About Beyond the PhD.

Beyond the PhD is a free resource consisting of real anonymised stories from PhD students who have gone on to interesting and sometimes unexpected careers.

Feel free to navigate the range of case studies using the menu (or the pop-out menu on mobile). The interviews are divided into easily-digestible audio clips and you can access a transcription for each one if you prefer to read rather than listen.

The first 12 individual case studies are now ready for you to access them. In these candid interviews, interviewees offer personal reflections on facing challenges, responding to opportunities and reaching decisions. They also describe their PhD experience, the period of transition from their final year of writing-up to their subsequent employment, the contexts in which they currently work, and how the PhD has equipped them for their role. 

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The background to the Beyond the PhD project.

The ‘Beyond the PhD’ project was originally run by the Centre for Career Management Skills (CCMS) a HEFCE funded Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of Reading, whose career professionals interviewed individuals with arts and humanities PhDs. The aim was to shed light on the diverse paths postgraduate researchers take after graduation, moving beyond simple career advice. The often-overlooked aspects of career journeys—emotions, personal stories, and unexpected events that lead to unforeseen outcomes are covered in the individuals stories.

When the original resource was closed, Inkpath offered its support to host the materials, and they have since been signed over to Inkpath (with all necessary consents) so we can continue to make these valuable interviews available to access free of charge.

What did the original project aim to do?

Beyond the PhD aimed to explore questions like: How do people decide between an academic career or other options? How do those with clear goals achieve them? What happens when someone isn’t shortlisted for their initial job applications? How do long-held career aspirations evolve under practical pressures like paying bills? And, how do individuals reconcile taking a job outside academia with their academic identity developed over years of postgraduate study?

Discussing career aspirations and concerns with others, and gaining an objective perspective, can be crucial in figuring out what we want to do, when to do it, and how to go about it. While it’s important to learn from those with experience, accessing their insights can be challenging. ‘Beyond the PhD’ offers a unique opportunity to hear from a diverse group of individuals who have transitioned from arts and humanities PhDs to various careers. Through audio interviews, they share candid reflections on facing challenges, seizing opportunities, and making decisions.

Interviewees discuss their PhD experiences, their transition from final-year writing to employment, the contexts of their current roles, and how their PhD has prepared them. They address practical career-building activities and philosophical questions about personal identity in relation to both work and their PhD.

We hope you will see aspects of your own journey in these stories, but you may not find an exact match to your profile. Instead, we encourage you to explore the material with an open mind, gaining insights from others’ experiences that may illuminate your own path.


Beyond the PhD has been developed by Shauna Concannon, Julia Horn, Jessica March, Finbar Mulholland, Catherine Reynolds and Rachel Stewart at the Centre for Career Management Skills (CCMS) a HEFCE funded Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of Reading. Others closely involved in the development of this project include: CCMS postgraduate Group, Cindy Becker, Janet Metcalfe at Vitae, Jo Moyle and Sally Pawlik. We would like to thank the postgraduate researchers at the University of Reading and the University of Sussex who have contributed to surveys, focus groups and user-testing during the development of this project. We are also enormously grateful to those who have generously given their time to be interviewed.

Adam | English Literature | Accountancy.

Adam shares his journey transitioning from academia to professional work, reflecting on the challenges encountered from a third-class degree to achieving a PhD. He delves into his role as a technical author, connecting its relevance to both his undergraduate and postgraduate studies. Along the way, he explores his evolving aspirations regarding an academic career, re-evaluating postdoctoral study and its relation to his changing perspectives post-PhD. Adam credits his teachers and tutors for their influential guidance while explaining the significance of obtaining a PhD. Furthermore, he discusses his motivations for pursuing higher education and a PhD, highlighting his enduring passion for the subject that continues to drive his intellectual curiosity.

Explore Adam’s journey further by clicking the links below:

The background to Adam’s PhD
Adam’s inspiration
Expectations where the PhD may lead
The meaning of the PhD
Adam’s PhD topic
The reasons behind his PhD
Regrets around leaving academia
Anticipation moving into a career
Adam’s current role
What next?
Building a career
Advice for those doing a PhD



Career Pathway

  • Graduate from a university in the South-West (English – 3rd class hons)
  • Start work at a print shop
  • Quit print shop to start MA. Search for part-time work
  • Start MA in Literature with Open University
  • Savings run low, take awful full-time job at local hair salon. Stick it for 3 months
  • Start work at a small firm of accountants (part time)
  • Graduate with an MA in Literature
  • Start PhD at a University in the South
  • Start work (full time) at Rail Safety & Standards Board
  • Submit thesis for examination
  • Vive examination
  • Graduate (PhD)
  • Start new job at Rail Safety & Standards Board (same dept)



Turning Points

  • My father’s death made me take a second look at my future. Sadly, it also meant that I qualified for the full grant – without which I could not have attended University. He earned too little to afford to send me himself. This means that all my endeavours were (and are) in his name.
  • Getting a Third for my BA affected me later on. Partly it was guilt at letting Dad down, partly it was anger at letting myself down. Either way, it is unlikely that I would have bothered to study at MA level had I got a higher BA grade.
  • The job at the print shop was bad, but (over time) helped me to realise that  there had to be more to life.
  • A conversation with a friend about the Open University concentrated the thoughts I was already having. It showed me that there WAS a way out after all.
  • A chance reading of a copy of Railnews led to my applying to the Rail Safety Standards Board
  • Getting the job at the RSSB has brought about the most significant change since 1989 – it was here that I really became “me – using my education fully for the first time, gaining in confidence and mixing with people from all manner of backgrounds



Audio Interview

The background to Adam’s PhD

Did you do the bulk of it full-time or part-time?

It was full-time, although unusually I was also working as well, part-time position for much of it. And then I landed a job in London, which was full-time. But it wasn't so bad because the thesis was drawing to its conclusion by that time.

So were you working and being paid throughout the PhD, were you working at the beginning as well?

Yes, yes. Throughout the MA and PhD

Did you receive any funding?

No, I did apply. I frankly, I think my subject, which was John Betjeman, very popular poet laureate, not very popular academically. And a lot of this was also reflected in the number of applications I made to universities for the DPhil. Some quite explicitly said, we can't really see this going anywhere, and I think that was also true of the funding scenario. So simply scrimped and saved as it were, and worked and funded myself.

And did you work beforehand?

Yes, I had a full-time position after my undergraduate study. It didn't meet what I wanted out of life, so as I was living at home at the time, and I think that's a key point because if I wasn't, if I hadn't been, I couldn't really have done this. I walked out effectively.

What were you doing?

I was a trainee manager in inverted commas at a local print company where I work. And it involved basically doing a bit of everything in the building, which was good because you get to meet everybody and get on with everybody and understand what they're doing. But it wasn't really how I wanted my working life to pan out. I wanted something else.

So a friend gave me a prospectus for a distance learning establishment and I found a course, a master's course that appealed to me, which focused more on Victorian verse. And I thought, well I probably won't be able to do that and a full-time job because printing is very deadline led, quite pressured every day really. When when you get home you don't essentially feel like thinking much.

So I thought, well I'll, I'll leave. Got the luxury of being able to leave and I'll get a part-time position three days a week I was aiming at and I managed to find one eventually I had a small hiccup, spent seven weeks, believe it or not, as a hairdresser's assistant, which was about five minutes walk away, and then luckily found an accountant's position, which would take me for three days a week. And that allowed me four days working on the MA study. And that's where I stayed throughout most of the DPhil as well because the idea for the DPhil came from the MA, I didn't go into the MA thinking, oh I know I'll go on as far as I can go. It was simply an idea that came. So that's, that's how that panned out.

Can you just talk me through your educational background a bit? How the Undergraduate degree led to the Masters, which led to the DPhil?

Sure. I went away to university as most people did at about 20 originally to study Mathematics with Statistics, because I'd done that at A Level and I thought it would give me a better range of careers from which to choose I suppose. So I if you like, I went into that with good sense again in inverted commas but I found that it really wasn't engaging me enough. I also, some parts of the course were just too difficult for me to do.

So I switched to English literature after about a month, became very interested in it, but also at the same time very interested in music. And I played in a band for a while and I probably didn't devote as much time as I should have done to those studies. And also I found Anglo-Saxon incredibly difficult and I failed that paper alas and that really wasn't my downfall, but I was never going to get a 2:1 although I tried my, my damnedest as the second and third year went by. I did end up getting a third, which left me feeling a bit disillusioned. I was the only third in my year. Made me feel stupid actually in comparison to everyone else.

Although at the time just having a degree was something of an achievement that you followed a course. But nevertheless, that's, that's how I felt. So I shunned academia to say it without swearing and just thought, oh, well I'll go back to my hometown of Swindon and get a job. And I did effectively turn my back on it. The job wasn't as I, as I've described, wasn't as I'd hoped. It was fairly depressing, frankly, because I think sometimes one's first job, you end up thinking, goodness is this, it is this life for the next 60 years or whatever, 50 years, however long.

And two things happened really, which I view as being purely by chance. The first was that they started showing Inspector Morse on ITV repeating. And I happened to watch one which featured a lot of Rochester's poetry. And I'd liked Rochester at Bristol. And I was surprised, you know, with my third class brain how much of these slightly lewd poems I could remember that led me to join my local library because I'd assuaged it so much I'd not even bothered to join the local library when I came back to Swindon and I decided, well I enjoyed that film, why don't I try reading one book? So I got out one of the books, which were all the paragraphs were quite often headed with a quotation.

And again, I found it was enjoyable to play spot the quotation. And that started me reading again and at the same time a friend gave me a prospectus for a distance learning establishment and I just became ignited reignited with the subject. I did want to rub out the third if I possibly could.

So there were sort of simultaneous thoughts going on rub out the third and also, this is really interesting. I'm five years older and now maybe, you know, I'm ready for this, don't want to do the drinking every night playing in the band sort of stuff any longer. Why don't I apply and see what happens? And I did and found it enormously rewarding. I quite enjoyed working alone on it, but knowing that there was support at the end of the telephone, not email in those days particularly and also group sessions every fourth weekend or something. I think we, a small group met, which was also very useful.

And it was through doing Victorian literature. That's really where the DPhil idea came from, that I noticed that because I'd always liked John Betjeman, just not for any academic reason, but just the pleasure of watching his programs and his verse did come up at A Level and I felt he stood out for me anyway. And I noticed that a lot of Hardy, Tennyson, bit of Browning rang little bells in my head back to Betjeman's work and I chatted to my tutor of the period about that and he didn't laugh, basically he encouraged me to have a try at applying and writing a synopsis about what a thesis might look like.

And went on from there really I applied and failed - thought best of three then best of five, best of 10. And eventually I think it was shot number 20 hit the target because I happened to find somebody who was a Betjeman fan like me, who could see that it had legs to use his own words.

So feels like a sort of concatenation of chance, but one led in, I think if I hadn't, if I'd got something better than a third as an undergraduate student, I probably would've been satisfied with that and stayed in a job. And, you know, that would've been an end to it. So that really led me to want to do better partly. And then it became study for study's sake in a way, I became absorbed by the subject itself.

Adam’s inspiration

Who would you say influenced your aspirations and the decisions that you made?

I think the first person to fire me up, as it were about literature was my A Level teacher, because he was, he's sort of a cross between Michael Palin and Chris Tarrant, if you like. Very funny, very engaging, but very knowledgeable as well and was able to sort of sweep you along with him. So that engaged me in the whole subject. I think my distance learning tutors were all very good as well, but it was really that my final university doing the DPhil my supervisor there was very inspirational. He's a very well respected man in literature. A lot of publications under his belt and yet one wouldn't know it as it were because it was a very humble sort of person. It's just that you knew you could trust him to know he did invariably. And I think that was a great inspiration.

Did your supervisor give you a lot of help and encouragement and ideas regarding careers?

No, I think because we only really met the two hours every eight, the focus was always on the chunk of writing. I'd email to him, I could have gone to the careers office at any time, but I was usually concerned about getting the train back really. So it's all been kind of accidental. It was about, at the time, it was always about getting the thesis done because I'm back to work tomorrow as it were. So, no, not great deal forward planning. I probably don't have much right to be where I, where I am, because luck has played quite a big part.

Expectations where the PhD may lead

Did you have any expectations about where the PhD might lead?

I hoped it would lead to a better job, I've thought about this quite a bit since. I thought I would probably end up teaching at a university. I knew I didn't have the patience to teach teenagers and I wasn't sure about undergraduates. I was a little bit concerned because my tutor was exceptionally knowledgeable about a very wide range of literature, and I was being quite specific in my 19th, 20th century kind of thing. He was one of those people who could read a poem and say, "Oh, that reminds me of such and such" and then reach up behind himself almost without looking and pull the relevant book off his shelves. And I was a bit worried if I was going to teach undergraduates that I wouldn't have enough knowledge of enough literature, which left me thinking, "Oh, crikey, I'm gonna be the most irrelevantly qualified accounts clerk in the country." but on the other hand, there wasn't an awful lot of time to worry about that because there was such a lot to be done. But yes, it did concern me where I might go. So finding the job that I found was an astonishing turn in the course of events really.

The meaning of the PhD

What would you say was the personal value of your doctorate?

You do feel better about yourself there's no question. Even for someone who is relatively humble, like, I hope I am, it's all right to feel proud of yourself when you've done something like this that takes a lot of effort and a lot of time and it gives you a very good foundation for going forward. So it because, not that I can take on anything now, but you do certainly feel less afraid of being able to learn new things, take on new things it shows you that you've got the tools to deal with or have at least have a go at dealing with whatever life, your working life anyway, might throw at you.

Adam’s PhD topic

Can you give me a little bit more detail about your thesis?

Yes, it was entitled "The Victorian Influence on the Work of John Betjeman". And it kind of does what it says on the Tin really. I looked at the subject of influence and realised though that it wasn't just the poem that I'd spotted Oxley Hall 60 years after looks a bit like Oxley Hall for example, or whatever. There's bits of my Last Duchess in Executive.

It was more than that because Betjeman was such an architectural enthusiast and writer as well. So it enabled me to look at how Victorian culture, faith, and doubt debate as well because Betjeman had a lot of internal wrangles about, and is it true that the Christmas stories, as he writes in Christmas, it allowed me to engage with these socioeconomic ideas as well as the verse. I could, we could, play spot the Victorian and show how Betjeman went really from doing that in his early work through to using the poetics of the past to critique his present, particularly after World War II when he felt moved to sort of fight against post-war, urban redevelopment, bad architecture and getting rid of Victorian architecture and Edwardian Georgian too.

So that then gave a, a sort of wider look at the country in the 20th century, how Betjeman fitted into it and how he used his poetic antecedents and architectural ones too, to look at where we were and where he saw that we were all feared that we were going to go.

The reasons behind his PhD

Can you tell me why you did a PhD and how you reached decision that's the right direction?

Sure. I did the MA firstly to wipe out the third BA level in part, and also because I’ve become more engaged in the subject of English five years on. It was really a question of then finding a question that I wanted to answer. That's how a lot of my non-fiction articles tend to occur, probably why I don't sell them very widely, but I think of an idea, I think of a question and then I kind of almost do anything to answer it.

And it was studying Victorian poets, which led me to think some of these remind me of Betjeman a bit. And that raised the question, what was the Victorian influence on Betjeman's writing in all fields, be it his journalism or his commentary, his narration and his verse. And I simply wanted to answer that question and I felt that the best way to do it was with guidance, frankly, and not just maybe trying to write an article about it. I felt I wanted to have an expert with me and I discussed it with my tutor at the time who suggested, "Well, yes, actually why don't you try for a DPhil on it?" So that I was driven by the subject really, I suppose, rather than I want a PhD. Although obviously that's quite an attractive thing.

Can you explain why that's an attractive thing?

Well, I think it's a question of background. I'm the first person in my family to do a degree. Younger ones have come after me of course, because the situation in the country's changed. But at the time I did mine in the early nineties, I was the first. And that's appealing because you feel that working class ethic, I'm making something of myself, I'm doing something worthwhile.

Because otherwise, in Swindon, most people work for, well Honda now, but in the motor industry or in the railway industry or in a warehouse or in a bank or something like that. Originally, one was expected if you did well at school, you did A Levels. If you did well at A Levels, you went away. And that had changed from my parents' time. So I must admit I did do the BA because it was sort of expected. But you do then get that feeling that I wonder how much further one could go. Now I made a bit of a mess of it by being too interested in music and discovering cider and girls. Sorry. But I did. And a lot of people do. I think it's later when you mature, the subject takes over and that's really what took over more with the MA more than replacing the third. I was interested in the subject. I was proper adult by then. And then definitely with the DPhil there will still be an element because your mother says, "Oh, you'll be doctor" whatever. You know, people do say that in your immediate family and it is appealing because you think, "Well, I've done something, haven't I? Crikey, done something that not many people have done." but more than that with me at any rate, I then became very focused on answering the question that kept niggling away in my head, which became the focus of the thesis.

Regrets around leaving academia

Do you ever have any regrets about not pursuing the academic career?

Occasionally a bit not a great deal because I, I'm quite happy with what I'm doing and it's a good industry to work in. I think it's the case of wondering what would've happened if, you know, you always think if, if you come to a fork in the road and you take one path, I wonder what would've happened if I'd taken the other one. I understand it's more of a relaxed environment, which sometimes would be nice because a little bit like printing and a little bit like a accountancy rail accident analysis is fairly deadline led, but on the back of that, there's the feeling that one is helping society in a way. So it's more a case of wondering what would've happened rather than too much regret, I think.

How do you feel about your discipline now?

I'm very proud to have done it. It's still something I don't quite want to let go of, even though I'm forging ahead, if you like, in the rail industry. I've got a book coming out on the thesis in a couple of months time, and I still would like to return to the postdoc idea maybe as another book in inverted commas one day, because I think I'm about to get much busier in the rail industry, so I won't perhaps be able to devote so much time to it as I might, because, you know, as one gets older, other commitments come in after hours as it were. But I understand that the door kind of eventually closes on an academic career the further away you time you get from finishing the DPhil. But that said, I think I'll always have that critical eye when I'm reading something literary and I hope that I can always, you know, I hope I never slam a door on it myself because the subject still engages me and I think it always will do.

Anticipation moving into a career

Did you at any point envisage yourself having a typical academic career?

Yes, as time went on, I mean, my feelings of knowledge deficiency, if you like, abated a bit, the more I read. So I started to read the Times Higher Education Supplement and look for suitable adverts and also began to be attracted by the idea of a postdoc because I, again, I got an idea as I was working through this, found that Betjemen and other writers wrote about railways quite a lot. I read a book which mentioned that there wasn't much railway literature, plenty of books about trains, but not much railway literature. That made me think of railways in literature and how they've gone from sort of recording the new inventions like you might see in Middlemarch. I think it comes into being used as a plot device such as Agatha Christie might use to then being the subject of political commentary like Ken Loach's (The) Navigator's film. And I thought, well, that would be quite interesting. But rather like the DPhil, except I didn't find an enthusiast, no one was interested. So I then started to think more, well maybe a lectureship then would be the thing to do and perhaps one day they'd let me do this other idea.

Did you do anything actively to develop your career down those lines?

No, I'm afraid I didn't, I seem to have made quite a lot of mistakes in that respect. I didn't do this at undergraduate level either. I simply did the exams and thought, “Oh, what should I do now then?” possibly in this instance, because I already had a job and maybe felt like I had a bit of time because I think I would've been able to have gone full-time in the accountancy job after finishing the DPhil if there'd been nothing else.

And that made me think a bit, well it's not so urgent then because at least I'll have an income because I think that's the other consideration that you have - having an income is, is important whatever we are doing and if you've already got one you can afford maybe, or your mind thinks anyway, you can afford not to be so worried. And I think I was more interested in doing a postdoc anyway and then hoping that would lead me into another career.

Adam’s current role

What's your current role?

My current role right at the moment because it's about to change, is "Technical Writer" at a company called Rail Safety and the Standards Board in London. And the company is, it's the, the custodian of the railways rule book but also we keep an eye on the formal inquiries that are undertaken by another body and we look at safety trends using statistics because we manage the database for, if an accident happens anywhere on the rail network in the country, it gets put into our database.

So I was brought in very enlightened view, thinking back on it, to improve the writing standard of the office where I work. The particular department which produces a lot of reports on rolling continual basis. They wanted someone who could write a bit and who was interested in railways as a subject and being brought up in Swindon in the seventies, it was kind of what one did really. So that is what I did originally. I came in, read everything that they produced and did a presentation, what I liked, where we could improve, did a series of tutorials effectively, became a sort of English mentor stroke tutor if you like. And gradually started to be involved in research and writing myself. So that's how it all originated.

But I'm just about to become rather long title "Learning from Accidents Program Leader" because that's the hot topic of the moment - learning from the recommendations that come out of formal inquiries and trying to work out how the whole industry can move forward learning from these experiences or I'll be taking a more proactive role closer to the industry rather than being sort of in the back room if you like.

How long have you been doing the job that you're doing now?

Two and a half years. I joined RSSB at, right at the end of October 2005.

And was that when you joined the organization?


Can you tell me in some detail what your job involves?

It's a lot of it's about being there really anyone and not just in my department. It's kind of wide of that, anyone can come to me if they need me to check their grammar or to check that we aren't being ambiguous in what we're saying because that's what grammar's for, isn't it really? Avoiding ambiguity. So that's a big part of, of why I'm there. And in a way just being there with the job title that I have has been enough to make people think about what they're writing rather than worrying so much about the number.

So getting a kind, getting kind of equal rights for words, if you like, is a large part of what I do because all the analysts are extremely good at, at the spreadsheets and plotting the trends but not at getting those ideas across to the public. So as I mentioned, that takes the form of presentations at department meetings, you know, this is what we do with colons and semicolons for example, one-to-one mentoring sessions, encouraging people to read beyond reports, industry documents. So I've got a sort of literary studies group, which, which is an email group really I'll just pick on some amusing or interesting thing, an introduction from a novel for example, "Why is this introduction effective?" "What is it about the rhythm in this poem that carries you along?" all these kinds of basic, the basic tools of writing and we'll have a little chat about it. And I've managed to turn one non-reader onto Dickens by doing that, which is quite amazing.

I also edit the department's internal newsletter and encourage people to write for that as well, to try to get them to write in different styles because I think it's important that, because writing's a massive palette I think. And if you are pigeonholed into writing reports, you might only have two colours, why not have 22? and dabble a little bit. Obviously we can't go too far with romanticism in our documents, but I think it's healthy for the writers to be able to experiment. And so in that safe format we can do it. I also produce summaries of failed safety related press stories, the network rail incident log, rewrite entries and send those round because they're very sort of starchy and difficult to read.

So I do get to do writing, I get to do a bit of analysis as well because I've got railway knowledge. I also act as my department's link with the communications department, so if we've got a story that we need putting out to the rail press or the national press, it comes to me and then it's then down to them plus a few other sort of roles like dealing with our department's process procedures, our entry on the intranet and the internet website as well. So it, it's quite wide ranging for the various things that that I do, but that keeps it interesting.

So in a typical day, how much of your time is divided between sort of meetings, answering emails, drafting documents? What is the sort of typical day and where would you be doing those things? Do you have to go out of the office at all?

Most days begin with the summaries that I talked about. I'll generally do the previous days' entries and then that's about half an hour to an hour. And then there will be some big project that has to be got on with, and that's usually the thing that's bubbling along all day at the moment that's rewriting the grammar section of the company's style guide. And it's really a question of getting pulled away from that. There seldom a day goes by without a meeting and that's in a separate meeting room on a different floor about a forthcoming report for example, or about initiatives to improve communications outside the industry, that kind of thing. Sometimes we are able to have meetings in the local coffee shop, we're not absolutely tied, which is a bit more civilized of course. And which is nice too because I think it is a bit soul destroying, being stuck at a terminal all day typing glued to a spreadsheet or Word document or something.

So it, it is usually that kind of thing. And then there'll be ad hoc demands, "This report needs to go out today because you have a look at it?" So there'll be like 20% of the day will be that, but all the while with the big project going on underneath to which you return can be quite demanding quite often that I have to go online with remote PC access in the evening to finish something off, but then that at least allows me to leave London at a more reasonable hour. So that makes it sound quite unpleasant, but it's not really, it's just a question of getting the work done to have a better weekend if you like.

Can you describe what your work environment is like?

Yeah, it's a massive open plan space and a sort of L formation. I used to be at the, the apex of the L which was brilliant to being able to see all my students if you like, but sadly now I'm round the corner a little bit isolated, but it's a department initiative that we're all supposed to talk to each other more anyway, so it is very friendly space and very quickly get to know everybody in that kind of environment. So sometimes it's a bit difficult if you've got something you are writing that you need to concentrate on, then you can run off to a meeting room if there's one available or luckily the British Library is a few yards away and a reading room there's always available. Otherwise, if it's not something that's so taxing, it's quite nice to be in the thick of things. It is a happy environment, that's for sure.

What are the people like?

It's a wide range actually. And that was a very healthy thing I think coming from a parochial place like Swindon. In my London job I meet with a wide variety of nationalities, for example, educational backgrounds, different lengths of time in the railway. So there's some absolute experts that have been in it 40 years, all their working lives. There are people who come to us from the nuclear industry or from the aircraft industry or air safety people who are communications experts, engineers.

So you meet a very wide range of people and a very wide range of perspectives on life that way. And I've kind of, I feel I've learned probably more from giving tutorials to individual students than they probably got from me because you just see all these different perspectives and how they fit together.

What are your working hours like?

Not bad, not bad. I generally, I leave the house at 7am to get a train and I'm usually rail company permitted in the office by 8:30am I don't have a lunch hour as such because I prefer to leave at 4:00pm but that said, I do occasionally have to go online and do a little bit in the evening. I'm okay with that. I also quite like to just check on any emails or meeting invitations that have come after I've left. So there are no unpleasant surprises the next morning we are expected to kind of finish the work to deadlines and there's no overtime paid as, as you might get in a different work environment. So one is expected to put the hours in and get the work done, but it's not a problem really because we're kind of a group of caring people if you like. It becomes a sort of personal quest if you like. So largely 8:30am until 4:00pm with extras.

Can you work from home? Sometimes?

Yes, yes. I mean in my original position when I was first introducing myself essentially to the department, they like me to be there every day, but now I'm in more of a position where I'm, for example, proofing a very long document. It's better to just have it at home and, get on with it. because one is trusted to do that kind of thing. So yes, or once a fortnight as a sort of rule of thumb I can do that. Which is very, very pleasant for avoiding the early start because that does get a bit taxing. Although one does get used to these things over time, strangely.

Can you see any connections between your PhD and your area of work?

Yes, yes. Thankfully, I've always say always, but I suppose from undergraduate days onwards, I felt that I wanted to be able to use my pen to earn a living, and I started off in a very small way by writing nonfiction articles but it was, you know, it was sort of pennies really. Never, a PAYE position. And this is, I am a writer and even in the role I'm going to move on to writing is going to be quite a big part of it. If I hadn't done the DPhil I don't think I would've gotten the position because they, they needed somebody that they could trust to teach good writing practice.

And I think the critical thinking that an English degree gives you is also vital because we read a lot of reports from other places as well. And so you have to be able to look beyond the words sometimes and I think my deep field training and prior study has been very useful in giving me that critical angle on documents and never thought I would end up teaching in effect, but again, I think the teaching, the good teaching I've received, I'm simply trying to pass on elements of that if none of it is original from me as it were, I'm just passing on what I've been fortunate enough to receive.

And do you tend to coach people one-to-one or do you sometimes have to give tutorials in group classes with your colleagues?

The tutorials tend to be one-to-one, and even if I'm giving back a bit of work that I've marked as it were for suggested corrections, they're sort of essay tutorials one-to-one as well. The group activity tends to be in the departmental meetings where I'll talk about something that maybe one person has said, "Well semicolons, I'm having a bit trouble, when do you use those?" And then I'll think, well you are probably not alone in that, so let's do a little presentation on it. So it's mainly one-to-one, but if there's an issue, I think that affects a lot of people. I'll do a departmental presentation and that's then talking to about 30 people.

How do you feel that your PhD is regarded amongst your colleagues and your employers?

I think it was seen as very important among the employers originally for, for showing that, well a couple of things I suppose showing that I knew about writing and about English and grammar and so on is a sort of proof of that. But also I think it shows that you can manage time, I think that's very important that the employers are aware that if you can follow this kind of work where you're largely working by yourself, particularly if you have employment as well, then you are going to be pretty good at multitasking and meeting deadlines, getting things done really without too much need for someone looking over your shoulder all the time. You could be trusted to get on with it.

So I think it was very important in getting me in there. I was a bit worried about overplaying it, you know, I didn't want anyone calling me doctor, for example, because I think that would put up a brick wall between me and the rest of them immediately. They all know that I've got it, but I think it's just a question of you can trust him he knows what he's on about with this subject. It's a sort of badge of trust if you like, but it's not something that one would wish to overplay for fear of, you know, when you've got a very wide range of backgrounds, you need to connect to all of them and sort of distancing yourself in that way isn't good. I use it on external emails if it's someone I don't know because then again, it fulfils the same role that got me in, in the first place this person knows a bit, you know, that shows that you are, you are not just some idiot, you know, without going to a fine point to it. But it's never in the way, which is good. It's only, I think it's only ever been, it's only ever been helpful.

What’s next?

Where might your work take you in the future?

 I'm about to become a learning from accidents program leader, which I wouldn't have got without the position, which I wouldn't have got without the DPhil. So it's got me that far and that involves looking at recommendations for accident, formal inquiries and tracking them and also taking forward how we sustain this learning process so that the industry doesn't make the same mistakes in the future.

That will take me possibly abroad more to talk to other railways in other countries around the country to talk to industry members, stakeholders, as we call them. So that will give me much more contact in the future with the wider industry rather than being a backroom operative. If you like, I should move to the front line and from there, it's not a question of the world being one's oyster, but becoming more widely known in the industry does mean that thanks to the DPhil I will have more career options.

I think in the future about where I might go for companies in the industry other than RSSB, for example. I'm expecting more doors to open just because my name will be more widely known.

And can you envisage the kind of roles that you would be working in those other industries, those other companies?

Unless I retrain, I would imagine that it would be involved with accidents and accident analysis in some way. Although very benevolently, the company is going to pay for me to do a BSc via the institution of railway operators, which I've joined. And that's a much more wide ranging qualification on traffic management, operations signalling, that kind of thing but that may open more doors of kinds, which I can't imagine just in the, more in the operational field.

Building a career

Other than your paid work in accountancy, were you doing anything else with your time outside of the thesis?

I was writing non-fiction articles about railway history actually as I've done since the mid-nineties, I suppose, trying all the while to get away because one is writing for enthusiasts, largely there's a particular way you have to do that. They like lots of numbers woven into prose. Trying all the while to get more away from that, to telling stories about people, which I'm still doing. And funnily enough, some of those articles helped me get the job where I am currently, because it showed I could write in different styles and that I had some knowledge of the industry as well.

So yes, I was doing that, but really that was for myself. One might get 15 pounds for a book review, for example, and 25 quid a page. It's not big money because the magazines are so led by advertising revenue.

How did you get that work?

Sort of knocking on doors really. I started by submitting something to one of the magazines that I thought might interest them fairly small. And the editor liked it, said, have you got any more? And you just build up a relationship there very slowly. But eventually I met him and now I'm in a position where I'll be sent a book with a little slip in it, review please or whatever. I wish it was for something better paid and maybe of interest to more people. But nevertheless, it's nice to have gone from knocking on the door to somebody in effect knocking on my door.

And are the books, they usually have some connection with the rail industry. Usually the ones I seem to get anyway are those past and present type books. Here's a station in 1940 and this is what it's at now. And I usually try to sort of romanticize about it, because one day I'd like to write a novel and I guess a lot of English grads, post-grads would like to, but I mean, it, it's carrying the skills forward in a way. Because one has to be a bit critical and if a mistake is made you have to politely discuss that.

You were working part-time as an accountant, and did that assist you in your subsequent career?

 In a way, I think in a way it did. I've got to, I suppose I've got to be a bit careful. It, it was good when I was doing the DPhil in a sense because I was doing something totally different. It was numbers. I was a clerk. So it, it was an awful lot of going through invoices, allotting a code to, you know, this is a purchase, this is sundries, this is repairs and renewals and whatever.

And then adding up an awful lot of numbers that was so different from the DPhil that it was quite refreshing. Made you glad to get back to the DPhil and you'd also given that bit of your brain a rest. I was in an exceptionally lowly position in this company. So it did, it did dent the confidence a bit. I have to say character building, I guess it, it was character building. I must add though that most of the way I am now in terms of being able to speak to people and put myself forward, I really owe to the company that I work for now, RSSB. I think that the benefit of the accountancy was that it was so different from the DPhil work. It was, it was a break from it if you like. I don't know that it particularly helped me. A bit of numeracy skills perhaps, which, which is quite useful when you're analysing figures on railway safety.

Advice for those doing a PhD

If you could give advice to people who are finishing up their PhDs and thinking ahead to their careers, do you have anything you might be able to share that you think might help them?

I think if you are thinking of a career outside academia, like I have, don't be afraid, get hold of the trade journals and newspapers, because a lot of advertisements don't reach The Guardian or The Times or whatever.

You have to dig a little bit deeper sometimes and I think try to see how you can adapt because you know, someone with an English DPhil isn't necessarily tied to teaching English in a university, although that's what a lot of us do.

If you want something else, really go for it.

I think because simply the doing of the DPhil and what I said about time management, being able to focus on work, being able to work on your own, these are all extremely useful qualities to impress on a potential employer that you've got. And they usually do impress an employer that you've worked for something, you've gone for something and you've got it.

It needn't necessarily be a barrier that you are in an irrelevant subject in inverted commas, a DPhil is very, very good for giving you a grounding, a strong mental basis so don't be put off by trying something different. It may not work, but even if you have an interview, any job interview is a good learning experience regardless of whether you get it or not because you always pick up something from it that you can take on to the next.

Chris | Russian | Audit/Independent Writing.

Chris shares his perspective on his thesis and dives into his research journey exploring leisure in nineteenth-century Russia. He articulates the motivations driving his pursuit of a PhD and provides insights into the context of his doctoral studies. Chris draws parallels and distinctions between his PhD research and his current role as a senior analyst at the National Audit Office. He offers a glimpse into his professional life, balancing his position at the NAO with his writing endeavours. Reflecting on his teaching experiences, Chris discusses the factors that steered him away from an academic career path. He discusses the occasions when he chooses to use his title and why. Delving into his evolving aspirations, Chris elaborates on his transition from PhD study to a fulfilling job and shares practical tips for interview preparation, including effectively discussing one’s doctoral experience.

Explore Chris’s journey further by clicking the links below:

The background to Chris’s PhD
The reasons behind his PhD
Chris’s PhD Topic
The meaning of the PhD
Deciding against an academic career
PhD prestige
Chris’s connections
Moving into his current role
Chris’s current role
Chris’s career crossroads




Career Pathway

  • Start attending a grammar school in Belfast
  • Start BA at Oxbridge
  • Begin graduate work at Oxbridge
  • Commissioned to write book about the Beslan School Siege
  • Completed doctorate
  • Started to work at the National Audit Office
  • First book published



Audio Interview

The background to Chris’s PhD

Can you tell me when you completed your PhD and how many years it took?

Hmm. I finished my PhD, in March, 2005 and was examined in May, 2005, and I had begun it in October, 2001. How old were you when you started it? 23. Yeah.

And did you do the bulk of it full-time then?

Yeah, it was all full-time.

And how did you fund your study?

