A reassuring workshop – ‘Life Beyond the PhD’

This post refers to the workshop entitled ‘Life after the PhD: career development initiatives in the Humanities’ which took place at Keele university in June

For me the term ‘workshop’ in academia can mean several things. These range from miniature conferences to project meetings or a study skills seminar. But ‘Life after the PhD’ introduced me to a new association – reassurance. Let me explain.

Somehow, somewhere during my PhD studies I have developed a message, or a feeling, or an assumption. I cannot even tell you, precisely, where I have developed this feeling from. What I can tell you, especially after attending this workshop, is that it is shared by many of my fellow PhD students. Simply put, unless I obtain an academic teaching position at a prestigious university after my PhD, then I have somehow failed.  The sense that PhD = Academic Lecturer and Researcher. Otherwise you have WASTED your time and efforts, you ‘failed’.

And yet, at the same time as we are developing this idea we are also faced with the reminders of how near impossible this will be. To even be considered for such a role you need to publish a million and one things in top-line journals before you submit your thesis. You must also have wide and varied teaching experience with really fantastic student feedback. And you should have several things lined up for the next Ref. You also need to have won several funding awards to show people have seen value you in you in the past. Oh and you would probably need to move a hundred miles or more to get the role of an ECR.

Now, admittedly, these are all the wild exaggerations that whirl around my mind at 2am when I wonder just how I will have enough time to assemble a portfolio and write a thesis that will stand against the competition for academic posts. Because it IS very stressful when I try to think how we can use our PhDs in ways that add value. In ways that make use of the subject I love. To not ‘fail’.

And so we come to Life Beyond the PhD. The purpose of the day was to show PGR students just some of the range of careers that are available after completion of a doctoral thesis.  It was funded by the Cohort Development Fund of the AHRC northwest doctoral training partnership and organised by Dr Siobhan Talbott, lecturer in early modern history at Keele University.

I won’t go into too much detail on the day itself as that can be found here. In brief, seven guest speakers presented about their own experiences following their PhD. The speakers were not there to brag about their own achievements but to offer honest examples of opportunities and careers OTHER than the route almost every student watching had assumed was their own (fate?). The speakers were all candid and open to questions afterwards. I thought one or two of them very brave when they confessed to the disillusionment of lives as early career researchers.

After each panel of two or three presenters, there was a discussion between everyone at the workshop. It was during these discussions that I realised I was not alone in being worried about the competition for ECR positions. In an odd way it is nice to know you are not the only one worrying.

Now what about the reassurance I spoke of way back at the start of this post? Many speakers emphasised that they had not left academic research and study of their subjects behind. They were still able to contribute and advance their topics in roles as varied as a private school teacher, policy advisor, freelance researcher, curator, and archival or academic manager. There was also a shared similarity of experience where, before they became people able to present at a workshop around succesful careers, they too experienced temporary positions, finding balance in work and life, and concerns over career choices.

Both the information I received and the examples they provided reassured me that even if I am not destined for a ECR position (I still aim for one at present), I can still have a succesful career connected to my PhD subject. I am deeply grateful to the workshop for that.Not to mention the sense of “huh, so you CAN be a successful adult with a PhD, remain connected and contribute to your subject, and not have to hold an academic position.”

I understand that the aim is for these workshops to continue and spread which I can only consider an incredibly good idea. Not only to encourage the current crop of PGRs around the country but also to provide reinforcement and encouragement to others considering starting a PhD pathway themselves.

I look forward to the next workshop in the series with eager anticipation. I recommend you look out for it as well.

Plug: 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: s.talbott@keele.ac.uk or on twitter: @SiobhanTalbott

This post was produced by Glenn Price a PhD student in History. Glenn, who began his research in Autumn 2015, examines military logistics, supplies and the course and conduct of warfare in the British Isles in the middle of the seventeenth century.

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