Since I’m free of D.H. Lawrence (for now!) I’ve got a wee bit more free time on my hands to take part if real life, as well as attending more PhD-related events. So last Thursday I popped up to the University of Stirling to attended the ‘Postdoctoral Careers Beyond Academia’ event, organised by the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, University of Stirling and the HaSS Graduate School, University of Strathclyde, funded by the SGSAH. This was a day long conference with a number of talks from successful arts and humanities and social sciences post-docs, all of whom have chosen to follow career paths outside of academia.
Full disclosure: I genuinely hadn’t considered any other career besides academia. Oh, except being a poet/writer, which, as we all know, is where the money money at (I do it for the love of the subject, the thrill of producing art, the emotional journey etc.) Anyway, yes, I undertook a PhD with the primary aim of gaining HEI teaching experience so I could teach while carrying on with research and writing.
I’m sure like a lot of other current PhD candidates though, I’ve been wading through a plethora of opinion pieces recently wherein academics tell us there are no hours, no full-time positions, no job certainty. Panic-inducing reading of a lunchtime, right? So this conference couldn’t have come at a more opportune moment for me, since it reaffirmed that there is a place for PhDs in “the real world” and highlighted a number of fun and engaging career options.
The day started with tea and coffee, which I gratefully accepted – I got to the train station early and ordered what turned out the be THE most disgusting, “festive” coffee from a vendor that shall remain nameless (sounds a bit like Costco). We then took our seats for the first talk of the day, which a lot of people seemed quite excited about. Dr Stuart Morrison is a whisky specialist at Diageo. If you’re anything like me, and haven’t heard of Diageo, they’re a huge drinks company that make a bunch of really well-known brands.
This talk set the tone for the day, with a number of key points being raised. First off, it became clear that even though your research is extremely specialised and it may seem a little disparate from the wider world, you are gaining skills that can be applied to any number of situations. Stuart noted the importance of keeping an open mind throughout your PhD and taking as many chances as you can. He also highlighted how useful it can be to have a wide-reaching network, not just in your field of research but in the wider community of your university and where you live.
We then heard from Dr Alison Neilson, an English teacher at George Heriot’s School in Edinburgh, who offered an entertaining retelling of her own PhD journey. She highlighted the fact that academia can be a “self-esteem-destroying world” and that a passion for teaching can still be fulfilled outside of university systems. I personally found this talk to be the most inspiring of the day. I’ve always shied away from the idea of teaching in schools, fearful of paperwork and mean teenagers, but maybe with the right application of skills it could be an option…!
A number of the speakers emphasised the importance of training beyond your research. Dr Helen Young gave a talk entitled ‘Vocational Skills and How to Get Some’, and discussed internships, training opportunities and part-time jobs that relate to your subject area or your career path, all of which can and should be undertaken during your PhD. Many of us feel we won’t have time to concentrate on research if we take on commitments outside of the PhD, but extra commitments only enhance our ability to time-manage effectively and can give us welcome pause to reflect on what we’re doing. Dr Lisa Otty, the Project Officer at EDINA, noted the value of this reflection. Without it we can’t acknowledge how much we’re achieving.
This was echoed after lunch* by Katy Gordon, the Careers Service and Employability Manager at the University of Strathclyde, who reiterated just how necessary it is to make plans. I shamefully admitted to myself that I’ve not revisited my training needs and skills plan for a good year at this point. Eesh!
Both Dr Liz Levy (Principle Research Officer with the Scottish Government) and Dr Sally Foster (previously Historic Scotland, now Stirling University) ruminated on the fact that we have to seize on the opportunities that present themselves throughout our PhD years if we’re going to get the most out of the experience. Sally used a phrase that stuck with me when she said it’s all about “hacking out your own niche”. Dr Betsy Fuller (Repository Librarian at Stirling University) connected the critical thinking element of the PhD with a translatable ability to think outside the box when it comes to solving problems in any number of situations.
Unfortunately I had to leave before the final workshop of the afternoon, but the talks up to that point gave me a ton to think about. Hopefully the information will be of some use to others too, whatever your stage of study. For me, the key might be improving my networking skills – most of the speakers mentioned how useful it was for them to talk to other people in their career field, to be genial and open to requests for help as they may lead to returned favours in the future. Bu waaah, I hate networking because it’s scary! Maybe I’ll take an assertiveness course to get myself started…
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*great buffet – some unexpected carrot and cucumber sticks PLUS pickles (!) that were very welcome.