I both, for my master's and my PhD, I applied for, British Academy, a HRC funding, and was unsuccessful both times and on both occasions. Was fortunate to get Oxbridge college funding, to the same value. So I had full funding from a college in Oxbridge, form a PhD.

Did you work at all beforehand?

No, I came straight through from my undergraduate degree.

Was there any significant obstacles that you had to overcome in order to embark on the PhD?

Only financials. So only the fact that in the two August's before my master's and my PhD, I, I had no funding and I did not know what I was going to do. And then there was a hasty, set of applications for this, university specific funding. So if I had not been successful, I would not have done it at all. I could not have afforded to do.

The reasons behind his PhD

Can you remember why you did a PhD there?

There were two main reasons. The, the first was that I really enjoyed research and I enjoyed turning my understanding of, events and trends, into narratives, and analyses that were accessible to other people. That perhaps rings hollow, given how many people have called up my thesis in the library, which probably could be counted on the fingers of one finger.

But, that was what I wanted to do. I wanted to understand things that had not previously been understood for myself, but also make them understandable to a wider community. So that is the noble reason. And the, more prosaic reason is that friends, key friends were staying on, at university to, to do research and that made it much more attractive.

Chris’s PhD Topic

Can you tell me a little bit about your PhD topic as an undergraduate?

I had done Russian in history, and, my master's was in Russian literature, but with a, with a, a slant towards cultural history. I had spent a year living in the caucuses and discovered that that was where, Russians in the 19th century had first, started visiting resorts as we would understand them in the West. And they had found these, natural mineral springs and around them built, spa resorts.

And then eventually Seaside Resorts developed, no one either in Russia, or or anywhere else had worked on this before. And I set out to write a history of three of the most significant resorts, in 19th century Russia and how they developed and to posit some theories about why they developed, in the end as well as being survey histories of these three places. I think the thesis, suggested that in an autocratic state, where there was very little freedom of commerce, obviously no ability for people to vote.

This was one of the very few ways in which people with some money could express themselves as middle class in a way that people in Western Europe could express themselves at the time as middle class. So I sort of posited the theory that actually leisure took on a special significance in Tsarist Russia as, as one of the ways that they, Tsarist Russians, could feel, European and, affluent and upwardly mobile.

The meaning of the PhD

Has what the PhD means to you personally changed since you completed It?

I think I have retained more of my interest in the subject I studied than the people who I knew who went into academic jobs. They are forced, almost invariably, to turn their PhDs into books, in order to meet the constraints of the research assessment exercise. and during that process, most of them end up hating their thesis and they end up seeing it not for what it was, which is the most detailed and, microscopic piece of research that anyone could do, but rather as a very bad, academic monograph, because of course, the two are not identical.

So you did not write it to be an academic monograph. You wrote it to be a thesis, but now you are being forced to transform it into something. It was not. That is a very painful process for people. I have not had to do that. I can still pick it up and look at it in glory and all of the, enormous number of footnotes and the very specific research and the, very acute, small scale points that I was making and the arguments I was involved in.

I, and I still do that from time to time. I also have not completely given up the idea that I might publish it, and I know this varies from academic area to academic area because it may be that your thesis goes outta date very quickly if it is an area which is well trodden by other feet. But, in my case, it has not gone outta date and I still think, you know, I might do something with it.

So, yeah.

Deciding against an academic career

Did you anticipate an academic career at the end of it?

When I started my undergraduate degree in 1996, I was, could have been. I was certain that I did not want an academic career, obviously, when I decided to do a master's and then a PhD, it became obvious. It became clear that I was on a trajectory which might lead to that. And, and there were times when I thought, especially with regard to the research aspects of an academic career, that that was exactly what I wanted.

The freedom it gives you, the ability to go into something in, in as much depth as you want. And sometimes this was less, I felt this less strongly to be part of a community of scholars who were motivated by those values. so yes, there were times when I, when I thought of an academic career.

At what point during the PhD did you decide you did not want an academic career?  

I am not sure if this has changed since 2001. I suspect it has not, but, but, embarking on an academic career, embarking on a PhD, we were told that there were a number of, things we needed to check off, tick off on a checklist, to be sure of even having a smidgen of a chance of ever being able to apply for an academic job and hope, hope for being successful. So one of them was, doing a PhD. that, but, but another one was making sure to publish early, some, article or something, several if possible.

Never turning down a book review, even if it, involved more work than, than, than the book was worth. and getting some teaching experience. and it was the latter, sorry, I am giving lots of papers. at academic conferences, it was, it was the, the penultimate one, the, the teaching experience that I find I had most difficulty with.

And I have not expected that, 'cause I have, I have always been a confident public speaker, and able to express myself relatively coherently, and without nerves. But I find that all of that, fled me when it, when I, when I tried to reproduce it in front of students, I am still not entirely sure why. At first I had a great crisis of confidence about it and treated it like a challenge that I needed to overcome. So I needed to do more teaching and expose myself to this more.

And then I would, then I would get better at it. And, and then I had a bit of a, I had a bit of an epiphany where I realized that this, this feeling was unique to when I tried to teach and that probably it was best in the rest of my life to avoid a job where I was going to have to do this all the time, because it was unlikely to go away. I think it, in looking back in retrospect, I think the reason that I had these negative feelings, about teaching is because I find it very difficult to pitch to understand who I was pitching, what I was teaching to, was it at the right level for the weakest student or the, or the strongest student?

And what was fair, I probably find it easier to teach to the strongest student, not the weakest student, and perhaps was somewhat impatient with weaker students. I do not think that is, that is an uncommon feeling. And in fact, some of the worst teachers people are taught by are generally like me. and that was another consideration.

I thought that in saving myself from a miserable life of teaching, I was also saving many students. So that, that was really the crux, of, of why I started to think I should not have a career in academia. And of course, once you think that it is, it is easy to proceed on that basis 'cause it is always very difficult to get the job in academia. And that, that was another motivating factor. Once I realised that this was not the be all and end all, and every aspect of teaching was every aspect of being a university lecturer was not wonderful.

Then it became much less attractive to put yourself through this job mill where you can expect, even if you are one of the best to get multiple rejections before you have one success, which may occur at a university very far from where the rest of your life is.

PhD prestige

How do you feel? Or rather, do you feel affected by the prestige of the PhD in your workplace?

Yes, in a good way in that, it is an immediate, I use, I use the fact that I am a doctor on my cards and on my emails, which some people who have PhDs in the National Audit Office choose not to do. There are about 40 of us, I think, with PhDs out of 800 in the organisation. So it is not uncommon, but some people hide that light under a bushel and others do not.

I feel it is an automatic sign, that I have proven experience and expertise in research. and it would only be in that sense that I would use it. So it would not be to say, you know, I have got letters after my name that you do not have. but rather just to say, you know, even if I look like I am not at a very high grade, which was true when I first joined, you can trust me, I suppose. do people, do people have a reaction to it that I would not intend? Possibly? I think some people do, feel slightly intimidated by it. However, not as much as they would be intimidated by knowing that I had been to Oxbridge, perhaps. which is something that I do not clearly state because I feel it is relatively speaking meaningless and, and only likely to, engender some sort of fear or anxiety or, or other bad feelings. So, yes, but not, not very strongly.

Have you ever encountered any prejudice?

No. Beyond what I said about, perhaps some people feeling, you know, “why is he telling me this?” and I have no direct evidence of that. That is just a sensation. I would say prejudice is far too strong a word. There is a, there is a, there is, there is a very clear understanding in the National Audit Office that, that, that there are links between what we do and what people research at union universities do. We have a very strong reliance on evidence. and if we must not go further than our, in, in our conclusions, then our evidence allows us to go and, people, including people who do not have PhDs, understand that that is, that is, that is true of university, workers as well. So, so I think people see a great deal of commonality.

Chris’s connections

Do you feel that you are using your PhD experience in your current job?

Very much so. Obviously one couldn't be sure in applying for the job, that one would be the only certain way of knowing you are going to use what you did in your PhD is to get an academic job and, and, in a depart in the department that does the same thing as you did your PhD in. However, this is an organisation that requires and relies on high quality research and whose reputation is only as robust as its ability to reach robust conclusions that stand up to scrutiny by the media and by, parliament.

So, it is very much a research based institution. there is an emphasis, on innovative methodologies for research. And so there is a lot of, it is not value for money audit by numbers. It is not a set template of different methodologies that have to be applied in a certain order each time. And there is quite the opposite.

There is a lot of opportunities to think about the, the questions that you are faced with and devise your own route, i.e. your own methodologies to an answer. So I, I feel very much that that that is the case. Another thing it is probably worth saying is that, the drafts, the reports that we draft are very, use very careful language in order to achieve this factual accuracy, fairness and balance that we are committed to achieving. And, there is a lot of similarity between that and the way that PhD students carefully choose their language to make sure that their, thesis say exactly what they want 'em to say and no more and no less.

And I enjoy that it is very much the case that, people in the National Audit Office in doing value for money work feel a great degree of ownership over the studies that they are working on. And that, that, that to me has echoes of doing a PhD. You, you feel that your thesis is your own and that you want to make it as good as possible, and sometimes that will involve working harder, than other people are working or longer hours staying later after work.

And, and there is an understanding in the office that, that that is the case. I think that one of the most enjoyable things, about working here is that no one is trying to, take away the ownership that you feel over your work. It, it is absolutely respectable and normal for you to feel, this is my project and I, and I want to, I want to conclude it as well as possible.

What do you feel are the continuities and discontinuities between your current job and your PhD experience?

The one thing I would say is that the discipline of coming in every day at nine or around nine and staying till five, even on the days when you do not have a lot to do, or the days when the things you have to do are not very appealing, is something I find very useful. after many years of doing research where I had to be entirely self-motivating, and I think it is true of more people than me, that one of the unpleasant aspects of doing PhD research is that there are periods when you feel a loss of guilt about not working hard enough.

And the only person you can blame is yourself because you are the person who listened to the radio for an extra half hour or read the paper from cover to cover before starting or went to the cinema instead of working late when you had not started working early.

There is something very refreshing about the, externally and imposed discipline, not, not, imposed in a tyrannical sense, but externally imposed discipline of turning up for work and knowing that you will work on through and then, and then go home and your evening will be your own. The other discontinuity is that people feel, in academia often, what I would describe as an unhealthy competition with their peers, where there is a sort of competition for a, it feels sometimes like there is a competition for a limited amount of knowledge that may run out before you manage to get your hands on enough of it to make a unique contribution.

That is very different here, that obviously there are elements that are competitive and in terms of internal promotions and things, but, but, but working on the studies as we do, there is much more of a sense of camaraderie, than I felt in, in academia. So that, that is something I enjoy. people though, they feel the ownership of their work that I described earlier.

They do not, feel it in a, in a way that is, to the exclusion of all others. we are all working on separate projects. The projects come to an end and in a sense that, and then we move on to another project and that depersonalises, our relationship with what we are studying.

Moving into his current role

I find it hard to imagine having a nine to five job. So I tried to think of lots of careers that did not involve one, but which would pay me a living wage. So that was one set of thoughts. I also had, I speak fluent Russian and I thought that there might be some way there of working as a translator, that would allow me to have freedom. 'cause generally they are self-employed and, and, and not, not tied to a desk.

So that was one set of thoughts. And I did apply for a job, at BBC monitoring, which is a part of the BBC that looks at the foreign press and makes translations of them, available. And I did not get the job. and that was, that was quite badly paid. And, and so I began to think towards the end of my PhD that I was going to have to go for a nine to five job because I was, frankly, I was fed up of being poor.

On the, on the research, grant that I, that I had, and though it was much more generous than nothing, and it was perfectly possible to live off it, it was not, it was not going to meet my aspirations, in the long term. So I began to see that, that in order to have the salary I wanted, I was going to have to work 9 to 5. And obviously I said elsewhere in this interview that now I find that to be a positive experience because I find that it, it, it, it absolves me from lots of the guilt I used to feel about not being a consistently hard worker every day for a, for a certain amount of time.

But, but at the back then it felt like it might be a negative experience.

Did you apply for any academic jobs?

No, apart from the one job I applied for at BBC monitoring, which I applied for on spec because someone brought it to my attention. I did not start planning the future, in any great detail. and it was really, events overtook me.

So around the time when I probably would have started to plan in the autumn of 2004, I then got certain opportunities that that made it, easier to understand where I was going to go next and made for me the switch from a freer form of life to a nine to five job easier to make because, in other parts of my life as a writer, I was retaining freedom, of movement and thought, and a sort of self-employed element.

So, so that was meant that I did not feel like I was selling out.

Did you do anything during the PhD that you might look back in retrospect as career building?

There were things I did as well. I mean, I think, I think first of all, doing a long term research degree, is one of the most career building things you can do. And it is a proof, so long as you can talk cogently about the, the specific types of research you have done, and you can communicate them clearly to, someone who is not, who is not a specialist, I think it is walking, talking proof of, of the many of the career development you have undertaken, since doing your BA since doing your, your first degree.

So that is, that is the first and the main thing. And I think I was aware of that the whole way through. but, but it does, the, the work has to be allied with an ability to talk about the work, in a way that is understandable to people. The second, the second thing is that, I did quite a lot of, university admissions interviewing, of, of new, of candidates wanting to come up and do BA and, that was, that was paid work and that was the main reason for doing it.

But I was aware that, that that was developing an interviewing technique, that I have used a lot in my job at the National Audit Office. 'cause interviewing is a large part of that. And I have also used it in my writing, because interviewing is a large part of writing nonfiction.

So that, that would be the other thing. But, but I never actively pursued creative element and actually always thought that that doing that seemed a bit naff, I suppose, if I am honest. and I have not found that to be a problem. I, I would say for people who, for people who are not confident public speakers, I mean, taking the opportunity to give, conference talks and seminars in public is, is probably one of the most important things because academia is an unusually solitary activity and almost anything else you could imagine doing outside will involve more personal contact with other people and, will rely more on your ability to communicate verbally.

So though I did not have a particular problem there, I do think that keeping that skill up, keeping that muscle exercised all through the years of doing the research was useful.

Although you did not do anything career-building such, were you at all anxious about what would happen after the PhD?

Yes, I was anxious. I was anxious on two levels. I was anxious on, on a mundane level in that I was, I was going to run out of money and I did not know what I was going to do and I did not want to have a bad job, which did not pay well. nor did I want to have a sort of a filler job that that involved, you know, selling sweets in a corner shop.

I was also anxious that I should be able to describe the trajectory my life had taken in a way that did not make it look like I had suddenly switched course. And, and therefore kind of denied the reality or the usefulness of, of the preceding four years. So I wanted to be able to describe what I had done as being logical, even if lots of people would not immediately see it as that.

Can you unpick that a bit more?

Yeah, I think, I think that is probably true for a lot of people who then who see that they wanted to do a PhD and they enjoyed it, but they did not want to have an academic job or they cannot get an academic job.

I, I think I, I realised, I realised that you can see the PhD in two ways. You can see it as a professional qualification that gives you almost the equivalent of chartered status to allow you to practice as an academic if you like, but you can also see it as a, as, as a qualification that provides, a lot of, deep knowledge of a subject area which, other people outside academia require.

Or you can also see it as, as a set of skills that are, acquired at a very high level and which can be redeployed outside of academia. and it is in those latter two categories that I think people should try to see their skills if they are thinking of moving outside of university life at the end of a PhD.

I am interested, I am really interested in what you were saying about the way that we think about our trajectories and the sort of narrative that we tell ourselves about our lives. We, can you, can you articulate a little bit more about that whole area?

I think a lot of us who went on to do PhDs looked at our friends who left after their BA in history or English or, or biochemistry or whatever, and immediately did a law conversion course or went to work in a, in the city as people who had very abruptly changed course, possibly to the extent of disproving the reason why they had done the degree they had done in the first place.

And certainly in a way that would mean that they would never, ever be able to use that information that they had learned for their finals or for their modules. again, and we probably felt, I certainly felt, we probably feel that we, there was more continuity in the decisions we took.

'cause you go on and you do a Master's and you do PhD and you are refining and honing all the time what you are looking at. But, but basically you are staying true to an original set of interests that you began your adult life with if you went to university when you turned 18. And so there is, there is a real continuity there. And I think there is a lot of attraction. One of the reasons that people fight to have an academic career afterwards is because they want to be able to see that teleology. Well, at 18 I made these decisions and at 21 these decisions, and then I finally got my academic job at 29.

And, you know, all the way through I have been doing this. it is important to realise that most people's lives are not like that. And everyone talks nowadays about portfolio careers and people who do make sharp changes. Obviously the key thing is to be happy. And that may necessitate a sharp, break with the past. But I do think there are ways of leaving academia at the end of a PhD, and telling yourself the story of how your life has been and why you are, why you are changing direction, which are not, which are not disingenuous and not untrue, but which allow you to make quite a sharp change, but, but retain credibility with yourself. 'cause that is important, is it not? You do not want to feel that you have somehow been living a lie for the preceding period of time, or that you are moving into a period of your life when, because it is difficult to stay true to your feelings. You are, you are going to live a lie and, and, do something, mercenary simply for money.

I think it is possible, to, to stay true to yourself. And perhaps one of the things that I did, and I know this is a very specific example, but one of the things that made it much easier for me was having this not very lucrative, but really exciting and interesting opportunity to, to write a book on Russian issues for, for a popular audience. And as I decided to leave academia at the end of my PhD, I knew that I was going to be using lots of my research skills at the national audit of, nonetheless, I had a fear that I was leaving behind.

I was going to lose something of the pure essence of research 'cause I was going to be researching for, for a purpose, someone else's purpose, not my own. And having, knowing that I had this, this other thing that I had to do, which was lots more work, and, and in that sense, not always enjoyable, it did allow me to leave with a clear conscience and without too much concern about, whether I was going to feel unfulfilled or not.

So, so I think that is one option is to, you know, to find a reason to continue the aspects of your PhD research that you enjoyed and that you think you might be about to lose in your job, to find a way of continuing those outside, which is serious and meaningful. All the while understanding, I think that if it is not your main job, then, then there is, there is a risk of not being very motivated to do it when you come home. And actually what you want to do is watch EastEnders or, or, or, or read a trashy crime novel.

So it does take motivation to do it, but, but that is one of the ways of, of, of re retaining credibility with yourself and with your life story.

Can you talk to me about the transition from PhD into your current role in the National Audit Office?

I found it quite an easy transition that lots and lots of, my friends were incredibly surprised when I applied and got for and got this job, thought it was, could not imagine why I would want to do it, and thought it sounded very dry.

I think I had heard of the National Audit Office before and understood something of what they did and actually thought that it would really suit me. Like lots of humanities researchers, I was very interested in politics and followed the news very closely, when I should have been looking more closely at my own research, probably at times. And, and in one sense, National Audit Office value for money work is all about the news.

It is about following current trends, looking at policies and what happens. So I knew that all of the things being equal, I would find the transition quite easy, and I did. But I cannot say that that was entirely because of everything that my PhD had set me up for. Some of it was about other aspects of my personality. I have said already, I find it easy, to, to transfer, to transition to a nine to five life, that actually lifted from me some of the pressure I had felt about being a self-starter and, and self-motivated.

and you know, that is perhaps a useful lesson for people contemplating a career outside academia. Lots of job applications tell you, you have to be a self-starter, but actually almost all of them, in almost all of them, you have to be less of a self-starter than you are doing a PhD because actually they all require you to be at your desk at a certain time and stay there until a certain time. So in that sense, it is not as much, much of a problem as it is for PhD students who genuinely have to drum up the energy to turn on the laptop and start tapping away, is it?

I suppose the one thing I missed or found difficult was the loss of the freedom to take leave when you wanted. And of course it is a bit of a false freedom in academia. 'cause actually many people, their leave ends up looking very much like their working life and they sort of take leave, but it means that they have gone to another city where there is a library or where there is a conference or whatever and they are not really relaxing and maybe they do not have any money to relax anyway.

But, but it is true in academia that you can, that you can, take long periods of leave at a time that suits you. And it is not necessarily true in working life. First of all, you have less leave to take in the year, but also you have to ask your boss whether it would be okay to take it now or maybe you would rather I took it later. And, I do still find that quite a struggle. Though I have had very good management who have, who have generally let me take leave when, when I like, but, but that is something I miss. Other than that, I, I loved it immediately actually, my job here, and was very sure very quickly that it was more than just a stop gap to pay bills while I tried to become a writer.

I, I was, I was convinced that I would have a long stint here and I, and I have.

Can you talk me through your application process?

Two absolutely key things. One is, I think this is true in any interview, certainly true in the National (Audit Office) be social show that you can speak, coherently and that you do not hate doing it.

And be prepared. You are a bigger selling point once they see that you have got a PhD, is that you, can research and make sense of large bodies of information in relatively short time periods and make sensible conclusions. So do not belie that by turning up unprepared for the interview was my attitude. And I, and, and what, again, I think that worked.

So, so what does that mean in reality? Well, the application is CV, the application is a CV and then a covering letter saying why you are interested in the job. And I think there were some questions about, you know, tell us about a time when you led people through adversity and lots of things that people think they never do when they are doing PhDs. You got to think quite laterally about what they are. And it might be helping a weak student who you have been teaching. It might be, it might be that the, the, the example is drawn from redoing a piece of work, after having had some critical feedback on it, so that it becomes better.

It might be carrying out additional research at short notice because you have discovered, someone has made your argument that was previously correct - incorrect, or you need some extra proof for it. And there are all kinds of things. Think of them as stories, separate incidents. It is easy to think of your PhD as being a kind of one long piece of time that that lasted, lasted for years and, and was all working towards this goal.

Break it into separate stories, which is what I did. And think about the research in your PhD, in scientific terms. Think about what the different types of research are. Give them names, find out what the names are. Check with a friend who works, in scientific research or sociological research.

Find out the names for them if you are going through a research post. So, you know, if it is quantitative analysis, or social profiling, or whatever. You probably would not call it those things, if you are just doing a thesis on it 'cause you do not need to. But, but it is very important to give them names that are recognised in the world at large if that is where you are trying to get your job. The thing that I did that I think was most helpful in getting the job was I read about 10 of the most recent National Audit Office reports from cover to cover in the week running up to my interview.

And I think I surprised, the people interviewing me by how much I knew about what they had been doing in the recent past that, you know, that is something, that is something that that would be a familiar and recognise recognisable activity for any PhD student. Mastering a large body of information, but you might not always think of doing it for an interview. I think it is even more important if they are looking and seeing that you have a PhD. 'cause they will be assuming that that is where your strength is going to lie.

So do not make them unthink that if they are already thinking, you know, you are going to be strong at research, then do not give them any excuse to think, oh, I was wrong. He is not, she is not.

So the interviewers were receptive to your PhD?

Very much so, yeah. that is probably partly to do with the organization. There are lots of people with PhDs, in the National Audit Office, maybe about 5% of total staff. But it is also, it is also because most PhDs are very interesting and if you can put them across, if you can put across what you have spent the last three years doing in an interesting way, most people will appreciate that you have a depth of knowledge in that area, that that is unique and unparalleled.

And most people on some level will be envious in a good way of, of you having had the opportunity to do that. And they will also look forward to having you working for them, mastering, large bodies of information on their behalf and saving them from having to read all of the dull reports that, that they have been before you arrived.

I mean, these are the ways of looking at it. You can solve these people's problems in part because of the experience you have had through doing PhD research.

Chris’s current role

What is your current appointment?

Presently, I am a senior analyst at the National Audit Office, during the day from nine to five, Monday to Friday. And outside of working hours, I also maintain a self-employed career as a writer, primarily focusing on Russian affairs, contemporary Russian politics, and some elements of early 20th-century Russian history.

Can you tell me what your work at the National Audit Office involves?  

Yes. Basically, the National Audit Office conducts audits. But there are two different categories of audit. There is financial audit, which trained accountants carry out, which essentially ensures that the government spends the money that it has been allotted in the proper categories within an allotted time and records what is spent correctly. And that is not what I do. The less well-known type of audit is called Value for Money Audit, and in many respects, it is closer to a form of consultancy.

Except that the government departments, on which we conduct value for money studies, don't choose or invite us to do them. People who work at the National Audit Office are not strictly speaking civil servants. They work for Parliament rather than for the government and offer Parliament Assurance, holding the government accountable for taxpayers' money. So we select the studies that we conduct, in different areas of government.

And because of the National Audit Act and other laws that established us, we have the right to enter departments and demand to see any papers or any people who we need to see, in order to satisfy ourselves that money has been spent in an effective, efficient, and economic way. And where we find that it has not been, then we publish reports and present them to Parliament, but we also make them public, criticising those incorrect decisions or poorer decisions, which may lead to a committee, a select committee of MPs, taking evidence from the Chief Civil Servant of the government department in question.

Since I joined the National Audit Office in 2005, I have worked on a range of studies, most of them in the area of defence. So, examining how the Ministry of Defence spends taxpayers' money. But it's typical in the National Audit Office to rotate, and I am about to move now to another area.

Do you know which Area?

Yes. To home affairs. So, to conduct studies that examine how the Home Office and also the Ministry of Justice, which has been recently created, spend taxpayers' money.

Do you have any choice in where you move to?

Yes, and they are trying to increase the element of choice at the National Audit Office. I suppose traditionally your stint might last five years in any one department, and then there would be a sort of smoke and mirrors set of decisions about why you would move.

And it would be very much the needs of the organisation. They are trying to implement a more responsive system called an allocation system, where you can express preferences. And as long as they align with the business needs of the NAO, the National Audit Office, then you will be able to move where you want, on a day-to-day sort of basis.

What does your job involve?

It varies greatly from one part of the year to the other. The studies that we conduct each last around eight months, eight to nine months, and begin with a period of scoping when we sit down and primarily do desk-based research to see if there might be something interesting for us to investigate in an area which we suspect.

We delve deeper into it, try to identify where the risks to value for money lie, and we might arrange meetings with government officials to test whether that's true or not. That phase lasts about one to two months, and then we develop a business case, which we draft ourselves. And if that meets internal approval, we proceed with the study. Generally, it takes about three months, three to four months, during which there is a lot of travel and many meetings with government officials and data collection. And towards the end of that period, comes the analysis of the data.

And, typically that would involve being out of the office, three, four days a week, traveling to different government buildings in different parts of the country, possibly depending on the nature of the study, holding focus groups with members of the public or government officials, to understand greater detail, the nature of the problems that we are identifying.

Then we move into a period of report well of, of identifying our conclusions and then drafting a report, and, back in the office again for that.

And after that, and our reports have been cleared internally for quality, they go into a process of clearance, with the government department about which they have been written. And this does not mean that the government department can alter our conclusions because they are our conclusions, but it means that they are allowed to comment on the factual accuracy of the information in the report and on the fairness and balance, which means that we should not, as the National Audit Office look very narrowly at one part of a subject because we know that something atrocious has happened there.

If more generally in the area the government department has been doing well and it is there within their rights, should we do that? And we do not do it, we try to avoid doing it. They would be within their rights to say this is not very fair, you know, you have only looked at something very narrow where we have not done very well and ignored all the rest. At the end of that period, the report is published and, and we begin the cycle again.

When you say we, does it mean you are working in a team? Small teams?

Typically, well, when I joined as a researcher, which is how most people who do not want to become accountants join the national audit offers, I was, I was the most junior member of a team of four. which there is a, there is a senior analyst above me, which is now my grade.

And then an audit manager who has responsibility for more than one study. and so, devolves quite a lot of the day-to-Day control of the study to the senior analyst, and then a director who has responsibility for relations with one government department each, and would be looking after a portfolio of studies, typically six in a year or something like that. so on a day-to-day level, the team was really two people. And sometimes we draw in consultancy support or, trainees, who are training to be accountants to do short bursts of work for us when we need to.

But yes, on a day-to-Day level, it was two or three people other than seeing me today.

What are you doing Today?

I am writing up minutes of meetings that I held yesterday with, members of the department. And I have also been selecting, photographic images, to go into, the latest report that is going to be published at the beginning of July.

That is not very typical. We only get to do that about once every nine months, but, but it is one of the things that we do. I have commissioned our desktop publishing team to mock up various images as the front cover, and we are going to choose between them.

What is the physical environment like that you work in?

Hmm. Up until December 2007, the environment was rather awful.

We were in an office that had not been refurbished for 25 years, and had broken air conditioning and, tweed carpet on the walls, but that is now thankfully undergoing refurbishment. and we are in temporary accommodation, which is, typically, as you would expect in most modern offices, it is open plan, with breakout areas for meetings, and then, enclosed internal meeting spaces.

It is quite congenial and, we expect that when we move back next year to our old offices, they will have been transformed in a similar way.

And what are your working conditions like?

Do you mean in terms of hours and things like that? Generally speaking, very good. nine to five is not just an aspiration. Many people do work 9 to 5 or 9 to 5:30, and the hours culture is good in that you are not frowned upon for leaving when, the day is over or you are not expected to sit clocking at your desk looking like you have got lots of work to do when you have not.

At certain times of the year, especially when it comes up to publication or in the midst of clearance, you might be expected to work longer. But, and this is one of the areas where I think the National Audit Office is a good place to work for people who have been used to delivering their own projects. As PhD students are, there is an expectation in value for money work that you will feel a great sense of ownership of your own study.

And that is easy to do because you are given a lot of power and authority to, to run with ideas and explore avenues yourself. And obviously that leads as it does in PhD work, to sometimes wanting to burn the midnight oil because you feel you, you own your project, you want to make it as good as possible, and that is very much encouraged. So there is that. I know that creates a contradiction in some ways, but it is a healthy tension. there is not a lot of pressure from above to work long hours, but there is an understanding that the ownership you feel of your own project may, may mean that at certain times you want to.

Please. Can you tell me something about your dual career as a writer?

When I was finishing writing my thesis, I, I got the opportunity to write a book for a popular press, about the best loan school siege, which also took place in the, in the caucuses. and the editor, of the popular press approached my supervisor, who he knew from previous, work, and asked her if she knew of anyone who would be interested in writing such a book.

And she approached me. So it is one of those cases of, serendipity, crossed with networking and who, you know, and it is always worth, I would say, asking your supervisor for any contacts they have outside of academia, but in your subject area, if that is what you are interested in pursuing away from universities. 'cause often they do keep in touch with old students and people who have gone on to do interesting things, especially in languages.

'cause of course people learn languages for all kinds of professional purposes that are not linked to research. So I knew that I was going to have this exciting opportunity of trying to become a professional author after doing my PhD. And I also knew that, largely speaking, the prose that I was writing in my PhD was, was, was quite turdid because of the need to sprinkle footnotes everywhere and, and be very, very precise, and use lots of jargon terms from literary theory and cultural theory.

It felt like a good challenge. It felt, it felt that the story of the siege was obviously a fascinating one, and filling in the context was going to be really interesting and, and, and very much in line with what I had been doing as, as, as a PhD student. And then the additional challenge of telling a story in layman's terms that did not alienate people or make them feel that you were trying to prove you were cleverer than them. So, I was really looking forward to it, but I knew from the very beginning that there was a very limited amount of money involved. And that is going to be true for anyone who wants to become a commercial writer on the back of being an academic, that just simply not enough, money in book writing to, to make the advances very generous.

It is not going to be the same as being Jill Cooper. and I went to Russia to research the book after your PhD. As soon as I finished the PhD, I, before your Viva Yes, I went. And, and travelled to Beslan and interviewed people and, and it felt very refreshing to, I mean, the subject matter was very, very grim, but it felt very refreshing on a professional level to be engaging with real people and current stories and trying to fit history, with something that had happened contemporaneously and understand where there were echoes, and where there were even causal links.

And of course that is not always true, but there were some, all the while I knew that when I came back, to Britain, I was not going to have enough money, just to go away and write for seven months and the book and, publish it to greater claim and, and, and, and never have to do a day's work again.

And I started to think about what I could do next, at the same time as writing up my book. and I applied for the job at the National Audit Office. I did not know at the time of applying that it would provide me with enough time to write the book with some ease.

I suppose that is the best way of describing it. I, I did not understand until I had worked here for some months that it genuinely had a good hours culture and did not try and keep you here till half 8 at night or anything. But I can say with hindsight that it would not have been possible to, write Beslan in the timeframe that I did unless, I had been able to go home most days at 5 or 5:30. And typically what I did, while writing the book was I would, I would do a normal 9 to 5 working week in the office.

I would write two evenings during the week, possibly going to a library. And I have to say I did enjoy the fact that that reminded me of being a PhD student, possibly going to the Bridge Library, possibly working at home. And then I would work one full day at the weekend on writing. And towards the very end, two full days, a week, at the weekend on writing.

Was there ever the opportunity to take a day off, a week to write, to reorganise your, your hours and, and reclaim a day from the week for writing?  

I, I took some annual leave to write, which is absolutely not what you are asking. So I, I did take some of my own holiday time to write, which shows how, crazily committed someone can be to not very economic activity. There are not opportunities on a day-to-day basis to do that. But the office has very good, career policies with regard to flexible working.

So you would have to negotiate a cut in your eyes overall and go to a situation where you were working only four, four days a week, if you see what I mean. You cannot rearrange your time and just say, I am gonna work my full working week in four days. You would have to lose some of your salary and be a be someone who worked four days a week. But they are quite open to discussing that. And that is something I may try to do in the future.

Yes, but you must have to have enormous self-disciplined to go home after a long day, even if it has not been a really intellectually taxing day, just fulfilling your function at work and then going home and trying to write must have been difficult at times.  

Well, it was difficult at times and sometimes I did not manage it. And, we would go to the pub instead or, or watch rubbish tv. I think you have to be very motivated by the goal that you are chasing. And one of the interesting things that I have realised that I did not see before I had started working outside of academia is that employees in organisations, have all kinds of goals that they seek to achieve outside of work.

So one of my colleagues is a keen semi-professional cyclist and goes on the most outrageous training, sessions immediately after work, three days a week, and we will go racing at the weekends and finds that to be a leisurely activity, though it leaves him exhausted and, and, involves exactly the kinds of, summoning of energy from nowhere that, that I felt at times I was having to do with the writing.

Someone else tries to paint and has recently had a, a painting accepted for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. So yes, it did involve, what sometimes felt like superhuman efforts to, to get back down to writing this book. But it is not unusual in the workplace.

You are not unique, for trying to do that. And I was careful to plan so that I was not writing my book. I tried to plan so that I did not have to write my book at the same time that I was drafting reports at work. I tried to manage it so that I would not have to write all day from 9 in the morning until 10 at night, if you see what I mean. So I tried to marry up the times of year when I was submitting parts of the book to my editor, and I do think that that worked quite well.

I, I think you have to believe passionately in what you are doing and you have to see it going somewhere. And so, I mean, I do hope that I will be able to make a part of my career at least, as a professional writer. And in order to do that, whether you have a second job or you do not, most people go through a period of hardship and either it is hardship of poverty 'cause they are not making any money, or it is hardship of having to work too hard 'cause they have got a second job.

Do you have an agent?  

I have an agent now. I did not have an agent for the first book because the book was the idea of the publisher and they sought a writer. So there was no benefit to having an agent because, in a sense it was not my book to take to any publisher who would have it. I was being commissioned by, the editor, to write the book. Since the book has been published and has had some good reviews and I have decided to write a second book, I, I have gone out and found an agent.

How did You do that?

I asked my editor to suggest, names of agents and he, after some initial reluctance, because obviously he could see that that would make it less likely, I would publish my next book with him. gave me some names. It is like, I do not have direct experience of this, but I think it is very difficult to get an agent if you do not have a book, under your wing already. And so in that sense, I was just lucky, to have the opportunity to write a book, a pop for a popular audience, and then to find an agent, which does make it much easier.

