, and I had also developed a lot of transferable skills through the course of my research. But this was my first ‘proper’ job. First and foremost, it’s important to think of completing a PhD as demonstration of successful project management. Yes, you have supervisors to help you, but ultimately it’s you who is responsible for designing your project, devising its focus and parameters, planning and conducting research, analysing your findings, communicating this through a variety of means and with different audiences – and most importantly doing this in way that is appropriate to the time and budget you have available. Then there are other things like attending conferences, but particularly organising them, as well as sitting on committees, teaching, working with the public, writing for various publications (not just academic ones). All of these activities were things that I drew on when seeking to demonstrate that I had the skills and experience to do the job, and things that I drew upon and built upon in the job itself. The application asked for evidence of a large number of skills that are sought after in most professional roles, such as:

  • managing and delivering projects or events
  • interacting with different audiences,
  • organisation, time management, and prioritising workload.
  • IT skills
  • interpersonal and communication skills – written and verbal
  • professionalism and enthusiasm

It’s important to be specific in discussing these skills, which means giving examples of instances where you’ve demonstrated your ability to deliver events, work with others, plan and manage your workload, manage budgets – or whatever else the specific role demands. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received was to use the STAR technique to help provide focused answers in both written applications and interview questions. The only thing that might not be directly relevant might be the specialist subject of your research, but (in my opinion) doing a PhD is about so much more than the content of your thesis.

While I was working in outreach, I didn’t abandon my academic interests. I really enjoy my research, particularly talking to other people about it and hearing about related research.  I also wanted to keep my future career options open. This meant using annual leave to go to conferences and write papers, as well as committing some of my evenings and weekends to this. At this stage I had decided not to focus on turning my thesis into a book, as I felt I would have had to give up my entire life in order to do this, and I wasn’t able or ready to do this. This isn’t to say that it isn’t possible to write a book alongside a full time job – I know people who have done this, but I chose not to. Instead, I focussed on more manageable, short term goals, like applying for conferences and writing papers. I planned my time over several months and gave myself targets for each of these goals so that I was able to balance my job, research and time away from work. I’m a big believer in the importance of time off, as working all the time can actually be the least efficient or effective way of getting things done, so I actively avoided spending all of my time away from work on research and writing.

However, when a job came up working on a research project that aligned so closely with the focus of my PhD, it seemed like too good an opportunity not to apply. I wasn’t actively looking for an academic job, but this position offered the opportunity to focus full-time on my research for a fixed period of time, which would allow me time to develop the all-important publication record – and best of all, I would be paid for it! This seemed particularly strange given that I’d been trying to do all of this in my spare time alongside a full-time job. The contract was initially only for a year, so this was also the perfect chance to see whether this was actually something I wanted to pursue long-term. The fact that it was a short-term contract made the whole thing seem less daunting. So while I didn’t want to leave my outreach job, I also knew that if I did get this research job there would be no question about whether or not I would accept it.

For me, working as part of a project has been invaluable. As a postdoctoral role it’s ideal as I get to work with other researchers as part of a bigger team, which is really useful in terms of developing my ideas about my research as well as having the support of others. I think I would have struggled working on my own independent research project as I really enjoy having other people to bounce ideas off. I’ve had the time to focus on various publications, and have had feedback that has hugely improved the standard of my work as well as inspiring ideas for new research in the future. But I’ve also found the skills I learnt from my outreach job incredibly useful to this job, particularly in terms of setting goals, planning my time, and communicating with others. I also have a better understanding of how organisations, and particularly universities work, having experienced working in professional services. I hope that this is proof that it isn’t necessary to view career options after the PhD as a set of either/or options – either pursuing the academic route wholeheartedly, or taking a complete departure from research by looking at what other options are available. I know that I’ve partly been fortunate in that both my jobs came up at the right time, and were such a good fit for me in quite different ways. But I also think that I’ve been able to help myself and give myself the best chance of success by making the most of the wide range of opportunities available to me while doing my PhD, as well as afterwards, and learning to apply what I learned from these experiences in both my professional life and my research.

