Life after the PhD Workshop

This post was originally posted on Life after the PhD, a new blog acting as a forum fostering career development discussions for Humanities PG students who are beginning to think about life after the PhD.

33 Humanities PGR students from across the northwest and beyond gathered in Keele on 15 June 2016 for a workshop entitled ‘Life after the PhD: career development initiatives in the Humanities’. The purpose of the day was to expose current PGR students to the range of careers that they might pursue after completing their doctorate. Many, if not most, of the students present were very aware of the practicalities of pursuing an academic career (and were equally aware of the highly competitive job market for ECRs), but few were aware of the range of careers that their PhD might be preparing them for. Seven external speakers with postgraduate degrees spoke about their experiences of transitioning from PhD to their chosen career path. All drew on their personal experiences and offered specific advice.


Dr Victoria Gardner talks about deciding to leave academia

Our speakers came from a range of educational backgrounds and had pursued a variety of careers. Dr Laura Tompkins, who holds a PhD in medieval history, now works as an Academic Engagement Manager for the National Archives at Kew. Dr Victoria Gardner, whose PhD is also in History, teaches and is Head of Scholarship and Academic Extension at Wellington College in Berkshire. Dr Ailidh Woodcock works as a European Advisor for the UK Research Office, a role that has recently taken her to Brussels on a three-year secondment, and before her move to UKRO worked for the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). Dr Katy Hamilton, whose PhD is from the Royal College of Music, is a freelance researcher, writer and presenter of music. Rachael Bowers, who holds an MA in Heritage Studies, is a Documentation Assistant for English Heritage. Dr Elaine Tierney also works in heritage, for the V&A museum. Dr Sarah Parry, whose PhD is in Hispanic Studies, works in university management, as a Policy Officer for the University of Strathclyde. Following each panel there were discussion sessions building on themes that were present in each of the talks, and the PGR students that were present asked many insightful questions about the practicalities of pursuing the careers that were discussed on the day.


Dr Elaine Tierney talks about her experience of working in museums

Despite the variety in the career pathways taken by our speakers, there were many themes that reoccurred throughout the day. One concerned the links that many of the speakers had maintained with academia, emphasising that not pursuing a career as a lecturer does not mean having to leave academia completely behind. For Sarah Parry and Ailidh Woodcock, their roles involve close interaction with universities on a daily basis, in terms of management, policy, and co-ordinating research funding. Laura Tompkins and Victoria Gardner have both continued to research and publish academic work – Victoria’s book, based on her PhD research, was published earlier this year. Elaine Tierney illuminated the possibilities for close interaction between academia and external organisations. At the time of the workshop, Elaine held a one-year lectureship in early modern History at the University of Manchester, and has since accepted a role building on her previous experience of working with the Victoria and Albert Museum – from September 2016 she will be coordinating the development of teaching and training offered by the V&A Research Institute.


Dr Ailidh Woodcock, Dr Victoria Gardner and Dr Laura Tompkins participating in a discussion session

Another recurring theme was the temporary nature of many of the first jobs our speakers held after their PhD. Many of the PGRs present were aware of that post-PhD, those who pursued an academic career could expect to hold a series of temporary posts before hoping to be appointed to a permanent lectureship. Some of our speakers, including Elaine Tierney, Katy Hamilton and Victoria Gardner, had held temporary teaching jobs in universities, and in Victoria’s case this had involved four jobs at four different institutions across the country.  It became clear, though, that this was no less common in careers outside of academia. For all of our speakers, their first jobs had been temporary posts. There was a prolonged discussion about the practical difficulties of this, and questions about work-life balance and the sacrifices that needed to be made in pursuing any career. In this sense, pursuit of academic and non-academic careers is very similar. Several of our speakers, though, noted the benefit of these temporary roles. They allowed for assessment of how much they wanted to pursue that particular career, and how much the job might suit them. Being fluid was in many ways seen as a positive, despite very real personal and financial concerns. Many of our speakers indicated that many permanent jobs in their field were only advertised internally, making it necessary to take temporary posts in order to be in a position to apply for permanent posts when they arose.

Workshop participants talk over lunch

At the end of the day there was a roundtable session. In addition to asking any residual questions of our speakers, the PGR students present used the session to talk to each other about what they got out of the day. Many of them were very positive, feeling that they had gained a much broader understanding of the range of careers potentially available to them, and the ways in which they might go about preparing themselves during their PhD for the possibility of a career outside academia. There was an emotional discussion about the idea of ‘failure’, and the internal, often subconscious, belief held by many PGRs that to pursue a career outside academia in some way made them a failure. This was emphatically refuted by all of the speakers and the lecturers present. Our seven speakers are at various stages of their careers, but all spoke positively about the ways in which they used skills, knowledge and contacts gained during their PhDs in their current roles, and the opportunities that they had been offered as a result of moving outside academia, which they might not otherwise have experienced. The final discussion, as well as the day as a whole, was useful for PGRs in fostering honest and open discussions about careers, and one of the attendees commented on their evaluation form that ‘the sense of community that was reinforced throughout the day was a big factor in feeling reassured about the future’. All of the attendees seemed to agree that they were much better informed about Life after the PhD.

 The last ones standing (sitting) at the end of the wine reception which ended the day

Many thanks to the Cohort Development Fund of the AHRC northwest doctoral training partnership, who funded this event. The workshop was organised by Dr Siobhan Talbott, lecturer in early modern history at Keele University.

Anyone interested in the Life after the PhD workshops, including information on future workshops (either as attendees or contributors), can contact Dr Siobhan Talbott via email: or on twitter: @SiobhanTalbott

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