How does the agent, how, how do you, what happens? Do you, do you have an interview with the agent or does the agent look at some kind of CV and take into consideration the book you have published before we decide to take you on?

It is a mixture and I am sure every agent is different.

'cause of course they are self-employed, although they work in larger agencies. For me, because I had a book, I sent a copy of my book to the agent, they read it, then we met, we discussed, whether I would fit in well with the other authors that she looks after and therefore the expertise, the areas of expertise that she has developed. and we agreed that I did, and then I signed a contract, under the terms of which she gets 10 or 15% of, anything I get from writing.

But in return for that, she obviously has much greater expertise at selling, ideas for books for a higher price than I could get or than I have time to get. and, even at that stage, even when you have signed a contract, if you have not, if she has not sold a book, if your agent has not sold a book on your behalf, you are not quite sure whether the relationship is going to work or not.

What was very, what was very interesting about it did there are similarities with the relationship with the supervisor very, very strongly because the agent on one level is on your side and on the other level is, is not on your side. They have to be both a, they have to be a critical friend. And, my agent has spent the last year honing and changing my latest book proposal in a way that has been quite arduous for me. And I think I have put in, by an order of magnitude, more effort into the proposal than I had ever intended or thought would be necessary, especially since I thought, well, I have a successful first book, already.

For all that the proposal is, is by an order of magnitude better and stronger, I think than it, than it would have been without that input. and now I suppose is a stressful time for her because she is now in the process of selling it. And if she cannot sell it, for enough money, then neither of us will be very happy. But if it works out, I would say that that is the point at which we know we have a good working relationship going forward into the

Chris’s career crossroads

Where do you see your own career going in the future?

I do not know, standard at a crossroads. I feel that I will continue to work at the National Audit Office if they will have me. I would perhaps like to be promoted once more. The reason that I would like to be promoted once more and not twice more, or three times more is because I, I hope as well in parallel to keep a career going as a writer and beyond the level of audit manager, it becomes harder to, sustain a position where you work only nine to five, here.

And so therefore it would be harder to write. I would like to be successful enough as a writer to have options about whether I continued to work full-time, five days a week or not. But basically I, I feel, I feel happy here. and I feel that if I can move internally so that I am covering new government departments and looking at new areas, I would be happy to stay. I do not feel the pressure to, to move that, lots of people do.

In jobs, you know, you have been there five years, it is time for a change. Perhaps that is something that is going to be true more of PhD students than other people, because I think if you have been a PhD student, you do have a commitment to a place and to doing stuff in the long term and not kind of chopping and changing all the time. And I feel that that is still very much a possibility in working life, that, that you do not have to constantly be looking to move again.

And maybe PhD students find that more traumatic than most.

Colin | Media, Film and English | University lecturing.

In this engaging discussion, Colin sheds light on the allure of pursuing an academic career, drawing from his personal experiences and observations. He delves into the origins of his doctoral journey, offering insights into the diverse responsibilities he juggles as an academic professional. From the evolution of his workspace to the motivations that propelled him towards academia, Colin candidly reflects on his path, including the challenges of securing suitable employment and navigating shifting hiring criteria.

Moreover, Colin provides a glimpse into his approach to job interviews within academia, touching upon the nuances of effective lecturing styles. He also offers a glimpse into his own research focus, coupled with a candid assessment of his dissatisfaction with the increasingly corporate atmosphere pervading his university administration.

Through his narrative, Colin not only shares the highs and lows of his academic trajectory but also provides valuable perspectives on the broader landscape of higher education today.

Explore Colin’s journey further by clicking the links below:

The background to Colin’s PhD
His PhD topic
University as an employer
The reasons for undertaking the PhD
Advice for those moving into an academic post
Finishing the PhD
Colin’s current role
Some advice



Career Pathway

  • Graduated from a university in the north of England
  • Year out
  • Applied and got Irish/British Exchange Scholarship for MA in Dublin
  • PhD funded by teaching part-time
  • Part-time hours at a London university college
  • 1st full-time permanent job at a university in the north of England
  • Gave it up (idiot!) for a 3 year lectureship back at the London university college. I was made Senior Lecturer and made permanent
  • 1st book published
  • Start at a university in the south-east, in the promoted position of Principal Lecturer
  • Promotion to Reader



Turning Points

  • Going to Ireland was a major turning point in my personal and professional life. I had intended to go only for one year on a scholarship for the MA and ended up staying 4 more years. This happening, hardly a decision in that conscious sense, has shaped the rest of my life. It began a life-long engagement with personal friends, colleagues and an intellectual exploration of Irish culture that has been the back bone of my academic endeavour
  • Book publication – it gave me an immense sense of personal achievement in my own capabilities. I have also been invited to speak in Canada, Spain, Bulgaria and France and in Ireland on the basis of its success
  • Move to Leeds – the consequences of which I am unclear about at the moment. It was for a promotion and to escape the confines of a post in a previous university. It has significantly impacted on the nature of my long-term relationship which somehow endures despite the 200 miles commute in term-time



Audio Interview

The background to Colin’s PhD

Please, can you tell me how many years it took you, whether you did it full-time or part-time and how you were funded?

It took me four years going from, after I completed a one year, full-time, ma and the PhD, was undertaken in sort of a mixture of part-time and full-time mode.

The MA was funded, from an Irish and British government sources, but the PhD, was paid for by the part-time work that I did, in UCD in their English department.

Can you tell me what your undergraduate discipline was and then what your thesis topic was about?  

My undergraduate discipline was essentially literature, English and American literature at the University of Kent. my PhD was on, British television drama, so I'd moved from literature into broadly the media of television and film.

His PhD topic

Can you tell me something about your thesis?

The thesis for my PhD was, a box of troubles. The subtitle was probably more explanatory - British television drama, 1960 to 1990. So it was, it was looking at, television representations of Northern Ireland in that period. So a historical survey, I guess, and analysis of a particular mode of, analysing political violence, I guess.

University as an employer

What is the university like as an employer?

I have to say that in this institution, to use the northern vernacular, I'm not best pleased. I think increasingly, and this I'm sure is a common story now, I think the university has got its priorities wrong. It can, it it's increasingly a corporate environment which doesn't, despite what is rhetoric of staff wellbeing, doesn't actually place staff and students at the centre of what it's about.

A lot of money is being spent at this university to increase buildings, the facilities, but students, it seems to me, are increasingly being squeezed out of these environments. And as I've indicated before, staff decisions are made without proper consultation with staff about what it's like to work in particular, buildings and particular environments, in particular structures.

And I think it's, it's bad for morale. And I can't understand why people who manage, at a senior level in, at institutions like this. And I don't think, I don't think this is a particularly, unusual institution.

I think it's very common if you went to any other large urban new university, this is, this is what, this is what we find and it's, a particular invidious form of thinking, which doesn't appreciate what it actually means to research and to teach.

The reasons for undertaking the PhD

Did you embark on a PhD because you anticipated an academic career?

Ooh, I think I had kind of multiple reasons why I undertook a PhD. One was because somebody put it in my head that it would be a good idea to do one, and that was obviously during, during my MA maybe even back before that as an undergraduate, kind of admiring certain people who taught you as an undergraduate thinking, I quite like to do that.

But it became a more concrete idea once you are a, a graduate student, I think in a department that has other postgraduate and people who are further on than you are actually PhD students, when you are an MA student, I think you then see the possibilities that are, are, you know, might unfold. And as it was, I, after the, the one year MA or during that one year MA, when I was approached by a very kind of avuncular professor, of the department who asked me if I would be interested in doing a PhD and that he would see if, I wanted, was I interested in doing some teaching of, you know, undergraduate tutorials.

So there was clearly a system within the culture for, holding onto postgraduate students, and, and bringing them onto to PhDs.

Advice for those moving into an academic post

Can you tell me as someone who's interviewed people…


… for jobs, what sort of things you are looking for and the kind of questions you're expecting good and solid answers to?

Again, it, it depends on the, the nature of the post and the role description, obviously. Typically, in my own institution teaching on a, on a, on a media studies degree, you're looking for a, a rare combination. I think of somebody who, well, one as a PhD, but two, because of the institution we're in, you know, they've got to be able to teach.

Now they, they don't necessarily have to have a formal teaching qualification. That's another thing I would say that, you know, most of the, my colleagues both within my own subject field and also in the school, don't have teaching qualifications. Some do, but most don't. How do we know whether or not somebody can teach?

Well, usually the interviews will involve some kind of presentation of material. And so you are looking, when people are giving presentations at those days, you know, you might see four to six candidates, ah, you know, it would be good if you could get two or three that you felt communicated vitally to you what their enthusiasms were. And you are also trying to see, well, what would they be like in front of a hundred undergrads?

Have they got, can they command a group of people to listen to them?

So what characterises a good presentation?

I've kind of indicated already it's somebody who communicates their enthusiasm for the subject, their command, you know, they convince you they really know what they're talking about. And, and I guess clarity, you know, that that's what you're looking for, particularly with undergraduate students, maybe other qualities for if they're gonna be teaching mainly post grads.

But you know, the amount of postgraduate teaching at this institution is, is quite small. So you're looking for people who can communicate to a large undergraduate audience, about not just their own specialism, but do they also have the adaptability to teach on a kind of more generalist survey sort of course. So you're looking for a quite a rare, ability to operate at the general kind of level clarity, but at the same time enthusiasm.

And then, you know, what specialism have they got? You know, it, it will often be that you can give a fantastic presentation and you can, your CV presents very well, but you know, if you are, if you are, if your specialism is popular music, let's say, and we've already got somebody as a part-time posting popular music, you've gotta think very carefully how you present your specialism. Perfectly good on paper, but you don't actually fit the place.

You really need to show to the interviewers that you've done your homework and found out about the institution, and particularly the department that you are going into, and that, you know, whether you are coming in as a, a doctoral student into it, or if you're going at a a higher level, they're gonna want to see that you've shown some kind of intelligent reflection on where you think they're at, what you think, your role might be within this, this larger picture.

And I think a candidate that can show that sort of, sensibility to, you know, the, the, the place in which the, or the, the job in which they're gonna be placed and the context in which they're gonna be operating. So it's not totally idealistic, but it's not totally, kinda cynical.

What is gonna be expected of a newly qualified academic starting at an institution like this?  Who, who's been appointed as a junior lecturer?

Mm-Hmm. well, you could almost do a job description, PhD or some kind of equivalent, industrial experience in media. The ability to teach, largely undergraduate students, the ability to motivate student learning, as a junior lecturer to have evidence of publication already, with the potential for future, future publications, major publications as it were - books.

And also I think an openness and flexibility to different learning environments, different learning technologies.

Can you talk a bit more about that?

Again, this particular institution, and I know, you know, it is not unusual, other new universities are, maybe some older ones as well are increasingly trying to utilise, you know, extreme or, web-based learning, to, to stimulate students, across a variety of disciplines.

I have a qualified view on the use of, of it in, in higher education. You know, I use it to assess in a part of the assessment process of some of my students.

It's clearly a way of communicating with students, on a kind of day-to-day basis, basis, you know, through bulletin boards and such like, but my, my, I'm, I guess I'm showing my age and I, I think that students need to be present in a room listening to somebody talk and also reacting with other students of their class in the same space. I think they need to share that space.

Now, whether that's a lecture room or whether it's a, a seminar or a kind of a small group workshop setting, we, you know, and I, all of those I think, you know, have their place. I am worried that some students will, and some administrators want to decrease the amount of human contact time, for students. And it is, it's quite small now. I mean, I dunno what the typical amount is for, undergraduate students across art and humanities, but you know, it might be only eight hours a week of actual contact time.

So to diminish that with, you know, blogging, as a kind of main way of communicating with your peers seems to me bizarre.

What is a lecture like?

I think they can fall into two kinds.

Physically it is about 50 minutes of time in which one person stands at the front and addresses 60, 80, a hundred people. I don't think it has to be a one way communication. I think depending on the, the lecturer, it can actually be quite interactive. And again, interactive sounds fantastic. It sounds like a, a kind of technological buzzword.

It doesn't have to be interactive, could just be asking people a question, say you there, or Johnny or Mary or whatever it is, you know, asking questions, asking people to write things down, and then shouts out what their answers are. I mean, that's a very old fashioned kind of interaction. And when I increasingly use PowerPoint now, which I think is interesting, but to come back to the two main kinds of lecture, one is a kind of a survey of the field, whatever topic it might be.

So you're trying to introduce people to the broad range of debates, issues, topics within this field. A second kind, a slightly different kind would be a more, here is an argument sort of lecture where, you know, you are going to argue for the, the idea of postmodernism. And you don't put too many, too many kind of contrasts to that.

So you actually, you actually argue with the students and, and persuade them. And you go into that kind of mode where you are talking about, you know, this is what pro and here's an example of that, and here's an example. And so you don't actually give them too much of the, of the counterargument that might come then in the seminar that that follows later in the week when they've done a bit more reading, hopefully. So one, you are kind of, even if I don't personally believe in a particular argument that I'm making, is actually to try and force them to, to, to listen to an argument and see how it's put together.

Whereas the other one, the other form, the kind of survey discursive one is a bit more, you're trying to perhaps pros and cons and you are, you're trying to introduce them to something that they might wanna go off and watch another film that you, you know, another one you mentioned, you might show them a clip from a film or two and then say, but you know, you could see this in, explore this idea in these two other films and hope that they might go and view it.

So I always that, that's, that's what I try to, I mean, you try to stimulate people in, in a topic. That's what a lecture is. Unfortunately, the interesting thing is would be to ask “What do students think are lecture is?” Because they don't often see in, in those terms, and it actually takes you a while to get them to, to think about what you are doing in that fashion rather than simply, you know, what are, you know, what things do I need to know.

Finishing the PhD

Please, will you tell me about your transition from graduate studies to work in academia and talk about it in light of current, current climate in academia?

I think in some ways there are both continuities but also quite sharp differences. The continuities are that, interestingly though I've talked earlier on in my interview about how, how I was glowingly brought on by my, department in, in UCD, after four years, five years with quite a considerable amount of teaching, working up from tutorials to actually running lecture courses, when a full-time post came up, me and other postgraduates who've been doing this work, were not even shortlisted for the permanent post.

So that kind of smacked a bit hard. And so I looked back across, the water and I applied for, and got, a job, back in, in Britain, which was a one year, no, I, sorry, I've, I've jumped a thing there.

I got, I got a, a part-time post in my field teaching Irish studies. But it was part-time. So for me it was a question of both. A move back to my home country with my doctorate, luckily teaching a subject about, which I knew quite a lot and felt confident about, with some experience of actually lecturing and teaching, but though not though not much, in to a course that, there was a lot of expansion going on 'cause it only just started.

So in a sense, I was, I've been lucky, haven't I? My career arc, I, I seemed to have been at the right place at the right time.

Can you unpack that? Because, you know, is it really luck?  

Well, I don't know. It's how you've actually now, now thinking about it. Is it, is it luck or, or was I planning it? I, no, I planned, I, at that point, clearly, some, at some point during my PhD studies, I thought, I want to be an academic. I want to be a lecturer at a university. And so therefore, I was looking for jobs and I was hoping, which didn't happen, a job would come up in UCD, so I could conceivably have stayed in UCD, had a, had a full-time post come up.

But this goes back to the point about flexibility, about why you, you have to take a job where you can get one. And this was only half a job. I was stuck for six months, seven months in a, in a halftime job, teaching in London, which was expensive. And I had to go and live back at home to do this, which was like phenomenally problematic,

It wasn't nearby then?

Well, it was commutable, but I was, I mean, for the record, you know, I was literally spending as much money commuting to my place of work as almost as much as money as I was earning from doing the part-time lecturing.

How did you reconcile yourself with that?

I reconciled myself by thinking it's half a job, it's experience, and I, I like doing it, you know, it's, it's actually what I want to do. It did rely on, it did rely on, you know, being to live cheaply at home with my parents.

But it was, it was difficult to do that after having been independent, you know, undergraduate for three years and a postgrad for five years. Bit difficult to go back and live at home. And actual fact, I then got a job, a full-time post, in the midlands of, of, England, teaching, not in Irish studies, but on, film and broadcasting.

Now, the, the joy of this post was that it was full-time and permanent, so I thought I'd hit the jackpot. Again, an expanding degree course in media, in a cheap place to live. I lived in as a, as a, a student's accommodation warden, therefore cutting down my living costs again there. and I was very flush with money, but I was hard pushed 'cause I was teaching a full-time load of student about, I don't know, 12 hours a week of teaching, you know, writing fresh lectures.

And I was also teaching beyond my by knowledge field, so I was, you know, one week ahead of the students in some cases. And that's scary and that's very tiring.

How do you think the culture has changed now from your qualified academics?

I think before I, before a generation ago, I think people could get a job without a PhD.  They would take you on if you didn't have a PhD in your hand. Now I think that would be very difficult. And in my own experiences, having been on panels both at my own institution and, acting as an external panellist on employment panels for lectures, you know, not to have a, a PhD frankly, is, you know, you've got to have some incredible other experience to bring to a post if you don't have a PhD, simple as that.

Other than the not having a PhD, what might be the other differences that people with PhDs would, would encounter now?

I, I just, well, again, it would, it would, it's all subjects specific, but, you know, if you were in English, if you were in film, or increasingly even in, certainly in media, PhDs in these areas are, you know, there's a lot of people in the market with those qualifications.

And so you are surprised if people don't have publications. So you've got to be that more advanced, before you get to that applying for your, for, you know, at least a one year temporary job. So I think that's the difference as well.

I mean, people are probably better qualified in academic terms and also in public publishing terms, than, than probably I was, I wonder if I would get taken on with my own qualifications now - I'd like to think would.

Colin’s current role

Can you talk to me about the institution that you work in and your current role?

My current role/post is reader in Media and Popular Culture. I'm also the course convener of a new, as yet to run MA in screen media cultures prior to this. And the reason that I came to this, institution, which is, a new university, a former, city based polytechnic in the northeast of England, as I came for a promotion from a London based HE college, part of, London University, for promotion to a principal lectureship.

So I've been here five years. Yes, five years. So my role now, because of that particular contract for the readership, my teaching has gone down from quite a heavy teaching and administrative load, to perhaps more specialised teaching, but more research and research mentoring.

I would put it like that.

Could you give me an idea of what your daily activities are?

I think the luck of an academic is very varied. I mean, that's one of the, dare I say, pleasures of it, it that some days you are in your office and all you seem to be doing is doing, you know, paperwork, filling in forms and…

What forms?

…basically to, to keep the kind of fabric of largely, undergraduate programs ticking over.

I mean, on my desk at the moment, I've got about four, references to do.

Some of them are very straightforward, kind of tick box type references, but others are from former graduates from a little while back who were asking for kind of longer form sorts of references. So there's that sort of administration. I have a, I have a, because I'm kind of senior now, I have a role, an administrative role on a thing called the, the senior management team for the school, because of the MA involvement, I'm involved in planning a, a one day conference for November.

So people need to be, invited rooms need to be booked. So that all sounds very kind of mundane and, but that's actually all, all part of the kind of academic work. Last week, on a, on one day I was down in London and I spent the day in a film archive viewing old films, for a piece of research. So there are, there are days when you feel that you are just doing research, but you're never that disconnected, I don't think from essentially in this institution, your primary role is, is as a teacher and as a a person who develops, I mean, I've done much more, you know, in the last five years I've done much more in terms of curriculum development.

That is to say concrete examples, you know, revalidating an undergraduate degree, devising and coordinating the validation of a master's degree. So that's, that's what I mean by kind of curriculum development.

Does this institution place a great deal of pressure on you in terms of research?

Explicitly, no. To be frank, there are, outside institutional pressures. for example, the last research assessment exercise, which creates a kind of external, and I would say, professional pressure on one to, to research and to publish.

But the institution seems to me going through a transition period that, you know, a significant number of people here do not publish, have not published. They see their focus entirely in, in terms of teaching. but I think that's increasingly becoming very difficult to, to sustain. And a younger generation are coming through who I, I think clearly need see the need to, to publish, you know, from early on.

And by that I mean before they've even got their PhD, which is a difference I think from my generation where, you know, I gave conference papers as, as a, as a post grad, at the right professional, forum. But, I don't think I published anything, particularly one of maybe one or two short articles, journal articles.

Would you describe your work environment?

If in terms of bricks and mortar, let's start with the material as it were, and then look at other dimensions. I am based on, an urban city based campus, a large thriving city. I'm in a building that's probably seen better days. It isn't a fantastic physical environment to be in.

I, I, ever since I've been here, I've been in a shared office, which is fine. I don't have a problem with that, although it's different to what I was used to in my previous job. But the, the culture of the place is shared offices, two or three, or possibly four. Now, that's a new point because again, in line with what seems to be happening, a lot of other institutions in higher education at this time, a number are going to open plan offices, which is being resisted by, by academics.

So there is a, a changing physical environment. This building I'm in now will be knocked down next year, and they are building a replacement building, about 300 yards away from here. So the idea by behind the university is to keep us city based, but because the, the price of rental space is, is higher in the city, it means they're trying to cram more, well, the same number of people in the small space.

Are you office based? I mean, how, can you tell me how much of your time would you need to spend in the office? Do you work, do you, do your, do you write conference papers from the office or?

Again, it, it depends on what time of the year you are talking about. for, you know, the, essentially the kind of 10 week part of the term. I am, I would say, you know, here four days a week.

So I would, I would be in my office not every day, but I would, you know, I would be in my office at some point every day, with the use of the internet. One can be virtually present by dealing with emails and, and what, and inquiries and what have you. But you know, if I'm teaching clearly I have to be, in, in this building or associated buildings.

And obviously I, I do quite a bit of, seeing students, postgraduate students increasingly as well, in this office though, that may or may, that may change in the future that might be forced to change.

Do you think it's fair to say that if you want an academic career, you have to be prepared for certain amount of geographic mobility?

Yes, that's a very good point because, current, for the last five years I've lived with my partner in London and worked, in this northern city.

Now, transport links are good, it's only two and a half hours away, but it doesn't mean that I have had to rent, accommodation, in this city. Which again, relatively speaking compared to London is, is cheap. and with my current salary, I can accommodate that, excuse the pun. You know, I can do that, but, maybe for younger people, that mobility, to, to go and find the job somewhere where it was offered, you know, would, would be costly to them.

It's also costly in psychological social terms as well.

And a certain degree of personal sacrifice involved?

Yes, there is, it does affect your social life, your relationships, I guess. But the upside of that is that, you know, as an academic, or relatively speaking, not paid, perhaps as other professions are paid, the flexibility, the independence of working in some respects, helps to compensate for that.

'cause I do, I, you know, within certain constraints, I do have a lot of flexibility about, you know, my day. you know, I have, if I, if I have an nine o'clock lecture, I have to be here at nine o'clock, but on another day when I don't have any, formal classes, I can arrange my meetings or I can come into work at half or seven in the morning, or I could be working, in the evening, which I do quite a lot in the office.

So there's a, you know, you know, which means in the afternoon I might go and play sport or go to the pictures, you know, which I do. I do these things. That's again, still kind of work related, going to the pictures, given that I'm a media person. But it's that kind of flexibility to organise things, you like to think, organise things in your own fashion.

Do you have much contact time with students?

Outside of formal teaching?

And including formal teaching.

Yeah. It's decreased over the years. I mean, I still teach a large undergraduate cohort in first year of over a hundred students. So for the record, that might be a two hour lecture slot and then four repeat seminar, four one hour repeat seminars.

So, I mean, that's, that's quite a lot of contact with lots of people, and that can actually be quite a, an experience. 'cause I used to learn people's names, but I find, find that increasingly difficult. Now, it's actually quite hard work to relate to 102 or 106 people and know when they come to your door as an individual to know who they're, to know who they are, you know, when they come, if they come and see you, you know, students, some students, a significant number of students will want to contact me by email and they kind of resist until, particularly in the, in the early years, but later on, obviously when you see 'em for dissertations and third year work, they're more likely I think, to come and see you.

But they're still in that the student, the first year students are still in that transition stage. So the amount of contact you have them can be kind of quite formalised.

You know, we, we used to have, a much stronger culture as well of, of, of socialising with students, of organising extracurricular events of, of, of, of literally saying, of going down a bar or a pub. You know, usually you're around a kind of a film screening or some other kind of event. But I do think that's, for me as an academic, I've, I've noted that change over five years.

What the reasons are for that, I don't know. But, you know, if people are thinking about a job in academia, you know, it isn't all about kind of cosy chats with a glass of sherry in, in your office. 'cause you might not have, you might not have your own office now. You might be in a, an office with 20 people at a workstation.

Some advice

Can you think of any advice that you'd give to people who are thinking about going into academia?

Think about why you really, really want to do it - by nature, I'm an optimist, so I think that people will continue to want to work in a, in a university environment, however that university is configured because it is extremely, satisfying and pleasurable to talk to, to spend your life talking to people about ideas and things that essentially you, you are interested in.

And also that then puts you in the environment where you are invited to and required to write about those things. And that's what gives a satisfaction. For me, it's teaching and writing. And I think if you want to do that and you don't want to become a journalist or work in the kind of broader media, and you enjoy communicating with, usually with younger people, then it's probably still quite a good job and quite a satisfying career.

Heather | English Literature | Self-Employed Writer.

Heather shares valuable insights for those considering a freelance writing career, offering thoughtful questions to ponder. She takes us on her personal journey, delving into the challenges of pursuing a PhD as a dyslexic student. Heather reflects on the skills gained during the PhD process and extracurricular activities, highlighting how they paved the way for her non-academic career. She candidly discusses her decision to forgo an academic path and contemplates the initial expectations she had for her PhD’s trajectory. Heather recounts the post-PhD period, sharing the gradual evolution of her freelance writing career. In her reflection, she evaluates the significance of her PhD, delves into the overall experience, and revisits the motivations that led her to embark on this academic journey.

Explore Heather’s journey further by clicking the links below:

The background to Heather’s PhD
Heather’s expectations
The meaning of the PhD
Being dyslexic
The reasons behind her PhD
Heather’s experience
Finishing the PhD
Career building
Heather’s current role
Advice for those doing a PhD



Career Pathway

  • Study for a Diploma in art and design in London
  • Read History (BA Hons) at a London University
  • Various temporary jobs in London to save money to travel
  • Masters in Women’s Studies” at Oxbridge
  • Research and write my doctorate in the faculty of English language and literature, Oxbridge
  • Postdoctoral Fellow and part-time tutor in English Literature and dyslexia support tutor
  • I became a self-employed freelance writer and am represented by a literary agent
  • Research Fellow in London
  • Begin teaching creative writing workshops
  • I am contracted to write a book for Penguin USA
  • Awarded a Leverhulme Trust research grant for travel research in the USA
  • Writer-in-Residence at a New York City hotel
  • Awarded a British Academy research grant



Turning Points

  • Having left school and been freed from the confines of the classroom, I discover I like learning and decide to go to university
  • Travel across the USA initiates an interest in America
  • Awarded British Academy funding which enables me to begin doctoral research
  • Decide to leave academia



Audio Interview

The background to Heather’s PhD

What was your background before PhD? Was it in English?

Well, my, my background was in, I went to art college after university and always wanted to be a visual artist. And then realized once I was at, art college that I was not ready to do that. I did not want to pursue my creative work through visual arts. I wanted to pursue it through, books and the written word and kind of developing my ideas, in, in a more intellectual way, so I went actually and did a history degree, which used a lot of literature as its source material.

And then I moved from history into an interdisciplinary course at Masters and Women's Studies, which used a lot of literature again. And then from there I moved into straight literature. So it was a very interdisciplinary experience, academically, and that is something I have retained. and the PhD was very interdisciplinary, even though it was within an English faculty.

How did you get onto the PhD program? Did you continue at the same institution where you did your Masters?

That is right, yes. So I continued at the same institution and had the same supervisor for my PhD as had supervised my masters thesis. So it was a continuation, it felt like a very much a continuation of previous work in the masters

Heather’s expectations

Would you say that when you started the PhD that where you have ended up is, is where you are aiming at or that it, it, you have not, it did not quite work that way?

I think that I have ended up where I was aiming at definitely from, but it was not as clear as that at the time when I was going through it. It was a, it was very, it was not, it was not totally clear that things were going to go either way. I wanted to, I was not absolutely certain. Part of me did think that I could pursue my interests within the framework of a, an academic position.

And I, I wondered if I could do that. I was not totally sure. So at the time it was not, was not utterly explicit, to myself about where I was going, but I think actually it has always been there since I could not, since my way before my PhD from a very young age, I kind of knew where I was going, what I wanted to do. So it has kind of become explicit, but it was not, it was implicit during the, the years of the PhD, I think.

The meaning of the PhD

Did it ever create any ambivalence in your mind about the value of the PhD when there were others around you that did not value it? Or did it shape your, did it make you more determined or, or more defiant about it? The, the value of it?

Hmm. I think I always had some kind of deep-seated sense of its value that I knew it was a valuable thing to do, and it seemed like a purposeful thing to do in your life, no matter what you do next. It seemed like a way of developing my intellectual life of, of being able to write all these sort of skills that developed and just the inherent value of literature.

I, I felt very, very clear about. But I think it is probably true that my, some peoples around me, I do not feel that very strongly, but some people's sort of bafflement about what a PhD is and why one would do it, probably did raise certain questions in my mind on the surface of, of feeling perhaps a little bit uncertain and insecure about what I was doing.

But I, I do not remember that being particularly, strong as a feeling. But I think I did protect myself from that by make, by surrounding myself with other people who were doing PhDs and having very sort of close friendships with them and not really spending a lot of time with people who, who were not pursuing intellectual things. So I kind of padded, protected myself, you know, from that ambivalence slightly, I think.

'cause I think you need to, to keep motivated and to keep your sense of, you know, purpose and what you are doing and that, you know, in our culture, a lot of people can be very undermining about what you are supposed to be doing with your life and what, what is important. But I think it is important to stick to your intuitions and your instincts and your gut feelings about things. And mine was always very strong that this is the right thing to be doing at the moment.

Did you ever doubt the value of it?  

I never doubted the value of it while I was doing it, but shortly after I finished it, I did, I had a period of doubt immediately after I finished it, before I had established myself separately and into my writing career and had sorted, had sort of set up the, you know, my direction. I was in this, in-between phase for finishing the doctorate and then, trying to, to change my writing style and changed my approach to writing to move in the direction I needed to go and towards creative writing.

And I think it was in that period that I had some ambivalence and thought, oh, well, maybe I should not have done it. Maybe I should have just stopped after the masters and then pursued my writing. But I sort of went through that and out the other side and now feel that it was really essential that I did it. for many reasons. I mean, one of the most sim the simplest reason is my agent said to me that as a young woman, you are taken a lot more seriously as a non-fiction writer if you have a PhD, that the kind of prejudices in the non-fiction mainstream publishing of are such that it is actually really beneficial.

So that was a, you know, I got the agent, I think partially through the fact of, doing the PhD. So it was a step in the direction I wanted to go, but I definitely had a feeling of ambivalence in, in the, in a for about a year after I finished it, maybe a year and a half of wondering whether it was the right thing or not.

So has It, has it shaped your identity having a PhD or achieving a PhD?

I think probably has in the sense of feeling. I think it does give you a sense of pride having that, the fact that it changes your name, that you have the kind of doctor thing, it sounds sort of silly and, a superficial, but I do not think it is really. I think it, it does, it did, it has given me a sense of intellectual achievement and status and a, and a sense of confidence about my, myself intellectually, and to it is a very demanding thing to do.

And to have got through it and to have done it is something I am very proud of, especially given that I was an undiagnosed dyslexic at school and often struggled in certain subjects and was not always treated as someone who was clever. That for me, it was a very, it was a sort of personal triumph to have done that.

And I think for me, it finally put to bed permanently certain difficult experiences that I had had earlier on at school where questions were raised about my intelligence because the teachers were ill-informed and ignorant about, dyslexia. So it has definitely changed my sense of identity, I think, in a very positive way. the benefit of the PhD for me into creative terms was that it developed my reading skills and my sort of intellectual, engagement with literature and how it works, but also that it, it gave me space and time.

I mean, I, I, I basically had four years of time to read, and to, to to think and to develop my ideas, which I think looking back now is incredibly useful, even though it was not as clear as that at the time of doing it. It was a space and a time to, to sort of develop intellectually in a very free sort of way. How did you, how did you see yourself when you had finished?

What, what what had changed and, Well, it is very, I think, you know, it was, it all happened very quickly. You suddenly, you have been working away for years and years, and then suddenly it is finished and it's seemed to examiners, and then suddenly you have your viva. and it is all quite terrifying, but it all, it was over quite quickly and painlessly, and it was fine.

And it just took me a while to absorb it. I think. I think, you know, I felt so happy when it was finished and, and that, when that had passed, that was brilliant feeling. but I think it, it took me a while to recover from the strain of it finishing. It was very demanding. but, and it's one of those things that I feel is sort of kept on giving to me once it's been finished.

Once I have recovered from it, it, it's kept on and it does keep on, sort of giving me things back. even when I, you know, now that I have realized it was the right thing for me to do and, you know, it did not, it was not a distraction from getting on with the writing.

I think it was just incredibly useful. Gave me an amazing range of skills, time to read and think, network of people I met through it.

What about your self-perception?

It took a long time for me to integrate into myself perception. The fact that I had done it and the whole sort of doctor thing. It did, it did take a while. It took my family a while.

It was all sort of treated a bit of a joke to start with, and I, I felt quite ambivalent about it. I was not sure if I really deserved it, and it felt quite strange, but it, so it did, took about a year to really absorb the fact that I had done it and that it, you know, that I did deserve it and I had, I had achieved something, you know, that it had worked.

So it, it, it was a very gradual thing of integrating this, you know, this achievement into my wider sense of myself. but I have sort of gone through that and out the other side in the way that now I do not, in my career as a, as a freelance writer, I do not use doctor and I do not sort of promote that side because I do not know that it's terribly useful if you are wanting to present yourself in certain ways that I, I can seem overly intellectual now.

It's a kind of irony that I spent years trying to prove to myself that I was a kind of intellectually, achiever, and now I am trying to kind of shed that a little bit and be, approach my writing and my thinking in a, in a, in a more intuitive, emotionally nuanced way.

So it's, it's a sort of funny identity that I use when it is useful and I drop when I do not need it.

Being dyslexic

Can you talk a bit about being a dyslexic PhD student?

Well, I found, I was, at the very first sort of years of the new system of the, local educational authorities providing the, DSAs for funding. So, but, but when I had the, there wasn't one-to-one tuition available. There was money for books and equipment. So I got a computer whiteboard, which really helped me, and sort of, you know, equipment, but I didn't have any support during the thesis, which I needed.

And I ended up having support from friends and my boyfriend in particular. but I feel that I was not sufficiently supported by my supervisor or by any facilities available for the dyslexia, which I know are now in place, which I have, you know, participated in. I, I think I did not have, I was not sufficiently supported, and I did not have enough self-knowledge.

And the thing that I think is vitally important, which I have now, and which enables my work to sort of be, you know, to, to, to happen is I have much more self-knowledge about how I need to work. and I did not have that so much at the early stages of my PhD, which hindered me in my organisational, in those areas and made it quite difficult for me to structure my thesis. so I think I always had a clear sense of the benefits of being dyslexic, that my imaginative skills, my creative lateral thinking skills were contributing to my thesis being very original.

So I was, I was happy about that, but I, but the, the downsides of being dyslexic I do not think were sufficiently supported or understood by me at the time, which made things much more difficult than they needed to be.