Here are some ideas of links for further reading on the topic:

Vitae website has lots of general advice for PhD students and researchers:

https://www.vitae.ac.uk/researcher-careers/after-your-doctorate

https://www.vitae.ac.uk/vitae-publications/rdf-related/employability-lens-vitae-researcher-development-framework-rdf-may-2012.pdf/@@download/file/Employability-Lens-Vitae-Researcher-Development-Framework-RDF-May-2012.pdf

 

There are lots of other career stories that you can read about: https://www.vitae.ac.uk/researcher-careers/researcher-career-stories

 

More good resources for thinking about career paths and skills developed from research:

http://www.jobs.ac.uk/media/pdf/careers/resources/10-career-paths-for-phds.pdf

https://thesiswhisperer.com/category/your-career/

 

What Next? Academic Employment after the PhD – Summary from a Round Table Discussion, Leeds IMC (July 2017)

Are you about to finish a PhD in history or Medieval Studies, or something related? Don’t know what happens next, what jobs are out there, or what you should be doing to get one of these hallowed jobs?

I’ll be writing about non-academic pathways in my next blog, but for now I’d like to concentrate on what we might understand as ‘breaking in to academia’. My colleague, Marci Freeman, invited me and some friends to contribute to a very productive round table discussion on this topic at this year’s Leeds International Medieval Congress (Session 944) sponsored by the excellent History Lab Plus (If you haven’t yet been to their site, do this now, before you even read this blog) and I have wanted to post my thoughts on the session for a while now.

I am well aware that this is somewhat of a home-made blog without many references and citations, but I do also feel that reading people’s individual experiences is as helpful sometimes as a carefully-researched and persuasively written full piece. I have no agenda, and no underlying message, except: ‘stay positive!’ So, here goes…

1: There is no magic answer

The first thing to recognise is that there is no single successful strategy and approach which opens up an academic career pathway. If it was easy and well laid-out, you probably wouldn’t be reading this. There are, however, some useful things that you can be doing both during and after your PhD studies, which should build towards progress. I say ‘progress’ carefully, because that’s what this is about: you probably won’t get the first job you apply for and maybe not even the 30th. In our Leeds session, we hard about how it is not uncommon to see 150 applications for a single lecturing position, and so coming back with a ‘no’ is not necessarily a fair reflection of the quality of your work, and nor is it a rejection of you as a person. This is a very competitive jobs market, but so long as you’re moving gradually closer and expanding your CV, then there are always reasons to be positive.

 

2: My experience

I gained my PhD in Medieval History from a prestigious UK Russell Group university in January 2014, but I didn’t get my first full-time academic post until 2016. In between, my finances, my intellect and my commitment to the academic career path were tested. Probably the most difficult challenges were (in random order):

  • Lack of regular income.
  • Lack of understanding from friends/family about what happens next (I was actually lucky that my family supported me well, but it is common for this not to be the case).
  • Need for continuous self-motivation, due to no end goal in sight.

Plenty of my student colleagues have walked away from academia after being confronted with these obstacles. Many have found very happy and rewarding careers away from their academic work. Working in academic support departments in Higher Education are sometimes an option, since such environments often value your experience of academia and your skills training. But it isn’t for everyone, and it can be difficult to write a convincing application, so I’d advise to take a lot of extra time on this if you are thinking of this route (more on this in a future blog).

3: The academic route

The quality of research and teaching in UK Higher Education institutions is now tested through two evaluation procedures: TEF and REF (Teaching Excellence Framework and Research Exercise Framework). If you are new to UK academia and have never heard of TEF or REF, it is vital that you do some research before applying for jobs, because almost every institution base job searches on an applicant’s ability to contribute to these assessment frameworks.

Research:

Your research profile is probably the most important aspect of your CV. It is highly unlikely that you will be shortlisted for any kind of research job (even a junior one) without some high-quality publications on your CV. It is almost impossible to be shortlisted for a lecturing job without a ‘full REF hand’ of two articles accepted for publication and a monograph in the pipeline (that is, a contract in hand, from a high-level publisher).