In terms of the attitudes you encountered about being both a very intelligent woman doing a, doing a PhD and someone who was presenting themselves as a dyslexic woman as well.

Mm-Hmm. I, I found, I gave my supervisor my educational psychologist report, and she was kind, and, you know, supportive as much as she could be, but she was clearly profoundly ignorant, and it was clear that she had never really encountered dyslexic, PhD researchers before, and that she did not really know what to do, and she was ill-equipped to support me or to understand what it meant in practice.

So, I had heard people sort of, not in talking in reference to me, but general comments made by academics in the English faculty that there are no dyslexics at this department or at this university. so I encountered some very old-fashioned attitudes, and basically kind of bafflement about certain of the problems that I was having.

My supervisor just could not really understand where the difficulties were or how to help me. and I think that is a problem generally as dyslexic student or graduate or researcher in humanities department, you are generally going to be faced with ignorance and well-meaning bafflement, and the only way to deal with that is to empower yourself with knowledge about what dyslexia is and then explain it to people and ask for help.

But I was not able to do that really, because I did not really know, what to ask for at the time. and I also felt quite intimidated by my supervisors. there is a power dynamic often between graduates and their supervisors, which I, I did not think is terribly helpful for dyslexic students or anybody with any kinds of disability issues. there is rarely a forum in which to raise these issues or, or in my experience, it may be different in certain departments, but I do not think it was particularly well thought through in mine.

I think I, the thing is, I, everyone else I know who did a PhD in English had a, had a equally difficult time as me. I do not feel that my experiences because of dyslexia were made it more difficult weirdly. I think it is just such a difficult thing to do. it just, it is an incredibly demanding and rigorous apprenticeship, and you really, really are required to face all your self-doubts about your yourself intellectually and stare them head on in the face.

And that is the kind of amazing thing about it is if you get through it and you do it, you have really had to do those things. It is almost like a kind of, some kind of, shall in monk kind of training. It is like a kind of martial, intellectual martial art and having you, you, I felt like my brain was sort of disassembled during the process and then reassembled again. And it is quite an extraordinary and very painful experience for everyone.

But if you do it and, you, you know, it is, it really does give you an enormous range of skills and abilities, that you will not have unless you have done it. So I do not feel, I think perhaps I know, I think everyone, everyone I know had it very, very difficult and demanding, and you are forced to look at your own mind, very, very, very sort of profound way.

The reasons behind her PhD

Why did you decide to do a PhD?

Good question. I thought about that for a while. I think because I wanted to do it, simply as that, and I did not know I wanted to do it until halfway through my master's, which I knew I wanted to do Towards the end of my undergraduate degree, I knew I wanted to continue with my academic work, I was enjoying it, felt I was not sort of finished with it.

It felt very creative, very stimulating, just felt right. but I did not envisage doing a PhD during the Master's really until about halfway through when I felt, when, you know, things were going very well with the masters. I was really enjoying it again and felt incredibly stimulated and thought that, if, if I could get a place to do the PhD and if I could get funding, I would do it. But at that stage, I was not envisaging an academic career necessarily either.

It was not something that I, you know, started out assuming would I would do with a PhD. So, I very much pursued it as a creative thing. It was a, a PhD in English literature on, started off being on, three 20th century, early 20th-century writers, and it, it felt essentially, it felt like a creative thing rather than an academic thing, if is what I mean.

I think that I have always wanted to write creative, do creative writing, which is now what I am doing. and doing a PhD felt like part of a, what is the word? apprenticeship towards that process. So I never wanted to, to be a literary critic. I never wanted to do that. but the PhD in studying literature and this very, what felt like a very privileged environment, of a university where you get to really think about things and read incredibly widely, seemed to me a much better way of moving to, now I am looking back on it.

I think what I was doing is moving towards my creative writing, through doing a PhD rather than as some people do, having a day job and then, you know, working on their creative writing the weekends or whatever. So for me, I did sort of toy with the idea of going into academic work and then perhaps doing creative writing on the side.

But eventually I realized by the end of the thesis that I could not do both literary criticism and creative writing, and I had to kind of choose.

Heather’s experience

Can we talk now a bit about your experience of, of being a PhD student?

Well, I think I found the first year very liberating because you feel like you have got all this time ahead of you. and it is a kind of free-roaming year, that first year where you can explore lots of different ideas. And I pursued lots of different kinds of tangents, and it was very exciting and liberating. I was not given, you know, in, in taught courses always you are given reading lists and things that you are directed to look at, whereas suddenly you were left to do what you wanted.

And I took real advantage of that and read a very wide variety of quite strange things in that first year. And I really enjoyed that. it was very, very liberating. and as the, but as the, as the process, went on, I found it increasingly frustrating, and found myself with quite developing quite unwieldy chapters and a lack of structure.

And this was partly to do with the fact that I had not quite fully understood how the fact that I dyslexic affected my ability to manage very large documents, very large, kind of arguments. and I did not feel that I was given the appropriate support by my supervisor. I did not really understand the difficulties. So I found the, the, the process increasingly frustrating.

And it just got harder and harder basically, as, as time went on, and the last sort of six months were not particularly enjoyable. They were just writing up and trying to get something down that was, you know, going to work as a linear argument. And it was very, very difficult. I, I also found the department that I was in, a bit too conservative for me in the long run. The kinds of ideas that I was working on in the first half of the thesis, which excited me a great deal and were very interesting to me.

Whilst they worked very well as seminar presentations, and I very much enjoyed giving graduate talks with other graduates and presenting ideas and exploring ideas together. But I found that in fact, when it came to the crunch, the thesis was required to be more conservative than I felt was suitable for me. So I felt ultimately that I was not quite in the right department and I would have benefited from being in a slightly more flexible literature department.

So there was a certain level of disappointment with my final product of my thesis, bits of it. I was very, very pleased with bits of it. I really, I thought were quite kind of pedestrian, and functioned simply to sort of get the thesis done. So it was a mixed, a mixture, very mixed experience, I would say.

So in the beginning you felt quite liberated, But by the end you felt quite constrained?

Yes, I think that is exactly right. Yeah. I, I think that was partly, a learning, a very part of me feels that that was a useful thing in learning how ideas cannot always materialise, you know, and, and that that gap between fantastic, exciting ideas and the, your ability to realize them in practice, was something I had to learn. That the, the thesis, the thesis taught me, and I think I was perhaps a bit too ambitious when I started out, doing the thesis.

I had very sort of grand ambitions about it that I could not, I did not quite have the skills to realise. So it was sort of, it was a learning experience about that. and I feel that perhaps I was not given enough guidance by my supervisor earlier on as to what was realistic. But, but in a way, you know, I had great fun exploring ideas. Yeah, so I learned lots of things, some of which, all of which was helpful, but not always enjoyable, I would say.

What did you not find enjoyable?

I did not enjoy, I think I just ended up with, I, I, I was, I struggled to make the realities of the thesis meet my ambitions, and that was, that was very frustrating. I did, so I did not enjoy that.

I did not enjoy the last stages of writing up. It was just intensely stressful. and I think the viva and the whole experience of passing the PhD was highly mythologised in my department, in my university, and overly sort of, treated by it, by all sort of PhD researchers, graduates as a kind of impossible, herculean task. And it was, it, and no supervisors or academics were really offering sufficient advice about what it was in practice, and they just, it just, they just fostered this atmosphere of fear amongst graduates, about the viva and about passing, which I think was very unhelpful and intensely stressful.

Well, I found that the thing that I enjoyed most about doing the PhD was the, fellow graduates that I met working, you know, in, in English on humanities. and the intellectual friendships that I developed I found incredibly stimulating and I value highly, and it is one of the best things I have taken from the PhD experiences, a group of really interesting friends, who really shared that experience sort of ups and downs.

And I think my friends who were doing, their own PhDs helped me more than my supervisor in the end actually. And, particularly my partner who is also I, I met during the process of doing the PhD who also did a PhD in English. We really helped each other and our intellectual sort of endeavours are very central to our relationship, and that was a really exciting and wonderful thing.

So that was very supportive. I think friends who are not doing, who were not doing PhDs did not always understand, what I was doing. And it is something that is quite difficult to explain to other people who are not doing it, what it is actually like. So friends who, you know, were pursuing other kinds of careers, found it a bit baffling. Similarly family who had not done, you know, I do not come from a sort of university background family, and they found it very baffling and did not really understand why it took so long.

They kept thinking it would be a finished, you know, and they just did not really grasp how difficult it was or how long it takes. Although they were supportive in many respects, they, they really were, but they, they could not really grasp it, but they certainly were not, I did not feel that they were detrimental to the process.

I just think they did not fully understand it.

Did you ever doubt that you would get to the end?

Yes, I really did. About two-thirds through, I went through a stage and everyone seems to go through it of feeling like it is never going to be finished. You cannot actually see the end at all, and you get totally stuck inside it, and you cannot see the wood for the trees. So that definitely happened, and it is a real heave to get it finished. but everyone seemed to experience that seemed to be quite common, but I have, I definitely remember quite an overwhelming sense that this was never gonna end, but it did. You know.

Finishing the PhD

Can you talk me through the final year of the PhD and into, the world beyond it?

So, well, the final year of my PhD, I was writing up frantically, a very intensive year of writing. I wrote about 2000 words a day for, nip, really nine months to a year, so I was incredibly focused, very, it was really hard work, but I just was determined to get it done. And all I can remember about it is just writing and writing and writing and writing really. And then very sort of structured process supervisor reading it, editing.

Were you thinking about what you were going to do afterwards?

No, I do not think I was, I think during the, the last sort of, oh no, hang on. It is so difficult to think back. No, I actually had a postdoc already. That was it. I had in the first early months of my, sorry, for the latter few months of my PhD when I was editing it, when the draft had been finished, when I was editing it, I had already started a postdoctoral fellowship. It was one year.

How did you get that?

Which I had, which I applied for during the final year of my PhD with a view to doing a project, after my PhD, which I never did, but I had this year, and I thought I would do it. And I actually, because my PhD took a lot longer than I thought it would, as I think lots of peoples do. I, well, when I started the postdoctoral fellowship year, I still had not finished my PhD. So the, the beginning of that year was spent editing and finishing the PhD and submitting it to my supervisor, waiting for her to read it. And then, it was, it was finally finished submitting it, and then the months of waiting. So while I was waiting, I had this postdoctoral fellowship.

I continued to teach as I had done during my final years, of doctoral work. So I was teaching undergraduates, and working on, I put a proposal in for, to edit a collection of writing by the author I had studied for my PhD. and that was, going through the process.

So during that postdoctoral year, in fact, I edited a, a book of writing by my author who I, who I had studied.

How did you get the opportunity to do that?

So I did that by contacting, the same time that I applied for the postal. I think I, contacted by email, the editor of a series of similar works by, by writers from the same period, and, sent a proposal to the editor, who got back to me and wanted to publish the work.

So, so during the period when I was waiting for, to hear about my thesis, it was the very early stages of this very small book, that I was, putting together as part of the postdoctoral fellowship. But, I was also, looking into, going freelance during the, no, I think soon after, once, once I had my viva, once my viva was over, and I got the PhD, I was pretty clear that I wanted to start going in a different direction, but I was not quite sure how it would work out or exactly what I wanted to do.

It was a very sort of, open period and, and very frightening and stressful in lots of ways, but also very necessary because I was thinking of applying for academic jobs and, and looking into what I could publish, but I was not really feeling that it was the right thing, and it already was obvious to me that I needed to go in a different direction.

So I started to, look into other writing ideas that I had. I started reviewing, for the national press and started doing the odd bits of journalism. In the final year of my PhD, I started writing for websites for free, which is a good place to start as a freelance writer.

And I started reviewing, for websites. and that provided me with some, with, sample writing to send to editors of newspapers and magazines. And I contacted editors. And in the final year of my PhD, I began publishing reviews in the national press and started reviewing for the independent, particularly in the TLS. And then, so I had some experience of writing outside academia once my PhD had finished. And I, was in this one year postdoc position, putting together this book of writing by the person I had done my PhD on. And then I had started having ideas about other kinds of writing I wanted to do. So I, really started doing research on new projects, looking into different ideas and just, getting my head around the idea of leaving academia really, because lots of friends were moving into academic jobs, or JRF’s junior research fellowships, and applying for academic positions and publishing their thesis in academic journals or as books, but it, it was not the right thing for me.

So it took me quite a long time to get my head around that. and in the meantime, while I was really making this sort of psychological shift, I started, working with, I am looking in, I looked at a lot of research into dyslexia in higher education, contacted a lot of people I went to talk to about, what kind of, support was provided, that I had not received myself.

'cause there's the support that is now currently available wasn't in place when I was a graduate. and it came, became clear that there were openings and a need for people to support, dyslexic undergraduate and graduates.

And so I started working with, with them. and that was very helpful, financially. And in terms of thinking about my own relationship with dyslexia and my own strategies that sort of confirmed my own thoughts about it. I did a lot of reading about dyslexia and in fact wrote some articles on the dissect my own experiences, for the Times Higher Education Supplement, so that was a very important strand of shifting into freelance writing, was really looking carefully at what my own experience of the doctoral process had been.

and alongside that, I started having ideas for books and contacted literary agents, and, got the support of a literary agent who advised me on how to develop my ideas into a proposal that could be shown to editors and commissioned, which is what I did in the year after the postdoc had finished, I continued teaching and writing bits of journalism, and, I, was developing a proposal to try and sell. I also was fortunate to get a research, a book proposal, a book proposal with advice by of an agent. And I also had, I applied for, a research, fellowship with the women's library in London, which was open to freelancers specifically for freelancers, people not in higher education.

So I started looking into the kind of funding positions that were available, outside academia for freelance people. And there is a, you know, there are all kinds of things out there.

How do you find them?

Just looking on the web, Society of Authors has, advice, but slightly, just luck. You just come across things and applied them.

How did you get an agent?  

I just contacted an agent, they are all listed in a writer and artist yearbook.

How did you know which one to contact?

I was actually advised by a friend who to contact, as a, 'cause he was a nonfiction editor in the book that I was wanting to do as a nonfiction book. So I contacted him during my postdoc year, and he, wanted to meet me. So we met and discussed various ideas and he gave me advice on, on how to write a proposal, what a proposal involved. And I went away and then spent the rest of my postdoc year.

And then I had this fellowship at the women's library after that year, which was, basically just an opportunity to do some research and to give public lectures on my research. so it was similarly a kind of transitional year as well as after the, the postdoc. and during that year I wrote the proposal and the editor gave me feedback and advice and, I edited it and rewrote it.

And it was a lot, it was a lot of work involved.

The editor or the agent?

The agent, sorry. And then that was finally ready for sale and the agent sold it and I was commissioned to, to write the book. And then that's enabled me financially to, write pretty much full time with a little bit of teaching. and from my experiences at the Women's Library where they host creative writing workshops, I started to my own experiences. I, I attended a creative writing workshop myself, which helped my writing shift from academic to creative writing, called the Paris Writers Workshop.

It is this week long summer school, run by established writers. So I attended that, and that was a significant turning point in my writing style, I think helped me to get the book deal.

What was that like, that workshop?

It was very helpful because it was an opportunity to meet other aspiring writers, and to talk to established creative writing, practitioners, about how they'd worked.

And so it was very helpful, gave me sort of some advice about how to change my writing style and was very sort of, quite ruthless in, we had to submit written work and the, our tutor was quite ruthless with us, and it was quite, it was quite difficult 'cause he really said what didn't work and what did, and made you kind of face up to what your own writing style was and where you wanted to take it.

So it was very kind of, it was a really important week. It was really useful.

What kind of things were you having to write?

We did not have to write very much while we were on the course. We only, we only had one bit of writing that we did, where we had to write about our, did we have to write about a house? I think we had to write about our house from our childhood. Mainly what he did, what we did was look at passages of writing and we submitted write written work to him before the week and he'd read it and then did work, tutorials with us.

So we had feedback on work we'd written previously.

So coming from academic writing, how did that feel?

It felt, quite difficult and I was quite resistant to him and his comments, but I knew he was right. And actually it was a breakthrough, kind of happened during that week with my writing. I felt that it just sort of turned and went in the direction that it needed to go in.

So it was, it was very, very helpful. and, shortly after that, the proposal was finished and the, the book deal went through. So, and I, from my experiences going to Creative Writing Workshop, and seeing the creative writing workshops at the Women's Library, I was keen to start teaching creative writing. I kind of intuitively knew that that's the kind of teaching I would like to do, and that I felt unsatisfied.

I felt similarly unsatisfied with teaching, criticism during my doctoral work as I had with writing criticism. So I, started teaching creative writing workshops at the women's libraries. Those went really, really well, became very naturally to me, and I've started to, to develop that in other areas now. And I teach Creative Writing workshops, regularly now. So, there was a similar shift in my teaching as there was in my writing, I think over to creative writing away from criticism.

Can you unpack a bit more about how you made that transition then to teaching creative writing?

Well, I think it'd been sort of growing for a long time. I think by the time I actually attended the writing workshop, my writing was sort of nearly there. It just needed to be tipped over the edge, really into what I really wanted to do. and sometimes you do just have to leap in.

You just need to start doing something. You just need to do it. And there's no, you know, you just have to make a decision. And I just leapt into the dark, you know, and said, I am gonna teach Creative Writing workshop. I read lots of books about teaching creative writing, and I drew on my own experiences and it just, you just had to do it. You just did it and it worked, you know, and it just was natural. It was like someone, it was just like a baby knows how to swim or something, and you just do it and it's right.

So it confirmed my instincts that this is what I needed to do.

How did you find out about the opportunities to teach these Workshops?

Just from being at the women's library, having the, the residency there, they have lots of, they run lots of workshops, so, you know, I, I, it kind of opened my mind to the, to the possibility and I, and looked into it. And I kind of just thought about what I'd find useful, and I think that's another way you can find out what you need to do in terms of, of teaching. And I thought, what would help me and what would I enjoy doing?

And then I thought, well, if I enjoy it and I find this useful, that means other people probably would as well. 'cause I'm not different to other people. So that was the kind of quite organic way in which I, moved towards it. So I think I, I drew on teaching experience I'd had previously knowing how to, to help people to read their own work critically, read other work critically.

So the, the work that I did for my PhD certainly feeds into the creative writing, teaching, absolutely in the same way that it feeds into my own writing. but it's just slightly differently focused. So, it was about building on previous skills and then adapting them to slightly different purposes. I think.

Career building

You say you have always had an agenda and a sense of purpose. How did you bring that into play whilst you, whilst you were doing a PhD?

Well, I think that was the frustrating thing is that I started out, as I said, with a PhD. It, it, it started out being much more imaginative and, and kind of creative, and drawing on those skills that I have. but in the end, it ended up being more, sort of less, less creative and imaginative than I would have hoped.

Some of it did manage to be in that, that work well, but other bits of it I did not feel were, lived up to my, you know, creative hopes. And I just do not think academic writing can often, I do not think, I think lots of academic writing in English is not particularly creative at the best of it is. but it is not an, it just, it is too left hemisphere for me, and I am a right hemisphere person. I think that is putting it very bluntly and psycho pop way.

But, but I think that that is what it was. It ended up being a very left hemisphere skill, which has been really useful for me to develop. 'cause I always used to be overly developed in the right hemisphere, I think. and it has really helped me to develop very useful skills of discipline and structure and argument and research skills and managing large amounts of material. So it has been incredibly useful. but it did not use right hemisphere skills enough.

And beyond the thesis, like outside of the thesis during your PhD, did you have opportunities to submerge yourself in that sort of, in creative world?

I do not, I feel like I did in, in other ways in, I had sort of extracurricular things I did making stuff, and be very interested in film. but I did not do much creative writing during the PhD.

I just did not have any space to develop it really. I think it was sort of going on subconsciously. And it was really after the thesis, the thesis was finished about a week after my vive. I just sort of erupted into creative thinking. and it was just all quite suppressed during the PhD, I think, but quite usefully, I think it was all sort of building and, you know, what's the word? Distilling underneath the thesis.

So it, I do not think nothing was happening, even though I was not explicitly writing, you know? So no, it just took all my energy to do the thesis. It took absolutely every ounce of energy to be able to do it. I think that is true of everyone I know. So it does not leave you with much time or energy to do anything else.

Can you remember what you were anticipating about finishing and, and, and, and afterwards? Did you have a sense of what the future would be like?

No. I remember feeling like just because of the last sort of year of the thesis, I could not think about anything except getting it finished. So I did not have any sense of the future. All I had a sense of was I wanted this to be done. I wanted it to pass and I wanted to be finished with it. And it only, it took so much energy that I did not have any left to think about the future. And it was only once it was done that I could then turn my attention to the future, really. I mean, I vaguely sort of thought about careers and I kind of did some, you know, exercises to think about what careers I wanted, but I, I turned my attention to that, when I finished, and could only really think about the future once it was done.

So you did not really engage in any skills training or kind of career Activities?

No, I went to the the British Academy. It was then, career weekend or week. Yeah, yeah. Which they, I dunno what it's called now. And I found it totally useless.

And in fact, the only thing it gave me was a sense that I never want to be put through something as ludicrous and patronising as this ever again. And in that way, it was useful. So I, it was ridiculous. It was totally designed around science students, graduates, and they just kind of grafted a few humanities people on the top. and it was just ludicrous. The, it was utterly pointless and it made a, it made a mockery of what I was doing, in fact, because it, it did not address anything to do with the values or the concerns or the interests that I was actually dealing with in my PhD.

And it was a total waste of money and I was very angry about it at the time and felt like it was a total waste of taxpayer's money, a waste of my time. And it, it made me very cross actually. And it put me off pursuing other kinds of structured ways of, of thinking about careers, career services I found utterly useless. So I ended up reading books and I particularly found, “What Colour is Your Parachute?” really helpful, which I think is a, you know, book that lots of people read about careers.

And I went through those structured exercises very carefully and I found that incredibly helpful, and talking to other people once I'd finished and working through in mind maps and brainstorms and thinking about underlying interests and values, helped me. So I, I absolutely addressed career issues, but only after the thesis was done, except for this week during the thesis research when I went to this hopeless British Academy Week, which was counterproductive.

Can you remember any, courses, workshops, put on by the faculty or the career service that you, noticed and ignored or got involved in?

I think I was probably one of those students that is a bit bad at reading bumph that comes through about career services. I have just never been particularly good at that. So I probably did ignore things that might have been useful provided by the career service of my university. but I, I did not pursue them.

I have always wanted to be self-employed and quite self-directed, and I do not feel that career service is often very good at providing information about that. And I felt that I needed to develop my own sense of future and career quite organically through my interests and my things that I really care about. And that is what I have done. And I do not think career services have been able to, can provide you with that. You know, it is more of a case of take a good look at yourself and ask yourself what you want out of life, which is what the, “What Colours Your Parachute?” book does very successfully is ask not does not talk about careers, but talks about values and, interests and kinds of environments you need to be in.

And what sort of, you know, broad, much broader questions, which I think are more useful way of thinking about careers. So I was, I found there were some useful workshops run by the department about how to become an academic. They were very good at that.

They provided kind of workshops on how to write reviews for journals and how to approach journals with journal articles and, and how to publish. So they, they were, they were very helpful on that. but the department did not really acknowledge or countenance the idea that people might be doing a PhD who did not want to become academics. So there was not really a, a venue or avenue institutionally for me to pursue my future. I had to kind of do it by myself once I left, really.

What sort of value did you place on networking socially?

Very, that was the most useful thing that came out of it. I feel that I met really interesting range of people who, who were doing PhDs and who have gone on to do a range of really interesting things inside academia and outside that have developed into a very useful network. I met lots of other people who have become writers since, who have become academics, who have become agents and edit editors and publishers, and artists.

So it is definitely a, the sort of circle of people that I met through it have been the most useful and, and, and brilliant part of it really.

Heather’s current role

Can you tell me now a little bit more about what you do now?

So now I am a freelance writer, and I have an agent, and I do a bit of journalism on the side and a bit of creative writing teaching. And I do work with dyslexic adults, a little bit as well. But my main thing is, is I am writing a book at the moment, my first major book, and then I am, I, I am hoping that that will lead to, you know, a book every couple of years. So, I am basically freelance and I am outside any institution.

And I am very much sort of self-guided, self-motivated, and self-disciplined. And that is something the PhD really enabled me to develop the ability to do. I think it is brilliant, it gave me an incredible opportunity to develop my ability to work on my own, to direct my own projects, to see them through, to write substantial amounts of texts and to manage large documents, large kind of, you know, projects. So it is actually really useful skills that I got from that, which I have definitely taken into what I am doing now.

Can you tell me on a sort of day-to-day basis, what your life is like? Kind of give me some taste of the variety in your life.

Mm-Hmm. So the book was commissioned, and I had two years to submit the manuscript.

And did they pay you some of that commission upfront?

Yes, I had an advance upfront, on the signature of the contract, and then I had another chunk of money from the, from the, contract on the submission of three chapters.

And was it enough money to mean that you did not have to earn any other kind of income anywhere else?

No, it was not enough. No, it was nearly enough, but not quite enough. So I applied for grants as well to pay for the research. 'cause the first year of the, of the, work on the book was research. Yeah. So, I applied for lots of funding, and also worked part-time, doing creative writing workshops and some dyslexia support for graduates mainly in higher education, but, mainly researching the book. I had not started writing it till a year or in, so, I got, I received, I got a grant to go, to do lots of the research abroad, which involved lots of travel. So, most of the, most of my time I spent researching in different libraries.

I had to do a lot of reading. and then after the year of writing, year of research, then writing could begin, mixture of research and writing. But then mainly now I am in the process of writing up my research. And How do you tend to structure your days? it depends if I am writing or researching. If I am researching, I tend to work a kind of full, you know, eight-hour day variety of research at home or in different libraries in, in London or where I live.

And, if I am writing, I tend to write in the mornings and tend to have a, a page limit a day. So daily, daily goal of five pages a day. So I tend to alternate between research weeks and writing weeks, and then some weeks of editing. So it, every day is different really. I do not really have a particular routine.

Do you write at home?

I write a mixture of at home, and I like to travel, so I quite often go abroad, to, to write.

I quite like writing in the library. I will go to London sometimes the British Library. So varied. I like to kind of vary it really.

What are the best things about being a freelance writer?

Well, the best thing for me is being able to, explore my imagination. And that is what I really enjoy about my writing is it is very imaginative and it involves research and, and kind of engaging with history, but in a really imaginative way and a kind of, almost a sort of all the five senses kind of physical way.

I am trying to reimagine history, reimagine the past, and write about it in a very sort of visceral way. so that is the thing I really enjoy about it. The particular project I am working on at the moment, I really love, and I feel that my writing is just getting improving all the time and I am becoming sort of increasingly confident and it, it, it is a very, unpredictable process as well.

I can never predict quite where things are going to take me. And that is what I like about it. And what is very different about it to, the PhD work is it is the creative writing that I am doing now, although it is, it is research and it is, it is about the past. It is very, flexible and it can go in all kinds of different directions that I do not really know sometimes. So I really enjoy that. I am very much interested in working with visual artists.

I have done a few little projects on the side with visual artists and I am, I am, I like doing collaborative work and something I am kind of moving towards with. I have done a project with a filmmaker. I am a project with a sculptor, and I am, I am definitely interested in pursuing that in the future. And I have started teaching creative writing and then fine art college, with teaching art students. So that is a direction I am very excited about. this, obviously, you are very self-directed, you know, you are very, it is very flexible.

My days are completely my own, so that is, that is a really wonderful thing. Of course, that is sometimes very difficult. And the downside of being freelancers is the insecurity, financial insecurity, the fact that, you know, you have really got to shape your own time and be very self-disciplined. And I am learning how to do that and it is difficult sometimes, and I need variety and I need to get out of the house. And, you know, making all those things work, I think are the hardest aspect of being a freelance writer. but I feel like I am kind of getting there with it.

I really like what I am doing now. It is the right thing for me and it is, you know, it is the right thing. And I am, I am thinking of going back into universities, maybe at some point in the future as a creative writing tutor, and I am now doing some part-time creative writing work at, in universities. And I am really enjoying that. So I feel like maybe I am going to end up back in an English faculty at some point in the creative writing department, which is a growing field in Britain now.

Very much sort of growth area. So you never know. I might actually sort of, and the great thing is that I think having the PhD in English will really help me to get a job, a position as a creative writing tutor, a lecturer if, if I wanted at some point. I think again, it will resurface as an incredibly useful thing. It gives me that option. Obviously, you know, lots of tutors and creative writing at universities do not have PhDs. It is not necessary, but I think it will be helpful. So, I think it is going to serve, use, be useful for forever.

But if I do not, you know, it depends on how my writing goes, really, what kind of levels of, of advances I am getting, what kind of sales I like will, will shape the future and, and where whether I need to do it, whether I want to. And I do not particularly like writing full time. I have discovered, I was fortunate to be able to do that with this book, but I, I would rather have some teaching and some other kinds of things that I do. So, so the PhD has, has really kept my options open.

It is interesting that you, you did not want to pursue an academic career.

And you are pursuing your creative interests, but that you are mapping a future for yourself that has an academic context.

Yes, exactly. I think potentially it will not necessarily, but it is there potentially. so it is nice to have that option. and so yeah, I have kept it, as an, well, it is reemerged more recently when I when I, you know, the first finished the thesis and I was wanting to pursue my creative writing, it was absolutely no way.

I did not want to be back in any kind of academic institution. So it is also more sort of resurfacing now as a, as an option for the future, not the immediate future, but the longer-term future. So yeah, it is definitely a, a possibility now I think in a way that it was not when I first finished the PhD.

Advice for those doing a PhD

If you could advise somebody who is coming towards the end of their thesis, and they are pretty sure they do not want an academic career and they would like to explore possibilities of writing in another context, maybe becoming a freelance writer. What would you say to them?

I would be very wary of doing it 'cause it is a very difficult thing to do and it is financially very precarious and I was just sort of lucky in some ways. I would say they need to look themselves in the mirror and ask themselves what they want to write and be brutally honest about it.

And if they want to write things other than academic work, then they should, give themselves permission to do it and to try to experiment and to, let themselves go a bit in their writing and, and maybe even handwrite, move from, if you write, if they write their thesis on the computer, try handwriting instead. and it, you know, if they have got interest in writing things outside their, their academic work, then just give it a go and see where it leads.

But do it in a really authentic way where they really find out what they want to write rather than having some external vision of, oh, I want to be a novelist, or something like that. Just does not work like that. You have got to really find in yourself what kind of language and words you want to use and what kind of voice you have. I think the problem with academic, some academic writing is that it does not encourage people enough to develop a unique writing voice.

And I think everyone can do that. but if you want to write creatively, you have really got to do that. And that you need to find, before you can sort of think about publishing. but I do not really have much advice to people who want to be freelance writers. I just have my own experience that I make up every day as I go along. There is not really an established route for it.

So I would be very wary of giving any advice, in fact.

Helen | Chinese and German | International relations.

Helen offers advice on finding a career that truly interests you, drawing from her own experiences. She reflects on how her PhD studies influenced her current career, detailing her current role and comparing her expectations of the PhD with the reality. Helen discusses the challenges of balancing work and family life, and shares how her teaching experiences shaped her views on academic careers.

She also contemplates the significance of her PhD to herself and her colleagues, and candidly discusses moments when she considered not finishing her degree. Looking ahead, Helen explores potential future career paths and revisits the motivations that drove her to pursue a PhD. She also reflects on the jobs she held before starting her doctoral studies.

Explore Helen’s journey further by clicking the links below:

The reasons behind her PhD
The meaning of the PhD
Helen’s expectations
Helen’s PhD topic
Experience of work prior to the PhD
Thoughts on giving up
Finishing the PhD
Helen’s current role
Connections between the PhD and work
Building a career
Where her career is going from here
Feelings towards an academic career
Balancing her personal life
Helen’s advice



Career Pathway

  • Graduated with a BA in Chinese and German from a university in the north of England
  • MSc in Chinese literature from a university in Scotland (AHRC-supported)
  • PhD in Chinese literature, same institution (AHRC-studentship for 2 years – 1998-2000)
  • Projects Officer, British Council, Taipei, Taiwan
  • International Relations Department, British Academy
  • Deputy Director of the Research Councils’ Office in Beijing, China (on secondment)
  • Manager for Asia in the International Policy Section, Royal Society.



Audio Interview

The reasons behind her PhD

Why did you do a PhD?

I think I just drifted into it because I wasn't quite sure what else to do and I'd done well at university and I'd done a Masters and also done well. So the only people around my mentors were people in academia and they said, “Why don't you stay on?”, and I thought that would be quite a good option and potentially an academic career would be quite a good option.

So you had an open mind about the prospect of an academic career when you started the PhD?

Yeah. Yeah, and, and that was the only definite career that I could imagine myself doing at that point. So, yeah.

The meaning of the PhD

What does the PhD mean to you?

Now, it's, it's been very useful in my, in my most recent job working in China. It really has been useful. It's given me a lot of kudos 'cause a PhD in China is seen as having a lot of status and being a woman and relatively young. I've seen the impression that it makes when I hand somebody my pic, my card and they go, “Oh, Doctor!”. So that has really made a difference and it means, and I knew that would make a difference long term if I did want to work in China already.

So that probably was another reason in the back of my mind where I wanted, why I wanted to finish the PhD. My sister's a medical doctor and I just, you know, gone on this route also to become another type of doctor and I, I didn't want to fail to achieve it. So it does give me a sense of achievement and I do now use the title on my business line, so I'm proud of it.

It does mean that I think it shows that I'm academically competent, but it, it makes me feel like I'm more intelligent or something, something like that. And among all the people that I work for in the Royal Society, a lot of them assume that I've got a science degree. I, I think, and at the British Academy too, when I started using the title Doctor, it just made people think that I wasn't just an administrator. That I was somebody who had something in common with them.

And yeah, I, I'm glad about that.

Helen’s expectations

Did you have any expectations of where you might end up after the PhD when you embarked on it?

No, not really. I was just doing it at that time for the reward of it itself.

And then when would you say that you started to think about what you do after your PhD?

Well, I think it was, it was long time before, it was during the second year when I was, when I first got an office job in Taiwan, where I was facilitating other academics doing meetings and, networking among each other and, and other sort of general office type work that I realised that that was an environment that was much happier in than in a university environment.

And so it was right at that point that I thought, ah, this is what I'll do. I'll work for someone like the British Council when I finish. And I don't think I had any very clear, I still thought I'm gonna go back and finish my PhD. And it potentially, I could have still stayed in academia, but I had realised by that time that I liked an office environment and I liked facilitating rather than doing cerebral work and, and teaching.

How did you end up in Taiwan?

That's, that's where I'd gone to study in my second year as an undergraduate when I was doing Chinese and German. And so I just chose there rather than mainland China. 'cause less people went there from my year group. And you'd be more plunged into the local culture. And I made friends during that year. So Taiwan, I kept going back every summer.

I'd had a, I had a boyfriend in Taiwan, so that was why I kept going back to Taiwan and why I chose it as the topic of my PhD, specifically Taiwanese literature.

So you went there to do some research during the second year of your PhD?

Yeah. And in, and what happened then is that I got a job and so I suspended my PhD studentship for six months while I was working. So I, I did part-time study, part-time collective of resources and, and I was actually still working full, full-time for me for probably about 11 months of that year.

And then I went back to the UK at the, at the end of that year to carry on with my PhD.

Helen’s PhD topic

Can you tell me a little bit about your PhD research?

It was on, modern Chinese literature, so I, I had done a degree in Chinese and German and liked literature. I'd spent a year after I'd finished my degree on a language scholarship in Taiwan where I'd done a lot of reading of fiction. And so that's what I chose for my topic. It was gender studies, sort of sociological analysis of literature. So the main interest really was that I liked reading the fiction and so I thought I might like writing about it too.

Experience of work prior to the PhD

Had you worked at all before you started on the PhD?

Not, no proper jobs. I mean, I'd had lots of waitressing jobs and holiday jobs, things like that, but I hadn't ever had a full-time post before that.

Thoughts on giving up

So after I'd come back from Taiwan, I spent one year back at university doing some part-time research, annotation work, and a little bit of teaching and tutorials. But with, before that year was out, I saw a new job opportunity that was just circulated around my networks for working at the British Academy as their China assistant. So again, it was using Chinese and it was an office job, which I knew I'd liked. So I took that job up against the advice of my supervisor, really, who knew it would slow down my progress on the PhD and decided that I would just try and finish my PhD part-time.


So this was clearly, because already at that point I knew I didn't really want to do, really wasn't enjoying my PhD that much, and I'd already decided I probably didn't want to be an academic. I just didn't want to not finish my PhD.

Did you ever think about not finishing the PhD?

Yeah. At various stages during, during my, the two, three years employment at Bush Academy, I thought I could, I could or should give it up.

And it came to crisis point in something like Christmas where I knew I would either have to give up my job for a while in order to finish full time, or I'd have to just decide I wasn't gonna finish a PhD. My employers did give me an unpaid sabbatical of nine months, so I took that and spent it in London. So relatively unconnected from my university and from my base.

So I didn't have any other colleagues around me. I did go to a few lectures and seminars at universities in London, who, who, who run these sorts of courses. So I wasn't totally isolated in an academic sense, but relatively isolated. And I did a lot of work on the PhD in those nine months, but still didn't quite finish it by the time I went back to work. I think at that stage I knew it would be possible to finish, but it still took me another six months from that day. And the only thing that really pushed me to actually finish was that there was a university deadline and if I hadn't submitted by Christmas I wouldn't have been able to get my PhD.

How important was it to you to finish it?

Clearly it must have been quite important to me. I think the, the factor was failure and the feeling of guilt if I had given up on it because my parents had helped fund me for one year and I had had a two year arts and humanities research board, studentship, so I would've felt guilty about wasting their money if I hadn't finished.

And there was the nagging doubt that if I gave up, I might myself feel like a failure later. There was, I've never not achieved anything that I'd set out to achieve before, so I did just want to do that, but I really did want to give up at many points. I can remember hearing Robin Cook on the radio saying that he'd started a PhD and given it up and how glad he was. And that really nearly did it for me, but in the end, I, I didn't, I managed and I'm very glad about that.

But it wasn't easy at the time.

Finishing the PhD

How did you end up in Taiwan?

That's, that's where I'd gone to study in my second year as an undergraduate when I was doing Chinese and German. And so I’d just chosen there rather than mainland China. 'cause less people went there from my year group and you'd be more plunged into the local culture. And I made friends during that year. So Taiwan, I kept going back every summer. I'd had a, I had a boyfriend in Taiwan, so that was why I kept going back to Taiwan and why I chose it as the topic of my PhD, specifically Taiwanese literature.

So you went there to do some research during the second year of your PhD?

Yeah, and in, and what happened then is that I got a job and so I suspended my PhD studentship for six months while I was working. So I, I did part-time study, part-time collective of resources and, and I was actually still working a full, full-time for me, for probably about 11 months of that year. And then I went back to the UK at the end of that year to carry on with my PhD.

Did you get to that work in Taiwan?

It was through a friend who had also, it was through a university undergraduate colleague who was now working there. So she just let me know that there was, there was a possibility of maybe part-time work there as an education counsellor. And so once I'd gone there to see, to talk to them and see what opportunities they were for working at first I took a part-time job and then they liked me and I liked them and they said, would you take full-time and take on some more tasks than I did?

What did that, what did that part-time job involve?

The, the first one was education counselling, which basically meant sitting in the public offices of the British council, giving people advice who were thinking about going to Britain to study. And then when they saw that I had sort of gender interest and academic interests and they, they saw that I was, you know, quite a good worker, they said, did I want to be a projects officer? Which meant various different tasks.

One was, designing, group study tour trips to the UK and getting insurance partners and travel agent partners for it. And another was organising a gender studies mission. So again, it was very, it was central to the topic of my own research really was getting people who did gender studies in the UK to come out to Taiwan to talk about gender studies and women's studies as a, a potential topic for postgraduate study in the UK. And there was quite a lot of interest in that in Taiwan at the time.

And I knew that because I was studying gender issues and I, so I, I could network for them in that. And that was one of the big projects that I ran.

Were you using, were you working through, were you working through Chinese?

No, mostly English. I mean in the office, the, the language, mostly English. But when I went out to meet contacts or talk to people about the mission, then I would be doing some things in Chinese here and that was definitely an advantage. So at the end of that one year full-time contract as agreed, that ended and I went back to, my university in Scotland to carry on with a PhD.

So then it must have been a year, yeah, about a year that I spent back at the university also doing part-time work annotation on a research project, for somebody in another department in cognitive studies department, little bit of tutoring. And then at the end of that year I got a job at the British Academy. So again, I, I was still halfway through my PhD, nowhere near finished, but I knew that I'd rather have a job than just be studying.

So I moved to London, so just about mid of midyear three of my PhD to take up another full-time job.

What was the job that you applied for at the British Academy?

That was an international relations assistant, requiring somebody who spoke Chinese. So it was circulated among all the Chinese departments in UK universities.

And that's traditionally how they advertised this opportunity. It's a job that usually has been done by people who have just graduated. So I, I saw this and knew that, that that would be the sort of job that I would like to do an office environment where you're interacting with academics. 'cause the main purpose of that role is to network UK academics and give UK give grants to UK academics to travel to and network with people in China.

And do you think that the experience that you'd had in Taiwan during your PhD really helped in getting you that job?  

Yeah, I'm sure that one of the reasons why I got the job versus other applicants who possibly also could speak Chinese who had undergraduate degrees is that I really had a research interest. So I fitted more closely even than normal graduates in Chinese. I fitted the profile of somebody who cared about the work of the British Academy, which is supporting postdoctoral research.

So for sure, not necessarily the time I'd spent in Taiwan, but the fact that I was a postgraduate doing some research in that area meant that I was attractive to the employers and, and my main stakeholders would be other academics with whom I would have quite a lot of shared interests. So that was a very strong factor in me getting that job.

What was the interview like?

Very friendly and easy. I'm, I'm generally pretty good at interviewing anyway. I didn't know that at the time because I, I hadn't had many job interviews, but there were two people there.

The person who, who would be my boss and the Head of HR, they had a fairly set series of questions and it was just clear to them as much as to me that in almost every aspect I would really enjoy this job. The only thing that they were worried about is that I would find it too menial if I wanted to be an academic, would I really be interested in doing day to day boring routines of keeping up Excel spreadsheets and entering grants, details into databases, something like that.

And I, I told them I would be, you know, more than happy to do that sort of thing. And that in fact that's what I wanted. I wanted to get away from being purely academic to doing something practical and to having feedback from other people and helping other people. 'cause I had realised that this was more how I felt rewarded than by doing academic work. So they were quite reassured and I was right, you know, I, that that is true of my personalities. I was delirious happy for at least a year within two or three years I was experiencing frustrations at that organisation and how things work there.

But never any regrets about not doing university teaching. I like the structure and the social life of an office much better than the structure and social life that I knew in the academic environment that I'd been experiencing.

And on a day-to-day basis, what, what did the job involve and what were you doing?

Running grant schemes for people who were, wanting to go to, to get money to go to China.

Running meetings and minuting those meetings and action and following up upon action points of a China panel, a committee for the British Academy, and then organising incoming visits of Chinese academics who were coming to Britain. So some of them would have rough ideas of what they wanted to do and what research area they were interested in. And I did research on their behalf about who would be relevant academics that they could go and visit and see. And I would organise a visit program for them sometimes that was also for delegations of, of people.

So really all sorts of details from airport pickup to hotel bookings to travel arrangements and recommendations and making contacts with UK academics about areas they could study it. And that was in then all areas of humanities and social science research. It wasn't necessarily connected to China.

And then you decided to move on from that job. What happened?

I had been increasingly frustrated in the job, but hadn't I, I, no, I'd, I think I'd applied for one or two jobs during that time.

One, I'd applied for BBC, Chinese radio service post and then another job at the Great Britain China Centre, which was running projects, small projects funded often by the SEO or Europe. So I had actually applied for a couple of jobs and then another opportunity came up at the Royal Society just next door. So I heard about the opportunity 'cause I knew and worked with colleagues who were in the international department there.

And so it was just another application for a job which would involve Chinese. And this time I, I got it.

Could you tell me about the interview for that job?

Yeah, again, it felt slightly, it felt fairly easy. I knew the two people who interviewed me for the job because I'd been working with them relatively closely as, as colleagues from a, a similar organisation previously. So, so it was almost a, a sort of collegiate jokey atmosphere I'd prepared fairly well for it.

And I had, I knew a lot about what the role entailed, so, so I did have quite a lot to say about what I thought should be done in the job and, and how I saw the role and why I would be good for the role. So it, it felt fairly informal. They went through a series of structured questions and again, my experience really was quite well tailored to this job. I've been doing a very similar job in very similar field, previously.

Did your PhD come up at all in either interview?  

In the first one, the, the main question had been “How are you gonna manage juggling a PhD and this job?” And I said, well, I'll just do it part-time and I'm not necessarily that committed to finishing it anyway. So their main worry had been, also whether I would be happy with doing routine admin work when I was basically interested in research and I'd let them know that my priorities lay more with the office than with the research. But by the time the second job, I'd already finished my PhD.

So it, I don't recall that it featured at all in the interview. They probably will have noted that I had finished it and I made the case in my application that, that being able to juggle doing a PhD alongside a full-time job was one of the examples of how I could multitask and, and do lots of things at once. And that I was genuinely interested in academic endeavour, which is what the Royal Society does. So, so I was still using the fact that I had academic background and academic qualifications as a strong push for getting this job.

And what did this job involve?

Very similar to the British Academy. It's networking scientists, UK scientists, and Chinese scientists. So no grant administration in this role. It was mainly about, higher level relationships, delegations to and from partner academies in China and in Taiwan and organising some networking events. So devising strategy for how the organisation could, could raise its profile with Asian partner countries, not just China, also India, Japan, Korea, and, doing some networking of scientists and events and delegations.

Did it matter, do you think that you had an Arts and Humanities background when you were working with scientists?

Not particularly. As, as my role was manager for Asia in the international policy section. The fact that I knew Asia, political, cultural, that sort of environment was more important. The job advert did say that they hoped for somebody with either some scientific background or an international background and liaison with Asia.

So they were open as well at that point to hiring somebody who might have less knowledge or understanding of Asia, but be more proficient with science. But I argued in my interview quite convincingly, I think that even if I had been a scientist, it would've only been in one field of science by definition.

And as the Royal Society represents all fields of science, it wasn't necessarily the case that that would've really been of any particular advantage. Whereas knowing about Asia when, and having lived in Asia and works interculturally was, was very important if you were gonna network with China because that, that is more difficult country to network in if you don't have any understanding of the culture or the language. So for sure that that had a plus factor in terms of me being selected for the job.

Going back to the first job, how did you manage to juggle the PhD and full-time employment?  

Well, most of the time I just didn't do the PhD. I just neglected it. And otherwise reading in the evening and spending at least one day of a weekend doing some work on the PhD, not taking so many holidays because I, I had to carry on with the PhD, but my general perception of those, that time is that for large periods of time I just neglected the PhD completely and then worked on it intensively in short bursts.

I had holiday I took nine months sabbatical from my job in order to finish. 'cause it had become clear to me that I was never gonna finish unless I would. So I took those nine months and got incredibly depressed. Didn't do very much work on the PhD at all, mostly just sat at home and smoke cigarettes and, and wondered why I was doing this. And it was quite difficult for my husband too because, well, we weren't married yet, but it meant he had to support me and my parents supported me through part of that nine months.

But at least by the end of it, I had nearly finished. So I, I went back to work after my agreed nine months non-paid sabbatical, and I took two, three weeks holiday, went to a friend's house and spent something like 15 hours a day writing and probably wrote about 40,000 words or something like that, about half of the thesis during those three weeks and then handed it in.

So it was all a bit of a rollercoaster.

And then how long did you have to wait between submission and viva?

Not long at all. They, they gave me the viva early or mid-January, so it was very quick after that.

So can you then talk me through what happened post submission in some, in some detail?

Okay. So I, I handed in, I had minor corrections, which were, were doable in just a few months.

Very, very small corrections. And so in terms of career, nothing had changed. I'd got my PhD, but I was still in my full-time post at the Bush Academy. And I wasn't in a particular hurry to move on, although I had started to become a bit frustrated with that job. So I was networking to see what other opportunities there were. And my perception always was that there weren't too many jobs which involved Chinese, but I was open to opportunities with organisations, say like the British Council.

And, and in the end what happened was, my close contacts at the Royal Society, which is the sister academy to the Richard Academy, let me know when there was a job opportunity there for Chinese. And so I, I applied for that.

When did your time as manager for Asia in the international policy section for society come to an end? And how did you move on from that?

Well, in fact, I'm still employed by the Royal Society. I'm on secondment to the research councils UK.

So again, this was an opportunity that came up from within work networks. So like my move from the British Academy to the Royal Society. While at the Royal Society, I knew about the plans of various other stakeholders, government and not government about engaging with China. And I heard that the research councils were going to open an office in China. So I immediately called one of my contacts in one of the research councils and said, “Oh, I've heard about this policy”.

I knew he could speak Chinese and had some experience in Hong Kong. And I said, “Are you going to be applying for the job? Tell me more about it”. And he explained this, the, the scenario and I, and, and that in theory, only one post was gonna be created to go out to China to help set up this office. And I said to him, “Of course you should apply for this job and you need an assistant and that should be me. So I think you ought to tell them that there needs to be two people at least setting up this office just for the initial stage”. And, that worked out.

He, he did do that, he did apply for the job and he was tasked with helping develop the business plan. And he wrote two people in it. And I then interviewed when the post of deputy director was advertised and clearly was, was a very, was very well positioned to do it. They were only interviewing internally, meaning among the research councils or close partner bodies. And probably that's because they knew that there was an interest from close partner bodies 'cause of my interest. So they advertised, I think just, just among the research councils, the British Academy and the Royal Society for a secondment opportunity.

And they got a fair number of applications, but not that many people with the right profile of administration plus an interest in research. So I again, probably quite easily slid into that post. And so I've been doing that. The initial terms of the secondment were for one year. I then extended it for a second year but have become pregnant.

And so we've terminated the secondment early and I'll be, I'll be starting maternity leave now and then going back to the Royal Society when I finish.

Helen’s current role

Can you tell me what your current position is?

I'm currently deputy director of the Research Council's office in Beijing. So, this is a new office that was set up which is representing all seven of the UK research councils in China.

And in some detail, can you tell me what your job actually involves?

The first tasks in the first six months were basically setting up the physical infrastructure of an office.

So we were setting up legal registration, financial systems, hiring staff, renting an office and, and fitting out this office. The main task and the commitment is for five years is to start building up relations between the UK funding agencies, the UK funding councils and the Chinese funding agencies. So we're there to find out how the Chinese funding system works and to explain that to the UK, both individual scientists and the research councils, and then try and work out ways in which the UK research councils can put money together with the Chinese funding agencies to enable joint applications by UK and Chinese scientists and social scientists to do substantial joint research projects.

So until now, really the only opportunities that have been available are small amounts of money for travel and networking. And the need is for larger sums of money to enable larger collaborations and more joint publication and authorship of papers.

'cause as China increasingly becomes a leading scientific nation and makes a large contribution to global research, we know that the UK research community needs help to access that pool of, of talented research.

In a typical day, what might you be doing?

I might have a meeting at the Ministry of Science and Technology in China to discuss a joint call, for example, on a priority area like new and renewables energy.

So we would be discussing the details of the mechanism whereby we might be able to work together on this. And that means trying to understand where they're coming from and what their constraints are. Is it possible for us to have a joint call or will they just badge part this joint call? So I would meet with them. Then I might receive a visit of somebody from a UK university who's passing through, who wants to know what we are doing and what funding opportunities are available and to brief us on their China strategy and get some advice and context.

And then I might email with people in the research councils in the UK about scientific workshops that they're organising or about one of these potentials for a joint call. Or I might be writing a briefing explaining to them how Chinese National Science Foundation funding works and what opportunities I see there for, potential engagement.

So you are based in China and you are working through English and Chinese.


What are the challenges of, living in, in China and living through Chinese?

Well, for people who don't speak Chinese, it's very alienating to go to China and suddenly have to start working there. And people do get culture shock and don't understand how things are working and it's often assumed maliciousness then on the part of people who are not cooperating with you properly or something like that.

In fact, for both me and the director, because I had spent three, four years living in Taiwan before and the director had spent 20 years working in Hong Kong, we both hit the ground running really and have found it very easy to engage. I will usually in the office, the environment is mostly English speaking. We have three local staff and two UK staff. and in terms of reading and writing and web searching for things in Chinese, we will usually delegate that to them 'cause they can do that much more quickly.

But it has meant the fact that we can speak Chinese does mean that when we have meetings with contacts in some of our partner agencies, the relationships we've been established much, much faster because we can speak to each other in their language and apart from the language, just the level of engagement and interest. So when they know that I have a PhD in Chinese literature, then they're, then people will joke, “Oh…”, you know, you, “… you know about this more than we do”. Or, you know, “Your Chinese is better than us” then “'cause we don't know anything about our own literature” or, or something like that.

So, so that has made a real difference, I think, to the impact that our office has had because the challenge for a lot of foreign agencies going to China is that there's now a lot of interest in China and many different countries are approaching the same partners to talk about opportunities for working together. And if there's no personal feelings of warmth and reciprocity, then it's much harder to get institutional connections going on. So it's been quite handy.

Connections between the PhD and work

Do you feel that you are using your PhD research area, and or PhD experience directly or indirectly in your current position?

Not really, no. So I think the main benefit to me of having done the PhD is that it's given me status among other people who do work in academia, and it's given me status, particularly among contacts in China. But in terms of the actual content of the research that I was doing in the PhD, that has been neither here nor there in my career.

It's, it's, it is one topic of conversation when people want to find out what I did. But the actual, the experience of, of having done that research was not that relevant. Teaching experience and public speaking, giving lectures maybe has been useful because I do have to do some public speaking and preparing of PowerPoint in presentations, but that could have been gained by other, other sources than a PhD.

Building a career

Did you do anything during your PhD that you might consider career building?

Yeah. Well, really, right from the start of my PhD, the first year of my PhD, I had a teaching assistantship, a teaching studentship, I think they called it, where I did have some tutorials about how to be a tutor, and I gave four to six hours of tutorials every week and a couple of lectures in that first year.

How did you find that, 'cause that's quite an undertaking for someone who's just beginning their PhD?

Yeah, it was incredibly difficult and I had been assigned some courses where I knew very little about the topic that I was teaching. So for example, I had to do tutorials on East Asian civilization, which included ancient China and ancient Japan, and I knew nothing about Japan, so I did feel very ill-equipped, and I spent most of that first year of my PhD in fact, reading up to prepare for that teaching experience and very little time on my PhD itself.

Did you continue that teaching throughout your PhD?  

No, that was just for that first year. In the second year, I then went away to do my research in Taiwan, and then I picked up an, an office job with the British Council. So I, I moved into doing other things and I, I didn't teach, oh, I, I taught a bit again in year three when I came back to the UK. Then I also did, a few more tutorials and a few lectures.

Where her career is going from here

Where do you see your career going In the future?

I hope that I will continue to work in the public services and in, international relations between Asia and Europe. So that could be in any number of areas. So it could be in European institutions, it could be in universities, or it could be in organisations like the Royal Society that I'm already in. So I imagine that that is where I will stick, but it could be that depending what opportunities are available, when I do want to start going back to work after having taken maternity leave, is that I might go into business or some other area of work, but I think I would rather stay in public services.

So that's just what I'm thinking at the moment. But who knows?

Feelings towards an academic career

Did the teaching put you off the prospective academic career?

Probably yes. Yeah, because I, you know, I liked the students and I didn't mind the format, but I didn't feel particularly competent, partly because I was teaching, you know, doing tutorials in a subject that I didn't know too much about, but I didn't get, I didn't feel like I was really achieving much when I was doing that, that that teaching. And yes, it's quite possible then that that would've been what laid the seeds of me thinking, this is not really what I want to do in terms of rewards and incentives.

I wasn't feeling that rewarded by doing these tutorials. I was feeling more worried and stressed about it.

Balancing her personal life

Has there been any personal trade off in living, in Beijing rather than being based in, in this country?

Yes. I mean, my, my personal life has been quite complicated, because I've been following my desires in terms of work and in terms of finishing my PhD. So at the moment, my husband's also an academic and he is in between a UK university and a university in Italy. And I have been living apart from him in China for the last year.

So by pursuing my career, that has meant us living apart and we both knew this would have to be temporary. And I have given up this job in China now in order to have a baby. So I am having to make compromises career wise in order to sustain a family life. I hope that at some point this means my husband will also make those compromises and he may come to China with me. In future years I would quite like to work in China, but that will depend on, on bargaining between the two of us.

Helen’s advice

If somebody coming towards the end of their PhD wanted to follow a similar kind of career trajectory, what would you suggest were the most important things that they consider what they do?

I think the most important thing is knowing what you like to do and what gives you pleasure, in terms of feeling a reward at the end of the day. And then try, and then trying to find out whether there are organisations in which you can work that do that and then read up on those organisations and network within them.

So I made contacts by being part of the British Association for Chinese Studies, which is an academic network, but involves partners from other agencies. So I'd say networking is the key and it's, if you, if you aren't hoping to pursue an academic career, then you really need to make quite an effort to network outside that. You can do it through academic associations and through going to conferences, but, but it does take that awareness of, of looking and then just web surfing and paying attention to places that do, for example, I mean, my job, my, all of my jobs have been with agencies that do fund academic research in the areas that I'm interested in.

So it's not that far divorced from, from academic life. And I still feel that I am engaging with academia and research and that's what I want to do. I just don't want to actually do the research. I just want to facilitate it.

Jack | Theology | University teaching & ministry.

Jack shares his journey to pursuing a PhD, tracing back to the influences that shaped his educational path. Reflecting on his decision to pursue ministry training and how his PhD journey bolstered this choice, he offers insights into his current role as a vicar and the intricate process of selection and ordination. Drawing from his experiences, Jack vividly recounts the highs and lows of his PhD journey and articulates his motivations behind embarking on this academic pursuit with sincerity and clarity.

Explore Jack’s journey further by clicking the links below:

The background to Jack’s PhD
A brief biography
The reasons behind his PhD
Jack’s PhD experience
Finishing the PhD
Jack’s current role
How his PhD has helped in his current role



Career Pathway

  • BA Hons Theology, Oxford
  • DPhil Theology
  • Ministerial Training, Oxbridge
  • Assistant Curate, Essex
  • Priest Librarian and Archivist
  • Assistant Chaplain and tutor in theology, Oxbridge
  • Chaplain and Fellow
  • Priest in charge
  • Teaching member of the Faculty of Theology



Turning Points

  • Began studying as an undergraduate at Oxbridge
  • Heard sermon which made me decide I wanted to pursue ordination eventually
  • Finished DPhil and began training for the priesthood
  • Ordination, began parish ministry
  • Returned to Oxbridge
  • Married
  • Appointed to a Church in the city



Audio Interview

The background to Jack’s PhD

I came to Oxford from a, what you might think of as quite a non-Oxford background. I came from a school which didn't send people to Oxford or, or was at all used to that idea. And I was, sort of sickeningly captivated by academic life, in rather a sweet sort of way. I mean, I can patronise myself about it, but, I was a sort of, very dedicated student who was very, very interested in what he was doing.

And, and I suppose I saw postgraduate work chiefly as, an opportunity to further that. So it was really something that I was doing that I was interested in. And there was the opportunity to do more of it. I didn't take the decision to do a doctorate as, as it were, a career decision though at that point I was still thinking that, perhaps I'd like to go into the academic life.

And it was during, during my time doing research, there wasn't anything about, about the research that turned me off academic life per se. But I think, I was always clear that, whatever I did was going to be something in the church, and that if I ended up working in a church or an institution that was academically related, then that would be a sort of a bonus as it were.

And in that respect, I suppose doing the doctorate gave me, more options in with hindsight, it gave me more options as to the sort of places where I might work or where I might minister in, in the Church of England specifically. but I didn't, I didn't decide to do it for that reason because I hadn't decided what I was gonna do with my life at that point.

A brief biography

And will you begin by telling me what your, just briefly what your undergraduate degree was in, what you went on to do afterwards and where you're at now, just to sort of encapsulate the whole thing.

Okay. I did an undergraduate degree in Theology in Oxford. And when I started that degree, I had no intention of going into the church. However, during my time as an undergraduate, I started to think more seriously about that possibility. what I was sure about was that I was very interested in theology.

So I decided, that what I really wanted to do at that stage was to do more theology. And I, stayed on in Oxford to do a DPhil, which took me another three years. And during those three years, I, gradually made up my mind that, the church was where I wanted to be. And so, I think during the second of my three years of doing a DPhil, I began seriously the process of putting myself forward for ordination and, what's called selection for ordination in the Church of England.

You'd go offer a conference a bit like being examined for the civil service or something, I suppose. And, by the end of my, by the beginning of my third year of my DPhil, I knew that I had been accepted for training. And that immediately after finishing my doctorate, I would go to theological college or seminary as it's called, to do practical side of my training.

That took another two years. And then when I was ordained, I worked first of all in a parish in Essex. because originally I was from the Diocese of Chelmsford, which covers the part of East London I was from, and also the county of Essex. I came back to Oxford, after, two and a half years and I spent two years there. I then spent a year as assistant chaplain I was appointed chaplain where I was for four years. And I'm now the vicar of a church in the centre of Oxford.

The reasons behind his PhD

So your undergraduate degree was in theology as well?

Yeah, that's right.

And at the point you go into your DPhil in theology


It's with a very open mind about what's going to happen next.

Yeah, I think so. I mean, I think at that point, if you'd asked me, oh, see, I was very young when I started my doctorate because I was still in the old system where you could, I was in the last year, in fact, in Oxford, Oxford, the old system where you could go straight from your bachelor's degree into your doctorate. So the old system of doing three, you know, what we call three and three, a three year undergraduate degree and three more years.

And you had a, a PhD. So I, I finished my DPhil when I was 25, which used to be, of course, reasonably normal in Oxford. and now is very, very rare. and looking back on that time, I realised that, although intellectually I was, I was bright, I was, I wasn't terribly mature. and I don't think, I don't think I had enough information really to make what you might call broadly informed decisions, about anything other than following a particular direction.

You know, the only thing I was sure about was that the direction I had to be following was something to do with the church. and if when I'd started my doctorate when I was 22, 21 or 22, you'd said to me, if you could do anything you want, what would it be?

I think I probably would just have said, I'd like to stay in Oxford for the rest of my life and be a Don. Because I was very starry-eyed about, about the whole of academia, and that sort of thing. And I, and I, I did, you know, quite a lot of teaching when I was a DPhil student and enjoyed that and, and thought that, this is something I would like to do at some point in the future. But that's the, one of the, obvious aspects of, of ministering in the church is that there is a lot of teaching involved in, in any context.

So that was, you know, quite, quite useful.

Jack’s PhD experience

What was your doctoral experience like?

I realise now that it was rather isolated. I, I was very close to my supervisor who was someone who didn't have very many supervisees. and we are still very good friends. But I look back on it as an academic, as an intellectual experience. I think that perhaps it was rather limited and that, he, steered me in particular directions, and didn't perhaps encourage me to explore a broad, as broad a canvas as I should have.

So that when I finished my doctorate, there were still large parts of, of theology that I knew absolutely nothing about. which I now realise that that might, might have informed what I did quite strongly. But that was partly my own immaturity.

See, I was very, I knew nothing about the postgraduate process or about doing a doctorate, and there was very little in Oxford in those days, very little that was structured to, to help you. There was none of what we now have, where we have lots of events for graduate students, lots of emphasis on teaching them various skills that you need to undertake research. We have compulsory seminars that we didn't have any of that.

You know, there was a small community of postgraduates working roughly in my area, and we used to meet for a seminar and we all knew each other. But it wasn't very serious. We, we, we sat around pooling our ignorance really more than anything else.

Finishing the PhD

Did you ever access any careers type services?

No, I don't think so. I applied for one junior research fellowship during the time, which was actually a junior research fellowship based at my own college, which was a pastoral, sort of like a Junior Dean, like, like a sort of welfare Junior Welfare Dean, JRF post combined, which new college, they still, they still have that system.

And I applied for that just because it was sort of, it seemed obvious thing to do. 'Cause they'd often had people from their own college. I mean, I'm not at all surprised I didn't get it. and looking back on it, I think I would've done it disastrously 'cause I was so young. But, otherwise I didn't apply for anything or really pursue anything at all except the Church of England, which is its own, rather idiosyncratic process, which involves making contact with somebody whose job it is to, to discern vocations and meeting with them several times, talking about what sort of experiences one has had and what one experiences one needs to have, perhaps, especially if one's young, inexperienced.

And, and eventually, as I say, being, being sent off to a, a selection conference, which takes place residentially in your together with a group of people for three days and you do various exercises and interviews and things like that.

And then you get, a recommendation for training or not. At any part of that process, did you doubt that that was the way you wanted to go? I don't think I doubted it was the way I wanted to go at that point. I doubted it afterwards lots of times. I never doubted that it was what I had to do, but I, some, I often doubted whether or not it was what I wanted to do.

I think, that when I started the process, I was very excited by it all and the idea of the church excited me and in terms of my own, you know, to, to be frightfully theological for a moment in terms of my own vocation and spiritual life, I think that enthusiasm was part of what was steering me towards ordination.

Firing me up for it, if you like. So that, the most important thing for me was a sense that this was absolutely the right thing for me to be doing. Now with hindsight, I realised I didn't, it wasn't the right thing to be doing over against lots of other things. I didn't weigh up lots of other options. This just felt like, a clear and obvious path that I was definitely meant to be, be following. And I obviously, I still, still firmly believe that now that that was the case and it is the case.

But, that childlike excitement about it is something one, one grows out of. But, but one realizes the importance of it in, in actually, you know, galvanising oneself and, and moving forward on what can be a, a difficult process for people because of the uncertainty of, of what's going to happen.

You know, looking back at it, I didn't think in those terms at all. I didn't think what will happen if I don't get selected? What will I do? I mean, I must have given it some thought. I think I must have, I suppose I thought about school teaching or something like that, but I have very, very little recollection of spending very much time thinking about alternatives. Just somehow or other I was sure that this was meant to be.

And, and it was, and was that, you know, that might sound sort of fine because that's the way it happened because there are lots of people in that position for whom it doesn't work out. And I think if I'd known more about the process, more about and more about the church at the time, I probably would've been more worried about it and more concerned with other options and, and covering bases and things like that.

You said that when you started the doctorate, your primary concern or interest was in staying in Oxford, possibly as a Don, and so at some point during your doctoral experience, the church loomed larger than it did at the beginning, but at the same time you didn't need a doctorate in order to pursue the career you’re in.

No, sure. I mean, when I started the doctorate, I hadn't definitely decided on the career. I had definitely decided that, theology was the right thing for me. And maybe the ordained ministry was, I saw the two very much as going together.

But at the initial stage, I was clearer about the interest in academic theology than I was, that it was definitely right for me to go into the ordained ministry. and I suppose my, my sort of fascination with Oxford and being an adult and that sort of thing never entirely went away because in my time there was still the case that a lot of, you know, most Dons in theology were ordained. So I thought, well, if I want to be a theology Don, then being ordained is actually gonna be a help, not a hindrance because it would open up, you know, job possibilities and things like that.

Can we talk a bit now about the process for selection?


And maybe we could make some comparisons between what it was like for you when you went through it and how it might be now?

Mm-Hmm. When I went through, there was a particular system in the Church of England is supposed to be that you are selected for training, not for ordination. That's to say when you are selected, there's no guarantee that you will be ordained, but there's a guarantee that the church thinks you're worth training. Now, the reality is that because it costs the Church of England a lot of money to train you, once they decide you're gonna train, you have to do something pretty drastic not to be ordained, you know, you have commit adultery or something like that.

The, the period that I went through was interesting because there had, over the previous few years, been quite a reaction against people coming straight from college. There'd been a, a general sense in the C of E that “What do these young whipper snappers know? They better go and learn something about life”.

So, they started turning down lots of people in there, early twenties, telling them to come back a few years later. And of course what happened is that very few of them came back. They all went off and, and got nice jobs and thought, well, “Why the heck do I want to go into the church?” And the church started realising that if it didn't have any young ordinances, that it wasn't getting enough work out of people before it had to start paying their pensions. And it couldn't afford to do that. So I was really at the beginning of the time when they'd started saying, no, we are not actually obsessed with sending you off to out Mongolia.

There'll be plenty of chance for you to get lots of experience while you're training. But nevertheless, the fact that I was 25, not 22 or 24, I was in fact, helped if I'd come straight from undergraduate, of course I don't think I would've been selected straight away. And it was undoubtedly a matter of playing down the academic stuff to a certain extent and playing up practical and pastoral stuff that I did.

And very simple example was there used to be still is in Oxford a, a student run organization called JACARI. JACARI stands for Joint Action Committee Against Racial Intolerance. which sounds terribly dramatic, but what it actually existed for was, was for students to teach English to British kids whose home language wasn't English. So, particularly JACARI works with the, Muslim community in East Oxford.

And I used to go out to East Oxford once a week on the bus and teach, a, a little boy's name was Shabaz who was struggling with the schoolwork. Now, as it happened, there was absolutely nothing wrong with Shabaz’s English. He just was struggled with schoolwork, you know, but it was a, it was a nice thing to do and I enjoyed it. And we had fun, and being rather cynical, I have to say that that sort of thing really wowed the, the selectors in the Church of England.

You know, they thought, “Goodness me, is this terribly, terribly bright prize winning theologian who, who instead of spending all his time at the library, he goes off and teaches a Pakistani boy English. How, how wonderful must he be?” You know? And actually because my background, you know, I grew up in, in both western eastern London, where most of my best friends were British Asians. And it was, that experience for me was perfectly normal.

But because I was coming from Oxford and from doctoral work, that seemed very striking because their idea of, of a researcher an academic didn't fit with, with that more sort of, how should we say it, sort of grounded or, or, or socially involved type of person. I don't know about your background. I, I lived until I was 12 in the London Borough of Ealing. Now in the 1970s in the London Borough of Ealing, it was a very interesting time. London borough of Ealing includes, the area called Southall. And when I was at school in the seventies, Ealing borough Council had what they thought was the frightfully enlightened policy of having a representative number of British Asians in all their schools. Well, this meant that, that, at eight o'clock every morning, a fleet of coaches went into Southall and bused all these kids out around the borough. And you didn't have to be terribly bright to notice that, that we, we called them “the children who came on the coach”.

You didn't have to be terribly bright to notice that they were all Asian. No, it didn't bother us. We all, you know, we all got on perfectly well. But, looking back on it, it was a strange, strange thing to be part of. when I was 12, we moved over to the other side of London and, a place called Wanstead, which is quite near another quite large, Asian community, more of a Sikh community in Ilford for some reason, I don't know, the demographic. And also a large Jewish community in Gants Hill.