You might feel like more writing is the last thing you want to do, having just finished a 100,000-word thesis! This is normal: do take a break or holiday to refresh and clear your mind, as this will allow you to look at your work from new perspectives. Once you are ready to enter the fold again, your thesis is your friend: it is there to be mined for publications even before you’ve finished it, so try to make the most of it. Consider the following publication routes:

Book: Can you turn your thesis into a book? If not, can you adapt sections of it, so as to minimise having to do new research? Try to write a proposal and sample chapters (publishes usually ask for at least two chapters, and often almost the whole book) as soon as you can: book contracts get interviews. Most leading publishers have instructions on their websites, so you can begin this by looking at the presses most often featured in your bibliography as a guide for who to go to to discuss publishing your work.

Article: Do you have a nice succinct PhD section that would make for a good 8-12,000-word article for a journal? Chapters are usually good for articles, if they can be topped and tailed with a good introduction/conclusion, or if not, particular case studies that you wanted to expand on but didn’t have time/words.

Book chapters: These are possibly quicker to produce, usually because they need less introduction to the topic and its importance to the field. However, proceed with caution: because of this, they often score less highly in REF assessment than journal pieces. Also, depending on the press, the peer review process can be less stringent than for articles. Most good academic presses send edited volumes for peer review, but not all do, so it would be worth asking about the process before agreeing to contribute. Edited collections are a really good way to gain experience of the review and editing process, so shouldn’t be altogether avoided for your first publication. What you need to as is: do you want to use your best work on a journal article, or a chapter in an edited volume?

If your examiners are doing a good job, venues for publication are something that should be discussed in your viva (or if you’ve had your viva and they didn’t discuss this, then don’t be afraid to ask them about it).

Further projects

Nothing says ‘I am a collegiate and forward-thinking colleague’ more than a new collaboration and project after you’ve finished your PhD. Are there any group projects in your Department or at a nearly institution that might like some extra help? Sometimes this can involve pay, but if not, it may be worth doing just for the experience and a way to avoid that problem of ‘nothing new on the horizon’. For example:

  • I organised a conference in 2013, and worked to edit the papers into a volume. Because I had the most free time, I was named the first editor on the book, and this looked good on my CV.
  • Several scholars and I have collaborated to analyse a medieval manuscript in sections and from different interpretive approaches: this has led to small conferences and four sessions planned for the 2018 Leeds IMC. Eventually it will lead to publications.

[Edit: the other thing i didn’t mention in the first version of this blog is conference attendance. It can be difficult to attend if you are no longer eligible for funding as a current student, but if you want to make it into academic, then it is VITAL that you continue to have a public presence within the field. Conferences also provide excellent opportunities to remind colleagues and peers of how good your work is and to show that you are making a strong fist of staying in the game, and smaller ones tend to lead to publications, either in volumes of proceedings or in allowing you to draft nice self-contained articles. Pick what conferences you can according to budget, and don’t forget to ask the organisers about their bursary schemes.]

Teaching

If you can, it is always advisable to continue teaching after the completion of your PhD, especially if you would one day like to be a lecturer.

If you can, try to get extra duties to keep expanding the CV: ask if you can design an element (‘course design’ is often an important among the criteria in job apps). similarly, try to teach something you’ve not taught before, or teach in an institution or department that you’ve not taught in before (if you have done well at joining collaborative projects, you should know colleagues form other universities).

One word of warning is to not ‘over-teach’: once you have a set level of teaching experience that you can talk about intelligently in an interview, research is more important to your early career. That is, unless you are dependent on teaching for finances…

4: (By way of conclusion) Finances

..are possibly the biggest obstacle to an early career academic. Lately, there has been an outpouring of appeals against the insecurity of ECRs in fixed-term roles and in under-employment, and I can testify that things can get tough. Despite this, I personally refuse to be negative. Another way to look at it is as a test, to see how much you really want the academic career pathway. This is a good way to self-motivate: to gain the determination to make it work, even though you can’t afford the holiday/house/car that your friends in other careers are enjoying. Do they get to produce creative, engaging and intellectually-stimulating material, act as a role model for and help secure the future of the next generation of thinkers every day? If you are willing to do this for a limited term for little reward and all the while improving and learning from your experiences, then you are probably well suited to an academic career. If you hate every minute of it, then you might think of doing something else with your time.