So what you might call multiculturalism has always been being a big part of my life. And one of the things that's always struck me about Oxford, as being strange is how terribly un-multicultural it's, and in particular, how terribly white it is. And whenever friends of mine would come and visit, or my parents, you know, after a while, a couple of hours of walking around or something, they would, people would often say, it's very striking how white everybody is. Because when you've grown up in London and, and you're used to what you might call a racial mix, it's a shock.

Now in that respect, the selection process, the Church of England represents, although it claimed to represent reality, it was actually representing the white establishment because that's what the Church of England was like. And that's why something as simple as helping out with the JACARI seemed to them to be so spectacular. Whereas to me it just seemed like a very basic thing to be doing, to give a little bit of your time to, you know, to help somebody else.

And I actually quite enjoyed doing it. So there was that sort of hoop jumping element of selection that as an academic, well I was quite cynical about. but it wasn't unnatural. And I wasn't doing, I wasn't doing JACARI so that I could get ordained. I was doing JACARI 'cause I wanted to do JACARI.

If you could, give me a little bit of a chronology for finishing the DPhil and then your career progression to the current.  

Okay. So I finished my, my DPhiI and I went straight to theological college. In fact, I handed my DPhiI in at the university offices as the very last thing I did before I drove out of Oxford in my car, not to return as it were. and I started theological course three days later in Cambridge.

Whilst I was in Cambridge, I did a lot of different sorts of practical work, partly practical experience in a parish in Cambridge. Also, I worked for three months in on an estate, in inner city Salford worked in a school there in a church, and that was a very formative experience. And then a few months later, I spent three months working at a church in the middle of Manhattan in New York City. And that was also a very formative thing. So it was the practical stuff I did after my doctorate that was most directly formative of me when I was starting my parish ministry.

And then, after being ordained in I worked for two and a half years in, a church in Essex and learned a tremendous amount and grew up, I think at that point, or at least began to grow up. It was a, an ordinary sort of residential commuter town.

Not terribly well healed, not, not, not terribly needy either a good sort of mix of a place. I came back to Oxford largely because I wanted to get married and, and, my wife was, planning to do a doctorate. So I wanted to work somewhere. We really wanted to work in either Oxford or Cambridge, 'cause that's where she wanted to be. and, after two years working in a church institution in, in Oxford, I then went on to work at a college in a, an assistant, chaplaincy position in, in, an academic community.

And then moved on from there to another similar institution, where I was for four years before I became vicar of this parish, which is, one of many parishes in, in the centre of Oxford.

Jack’s current role

Can you tell me now a bit more about what life is like now? What's, what is your, what is your day Like?

Right. Well, I have two jobs in that. I'm the vicar of a parish and I also teach theology in the university, but, I spend much more time being a parish priest than I do teaching. and that is divided up into, four obvious, areas, the most basic of which is a prayer of worship.

So I'm in church three times a day, on every working day, as a routine in the morning and in the evening and for a Eucharist each day. And, obviously parish work involves a certain amount of, of admin and that sort of thing. That's another area. It involves, an important sort of teaching and study ministry, particularly for preaching.

So, I spend a certain amount of time on that and I spend a lot of time on what might generally call pastoral contact, which either means people coming to see me or me visiting hospitals, hospices, housebound, and lots of student contact as well. When you're the vicar of, of what you might call an ordinary residential parish, you tend to walk, wander around and knock on people's doors when your congregation is made up of a university or something like that.

In a city, in the centre of a city where very few people live, it's rather a different dynamic, but you are roughly speaking, doing the same thing. So instead of knocking on people's doors, I meet them for coffee or something like that. But it's, it, it's still, a lot of one-to-one work, a lot of listening, and, a lot of, encouraging and nurturing people who are new to, new to my particular church, but usually new to, to Christianity generally, or at least new to it again, having, a lot, a lot of people have a certain church background, which then for some reason stops and they, and they take it up again, at student level or later.

There's a certain amount of what people, thinkers spend all their time doing, which is things like baptisms, weddings or funerals.

Actually being a city centre parish, we have much less of that because we don't have what you would call an ordinary residential community. So when I was in Essex, I did much more of that. I did a funeral a week, I suppose, and here, I probably do three or few, three or four funerals a year. So the day is, is divided into all those different activities and the, the worship side of it is what punctuates it.

So it doesn't always begin and end in church because I often have to work in the evening at meetings or something like that. But it's the boundary, if you like the air, the space in which it works is bounded by, by liturgy and worship and, and, and prayer, which is essential.

What things do you enjoy most and least about your job?  

What I enjoy most about my job is, getting to know people, particularly young people, and, encouraging people who are new to the Christian faith. and talking to people who have lots of questions and issues, and who are genuinely challenged by, their issues they face in their own lives, issue issues they face in the world around them, and what they perceive to be the teaching of the Christian Church.

Sometimes they have a wrong perception of it, but, but it's something which engages them. The other thing, the other thing I particularly enjoy funnily enough is, funerals of members of my own congregation. I have a lot of people, who are very longstanding and very holy Christians, and ministering to them when they're dying is a tremendous privilege and ministering to their families and sitting, something as simple as sitting by the bedside and praying with people who are dying.

But also the actual funeral itself and the celebration of, the Christian faith and, and a belief in resurrection is something that's very powerful. So that's two things I've asked for. What do I enjoy most? What I enjoy least is being, asked by drug addicts for money, which is a particular issue for clergy who work in the city centre.

Not because I have difficulty not giving money to people who, who shouldn't have cash, but just because the blight of addiction is so very, very obvious in the centre of a city like Oxford. And it's a tragedy with which one is constantly confronted and in the face of which one feels rather powerless. Not that there aren't things going on and things with which the churches are involved and, and all that sort of thing, but when it confronts you as a, as a one-to-one thing with an individual, it's a, it's an unfailingly depressing experience.

How his PhD has helped in his current role

It encouraged me to think in, very sharp, intellectually aggressive rather, rather immature sort of ways of thinking. You know what, as a tutor, I would describe as very male ways of thinking. And, you know, looking back on it now, I realise that what it was, a very famous theologian, in fact once said this to me when I was describing why I wasn't really interested in the work I'd done as a doctoral student anymore, he said, was because it was primarily about winning arguments.

And that was right. That really was what my doctorate was doing. I was dealing with a lot of quite well-known people in the field and just sort of, you know, dismissing them with a wave of my 24-year-old hand. And whilst I don't, I don't necessarily think I was wrong intellectually, I still think probably the, the things I argued were correct. I'm not sure how constructive it was as a piece of work.

And one of the reasons I've never really been interested in trying to get it published or, or anything like that, 'cause I look at it now and think, you know, oh dear this, not that I'm embarrassed, not that I'm embarrassed that I wrote this, but this is very much something which is written to pass a doctoral examination, not something which makes a significant contribution to theological scholarship. I know the two are supposed to be the same thing, but let's face it, they often aren't. It did, it carried on from my undergraduate work in, in that it, the skills I had as an undergraduate developed.

So being able to deal with, dents and complex text in particular, and being able to, elucidate difficult ideas. And it, it did encourage me to make connections across a variety of fields.

My doctoral work was, in a sense was a bit impressionistic in that I drew on a lot of different periods of Christian theology and a lot of different types. So I, you know, I spent a lot of time discussing the interpretation of the Bible and I spent an awful lot of time discussing the philosophy of Wittgenstein.

And those things don't really very obviously connect, but when you think about them a lot, then you make connections. And, and that was, interesting. But I think the more time I spent with, classic text in particular, the more it encouraged me to be suspicious of almost any, secondary material whatsoever.

And actually that's in, in terms of my own, subsequent interest in theology and academia, that's had quite a negative effect on me. 'cause it means I'm, I'm not at all interested in, in writing theology, generally speaking. 'cause I just think, well, all the other theology I read is rubbish. Why, why is anything I'm going to write going to be any, any better? And that, I think that goes back directly to that sort of, you know, what I call the sort of immature, aggressive style of winning arguments.

I don't think there's anything particular about doctoral work in Oxford that makes that inevitable. I think it's just that that was my experience and it relates to the fact that, that I, I was young when I did my doctorate, young in years and young in breadth.

It is interesting that you did a research degree and, and that some extent has put you off research

Yeah, I mean, funnily enough, the, you know, what little genuine research I have done since coming back to Oxford has been in a completely different area and has been much more like what people think of when they think of research. I, it's been spent trawling through archives and reading letters of Victorian clergy and reconstructing, you know, meetings of obscure church organisations that took place in Oxford in the 1860s and that sort of thing.

And, and that I found, I still find, very engaging. It, it's more like it appeals to my, it appeals to part of me that likes reading detective novels. It's, it's a sort of reconstructive thing, but it's something very different from the theology in which I'm really trained, which is about, formulating, dealing with and formulating very complex philosophical and theological ideas and try to express them clearly and usefully.

So in that respect, the doctorate has helped me much more as a teacher, than it has as a researcher, which is ironic, perhaps because a lot of people are, you know, are very good researchers who aren't perhaps terribly good teachers.

Lois | Archeology | University Teaching.

Lois shares insights on maximising opportunities, delving into the journey behind her PhD and candidly discussing the merits and challenges of her current role. Providing a glimpse into the world of academia, and why she loves it. Lois reflects on her initial expectations for her PhD’s trajectory and navigates the transitional phase post-PhD, shedding light on its significance to her. She elaborates on her unique networking strategy within her field, recounting her experiences in the realms of PhD and teaching along with her viva experience.

Explore Lois’s journey further by clicking the links below:

The Background to Lois’s PhD
Lois’s Expectations
Anticipating an academic career?
The meaning of the PhD
The PhD experience
Networking strategy
Finishing a PhD
The viva experience
Moving into teaching
Lois’s current role
Advice for those doing a PhD



Career Pathway

  • Appointed Lecturer
  • Completed PhD
  • Director of short course programme
  • School Director of Learning and Teaching
  • Faculty Director of Learning and Teaching



Turning Points

  • Deciding to study archaeology at University. When I started I intended to study History
  • Deciding to move to the UK to continue my studies
  • Deciding to do a PhD
  • Taking the post in Continuing Education



Audio Interview

The Background to Lois’s PhD

When you were thinking about doing a PhD, well, first of all, when was it, you know, where had you been, what you been doing? What kind of age were you?

Okay. Well, I went pretty much straight through. I did a degree, I did a master's, I did a PhD, and I did not take any time out. In fact, I went straight from school to doing a degree. So I did not even have a gap here. In retrospect, that might have been a mistake, you know, I think maybe I could have done with seeing a bit of life in the world and that sort of thing. But still, that is the way it happened. And, you know, I, I do not think it has been very disadvantageous to me. So I did a degree in Archaeology and Geography. It was a joint degree. I did my degree in Ireland actually, where joint degrees are much more common. And then I, I kind of did not really know very much what I wanted to do, but I liked maps. I decided I liked maps, so I went and did a master's, in, at, in, it was called Top Graphic Science, but it was basically digital mapping. And then I found I really missed Archaeology.

So I thought, well, I would really like to go back to doing Archaeology, either working in Archaeology, but using some of the skills, some of the, the mapping, the digital cartography kind of skills that I had learned, but using them in Archaeology. Because those, the, those two disciplines sit alongside each other quite nicely. And then I also thought, well, you know, maybe I, I would quite like to do a PhD and just very fortuitously, a there was a studentship available that happened to combine, combine, the period in Archaeology that I was very interested in and that the need for digital mapping skills for using geographic information systems.

Because, I did my degree in Ireland, but then I moved to Britain to do my Master's. And getting funding to do my PhD was going to be quite difficult because any of the normal funding channels would not have funded me because I was not a UK resident formally, although I was living here. But I did not meet the residency requirements. But this, this studentship that was being advertised at the time, was separately funded. It was funded by, historic Scotland. And I was eligible for that. So it was just real coincidence, that it was actually something I was interested in. It combined my, my two sets of skills, if you like, and I was eligible for the funding. So I think I thought, well, this is too good an opportunity to miss, you know, it seems to be just made for me. So I applied for that and, and got that and, did the PhD.

Lois’s Expectations

Did you have any idea about where the PhD was going or Why you were doing it?

Absolutely not. No. I was doing it because, I enjoyed Archaeology, I enjoyed mapping and I wanted to do some more of it. I had the vague idea in my head that it might lead to something in heritage management, that kind of area, but I had not investigated it. and even significant way through my PhD, I had not investigated it, which looking back now was madness. Really. I do not know what I was doing, not planning my career anyway. I think I was just absorbed in what I was doing at the time.

You were absorbed in what you were doing?

Yes. Yes.

In retrospect you say you were mad for not thinking about, do you think that that is important at that, at that stage in life to be thinking about where things are going?

I do think it is important, because I think there are additional things that you probably could be doing while you are doing your PhD or as part of your PhD that would put you in a better position for going on to follow whatever direction you wanted to, to follow. I mean, if I had thought that I was going to go in the direction that I have gone in, I would have, found more opportunities to do teaching, to build up my teaching experience because I had very little teaching experience when I came to this position.

And, I, it would have been useful to have it. I think I, I, it would have been easier for me if I had had it, because it was pretty nerve wracking coming into, this job to teach a, a new group of students, a new group of mature students as well. So I was the youngest person in the class teaching them. and I now know that very many mature students in your first class, they are able to test the lecturer to see whether the lecture is any good, to see whether they know their stuff. I mean, it, it all went very well as it happened, but you know, they, they, they want to know that they are getting their money is worth, from you as a lecturer. And I think if I had had a bit more teaching experience, it probably would have made it less nerve wracking, I think.

Anticipating an academic career?

At the beginning of your PhD, did you envisage an academic career at the end once you got started?

No, I did not. I did not. I thought, right, well, I am just doing this. I am just staying on at University for another while doing a PhD, and then I will go get myself a proper job, a proper job in the real world. So no, I did not envisage the staying on. My father is actually an academic, and so I was quite familiar with that in a certain way. And I actually for many years had said now that I was not going to do that, I was not going to be like him. But I think the lure was too great. Because there are so many attractions to, to working in academia.

I was talking to my husband about this last night. He is also an academic. But yeah, there are, there is a lot of freedom, freedom in all kinds of ways. Flexibility in terms of, you know, you do not have to clock on and clock off and, you know, you are, you get to choose to a large extent what you teach, you get to, there is just so much choice that you do not get in in other, jobs. I think, not that I know very much about other jobs, but, you can, you can choose your area of research. Of course, it depends on how your institution is run and how your local park within it is run. But, you know, you can sometimes get to choose the balance of what you do. Do you really focus on research or do you focus on teaching? Do you balance it 50 50? Is it 70 30? You know, so in that sense, you can, play to your strengths.

If you are a really good teacher and you want to do a lot of teaching, then in, in some institutions, there are the opportunities to do that. Although research is still very highly prized. But more and more teaching is becoming, more important in what we do. But if you are more of a researcher, then there is lots of scope to go out there. Research projects, you know, you are really in charge of building your career, and taking those opportunities when they arise. Whereas, the impression I get is in many other jobs. You know, it depends on you being put forward for promotion and, maybe the opportunities are not so much in your own hands to develop.

When you look back now at how your life has fitted together, does it surprise you? Is there, if you, if the person that you were 18, was to look forward to where you are now, would it be surprising?

I would be astounded actually. I have no idea that I would have ended up doing something like this, enjoying something like this. And I, I like to think being quite successful at it, I, I would just have had no idea. I have, I have never really had a sort of career direction, you know, I mean, everybody I think at school thinks at one point in time they want to be a teacher down. They, and I mean that, that is about as far as it went. I have had interests in things like I was interested in maps, I was interested in geography, interested in history, interested in archaeology, and I have just pursued those interests. And then I think opportunities have arisen as I have been pursuing those. And I have, I think I have usually taken up opportunities and when they seemed right, I have usually taken them. Which has then kind of led me further down the path or on a slightly different path.

So I think that is kind of how I have got where I am today. But I would never have envisaged it really. I would, I would not have envisaged that I would be an academic. I certainly would not have envisaged that I would be in this lifelong learning sector. But I am really glad that I am because I really enjoy my job. I have this constant conflict in my mind. Should I, should I work part-time because the children, or should I work full-time and I keep coming back to, no, I like my job, I am going to work full time.

The meaning of the PhD

When you look back at the PhD now, do you think that you see it differently than you saw it at the time or near the end?

The PhD experience or?


I don't know, occasionally I, I have colleagues that haven't got PhDs because the nature of lifelong learning, not everybody will have a PhD before they become a lecturer in lifelong learning. And they very often say, oh, I'm thinking about doing a PhD. And I always say to them, well, you know, think very carefully about it. you know, obviously I have one and I'm glad I have one. but it is a huge, huge commitment. And, I say to them, I am not sure that it actually will help you in your job that you currently have because you are already doing this job.

So I am not sure that you need to do it in terms of developing the skills to do this job. There may be other reasons that you want to do it, which is absolutely fine. But you know, it, it's, it's a big project. It's a big thing to take on, especially if you're thinking about doing it part-time, which my many of my colleagues would be considering doing. It is, it's a big chunk of your life and, do you really want to take that on?

So in that sense, what does your PhD mean to you?

It says in many, anyways, it's a badge of honour. I have been through that, I have done that experience and survived because I think it was very hard actually doing a PhD. And it is one of the hardest things I have ever done, I think. so, you know, it's a symbol that I have, I have, I have, I could do that. I have done it, I have survived. And I think it, it built, it built my confidence actually. It really did build my confidence. Because I was not a very confident, student, undergraduate student. I was not the kind of student who would ask questions or, you know, I very much kept myself and my friends. But doing the PhD did really build my confidence. I think that is one of the big things, actually. I had not thought about that until now, but it did do that.

So did you feel differently as you were going through the PhD or was it once you had been through your viva and I mean, was there something about your sense of identity that was changing through the thing?

Yes, I think so. I mean, I think I was probably still quite timid and not very confident as a person, but also in my academic abilities at the beginning of it. And then that, that did develop and towards the end of it I was much more confident. so yeah, it did develop, but then after the viva it, it then sort of leapt ahead.
It, it was quite different than looking back on it.

How did you feel that in different contexts, people responded to you as someone who was a PhD student? So for example, at home or amongst, non-academic friends?

I think it was a bit of a mystery really. because I suppose there are not that many people in the world that are PhD students, other, so I think they just hear the word student and assume that you are a student and that you go to classes and you take exams. So I do not think they really had much of a, a concept really. I think most of my friends that, you know, that I would, I would meet on a regular basis in the place where I lived. they were all either PhD students or, master's students. so they, they would have a good idea of what it was about. Friends say like school friends or something, you know, when I would go back home to my parents at Christmas or something, they, they would have no concept of what it is about. They, they would ask me a bit about it, and what was I going to do in the future? And I think usually I would say I do not, I do not know really.

Did it bother you that you did not know?

I do not remember it bothering me. I do not, I really do not. And, and I, I find that incredible that it did not bother me. I don’t know what I thought I was going to do, but, I don’t know. I suppose I, if I was desperate, I probably could have gone back and lived with my parents while I thought about it. I suppose there was always that, that security there, but, I, I have no memory of it bothering me at all. I do remember worrying about money, but that was during, during, during my PhD when, you know, coming towards the end of the term and there was no money left, you know, and having to get overdrafts. And I do remember being very worried about that, but not about what I was going to do when I finished.

And was there any pressure externally from anywhere about what you should be doing?

No. No.

Because your father is an academic?

Yeah, no, he did not, he did not pressure me at all. No, no. My partner at the time pressured me quite a lot. Because he, he thought I should be doing a proper job, real job. so, and yeah, so he, he did not understand actually that, that's an interesting case in point actually. He, he did not understand. I, I am now no longer with him, but, he did not understand my reasons for doing it. and he, I think he begrudgingly accepted that I was doing it, but that I was just going to do it for three years and then I was going to get a proper job in the real world. And I think when I actually then got a job in university, he just could not cope with that. He did not, he, he had, he had no respect for what I was doing actually, I, I now realise, so that, that was a bit of pressure that, that, that did make me quite unhappy for a while. But, but well over that now.

Did it affect any of the decisions you were making at the time or, or your sense of self or purpose?

I think if he had been more supportive it would have been much more comfortable. and, I probably could have been a bit more productive in my work so it would have been nice if he had it been much more supportive and I, I don’t know what really what that would have led to. But, he was not, and, but I do not think it, it really affected any of the decisions that I made because I knew that that is what I wanted to do. I wanted to complete the PhD and, and that was it really, in a way, I suppose I recognized that that was kind of more important than, than he was if he was taking that, that view.

The PhD experience

Can you tell me a bit about your experiences of doing a PhD?

Yes. I think I was lucky, to be doing a PhD related to a wider project, where there was at least one, I think, well, no, possibly two, actually, two other, PhD students that were doing their PhDs related to this project. So, you know, we, we very much had each other to talk to about how things were going, which I think is quite unusual for an arts and humanities where you're normally fairly isolated, apart from your supervisor maybe, certainly in terms of the, the content of your, PhD.

So that was, that was very useful to me. I think at various points in your PhD, I think everybody struggles. Sometimes at some stages it goes brilliantly. You get good results, you find something really interesting and you reading it all fits together. But at other points it is a, it is a real struggle. And I think many people go through that, oh, I cannot do this, period.

And I, I definitely went through that. I made the decision I was not going to do it, I was going to stop, but my friends, my supervisor, these other students talked me around, and said, you know, just carry on for a while more. And that was the right thing to have done to carry on. So it was useful having that support, and it was challenging at times, very challenging at times, I think.

I think PhDs are difficult things to do and I think PhDs test your perseverance and your stamina, as well as your academic ability. And this, I do not think there is anything else like doing a PhD. I think it is a pretty unique experience, certainly this sort of arts and humanities type of approach, where you are a lone researcher doing a project for three years, which is now you realize after doing it, you realize that that is quite a luxury to have had that length of time to do it full time, but you know, I certainly developed the stamina, I think through doing it. And, and the research skills, obviously just the, the, the basic research skills, which, I now realise that I had not very well developed those before I did my PhD. I had a lot of learning about, sources and how to track things down and, and that sort of thing.

And of course when the, the web was just taking off, so we did not really have the, the whole internet sources, to and, and e sources, you know, EURs and things like that. We did not have those and gosh, I wish we did have them at the time. It is great to be able to sit at your desk at home or in your office and to be able to access journals, but yeah, I mean, I, as said, I found parts of it challenging, parts of it, very enjoyable, just being able to immerse yourself in the, in the research, sit in the library day after day, reading things, discovering new things.

What was life like outside of the thesis writing?

It is, I do not think there was much life outside it. I think it was pretty all absorbing really.

Did you do any extracurricular stuff?  

I did. Well, I did things that were not involved with my PhD, but were involved with archaeology, but that was really all in, in support of the, the PhD. I did not do that much extracurricular things. I think it is really difficult as a PhD student coming into a new institution to, to find out about all those things. You know, as an undergraduate or even a, a taught postgraduate, you are with a group of people and you are all new all at the same time, so you are all discovering things and you share that.

I think, you know, you go and you queue up to register for something or other and you talk to people in the queue and you discover what kind of clubs they are joining and they are going along to, and, and you think, oh, maybe I will go along too, you know, 'cause I will know that person. And, so I think that is, much easier. You know, I have, I have been to three institutions as a student now, and I definitely found it much easier to get into those things as an undergraduate and a taught postgraduate.

And I did not do that. at the institution where I did my PhD, I did not get involved in clubs and societies and, other activities in, in the university. and again, maybe it was something I should have done, but I, I did not.

What was your relationship with your supervisor like?  

Do you want the honest answers to that? At the time I thought it was very difficult. Looking back now, it probably was not that bad. I probably did not have any appreciation of the pressures on him being a lecturer in a department, having to teach courses and to do research, having to do all those things now that are pressurising me.

And maybe I expected more from him than, than he was actually really in a position to give. On the other hand, you know, he did, he was quite good at, getting me to talk about what my plans were. So he was quite an active supervisor in that respect and what my plans were, what I was working on, when I was going to produce material, whether that was chapters

Networking strategy

You are talking about PhD life as the way you described it sounded fairly isolated and very self-directed.


So I am wondering if you found strategies to deal with that sort of, isolated existence.

It was sort of academically isolating and I think I dealt with that through, building up a network of other PhD students. So they, they kind of, you know, we all understood what we were going through, and all supported each other. I mean, I did go to conferences, not, not a huge number. I do not remember going to a huge number. But I did go to conferences and that was very useful to meet people, that I have continued to come across, later in life. So conference opportunities were very important, but, the whole, as I said, the whole web and email thing is he was just, just taking off at that time. And I think probably now it might be easier to make those connections with electronic discussions and things like that mailing list and that sort of thing.

Finishing a PhD

When I was coming towards the end of my PhD funding, which is always the crunch point, and the PhD was not finished as it rarely is, I think. So then I had to work out, okay, well how am I going to fund myself until I have, finished it? And my supervisor and the other staff in the department were very helpful. And it was actually, them that identified the opportunity for me because I had, I had the computing skills and I had the Archaeology skills and they, the, the lifelong learning centre at that at my institution was currently looking, coincidentally for two people, one for computing and one for Archaeology.

So again, it seemed like too good an opportunity to, to pass up because I had those two skill sets. So I was interviewed for the job and got it, but I was probably more focused on, you know, I need funding, I need an income rather than, am I really, able to do this job, but as it turns out, I, I was very able to do it and I, and I very much enjoyed it right from the beginning. Although the first year was, was a struggle because I was doing new teaching. It was a new job, but I was also trying to finish my, PhD at the same time. It was a blur between the transitions of getting a job and finishing a PhD. Yeah, I suppose the transition was actually that final year of the fourth year of my PhD.

And I probably did not do that much work on my PhD for about the first six months probably of getting the job. So, you know, I would have started in September or something. I probably did not really return doing much on the PhD until about the Easter because there was just so much with the job getting my head around it, preparing, teaching, you know, that was, that was a full-time job. So yeah, the, if you like, that was, that was the job.

And then I kind of came back to doing the PhD in the summer term and over the summer vacation. And that was pretty intensive then to, to get it finished. But as for the transition between being a PhD student and then becoming a working academic, yeah, that was sort of very spread out really, because I have stayed in the same institution as where I did my PhD. it is, it, that, that year was quite interesting because I was having to deal with people in the department where I was a student.

But I was a member of staff in another department. and that was, that was quite interesting because they still regarded me as being their student, but actually I was taking on a very different role and I was sort of being an ambassador for, for the department I was working for actually, and having to make that professional Link with that department for my students who were also studying that discipline.

So that was, quite interesting. And it is still quite interesting actually, and I think I have been doing this job for 10 years, I think now, and it is still quite interesting because the people in that department, I sometimes feel that they still treat me a bit as, as a student, and I, that is probably just me feeling that, which, which is, is negative, but also quite positive because they, they are quite interested in what I am doing because I am an ex-student from that department. So they are quite interested in, in, what is going on here in relation to that discipline.

The viva experience

How did you feel about the viva?

The viva? The viva was fine. I had a very friendly internal examiner, which was nice, that I knew from my department, which was nice because I felt supported by him going into it. So that was good. So that was only the external to worry about. And so I obviously, I was very worried about it beforehand. I was very, very nervous about it. but it was, it was fine.

And it, I was told at the beginning of the viva that they were going to pass it, so that was fine. So that, that, that made things much easier. Because I could, I could talk without worrying was like putting my foot in it. and actually I found it very rewarding then it was really nice to get the opportunity to talk to somebody new, who wasn't my supervisor, who had different ideas to my supervisor about the project in detail and in depth, you know, because it was whatever, two hours or something I think it was.

And, I do not think you get that opportunity very often with your PhD. You are living and breathing it and sick of it probably by that stage. and your pH your supervisor is very familiar with it and probably already has set ideas about it. So it is really nice to have that opportunity to talk to somebody in detail and, and afresh about it. You get that a bit at conferences, I suppose, but you do not usually get the opportunity to talk in, in depth. And certainly the people that you are talking about have not read your material in as much depth and do not therefore understand it as much.

So I think, I think the viva was very rewarding actually in that sense. and I think, I think I have, I have spoken to other people who have had PhD vivas that were really short and it, sometimes people say, oh, that is great, really short, you do not have to go through it for hours. But actually they felt a bit short-changed because, and I think it was because they did not have the opportunity to talk in, in detail about it.

So I think, I think the vibe is very important, end to the PhD and if you, and if you have a good vibe, we get that opportunity to, to really talk to somebody even if they do not agree with you. I think it is very important finishing of it.

Moving into teaching

Can you tell me a bit more about your teaching experience and why you didn't take up opportunities or do more teaching and how you felt about teaching when you were doing your PhD?

At the beginning of my PhD, I was not very keen on doing any teaching. I just wanted to get on with my project, and I was very worried about it actually. Probably, my only experience of doing any teaching was doing student presentations, and I think I only ever did one of them in my life, and it was awful.

I look back on it now, and it was so bad, so badly done, and I just felt so bad about it. So I was not very interested in doing that again. But through doing my PhD, because it was quite technical, because it was computers, I built up a lot of expertise. I kind of learned through just doing things generally about using computers. So in the department where I was based, they used that quite naturally, and they got me to do demonstrations for other students coming in, whether they were undergraduate students or whether they were new PhD students.

And I think I developed a bit of confidence doing that because it was not like standing up in front of the class; it was in a small computer room, and you are sitting down, you are not standing up. And it was just showing people things on the screen. But I think I have built up a bit of confidence doing that. So that was crucial actually. And I realized that that was really crucial, A to building my confidence, and B to getting me to think about, well, what do these people need to know?

What order do I need to tell them things in, just those really basic things about teaching. So I think that was very good. So I at least had that amount of experience.

Lois’s current role

Well, I do not have a very complicated career history. It is quite simple, really. When I finished my PhD, I came to work for the institution that I am now working for, in the, the school that I am now working for a lot has changed around me and my position of has changed quite a lot within that, within that unit. I was a, I came in as a lecturer, a new lecturer with no experience, and moved to gradually taking on more and more responsibility, for different, parts of the school for different programs within the school, different courses. So I have been responsible for, short courses within a specific discipline. My, my discipline is Archaeology, and that is what I did my PhD in. And so I was responsible for courses in Archaeology. and I built that up quite a bit. Increased the number of courses, increased the number of students, you know, I cannot remember.

I did at one point, not by how much, but, something like doubled the number of students that were coming in to do those courses. and then I took on responsibility for, a much broader range of courses that included lots of disciplines, not just Archaeology. So I, I work within the, the lifelong learning sector, if you like. That is a very diverse sector. But in, in my school, it had, at that point, the, the, the overall shape of it was very much an arts and humanities kind of approach. So it was your typical evening classes that retired people tend to go along to, but that is the typical picture that people have of them. In fact, they are, they are much broader than that. So they covered all kinds of disciplines, Archaeology History, History of Art, English Literature, Creative Writing, Science, Languages, all those kinds of things. So I took on responsibility for managing that whole program of about 250 courses every year. and I did that for, I know about five or six years. And then the school grew and became even more diverse. And so we needed somebody to take, take a more strategic role really, and look after all the provision within the school as far as teaching and learning was concerned.

So that is now my position as Director of Teaching and Learning, overseeing all of the provision within a very, very diverse school. So not only is it diverse discipline wise, because we now also have management programs and programs in careers guidance. But it is, so it is diverse in that sense. But it is, also diverse in the, the, the way the courses are delivered. Some are delivered on a weekly basis, face-to-face. one, one of them is actually full-time course, but all the rest of them are part-time courses. and some of them are distance learning, some of them are blended learning. Some of the students are retired, students are doing it for pleasure. Some of the students are doing it for professional qualifications. Some of the courses have professional accreditation and others are basically just leisure courses. So it is really very, diverse provision. So I have sort of oversight of that. So I guess that is probably my career to date.

And what is your life like on a day-to-Day basis?

Ah, right, life. Okay. It is, very diverse. I think diverse is a word that you can use to characterise everything about me. It is very diverse. There is a lot of reacting to things that are happening. There is, a lot of helping my colleagues. So in, in a way I sort of, manage five program directors. So these are people who take more direct responsibility for the different programs that we run and, and are subject experts in those programs because I am not, so they, I support them. They come to me with questions. so I get a lot of questions, you know, we have got this problem, what do we do? We have got this student who has, these particular circumstances, what can we do? You know, what should we advise them to do? So it is, it is, it is very reactive, a lot of it. there is, I do teaching as well.

So I do still teach Archaeology, keep my feet on the ground. And I think that is very important for somebody in my position because, I am telling other people how they should teach, how they should design courses and things. And it is, it is no good if I am not actually doing it if I am not in touch with what actually works in the classroom with the, the students. so I do still teach. So I still have teaching preparation to do and I teach evening classes and so I have marking to do and, and that sort of thing. We deal with a lot of sessional staff as well. So there is a, a big sort of management role there. managing their expectations, training, doing a lot of training with them. and another big part of my role is, to liaise with the rest of the University. I am one of the key liaison persons between the school and the rest of the University. So I spend a lot of time in meetings, University meetings, which I actually quite like most people hate them, but I think I must be quite odd because I quite like them. I like to know what is going on around. I like to know what other people are up to and what developments are happening in the University. And so where we can link in with things. So I do spend quite a lot of time in University committee meetings, and then also just in more informal meetings with my colleagues.

So it is a lot of talking to people, which in some ways I still have not adjusted to that because I, I often get to the end of the day and I think, oh, I have not done any work today. I spent the whole day talking to people. But that actually is a key part of my, my role. But still, I tend to think that sitting down in front of the computer producing documents is work or preparing teaching, that is work. Whereas talking to people is not so much work, but of course it is, but so yeah, my days are, are, are very different. But a lot of it involves talking to people, dealing with people actually, whether they are students, whether they are the staff that work here full-time or whether they are session members of staff or whether they are people in other departments in University. A lot of email.

What are the best aspects of your job?

The best? I love the, the diversity. I am very much a person who likes to flit from one thing to another. I will have 20 things open on my computer when I am working and I will flip between, you know, I will get fed up doing something, I will be trying to write something and I will be getting a bit bogged down as I think I will have a look at my emails. I will do a few emails and then I will start writing some other documents. So, so I like the diversity and like having lots of different things to choose from. what else is good about my job? I like dealing with people. I do like teaching. it can be a bit stressful at times when there is so much to do because you have to, you have to be prepared, you know, a lot of things you can put off and say, I will do it tomorrow, it does not matter. You know, that deadline will slip a little bit, but teaching you cannot. You have got students in the class in front of you, you have got to be ready, you have got to have your stuff ready. so it can be a bit stressful, but when I am finished my teaching, I always think I am always on a high, you know, I really enjoy that interaction and the light dawning on the students' faces.

So I really enjoy the teaching and I enjoy the challenge of doing new things. I like doing new things and problem solving. I am not very good at doing the same thing over and over. I get, I get bored to be honest. Even teaching the same thing year in year out. I do get bored. I like to develop new courses, which, which is hard work, but I like to develop new courses quite regularly. And I have the freedom to do that. In working in lifelong learning, you have the freedom to, develop courses, and run them for a few years and then stop and then develop another course.

What are the challenges?

The challenges, well I think as everybody who works in academia is dealing with everything that needs to be done. So it is just workload is a challenge. and especially I, I have a family now, I have two young children and before I had them I could work into the evenings and I did work into the evenings a lot of the time. Work was basically my life. I did a few other things, but you know, that was the most important thing in my life. Obviously my partner as well. But, but now having the children, that is much more of a, a challenge. But that, that is the same for everybody I think. And I cannot work so much in the evenings and at the weekends now, so it just has to be squeezed into the day. So that is a challenge. Work sort of dealing with other people, people management if you like, because a lot of my role is a management role, but I do not have responsibility, line management responsibility, not formally anyway. And I think, again, that is a, a very common thing in, in universities. so I am not line managing people, but yet I am still supposed to be leading what they are doing. And that is, that can be quite a challenge. I think, I think I need to develop my skills further in, in managing people, but, it is, it is a challenge, but it is also really rewarding when it works well. Because working with a, a team to develop, say a new program or something, is, is very rewarding when everybody's minds are working in the same way. It is just not quite so rewarding when they are not working in the same way. So, so yeah, I guess those are really challenges, trying to get people to do what I want them to do.

What has been more important to you, do you think? The teaching or research?

Well, the teaching, because I do very little research actually in this, in this job. I could do more research. but it is, it is difficult to do. And this, this job is very intensely teaching. and there is a lot of historical reasons for that, which I do not think I need to go into. But, my job is much more about teaching, but there is a facility there to do a little bit of research and I like to try and, keep that up to a certain extent. because it, it connects me with my discipline. but what I, I am trying to do more of now is, Research in teaching and learning and research in lifelong learning rather than research in Archaeology, because that is more difficult for me to get to do the research in Archaeology because it is so much more detached from my day to day life of dealing with students and dealing with staff. whereas the research in teaching and learning can benefit from my day to day experience. So that is where I am trying to go with my research at the moment.

Advice for those doing a PhD

And somebody, somebody gave me a really good piece of advice, actually. I think it was when I just started my job, but I think it probably applies, it could apply to when you are a PhD student within a department, being a member of that department, an active member of that department. And it was the way to ensure your job security is to, to make yourself indispensable. Do lots of things, make yourself useful to lots of people. So, you know, agree to do that demonstration on how to use access database or, you know, do all those things. Take all those opportunities. And then when people come to consider life without you being around, maybe they will think, well actually maybe we need to keep him or her around because they are actually very useful. And that, that piece of advice was given to me by a very senior member of the university. And it is the one piece of advice that has stuck with me.

Marie | History | Secondary school teacher.

Marie shares her journey teaching at a renowned boarding school, exploring the connections between her PhD studies and her current role as a History teacher. She reflects on the expectations she and her supervisor had, her previous work with young people, and the overall value of her PhD experience. Marie discusses how well her work and environment fit her and how her expectations evolved throughout her PhD. She also touches on the attitudes of her family and friends towards her studies.

Admitting that networking wasn’t her forte, Marie explains her motivations for pursuing a PhD and the steps she took to gain teaching experience during her doctoral studies. She recounts her decision to enrol in a PhD program, the career-related activities she engaged in, and her determination to complete her degree.

Marie highlights how her PhD benefits her employer and how her colleagues perceive it. She shares her job application process while finishing her PhD and reflects on her choice to teach in the independent sector. Considering the broader impact of her PhD on her work and life, Marie reflects on her departure from academia and contemplates her future.

Explore Marie’s journey further by clicking the links below:

The background to Marie’s PhD
The reasons behind her PhD
The meaning of the PhD
Marie’s PhD topic
Working during the PhD
Considering quitting
Support of family and friends
Marie’s expectations
Thoughts on networking
Finishing the PhD
Having a PGCE
Anticipating an academic career
Employer attitudes
Marie’s current role
Connections between the PhD and her current role
Building a career
Where her career is going from here
Any PhD regrets?
Any regrets about leaving academia?



Career Pathway

  • Graduated with a First Class Honours degree in History
  • Joined Thames Valley Police. I hated it and left after 6 weeks. Applied to do a PGCE (secondary history). In the meantime I worked at Prêt à Manger as a sandwich maker, working my way up to Team Leader
  • I missed research. Did an MA and continued to do a PhD
  • Was offered a one year 0.6 contract when I finished, which I took up
  • Was offered a one term maternity-leave cover at an independent school
  • My first full-time school teaching post (at a 13-18 co-ed boarding school)
  • Teacher at a London boarding school. I look to become a Head of Dept in the next couple of years or so



Turning Points

  • Getting a first-class bachelor’s degree- I actually realised that I was not completely thick and was capable academically (something I had always doubted)
  • Joining the police and then realising that I had made completely the wrong career decision
  • Hanging topics and being persuaded by my tutor to continue with a PhD
  • A week into my PhD I realised how lonely I was going to be and was seriously thinking about quitting – I also hated my topic – but my tutor helped me think of a new topic and I was much happier (and continued)
  • Making friends with 2 other PhD students (physics students) who I found normal, not geeky. I spent my final year sharing how awful the experience was with other people… which also spurred me on
  • Started my first school teaching job which convinced me that school (as opposed to university) teaching was for me (have never looked back)
  • Being asked to get involved with coaching a national team (albeit schools based). This increased my confidence loads and helped me believe in myself)



Audio Interview

The background to Marie’s PhD

Can you tell me, when did you complete your PhD? How many years did it take? And roughly how old were you when you started?

It took, three years and a term. When I started, I must have been about 25 I think.

Did you do the bulk of it full-time or part-time?

Full-time apart from the last term, just tidying bits off, which was kind of part-time.

And you were working at the same time?

Yeah. Tidying it off, yeah.

And how did you fund your study?

I got a grant from the AHRB for the three years of doing it.

And did you work beforehand?

Part-time jobs? Yes. And I had a year out after university where I just worked at a sandwich shop in London, which funded my undergraduate degree in, when was it? Totally had enough of university exams, et cetera. So I decided I was gonna join the police, join the police. Didn't make the graduate scheme.

Absolutely hated it lasted about six weeks. Decided it wasn't for me so I took the rest of that year out and applied for a Masters, got the funding for that. And in the meantime, till the Masters start of the following year, I just worked in a sandwich shop and worked my way up to kind of a team leader in the middle of Central London.

How did you make the decision to go into the police force?

It's actually related to an individual incident. I was mugged in my third year at university and the police that was involved with that dealt with it really well and I was thinking about careers and I thought, well, it looks interesting, diverse, exciting.

It's not in an office, it's the way it looked. Really exciting, so.

And did you enjoy the selection process?

The selection process was all right, although, because I was trying to do my finals at the time, I didn't take any notice of advising for the psychometric, psychometric testing and the maths test. As a result, I failed the maths test, which meant I didn't get on the graduate scheme, which kind of meant when I did join, I found it all a bit basic and almost patronising. Hence one reason for leaving.

And have you got any regrets for leaving the police force?

Absolutely not. No. Not at all.

Did it equip you with anything that you found useful subsequently?

I suppose it gives you skills of how to handle people generally, but I was there for such a short space of time. I don't think I really got anything massive from it. I just learned, you know, also different people out there and my view of the police that it'd be exciting, adventurous, actually dealing with the worst 2% of society if you like. And it's, it's not as rewarding as I thought it would be. So left the police applied for an MA which started the following September and in the meantime, which went to a sandwich shop, quite a well known sandwich shop in London, just as a normal sandwich maker. Which was kind of full of students. Had a fantastic time, just worked there for a year and kind of worked my way up. Was kind of offered management, which I didn't want to do, then went back to university to do the MA.

And what was your MA in?

My MA was in high churchmen, sort of from 1714 to 1760 from what I can remember.

And so your undergraduate degree was in History?

Yeah, my undergraduate was in, yeah, History, kind of specialising in the early modern stuff.

How did you reach the decision that you wanted to undertake a PhD?

I did the Masters, one year Masters, which I think is invaluable. Other people who go straight from the degree to the PhD and have really struggled, whereas the one-year Masters gives you an experience of what it's like. So I did that and I quite enjoyed it. I love the university lifestyle. Found it quite interesting. So I thought, you know, I'll apply, see if I get funding and if I do I might as well stay.

Was there any significant obstacles that you had to overcome in order to embark on the PhD?

Some people said, oh, it will close down doors when you look for a job and it's very specialised and you know, perhaps you should go straight into work and staff. But I haven't found that's happened at all. If anything, it's been the opposite.

The reasons behind her PhD

Can you remember why you decided to do a PhD?

I just finished the MA quite enjoyed the MA going back to research, year, it was great fun. I met lots of people, so I thought, right, I'll, I'll carry on. I'd also applied for the funding. Got the funding. I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do. I was playing an awful lot of football to a very competitive standard and it fitted in really well with the football 'cause it meant I could train loads. So I thought, well, why not? I mean, it wasn't a really specific, I love academic, I love research more than anything in the world.

That's not the reason I did It was kind of, well, why not more than anything.

The meaning of the PhD

What is the value of your PhD to you?

To me, I did lack confidence before. It has given me massive confidence. It’s, it’s shown me that I can do anything that I put my mind to. And I didn't kind of believe in myself before. I mean, I got a first-class degree, but I didn't think I was that good. PhD, it's actually made me realise that I am, you know, quite intelligent and I can hold my own against people who I thought were miles and miles out of my league.

So it gimme confidence, not just in the academic world, but just the, everything I do.

Marie’s PhD topic

What was your PhD topic?

My PhD topic was “Political and religious language from the glorious revolution to the Bengali controversy”, which is kind of 1688 to 1720, which sounds very dull.

Did you enjoy it?

Yes, for the most part until the third year. I did quite enjoy it. I enjoyed the research at the start. I was supposed to carry on doing high churchmen and I absolutely hated them and thought I can't possibly do this in the first week, and my tutor helped me through that. And then I came to this topic, which I did find quite interesting for the most part.

Working during the PhD

Did you do any paid work during your PhD?

Yeah, I, took on a, a job, which is kind of a mobile activities team going to the most deprived areas around the county. I was at university and, and just, doing sports, organising sports that underprivileged, children between 8 and 18 years old.

How did you get involved in that?

During my undergrad years, I'd always kind of worked, like working with young people, so I did a couple of summer camps and then when I decided to carry on a PhD that this job just came up at the job shop at the university.

So I thought I'd apply for it and loved it from day one, really.

What did you gain from it, would you say?

Huge experience on how to work with young people, especially underprivileged and the skills that you need to, you know, discipline schools. As much as I learned on my PGCE, I learned with those children and just how to get on with them, how to motivate them, and just how work like that can be really rewarding.

Considering quitting

Did you think at any point during the PhD, “Well, I'm just gonna quit this because I, I've got the PGCE, If I want to teach, I can go and do it now. I don't have to put myself through this”?

I've always been really self-disciplined, so I would've seen that as a failure. So I don't even think I allowed the thought to cross my mind. I just got on with it and was thoroughly miserable to everyone around me whilst I did it. But, but I thought, “No, I've got to do this”. The only time I had doubts was one week into it. But my tutor said, “No, you can do it”. And then I was gonna do it.

It was just when and how long it would take.

Support of family and friends

I wonder how your family and friends felt about you deciding you wanted to do a PhD?

Yeah, quite supportive, really. I, I think the third year was the worst 'cause I was so fed up with it and I was in such a foul mood the whole time. Everyone couldn't wait for me to finish it. but no, no, quite supportive. And it kind of, no one was like, “Oh, you shouldn't do it”. Just, you know, as long as you enjoy stuff, just get on with it, type thing.

Marie’s expectations

Did you have any idea before you started on the PhD where it was going to lead you professionally?

No, I've kind of always enjoyed working with young people, so schools might be an obvious thing, but not specifically decided. No.

So you didn't have any clear idea of where, what would happen at the end of the PhD and where you would with the direction you would go in?

No, nothing specific. I mean, the idea of a lecture at the start was quite a nice idea, but I hadn't fully thought it through. I didn't really know what they did on a day-to-day basis or what it would consist of or how competitive it was.

So I just thought, I'm gonna enjoy my life, enjoy playing football and, and get this under my belt.

And then did, did you feel that you would think about the career after the PhD a little bit later on?

Well, I got to my third year and, my tutor was really encouraging me to go down the academic route, so I did apply for a couple of jobs. but then at the same time, I also applied for a school job just for kind of, just to see how I'd get on in terms of, you know, would I get rejected straight away.

And I was offered a maternity leave for that. Went into teaching for a term and, and thought, yeah, this is what, this is what I'm about, this is what I wanna do.

Thoughts on networking

Did you meet interesting and influential and helpful people that, that have given you some guidance?

My tutor had an awful lot of really good contacts with the subject area I was in, and I did get to meet them, but I was really bad at the way I would, I didn't want to go to conferences, I didn't want to go to seminars. I didn't want to do the whole making contact, being nice to people. So I didn't make anywhere near as much an effort as I should have perhaps done in that respect, especially if I was going into academia.

But I just didn't enjoy it. I didn't enjoy conferences and seminars. I dreaded them.

Can you, can you remember why you didn't really enjoy them?

I just, I just found the whole atmosphere quite daunting. I, I think it's a very competitive world. I think people are very institutionalised who stay in, in universities and the conversation is totally history dominated, which is obviously a good thing for some people. But I just found them quite so focused on their academic stuff that I couldn't have a well-rounded conversation with them.

Finishing the PhD

What sort of things were happening towards the end of your PhD say in the last year?

Last year, I was getting more and more miserable, more and more lonely. My tutor was encouraging me to apply for academic jobs. I was applying for some, I was getting rejected outright. I didn't know what I wanted to do. Hence applied for, for a teaching job, a decent school. Third year I wanted to finish my PhD in three years, which meant finishing it September so I was, I was thinking, “Right, what am I gonna do?”.

Then my tutor, it just so happened, was going on a sabbatical and had two terms off. And so his teaching needed to be covered. And he was extremely supportive and really pushed for it. And it meant that the head of department and whoever decides these things gave me a part-time lectureship. It was .60 and that was for a year. So September came, I was still just finishing off my PhD. And that came at the same time as I started this part-time lectureship, which lasted until September.

Finished the PhD during this part-time lectureship in January, and then started to think “What am I gonna do when my part-time lectureship finishes?” And that's when I applied for a job at a school. So I thought, not too sure if I wanna stay in academia, I'll have a look at schools.

Did you apply for any jobs in academia?

Yes. I was, the school application came after some academia applications when I was just getting rejected outright.

And then around the same time as I applied for the first school, I got an interview at a university and that's when I came second in that interview. Which I was quite relieved about because exactly almost the same week I had this interview at the school. Went to the interview at the school, didn't get the job, but then a couple of weeks later there was a maternity cover that came up at the same school and they offered me that.

Were there any differences that you can remember between those two interviews? For the one for the academic post and one for the teaching in the school post?

Oh, well I felt much more intimidated at the university one because it was kind of a, I had to give a presentation in front of about 10 lecturers and then had to be interviewed by three people in a panel, including the vice chancellor. So that, that was pretty daunting. And the other candidates seemed, you know, more qualified than me, written books, et cetera, which I hadn't done. So I did feel very much, you know, I was thought, I was amazed that I became runner up 'cause I thought I didn't have a chance at all.

In terms of the school, I thought I was really well qualified, but then as I said, the, the first question the headmaster said to me is, “Are you applying for a joke because you are too overqualified and you should be in academia?”. But I was much more confident in the school job. The interviews were one-on-one series of five interviews, one-on-one, and then you talk to class. And I was much more comfortable in that kind of atmosphere.

Do you think that the academic background and the academic interview prepared you for that school interview?  

Yes, in a way because the academic interview, I've never had anything as intense and quite as scary as that. So I think that would prepare me for any interview that came after. Because yeah, having to, I mean I did a conference, a really big conference, a seminar, a really big conference having to do that plus the interview, you know, when you are kind of talking to professors who have been doing your subject for years, that I found extremely daunting.

Whereas you go to a school, they haven't got the same knowledge as you have, so you can feel very confident.

So, you didn't get the teaching job, but shortly afterwards you were offered a maternity cover?

Yeah, the same school basically. I, I mean I think I was a bit hard done by to be fair because those two, they interviewed two applicants for the school job and one of them used to go to the school and did the sport that they did, which was rugby.

So I was kind of always in second place before the interviews even started. I, I think, but yeah, then was offered a maternity leave job in, in the summer term, which meant that I was kind of going backwards and forwards. 'cause the school was a good two hour drive, so I was teaching at that school and then also popping back to finish off my part-time lectureship in case of giving last minute revision lessons and also doing all the exam marking. So I mean it's quite stressful. It's quite busy period.

How interesting. So you're straddling the academic world and the boarding school?

Yeah for a term. Yeah. Which, which was quite hard work. Because you know, one minute I was marking university exams the next minute I was marking their last minute a level exams and sometimes it didn't seem that much difference really. Yeah, well in terms of the standard of the board, the school I was at was quite, they were quite intelligent students, some of them. And some of them, were, were far better than the exams I was marking for university.

And I certainly picked up when I was teaching 'cause some of these students at the school were exceptionally bright and had scholarships, et cetera and, and far brighter than the ones I just taught at university. So one reason why I was encouraged to go to school was some of the students are, are brighter than what I'm gonna find at university.

What happened after the period of maternity that you covered?

Right, I, I did the, the cover really enjoyed teaching thought this is definitely for me.

So I started looking for teaching jobs. The problem is teaching jobs always come out in February, March 'cause you have to give a terms notice. So I was looking too late. I was just looking at the kind of stuff that was left. I did apply to a school, I did get offered a job that was also a boarding school, but I wasn't sure I was gonna be a hundred percent happy. So I decided to, to wait a year, which means taking another year out. And I was like, “Oh, in terms of CV there might be too many, many gaps here”. But I did take a year out, I did a part-time teaching job at a London College.

I drove the safety bus for the, my university and carried on doing the sporting and other activities and just did, you know, lots of different part-time jobs to make ends meet. And then waited for all the teaching jobs to come out in January and February. Which they did. And obviously I had the pick of which school I wanted to go to in retrospect.

Was that year usefully spent and could you have done anything differently if you did it again or did it work out well?

It worked out quite well because I actually taught, the London College I taught at, I taught RS at A Level which looks good on my CV because it's another subject I can offer. Perhaps I should have, you know, pushed myself to get some more coaching awards or something else to add to my cv. But I mean, I quite enjoyed the year because it was chilled out. It was no research, it was completely different from academia. I didn't have to think I could just have a good year and, and I did that. The school I did maternity cover at because there was no jobs, decent jobs coming out 'cause they all get advertised earlier in the year i.e. February, March, someone at that school, the deputy had suggested I just write letters out. So I wrote letters attached my CV to, to schools that I thought it would be really good to work there. A couple of them, I got a couple of snotty replies saying “Don't even bother writing to us - jobs will be advertised in the Times Educational Supplement”, but I got one school who did reply saying “Thank you for your letter. We'll keep it on record as there may be a position coming up next year. We’ll write to you again in the future”.

So I just left it at that and then started looking for other jobs in September 'cause some schools do, put out adverts quite early. Found a really nice school and applied to it. Got an interview, meanwhile almost the same week my tutor was, was received a phone call asking for a reference for me for the school that I'd written the letter to. So it all ended up that I went to an interview at the other school that I applied for.

And the school who phoned my tutor said, whatever you do, don't accept the job until you've spoken to us. So I went for the interview at the initial school, was offered the job, asked 24 hours, asked for 24 hours to think about it. Then told the other school I'd been offered it. Ended up going from the interview of the first job rushing to the other school and the Headmaster interviewed me and also offered me a job. So within 24 hours I've been offered two jobs and had to pick which one I was going to take.

Were you able to play one off against the other a little bit?

I think, yeah, I think I got lucky, especially in terms of pay because the average, the typical question at a school is have you applied for any other jobs whilst you, you're sitting here being interviewed? And I said, yes, I've applied to another job and I've promised not to tell them not to give you an answer until I've spoken to them. And so all of a sudden the amount of wages I was gonna start on rose by about three or 4,000 pounds and then the other school upped it even more.

So yeah, I did, I got very lucky in that respect.

Mm-Hmm. And in terms of going from one interview to the other on the same day, in some ways you must have been buzzing coming out the first interview and did that help going into the second interview?

'cause it happened so quickly, I didn't really have time to think about it, which was quite good. And it almost because I came out the first lot of interviews and was quite confident I would get, I I'd got it 'cause I'd been offered it. I was quite relaxed on my second search, they probably saw the real me, which was quite good. Plus I didn't have to teach a lesson at the second school, which is always the worst part of the interview.

So yeah, I was, I was quite relaxed. It wasn't, you know, came out buzzing the final, you know, that evening I was on a real high.

And so did they tell you that day that you got the job?

No, but you can kind of guess and I thought that had gone really well and he said, “Right, I'll phone you tomorrow night and let you know” he phoned me tomorrow night and offered me the job. I spent two years in my first school, which I felt was about right that the school I went in initially was not that academically bright, brighter students were good, but but not excellent, which is quite nice in a way because just trying to find your way, find your feet in a first teaching job is quite difficult.

So I didn't feel I was challenged too much and didn't have to, you know, do loads of wider reading outside. So although I loved it at my first school, I was looking for perhaps more challenging brighter students. Plus I also wanted to move to London as, as my boyfriend lived in London.

And so I just waited for a school that the combined, the two and one one did come up. I was fortunate in that respect.

And then how did that interview for, for that job compare?

Yeah, it's about this kind of in boarding schools the interview is, is very similar in that you kind of get interviewed by five different senior management people and that went very well. He did question, there was a few gaps in my CV whilst, you know, I was having perhaps a gap year here, a gap year there.

But as long as I could explain those away, which I, I think I did quite well, it was fine. And again, the PhD certainly helps I think because it put me on a level with academically of any candidate who applied.

Did you ever apply for any other kind of jobs when you were doing a PhD or subsequently? I just wondered if you'd ever considered anything other than teaching?

I was offered that kind of management thing in the sandwich shop that, that 'cause whilst doing my PhD in the summer holidays when I needed more money, I still worked in the sandwich shop and I was offered a kind of management training scheme in that, but I just wasn't interested.

Why not?

Just because although it was good fun, it wasn't mentally that taxing. I was also the underprivileged children working for that. I was offered the equivalent position, I suppose as a sports development officer there. But, but again, although I loved it, almost missed the history as well. And just the mental challenge, which teaching history still gives me.

Having a PGCE

Because you had the PGCE, you could have got a job in a state school.


Can you talk me through your decision making about going for jobs in boarding schools?

Yeah. I did my PGCE, I did my PGCE experience at, at two state schools and I did really enjoy that. I also, working with the underprivileged children meant that I'd done about three or four years work with, with that kind of, of, of child or student. what I found infuriating at, at, at the schools I did my PGCE’s, is I was really willing to take a football team, in particular female football, but I spent half my time trying to run around, get the resources, get the backing, get some footballs, get some bibs, and I thought, I don't wanna spend all my time just chasing around getting the equipment.

I want it to be there so I can actually coach. I also found the parents of the children there really unsupportive. So, I mean, the children were fine, but, but the parents just didn't support what you were trying to do. So I did feel like I was banging my head against a brick wall. Whereas you come into the independent sector, all the facilities are there, all the encouragement's there.

My timetable is half, you know, well it's three quarters History, a quarter Sport. At a state school is obviously a hundred percent History. So I get to do my Sport, which I love as much as my History. So that's probably the main reason for it.

Do you think the PhD has helped you to be a better teacher than you would've been if you'd gone straight into teaching after the PGCE?

I think the main thing it has given me is, is confidence, because at the school I'm at, they insist on using the title, so I'm called Doctor.

And just that alone, I, I, I think gives me huge confidence and it also shows the students that I, I do know my stuff. And in terms of teaching A Level, the skills, I learned, the research skills, I learned the different websites, how to use and access websites and use, I dunno, encyclopaedia, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and stuff. I've used so much in my adult teaching. and in terms of helping them do their coursework, the PhD has put me miles ahead from, from what I, I would've had just with the PGCE.

So yes, I think it has helped significantly.

Anticipating an academic career

Did you anticipate an academic career at the end of it?

Kind of, I, I did feel that that's what the tutor I had would like to have seen me follow, and I did pursue that option for a little while, but then I realised academia was just not for me at all.

Employer attitudes

How do you feel your PhD is regarded by your colleagues and your employer?

Colleagues, employer… it definitely helped me get this job. I think, rightly or wrongly, boarding schools, independent schools like titles, they like to print them in their sort of, term books, et cetera. So I certainly think that gave me a big advantage in, in getting, this job.

Do you feel that your colleagues have any expectations of you?

I think they expect me to give a few more seminars than I do. 'cause I, I can't stand, once I finished my PhD, that very much was it in my eyes.

And I think there is a slight, well, perhaps you should be doing a bit more research over the holidays and stuff, but I'm just not personally interested in doing that. But that's the only slight negativity.

Marie’s current role

Where do you currently work?

I currently work at a very well known boarding school in London, secondary school, 13 to 18 at an independent school.

And what's your role there?

I'm a History teacher and I coach a variety of sports.

How long have you been working in that particular position?

In the current job, this is my first year, so just coming to the end of my first year. And then in teaching I was at another school in Reading for two years before the current job.

Can you tell me in some detail what your job involves on a day-to-day basis?  

Yeah. Day-to-day basis, it involves teaching all aspects of history to a range of, of boys at the moment between the ages of 13 and 18. Obviously teaching them, marking, lots of marking, getting them ready for exams. But then as much as you do that, I also spend almost the same amount of time coaching them sports, be it football, tennis, cross country, Duke of Edinburgh, that, that sort of stuff.

In terms of the topics, obviously different topics 'cause I teach A Level so that involves more specialist stuff that I'm interested in. But I've taught all sort of topics, stuff that I've never, ever done in my life. So it doesn't involve a wide range of things. Oh sorry. On top of that, I also, as it's a boarding school, I also do duty in a house. So one night a week I'll go up to a particular boarding house and just go around and see my duties and just see that the boarding house is fine and no one's wrecking the place.

Are you quite tied to the school in your free time?  

Yeah, it is because the school provides accommodation, so you kind of do sometimes feel that you're on site quite a lot. But so saying there's no registration or stuff, so you just do your lessons and then the rest of time is, is free time and of course you get really long holidays, which is a huge kind of bonus or attraction.

How is your week structured?

Monday to Saturday we teach Saturday mornings, do sports Saturday afternoons, lessons obviously in the day, Monday to Friday, sports Tuesday afternoons, Thursday afternoons.

And then, I mean, it is, it is quite a big time because you end up marking till about eight or nine o'clock at night. So I kind of do 12 hour days at the moment. That should get better my second year though.

Are there a lot of meetings and admin?

It's not too bad at this particular school it is not so bad, but there's lots of report writing, like twice a term you have to write reports 140 reports on different boys.

There's quite a lot in that sense, but not in terms of registration. So they don't do registration here, it's all done in the houses, so that's quite easy. So it could be much worse. It's a really big commitment in terms of time because obviously the boys are here 24/7 and someone's gotta look after 'em at some point and it's a six day week. You don't finish till Saturday at eight o'clock. At the same time, I'd say a big advantage over well state school is a particular school I'm at that the boys are bright, but also if you form relationships with them outside of the classroom, it makes it so much rewarding both inside and outside the classroom.

So I would go to a boarding school for those reasons. And most boarding schools do offer free housing, which is obviously, you know, about an extra 10-12,000 pounds a year.

Can you tell me what your physical work environment is like and what the working culture is like?

People work exceptionally hard at, at this school and it is quite competitive. I mean awful lot of Oxbridge people come and teach here.

Well the school is fantastically equipped. They've got, you know, smart boards in most classrooms. There's beautiful historic buildings. In terms of sporting facilities, they've got a full athletics, 400 meters running track. They've got an artificial football pitch, they've got two AstroTurf, they've got, you know, 20 tennis courts. Facilities are second to none. As in as is the accommodation they, they provide. So the physical environment, you couldn't actually find a nicer place to work in those terms.

Do you have your own classroom?  

Yeah, I have my own classroom. It's a bit small 'cause I'm the most junior member. You get the worst classroom. It is a bit small but it's part of a quite a well known historic famous building that's been used in Harry Potter and stuff. So I mean sort of the, the culture there is fantastic in history.

And how big is your department?

Department's got six members in the department, one or two or part-time. So it's kind of a medium sized department I suppose.

And in terms of the working culture amongst your colleagues…

It's there's not many females at this school, so it's a boys school, it's very dominated by men and that can be a barrier, but on the whole it's, it's fine.

There's some other older teachers you kind of get the impression they're a bit sexist, but on the whole very supportive and, and people are fine even though I'm not from Oxbridge. Well this is where the PhD comes in. I think that's certainly helped and kind of gains your respect amongst peers as well as amongst the boys themselves.

What are the best things about your job?

This one, current one? Just because it combines everything that I love. My two main sport, my two main loves in life are history, which I get to, you know, do all the reading, buy any books I want. So just carry on doing what I was doing with the PhD without the stress, plus the sport. which means I, I can coach it to a good standard now and I've also got all the facilities 'cause I still play where I can train and do exactly what I want plus the long holidays.

And what might be drawbacks?

I can't think of any horrific drawbacks. I mean there's some of my friends who've got PhDs who've kind of gone on to extremely well paid jobs in the city. So I suppose if, if anything you could talk about finance. But so saying I'm quite happy with the amount of money I get and the lifestyle I lead. So I don't think there's any, I suppose the only drawbacks is you do have to work hard in term time and you know, I don't get Saturdays off, I do work weekends, which is quite intense.

Are there any particular challenges in the school that you work in?

Yes, because I think you have to, they don't suffer. The boys are teacher quite intelligent. They don't suffer fools gladly. So you do have to make sure that they know they're confident that you know what you are talking about. So you do know your subject inside out and that's a challenge, especially when you get some of the brightest kids perhaps in the country challenging and asking you questions. I mean, some of the questions I get asked are well beyond those I got at university.

So it is, it is challenging in that sense.

Do many of your colleagues have PhDs?

The school I'm in now, quite a few do. It must be, I would say there's 80 staff. I would say about 15 of them have. The last school I was at, not many, about three, three people.

And would most have PGCEs?

The school I'm out at, it's quite an old generation still here and hardly any of them have PGCEs.

But the new ones that are coming in, you see more people coming in with PGCEs or doing QTS, which is Qualified Teaching Status. Things are changing. Private schools kind of almost looked for the PhD before the PGCE always. I think that's changing now. I think the onus is, is on you should, you should have at least a PGCE. So I think that has started to change. But, so saying the school I'm in now is just, you know, employed someone who's just done a PhD and they don't mind that he's got no teaching experience at all.


As a PhD student, did you do any teaching or tutoring?

Yeah, I did teaching in my second and third years. I taught first years. Second years. Yeah, first and second years.

And how did you come by that teaching and did you enjoy it?

Yeah, I really enjoyed it. I, I came by it just by my tutor, telling the head of department I should be doing it, especially as I had a PhD. Found it quite daunting at first. 'cause obviously the gap between you and the students is, is much less than you would have at school.

And it was a period that I was completely unfamiliar with. I'd never done it before, so it was quite daunting. It took an awful lot of preparation, but I did really enjoy it.

And did you do that teaching with a view to developing your career as an academic or did you do it 'cause it was helping you financially or what were your motivations?

I think it was both. It's quite good money, but I was also doing it just to develop teaching generally. Not specifically because I was thinking about academia, but just, I've done a bit of teaching. I've done my PGC, well this is something else to put on the CV.

Connections between the PhD and her current role

Do you feel that your work has any direct connection with the subject area of your PhD?

Yes. Obviously because the PhD was, was in History and I'm teaching History. It’s a real shame they've just changed the syllabuses for A level, A level’s the most when I've used my PhD stuff. But, essentially I did my PhD in and the new syllabus have just decided to cut out that entire century, which I'm absolutely devastated about. But more generally the historical skills I learned from the PhD are, are hugely valuable in, in terms of teaching, especially at A level. And in any other ways.

Can you see that there's a continuity between your PhD and your current job?

I was actually very organised and very efficient. I, I think during my PhD and, and worked quite hard on it and I know some of my friends literally didn't and did about an hour a day, whereas I got myself into a very strong work ethic there. And that, that certainly helped 'cause I'm quite organised. I'm the first to churn out reports, et cetera. And now, now at schools, yeah, it has helped in that sense. But I can see how it couldn't, 'cause if you're not very well motivated during a PhD, it's almost a disaster after that.

Some of my friends have done that and not been motivated and then gone into jobs and found it quite a wake up call, I think.

Building a career

Did you at any point during the PhD start to actively pursue kind of career developing activities? Did you present papers at conferences or do voluntary work, or anything else?

I presented papers at conferences, not because I had a desperate desire to, but because it was seen as a thing to do, more than anything. But I didn't particularly enjoy those experiences. At the same time as doing my PhD, I also coached a bit of sport, did some football coaching, got my awards and worked with underprivileged children all, all around the area where my university was.

Where her career is going from here

Where do you see yourself going from this point?

I am quite ambitious, so over the next couple of years I'll be looking to become a Head of Department at another decent school, either boarding or day school. And then, I dunno, part of me desperately wants to keep moving up the career ladder and, you know, look at a Deputy Head at a decent school or then at some point I probably wanna start a family and who knows what happens when that happens.

Any PhD regrets?

Do you have any regrets about doing the PhD?

If you'd asked me in my third year, I probably would've said “Yes”. With hindsight, I'm not sure if I could do it all again. But I think it has benefited me quite a lot. So, no, I don't have regrets.

Any regrets about leaving academia?

Do you have any regrets about leaving academia?

None. None at all. Not even slight. I can't, I think I was actually relieved and I, I decided, you know, I'm, I'm not continuing with these applications and I was quite relieved when I came runner up in the job I did apply for and I'm quite glad I didn't get it.

Was there ever a moment of kind of ambivalence about leaving the PhD in academia behind and moving into a different world?

Not really.

'cause I was quite lucky in that respect because the maternity cover I had at my first school teaching job actually came in the last term of my PhD I think. So there was an overlap when I had both options going at once, which was really useful because as soon as I did that teaching, I, I knew exactly that what I wanted and it, it wasn't academia.


Do you feel that the work that you do reflects the things that motivate you in life?

Yes, I think it does because I want a job where I'm out of an off office where I'm sort of out and about all day, where I face different challenges, where I meet kind of different people where I, you know, get to teach a range of, of children. And that's also challenging, that's got loads of variety about it, which it has. One minute you're on the sports field, the next minute you're in the classroom.

Financially it's quite well paid. I live in, you know, really nice accommodation, beautiful part of London. So everything, all the boxes I would want to tick that makes me happy. I, I think, are certainly ticked.

Russell | History | University Teaching.

Russell shares his journey from PhD to lecturer/reader, detailing his job interview prep, financial worries, and career exploration. He reminisces about supportive friends and family, and the surprise of struggling to find full-time work. Despite initial insecurity, he finds teaching fulfilling. Reflecting on his PhD, he sees it as valuable despite stress. Networking proved crucial for job opportunities. Russell’s supervisor played a pivotal role in his post-PhD journey. He now advises students to consider careers earlier and ponders changes he might have made.

Explore Russell’s journey further by clicking the links below:

The background to Russell’s PhD
The reasons behind his PhD
Encouragement from friends and family
Obstacles to doing a PhD
The role of the supervisor
Thinking seriously about an academic career
Moments of uncertainty
Career development activities
Wanting to become an academic
The influence on Russell’s decisions
The experiences of teaching
Weighing up paid work during the PhD
Considering a non-academic career
The expectations versus the reality of an academic career
Expectations beyond the PhD
Feelings about the PhD
Finishing the PhD
The role of networking in finding a job
The interview experience for academic jobs
Russell’s current role
The work trajectory
Considering what he may have done differently



Career Pathway

  • Left university in the north with a BA in History
  • Worked at the BBC gramophone library
  • PhD at the same northern university (worked as a Graduate Teaching assistant)
  • Part-time teaching at that university
  • First article published
  • Part-time teaching at a university in the south
  • First book published
  • Research fellow at that university
  • AHRC funded/two-year contract at that university
  • Permanent lectureship at that university
  • Readership



Turning Points

  • First teaching post beyond PhD institution
  • First book published and first major funding award
  • Second major funding



Audio Interview

The background to Russell’s PhD

When did you complete your PhD and how many years did it take?