I have no doubt that this is a topic I will return to in future blogs. It is too important to be forgotten, and I expect that readers will have their own views and experiences, so please do share them. I plan to return son with more on non-academic pathways, but if anyone would like to hear more on anything discussed here, then do let me know and I’ll think about writing on those topics.

Thank you for reading!

Teaching With Medieval Manuscripts of Durham

Last week I had the pleasure of teaching on the Durham University institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies Summer School for medieval history. Among many of the fun things we did with eight visiting undergraduate and postgraduate students were visits to: Durham Cathedral,Fountains Abbey, and Lindisfarne. But far and away my favourite bit of the whole week was an afternoon spent in Durham University’s Palace Green Library, where we looked at six manuscripts from Durham Cathedral’s Library and two from the PG Library collection.

This was certainly a highlight of the week, and I think I won the students’ competition for ‘best thing we’ve done in the UK all month’ (trumping the London Eye, which had been dominant favourite up until this manuscript session!) It certainly helped that we’d been reading Bede and Symeon of Durham all week, because five of the manuscripts had additions by Symeon and one of them was the pre-1096 copy of Bede’s HE (with Symeon’s marginal note).

Some pictures included below to show just how much fun we had!

(Thanks due to Durham University’s Palace Green Library, Durham Cathedral Library, and Durham University’s International Office for helping to make this possible, and my partner in crime, Dr Gemma Wain for helping to teach the session!)

List of manuscripts viewed:

Durham, Dean and Chapter Library, MS B.IV.24: ‘The Durham Cantor’s Book’

Durham, Dean and Chapter Library, MS A.II.4: Bible of William of St Calais

Durham, Dean and Chapter Library, MS B.II.35: Bede’s Ecclesiastical History

Durham, Dean and Chapter Library, MS B.IV.4: Ambrose Commentary on Hexameron

Durham, Dean and Chapter Library, MS B.IV.14: Collection of Saints’ Lives

Durham, Dean and Chapter Library, MS C.IV.15 (Annals)

Durham, University Library, MS. V.II.6: Symeon of Durham, Libellus de exordio

Durham, University Library, MS. V.II.1: Lawrence of Durham

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The Kalamazoo International Congress on Medieval Studies: What We Learned from 2012

I hope some of you found my last blog post interesting and/or useful. Having just got home from the best Kalamazoo yet, I thought I’d just share a few details with a potentially interested audience. I’ve also added some photographs so that other non-specialist readers can see what it is all about. Here are some short observations on what we learned form Kalamazoo 2012 (some or all of which are made with all humour intended):

  • If you want to avoid tricky questions after your paper, put on a panel with one really controiversial speaker. This will deflect attention.
  • Even if you hear the Hildegard singers rehershing in the room next door, your paper must go on!
  • If you host a drinks reception, don’t be put off by freebooters who come for the drink and have never heard of or don’t care about your insitution. That’s your fault for giving away free drink.
  • Don’t be shocked to see a play recital in the corridoor after lunch.
  • If you mention somebody else’s work, always be complimentary because the author could be in your audience (fortunately, all mine was happy and appreciative)!
  • If you go to a publishers’ book stall, mention the fact that you teach, and you might get free books. However, never lie if you don’t actually teach.
  • The walls of the dorm rooms are paper thin and you can hear everything-this seriously upset my sleep pattern on Thursday night, so thanks to whoever that was!

I hope people find these pointersw useful or amusing, and I’m sure I’ll blog again next May, or in the run-up to the Leeds IMC in July. Any more contributions would be welcome in the ‘comments’ section. I’ll close this blog entry with some fun pictures from this year:

WMU campus looking particularly green and friendly
Rozierhistorian getting animated while giving paper
Proof of the Spartan rooms
Local tourism giving it the hard sell!

Its not all work and no play…see you next year, Kalamazoo!