Three years.

And how old were you when you started?

I was 24.

And did you do the bulk of your PhD full-time or part-time?


And how did you fund your study?

I was funded by the university I did the PhD at.

And did you work beforehand?

Yes, I was in the record library at the BBC grammar phone library.

Well I left university and moved down to London and 'cause my parents had just moved to London, so moved back home with them as I applied for jobs. And that took a little while because it was a bit of a recession at the time. And I got a job at the BBC in the record library.

And I did that for a year of doing. That was fine. After a year, I just began to get a bit tired. The novelty of working with the BBC lost its appeal, as did working with records, which I like, but there's only so many times you can go, “Oh, there's that record I like”. So that kind of wore off a little bit. And I remember that, I remember the day almost, I just thought this isn't right, it was a really hot June day or something like that.

And I was on a tube and it was packed and it was like half past eight in the morning and it stunk and it, oh, it was just, I just thought, this is awful. I really don't want to do this every day for the foreseeable future. I would much rather be, reading, reading a history book or, or doing something I was interested in or doing a project that was my own project, thinking about other things. And from that moment on, I, I started kind of making plans. I got back in contact with an old lecturer who I, who I, whose work I liked at my old university.

And he said, “Well, here's the application form, fill it in and we'll put you in for a graduate teaching assistantship. Come and talk to me about the subject”. I went up and talked to him about the subject, came up with an idea that he thought was good and I was interested in put that application in and I got it. And so signed up October do the PhD as a graduate teaching assistant.

So you didn't do need to do a Masters?

No, I think officially it was, I went as a, as an MPhil and then it was updated the end of the year. But there was, it was very partic’, the graduate teaching assistantship was very particular to, to that. I think you applied to do it as a, as an MPhil stroke PhD rather than as a, as an MA.

The reasons behind his PhD

Why did you do a PhD?

I did a PhD because when I left university, I went and got a job, which was fine. But after a couple of years realised I missed doing History and I didn't like the kind of work structure that seemed to be an alternative to it, which was a kind of very rigid nine to five. At the time I was living in London, so commuting and that kind of stuff.

I just didn't like that. So I realised I missed, I didn't miss a student lifestyle, what I did miss was the research side of things. The kind of reading about stuff that I'm interested in and thinking about stuff that I'm interested in, writing about, stuff that I'm interested in. So I made the decision really after two years of work that I wanted to get out of that and go back into academia.

Encouragement from friends and family

And what about your friends and family? Did they encourage you to embark on the PhD?

Yeah, mum and dad would just, if that's what you want to do, then go for it, kind of thing. And a lot of friends thought it was a quite a good thing. I think they were quite jealous in a way, 'cause it seems such a nice thing to be doing, going off to read about things that you like. And they think it's even funnier now, I get paid for it.

Obstacles to doing a PhD

Did you have to overcome any significant obstacles in order to embark on your PhD?

I suppose two related ones are suddenly money disappears and secondly, you then have to find money. So those kind of two interrelated factors, because I was on a particularly good wage, but I was earning money and then you go into a PhD and I got funding, but it's always minimal. So, so I had to overcome that.

And so, so not so much getting accepted to do a PhD, but having some kind of means to do it, which either for most people means part-time, I suppose, or getting a funding body to fund you. And that's quite difficult and it's never, it's never enough money for you to properly live on. So you have to kind of, the obstacle is to get over as a kind of monetary one.

The role of the supervisor

How instrumental was your supervisor in talking to you about careers after the PhD?

He was, he was pretty good. He, no, he was, he was good. He's always been incredibly encouraging and he's always done me references ever since. And, at the time there wasn't quite as much thought given to it. It was a, at the end, the nineties was where everything was quite changing, I think quite dramatically in terms of academic. The more people were doing PhDs, the whole kind of process seems to be getting more complicated. And I think for him, he was, you know, he'd done what he'd always done with other students.

So he wasn't kind of giving me, you know, putting a chalkboard up with kind of step one, step two, you must do this, you must do that. But he was always very supportive and he'd kind of say, well, perhaps you could do that, turn that chapter into an article to send off to a journal. That kind of stuff. He kind of pushed me gently into certain directions rather than giving me a nine point plan. So yeah, he was, he was helpful, but not in a, no, not, not overtly.

Did he help you get any teaching after a PhD?

Yeah, he kept me on for another couple of terms at the place where I, where I did my PhD. So I just kind of kept, he used to, one thing he did always used to say was, applying for jobs, it always helps to have headed paper. So to have an institution on your application letter is very good and it'll always at least get you read, you know, you won't get scrunched up immediately and put in the bin.

And, he, he always said that, so he was very, keen that once I finished my PhD that there would, I would have a kind of little breathing space in between to, I'd have a bit of teaching, I'd have a bit of money coming in, I'd have the heading note paper, and I'd also have a bit of time to knock out an article to try and get to adjourn and also apply for other, other positions.

Thinking seriously about an academic career

When did you start to think seriously about, the things you'd have to do in order to develop an academic career?

Probably in my third year of the PhD is when I began to think, alright, I need to keep an eye out for employment opportunities beyond the PhD. I think about getting publications in process, and I need to find out more about the kind of, you know, the structures, how it, how you go about finding work beyond the PhD.

Again, I think I kind of had a slightly naïve idea that there'd be a job at the institution I was at once I finished my PhD and again, that's very rare. I think so, but at the time I kind of, I don't know quite why, but I thought that's kind of how it, how it kind of worked. I'd do my PhD and I'd have done a bit of teaching there and I might stay on doing some more teaching there and eventually end up with a job and it doesn't really work like that.

So probably when I got to the third year and I kind of realised that it wasn't quite as, easy is the wrong word, but it wasn't quite as smooth if you like, is when I started thinking hard about how I go about hanging, hanging on in academia.

Moments of uncertainty

When I started you, you, it seems like a long time, three years to do this thing, but oh, that's a cliche. It goes very quickly. And then once you realise, you invest all this amount of time and energy and money and everything into specialising in something, and then you've got to apply it. And that becomes quite daunting because on the one hand you're thinking, all of a sudden you realise, well, there's not millions of jobs out there and they're quite hard to get and get into. And the other hand you're thinking, “What kind of employer's going to, look at somebody who's just spent three years looking at British Communists?”

You know, it doesn't really apply. There are transferrable skills of course, but essentially it, it all just seems a bit kind of like you might have gone too far out there to ever get back in, if you see what I mean. So, there was that feeling of uncertainty. There's the constant worry about money, about how you can pay the rent and eat properly and also maybe go out once every now and again, which is a kind of a running concern.

And then you also get, and I think everyone gets this kind of slight uncertain, you kind of get your own kind of personal intellectual, uncertainty as you do in your PhD that you'll go through crises of like, I can't do this. There's too much information, or I don't quite know what my argument is. Or, that historian over there's done this even better than I could ever do, and how am I gonna be on the same playing field as them, that, those kind of things.

So there's quite, there is quite a lot of insecurity I think in involved, but it's, I think it's a universal thing. I know obviously it feels very personal, but I think it's, it's something that everybody goes through to, to some degree.

Does that uncertainty, do you think affect your academic job search?

It did a bit to me because my approach, and it worked kind of, was that I just thought, right, “I'm gonna have to blanket bomb every university within eyesight” saying, “Here I am, I do this. If there's any teaching, I'm willing to do it”.

Which is how I kind of got my first jobs beyond the institution I did my PhD at. So I sent out speculative letters to universities just saying, I research, I, I can teach on 20th century British history, if there's anything in that area that you do you need, or any people around maternity leave or people who got a new job I'd be happy to fill in and stuff like that.

So it kind of encouraged me to be quite proactive and wide ranging in what I applied for, that uncertainty. I dunno if that's a, that's a good thing. It's a, it felt like being at the end of a bayonet point rather than kind of being gently led into something. But, but it did, it did push me in that direction.

Career development activities

When you look back to your PhD, what kind of career development activities were you engaging in?

Not a lot really. the graduate teaching assistant thing meant I got on the job teacher training as it were. Once a year, we had a, we all met up and asked how it went, how it was going, and my supervisor was very good at supervising my PhD, but there was nothing really in place to really explain how things worked. And I remember the whole period of one of almost like being in a maze, trying to find your way to the middle.

Kind of always just trying to work it out for myself as I went on and trying to work, focusing on certain things. I thought if I can get over that hurdle, then I'll be somewhere further down the, down the line. But it seemed very, very, cloudy and very, very uncertain. I remember the whole period of being one of quite great uncertainty about, of what was coming next.

Wanting to become an academic

What would you say to anybody who's thinking about becoming an Academic?

That it's a, it's a very good job if you like teaching and you like, and you genuinely care about the subjects that you, you are interested in. Some people moan about the money. I think it's all right, really in the scheme of things. You're never gonna be very rich, but then that's not what you do it for. So, yeah, I think it is a, it is a good thing, but it's, it can be quite a, an undulating journey getting from that first year of doing the PhD.

And probably it's even more difficult from when I did it because the, the competition for funding's even greater than it was, and the amount of money you have to pay in fees and all that kind of stuff is so horrendous. That it's an even more of a, a big decision, financial decision to make. Especially it comes along the back of at least three years of fees and debts and possibly another one or two as well.

So it's a big decision, but the end, the prize, if you like, is, is good. And I, I, I think for me, it's the best job in the world is being an academic. That's what I've always wanted to do. But the process of getting there is, is not, not always a pleasant experience.

So, so you wouldn't like to be doing anything else?

No, not really.

The influence on Russell’s decisions

What or who influenced some of the decisions and actions that you took?

I suppose my, I suppose my supervisor was probably the, the main positive one in that he was the one who said what you need, what you need to do, he said was, a book and four articles. So that's the target. It was the first time after your PhD actually you target things so the PhD into a book and get three, four articles in print.

He said that's when people will start looking very seriously at your CV.

What was the timeframe he suggested for that?

Within a kind of couple of years after doing a PhD, the sooner the better. I think if you, I think what I didn't do and what I wish I had done was try to get a couple of articles done before I even finished the PhD so that they were already there. What I did do was I finished a PhD and spent a year writing up the articles, which came out the year after and then finished the book and that came after.

The experiences of teaching

And you've done quite a lot of teaching as a PhD student, so were you fairly confident about the teaching side of things?

I wouldn't say. I mean, even now I can get a bit nervy and go in sometimes. I wouldn't say I got comfortable with the teaching for a good couple of years after I finished the PhD, I'd say. And that was partly to do with just because it's, you know, it's you and lots of people and you've got to know all this stuff.

So first of all, it's this idea that, how am I gonna remember all this and what if somebody asks me difficult questions and all that stuff. Secondly, it's just a kind of social thing is that, you know, you're meeting lots of new people and that can be quite a nervy thing in any, any situation. After a while I kind of got, got used to that. Like, say even now sometimes it can be a bit nervous if you, sometimes you just don't, you don't feel like talking to 12 people at 10 o'clock in the morning, but at the time, yeah, but it's fine.

But I wouldn't, yeah, I wouldn't say I got comfortable with it for a, for a while. I think it takes quite a long time. The other thing actually linked to that is the, age. I think once I got a bit older, I kind of hit 30. I think I kind of felt there was enough time difference between me and the students to make it obvious that I didn't just look like one of them had stood up and was doing it. The, and it's nonsense really. And it's kind of, what do you call it, symbolic, probably not quite the right word, but I kind of felt there was, it was obvious I was the teacher, they were the students.

And so I felt more slightly just more comfortable in the position, I think so, so it took time.

Weighing up paid work during the PhD

Did you do any paid work during your PhD?

Not during it, no, because I was kind of, I was worried it would interfere and make it, drag it out even longer, and I had a real fear of it dragging out. I kind of, at the place I was, there were a few people knocking around. It seemed to be on the, like the seventh year of the PhD. And I was just thinking like, God, I, I can't do that because you're just aware that in, job specs, you know, one of the things everyone wants to know is that you can manage your time.

If you can't manage your time doing a PhD where it is totally down to you, then not good. So I didn't, I didn't take any paid work while I was doing my PhD, although, you know, some, the person I was my partner at the time, she had to, she had no funding at all, so she had to do part-time work and it, it was very difficult, very difficult for her.

Considering a non-academic career

Did you ever consider a non-academic career?

When I was doing the PhD, yeah, a little bit. I kind of thought about doing freelance kind of journalism and that, that kind of thing, but that seemed even more kind of, insecure, profession than academia at the time. So I kind of toyed with it and didn't. Then once I finished my PhD, I was in a situation where I was in part-time jobs and there was just, at the end of each term, you didn't know if you were gonna get kept on or not.

I began thinking about the old chestnut of, you know, doing a PGCE, I think it is a teacher training, you know, those kind of things as, as an alternative. So there's always kinda, yeah, there's always kind of things in my head, I think too adventurous, but, you know, that kind of thing. Things to do with writing and teaching where what I had done before wouldn't seem a complete waste of time.

You see, I had no, I, I had no thoughts of going, right. I'm gonna go off and become a, a violinist or anything like that at all related.

And why did you consider non-academic?

Just because the, it was so the, the whole experience was one of insecurity where I felt I always had to be thinking of contingency plans because I could be so, I was so unsure of the future that, it would be foolish not to, you know, I, I had to think of what I could do if this suddenly disappears overnight, which at times it looked like it might do, because like I said, I'd be coming up from this time of year and coming up to the end of the third term and I'd, you know, next term starts in October and I'd be coming into the summer with no clue whether I would have a job at the end of it.

So, you know, I was constantly having to think of ideas and I think, I think I actually did go in and talk to, yeah, I did.

I went into a couple of universities to talk to people about PGCE. I don't think I ever quite got around to filling in the form because I never quite had to, but I had the forms, they were there. And I sent in letters and have made contacts at local newspapers in terms of doing subedit editing and that kind of stuff, and local newspapers as a way into that kind of work. So again, without going too far into it, I'd made kind of little forays into alternatives.

The expectations versus the reality of an academic career

Do you think that your academic career bears any relation to the kind of expectations you had of, of an academic career?

Most of it does and what I do, it does. What was, didn't for me was just how long it did take. And like I said, I might be unusual, but how long it took to go from those insecurities of short terms and part-times and temporary contracts to a full-time position. And during that time you do get exploited quite badly.

You, you're not paid enough for what you do and it's very difficult. And that did that and you know, people said it to me so they said, you know, that that did go on far longer than it should have. And it all came right in the end. But that, that was something I didn't expect to be so difficult for so, so long. And I dunno, I don't, I think it was partly just to do with timing in some ways was, when I came out of my PhD was a time when there seemed to be, the jobs seemed to dry up, dry up a little bit and more people were in the field.

And so it just seemed a bit, it just seemed very difficult. And so, I mean there are an awful lot of element of luck I think involved in, in a lot of, you know, progression after being a postgraduate. I mean, for example, a friend of mine finished doing a PhD and all of a sudden unrelated to that, to but another university had a research proposal was literally, was almost exactly the same as what they'd done for the PhD on quite a specialist subject.

So they applied for it and obviously got it, 'cause they were really the only kind of person of that age at that stage in their career who was doing that subject. And that just landed on their doormat. And so he got himself a two year fellowship at a good university doing stuff like that. I mean, he'll still at the end of that two year fellowship have the next step to do, but you know, things can kind of pan out in that way as well.

Expectations beyond the PhD

And where, if anywhere, did you see yourself beyond the PhD? And did that change at all along the way?

I had a, I had a vague idea, but I'd see myself where, you know, eventually where I was, which was becoming a lecturer in a university. But it was a very, I was very woolly about what that entailed and how you went about that. At the start, I didn't really get how things panned out, how you were meant to get from A to B. And I kind of, after about a year and a half doing the PhD, I began to think harder about that and think, how does this work?

You know, I think I had a slightly naïve idea that it was kind of, not quite an inevitability, but there was, it was quite, that was how, what you did, you did PhD, then you, you got a job kind of related to it and it doesn't work out like that. So I didn't think too hard about it. And perhaps I probably should have done a bit more, I certainly encourage my PhD students to think longer and wider than I did about what the PhD's going to do for them.

Feelings about the PhD

PhD experience, now, I'm really glad for it because very soon into having left university, it became very clear I wanted to, this is what the kind of life I'd like to have. I like, I like the teaching now. I do like it. I enjoy doing it. I like talking about things I'm interested in talking about and doing. I like doing my research. I like the environment of a university, generally. And so the PhD experience was worth that.

The PhD experience in itself was in equal measures, enjoyable and unenjoyable by, yeah, by about equal measure. It's enjoyable because it's interesting and you're doing what you want to do and you're finding out all this stuff. And if you enjoy that process, then it's great. It wasn't enjoyable because of the, the financial worries and the kind of stresses that it has on you. So yeah, so I think it, it is worth it, but I think you do need to be very sure of why you are going into it and what you want to get out it at the end.

I wouldn't recommend it to anybody as just a way of passing three years. I just think that that would be a very daft way to, to go into it. I think it's gotta be something where you kind of, you know what you want to do and why you are doing it and where you want to go at the end of it.

Finishing the PhD

I'm really interested in the transition period. So like the last year of your PhD and into the year that followed the PhD. Can you talk me through that in some detail?

Yeah. The last year, that's, and that is quite, that's a, a scary one because you, your finishing point is suddenly well within sight. You've got, well, certainly even more worrying if you didn't have all the information that you think you'll need kind of there. But you are writing up, you've got so many different things on your mind because on the one hand, what you've most focused on is finishing your PhD and getting all this research that you've done into a coherent and readable form, but you're also worrying about what comes next.

You've got the kind of ongoing worries about the, about finance and all that kind of stuff. And so it's quite a daunting, daunting period. Like I say, my, I think I kind of closed down and thought, right, I'm just going to make sure I pass, because if I pass, that's that obstacle out the way.

If I had my time, again, like I said, I might have thought about saying like, almost if I'd taken another two months to finish the PhD, but I'd spent those two months writing an article and get it sent off. That might have been a, a better, better use of my, my time. But I was very aware that money would run out once I finished my PhD and all those kind of material concerns. So the final year, yeah, it's a very daunting point. And again, and I think everyone goes through it.

You do you have another one of those kind of intellectual crisis at the end, well, just, when it's all finished or something, you're thinking, “This isn't, this isn't any good”, “What am I doing?” and again, almost everyone I've ever spoken to says they've, they've felt that. So it's a, it's, it's diff it's difficult. It's, it's, it's a difficult thing to do. It's enjoyable doing a PhD, but it's, it's hard. And that third year is probably the hardest because it's about to end.

My money ran out, I think at the end of September. I wanted it submitted and to have passed by the time my money stopped because I had this idea that then I just evolved into another job, which kind of isn't how it worked. So I, and I hit my deadline, finished the PhD and another thing my chief, my supervisor said, he said, “The PhD as it stands when you finish is not the book that's gonna come out”.

He says, “So don't worry about it being the book. Make sure it's a good PhD. Turn it into a book later”. Which I think was good advice. And so I kind of, made sure it was a good PhD, did what it had to do, put it in, in end of July, I then had, and I had to go out to the university and I had my, what is called a Viva, where a chap came down from another university and they all seemed to go off for lunch and leave me sweating, in the department.

And they all came back. And, before I went in, I suppose should say, but before I went in the room, my supervisor, “Oh, congratulations. Everything's okay”. So I went in and they said, “Yeah, you, you've got it. That's fine. It was interesting and good”. They asked me a few questions and, and there we go. I think I, I had a very easy ride with the Viva. And I know of other people who it's a lot more difficult.

And then, so once I got that, so I had a day of thinking, fantastic, I, I can now call myself doctor and isn't that wonderful? And then, reality hits in the morning and you think, “Right, right now, okay, now I need, now I do need to get a job”, and that was when my supervisor was good again because he said, he said, what I've done is, that there will definitely be teaching for you in the next two terms, but what we need to do now is start sending out your applications and keeping our eyes open for, you know, openings at other places.

And so I kind of, from then on, really, I spent half my time, doing application forms and half my time writing up articles in between doing these little bits of, of teaching and send it. And it was about then, yeah, no, it was then exactly, actually October, just as I finished that, I sent off the spec letters to all the universities in my area just saying, ‘here's my CV, here's what I can teach and what I have done. Just let me know if anything comes up.’

So I sent off about 35 letters of which I got, three opportunities most come back, say we haven't got anything at the moment, but there's three like where I am now, my, let's land on the desk. Literally the day somebody walked in the office and said, “I've got a job somewhere else”. So it's pure luck.

And I also, and at the end of that, each term I did it as well. So I sent them all off in September or the end of September, then all off again in December to the same places and all off at the end of March again saying, ‘I've done this since I last wrote, I've done this and that, but I'm still interested’. And over time I kind of built up bits of experience at different universities doing teaching and always had enough just to keep me ticking over.

How long is it between being Viva’d and getting the first bit of work?

That was, that happened to be seamless because the bit of work was at the same institution.

So there was no gap. The only ever gap I've had in my employment was in March where the Easter term finished and the summer term starts at the end of April.

And I had managed to get something sourced out, but I had a kind of six weeks with no work or no income and I had to get a kind of part-time job through a friend. Did a bit of work then. But I did know that I was gonna go back and do some teaching at where I am now actually. But, the irony there was I a part-time job, I got paid me more money than I've earned here until recently. I think. 'cause it just made you realise kind of there are other jobs out there that do earn more money, but I hated doing it.

So I worked in solicitor's office, just, helping out in the secretary's office basically. It was awful. It was horrible. But I, I earned more money doing it than I, I did do for quite a long time in academia.

So the three institutions that get back to you and often you teaching. Do they all fit together and enabled you to work at those simultaneously?

Let me see. How did it work out? I come out of where I was at on my PhD and I taught there.

And then in January I worked at three different places, two different places in January to March of my first year after my PhD. Then between April and the summer I worked in three different places. The job at where I was then PhD had gone. And so then I did have three, different institutions where I'd go in on different days and do different courses.

One of those institutions, the one I'm at now also had a continuing education department and I did a bit of nighttime teaching there as well. So of course was people doing access courses. So I did a bit of work there. So I was literally doing these potted bits all over the country. So I, at one point I was traveling literally, you know, to different parts of the country to do teaching and it was eating into how much money I earned, but I just thought it's got to be worth it just to build up the experience to meet people and to make sure I just hung in there.

So what scared me most was that line about the not having the head note paper to apply for jobs that, you know, there must, I must always be at, have my foot in some door somewhere while I was applying.

How did you manage that traveling and having to produce courses for these, three different places?

It was hard, but ‘cause you work in three different places. It's not like three full-time jobs. So they were like three part-time jobs really.

So, so I did have time. I think one of the courses at two of the places were quite probably quite similar to each other as well, you know, and so much you can do. And also once your courses are kind of done, they're done in, but in, in, in this, in the basis of them. So, you know, once they were, some of them had been written while I was doing my PhD more or less, so I then could transfer 'em and tweak them to fit in with the, the next institution that I was moving on to.

But at one point it was, you know, it was, you'd, I'd get up on a Tuesday and I was like, kind of, “Where am I going today? And I'd go and get a tube and a train and a bus and be somewhere out in the middle of Hertfordshire or something. Then the next day I'd be in another county. And that was, that was, there wasn't, I look back on it now and it seems quite fun really in this way. But at the time it was quite hard. It was quite hard. And I was very relieved that once I kind of got, kind of went from getting part-time and worked to a short term one year contract at the place where I'm, I'm at now, that felt really quite a relief.

'cause I meant “Right, okay, I can concentrate on this one. This is the place where I'm in and I'm, I'm doing a full-time job. It's just, it's just a short term contract”.

And did they interview you for these, all these part-time jobs?

Yeah, every single one. I kind of went in and had a chat with the head of department and they talked to me about what I'd done and everything. It wasn't like a formal interview with other people, but it was a, you know, they, they didn't just say, all right, turn up on a certain date and do it.

I kind of came and talked to them about it.

Can you remember the kind of questions they asked you?

Yeah, it was quite straightforward really. if we needed you to teach a course on so and so, could you do it? Have you taught anything like that before? What kind of thing would you do if you had to organise a two hour seminar on this topic? How would you go about doing it?

Then it just went on and did, do you know, so-and-so's at the university you were, so it's quite kind of straightforward really on in that kind of instance. It's obviously everything to an interview you'd get if you were actually going for a job, you know, a proper full-time job somewhere.

Can you pick up the story then from what the institution that you're at now? You were at teaching part-time? And what happened?

I was teaching part-time for essentially a year and a half.

And while I was doing that, and this is definitely a good thing for people to do, is I applied for funding from a funding by the Leverhulme Trust, am I allowed to say that? From Leverhulme Trust in order to do a pilot research project. And in order to do, I mean basically I asked them for, for a wage essentially for certainly half my wage for a year. And I said to the institution I was at that I said, right, I'll get half my wage here, can I have a bit of teaching as well to make up the other half of a wage and it'll basically a full a year thing.

And so I put into Leverhulme, the project was successful, so I got my £12,500 research money for my for to pay me to be a researcher for half my time. And I think money the other half of that, another £12,000 pounds approximately, has paid for me for doing, half a load of teaching for the year.

And I got the kudos, which is very important nowadays of having research money. And so that, that kind of, when I look back on it now, there's possibly people would disagree, powers that be here would disagree, but that's how I felt I got properly in the department. I no longer felt like a, a temp kind of coming in every and just doing bits and bobs. I felt like someone who properly integrated themselves within the department and was, you know, move properly onto the next project research project in a proper sense.

And after that year, that kind of went well and at the end of that year, somebody else in the department was, had a year's leave to do some research so those another year's contract open up. So in that, so because it had gone well and I got a couple of publications out of what they'd done, I got offered that year's teaching and stuff. And in that year I wrote another couple of papers and put basic together for another book.

And at the end of that year I kind of got to a situation where I published quite a lot of stuff. they didn't have a job here, but I would kind of was I'd so far into the department that it'd be difficult for 'em to get rid. I had students wanted to do my courses. I was, you know, my publications meant that I wasn't just a complete rookie as someone who could kind of, could, you know, at least kind of, what's the right word, you know, expect to have some work.

And so, and again, somebody was on research leave and so I filled that space again. And while I did that, I put in for a big funding bid at the AHRC for a big project - and got that, so by the end of the, the year it was on a, on another short term contract, I suddenly got a two year grant basically from the AHRC. And as a result of that, I was given a full-time contract.

'cause the, partly because the department was expanding again at the time, and so opportunities were coming up and basically they had someone on their doorstep who would, you'd like to think at the time fall into a job by that point having got the AHRC money. So they employed me. Then once that project finished, that's when I got the, now I just got the readership. So that's kind of how it went.

How long was it between finishing the PhD and getting a permanent contract?

God, let’s see, eight years, yeah.

And then how, how many years after that did you get the readership?

Just now. So two.

And what does it mean to have a readership and who do you get it from?

To get, when I got my permanent contract, one of the professors in department said, right now, put in for the readership. He said, because you just, how it had been with me. He said, what you've got in your CV is better than most people have as a readership or a senior lecturer, so put in for it straight away.

So I did. And what it basically means is the readership is kind of, I suppose it's parallel to the senior lecturer. So it's the, the, if you look at it in a simple way, it's the stage in between being a lecturer and a professor. So it's kind of next stage up how I see it anyway. And it means the reader's distinct from the terms of the emphasis on research, rather on administrative. I'm not, I'm not pining to be the head of department around the university.

I'm one of those ones who wants to carry on doing the books and doing the research and stuff like that.

So does that mean that you are heading towards the professorship?

It'd be nice, in the future. I'm not particularly precious about these kind of titles as long as I can… What means most to me is having flexibility with my time to do the things I'm interested in. But that's, that's the kind of career trajectory suppose.

The role of networking in finding a job

What part do you think networking played in finding a job after the PhD?

I think it is important. It was something I, I don't like the idea of, and at the time when I was doing my PhD, I didn't do a lot of, because I'm not very good at doing that kind of thing. I find it awkward, difficult turning up at some kind of conference and trying to you know, jostle your way into a position where you can say, “Hello, I'm so and so, and I'm doing this”.

And it, it just all seems a bit, kind of kind, crass and false. But there is something to be said for, for doing it just because, just so people know your name and so when they see your name, they'll say, “Oh, that's that the bloke who is at the, the conference”. Or even better if you can give papers at conference. I mean, that's the kind of way then people will come up to you afterwards perhaps and ask and ask you questions. I think it is important and because, and this is probably not a very professional thing to say, but I think, you know, if, if people meet someone - like somebody, then they, they have a disposition towards 'em.

So when you apply for a job and one of the people reading your application for me, someone who's met you and thinks, “Well, they seem all right”, they'll think, “Well, they could be someone I could work with”, whatever their academic credential, which are obviously important, but they'll have a sense that, well, I can get on with them. They, they were, they weren't some loony in the ivory tower kind of stuff. They were someone you could have a, have a chat with. So I think it is, it is important and it also just helps you share experiences with other people who are in similar boats and also get to learn some of the stuff I was saying earlier where I didn't get an idea of how things work.

The structures of going from a PhD student to work. You learn about that by go, by talking to people who've gone through it.

The interview experience for academic jobs

Will you just tell me a bit about the, interview experiences for academic jobs? I know you talked to me a little bit about the temporary jobs, when you went for your first proper interview for an academic position.

I had about, I've had about, see I had about four or five interviews elsewhere. I didn't get them so I dunno, I can't give a kind of killer answer that kind of says this is how you get a job, but on what a kind of negative thing on one of them. I definitely went there and as soon as I got there, I knew who was gonna get the job.

It was definitely gonna be the internal candidate and it was bizarre. There were four of us at one end of the room come for the interview and the other one who was internal, kinda at the other end of the room with all the people who were interviewing him, kind of having a drink and a, a laugh and you just, we just sit there, looked at each other and thought this isn't gonna be our day. They're going through the motions. And a couple of, couple of the others where I, I think I came quite close, one thing that was useful that I got wrong at one of them was, you have to do a presentation.

I did a presentation on my current research and what somebody said to me afterwards was, you shouldn't have done it on your current research in the narrowest sense. You should have told about everything that you've ever done and told them your research history and built a big picture of the scope of your research and that kind of thing. So for example, if I, I went in there and told 'em, I think about, I'm doing Oswald Mosley in the Labour Party they said I should have gone and said, I do British Politics and I’ve looked at this dimension and that dimension or this kind of stuff.

And so you should paint, paint yourself as big as possible. So I think that would be quite useful. In terms of the actual face-to-face interviews, all of them that I've had, there's been about four or five people and they've all been relatively kind of quite jolly really just asking again, you know – “What kind of work have you planned to do in the future?” “What kind of courses can you teach?”, “How flexible are you in terms of what you would teach?”, “How do you lay out your seminars?” and all that kind of stuff.

They like, it's always good to have a big project in mind for the future 'cause they'd like to know where, if money's coming in and, and that kind of stuff. Like I said, I didn't get those jobs.

So did you prepare for any of those interviews?

Yeah, yeah, quite a lot. I kind of looked at the, and the main thing I did was look at the university websites and find out what they, how they build themselves, how they presented themselves, how they worded their specialisms, and how they kind of, chose to present themselves really.

And I made sure I had an idea of who's in the department particularly who was relevant to me. And so, you know, I say you could say that if I, you know, if I was at this department, I would fit in with so and so, I'd compliment what they do rather than, you know, eclipse it. I'd compliment what they do. So that kind of, I had a knowledge of the, the institution I was having the interview with both the staff and their presentations themselves.

Russell’s current role

What is your current role?

I am officially from October - I'm a reader in history. Which means I, have to, well as well as teaching, doing seminars and lectures. I am expected to do lots of research, write articles, write books, bring in research money to fund projects for myself and for others. Supervise undergraduates, postgraduates. I'm also in charge of admissions this year, so I'll be busy in October with clearing and stuff like that and assessing who comes into the university and who we keep there.

And how long have you been working in your particular role? Within this institution?

Well, it's kind of evolved every year. Slightly different. I started this institution in a part-time capacity. So every year I've had slightly different things to do if you like. It's been, it's been quite a, mine's quite an unusual story, I imagine, if that's possible.

It's a lot of unusual stories.

In what way is it unusual?

Well, 'cause I started off here part-time. I was also work, doing part-time work at a couple of other universities. I was down on a series of contracts that were initially part-time, then they were, what's the term? “Set term”, I think that's set term contracts for like one year. And then for two years I then had research funding, which funded me for part of my time here in part was coming out of the central apartment.

And then I got a full-time post and then within two years I got the readership. So it kind of started off quite slow and undulating and then kind of sped up as it went on. So it was a rather, like I said, I mean all the, you said earlier as well, all the stories are slightly different, but mine's quite protracted, strange one I think is exactly right.

And when you say that you did part-time work, was it like sessional teaching?  

Yeah, I'd, the first thing I did at the university I'm at now was, one course for one term. Because somebody was leaving I think, and I covered their course and that went okay. And so I did the course again the next term and also did a, a first year course as well. And so it kind of built up bit by bit like that.

What does your job involve?

As a kinda lecturer, reader kind of, on paper it's meant to split three ways and it kind of does split three ways is you have an administrative tasks or tasks to do.

You have research tasks to do and you have teaching tasks to do. So I tend to kind of think of it in those three brackets. I think on the contract they're broken down as being equal, but they never are. I mean, it depends on the year and the time of year and all that kind of thing. I'd say the bulk of my time is taken up with the teaching and research.

So I teach usually three or four courses a year, which can be up to a hundred students. I also supervise a couple of PhD students. Research wise, again, depending on where I'm in a project at the moment, I'm writing up a book at the moment. So my research is sitting at a computer typing up my research rather than sitting in an archive. It can depend, depending on where the project's at. And then there are these kind of administrative things which I, I like to try to fit in, around things rather than give up too much of my time to administrative tasks.

But there are obviously things you have to do. And in the kind of grey areas between that, there's obviously stuff like marking which, comes at different times of the year of the exams and during the coursework, submissions and stuff like that.

You said you're teaching four courses a year. So what does that involve and how much preparation do you have to do for it?

When you first start a course, there's a lot of preparation.

I, well, how I did it was I, you have a 10 week term, so you've got to teach, usually the courses are about 30 hours per course. I'm generalising here. They're all slightly different but 30 hours. So you have to break it down into seminars and or lectures and, research what you're going to teach. Plan your lessons, sort out handouts, think if you are how you want to, involve the students in the class, discuss seminar discussion, whether you set tasks to do, projects to do and all that can change as you go through the course.

'cause each group you teach are slightly different and dynamics in the groups are different. Sometimes students need a bit of prodding and other times they're all, you know, quite enthusiastic. So, so it can depend. So there's, initially when you set up a course, there's an awful lot of work goes into it. Once you've done it once or twice, you've got the bulk of the materials there and you kind of add to it and you rethink it as you go through.

Some seminars go, well, you can kind of you more or less kind, turn up and do them each year knowing that they're gonna be good. Other ones you kind of have to play about with and think about like that. But I'd say the bulk of the work in terms of courses comes at the very start. And once they're set up, they kind of manage themselves. And given that you are teaching stuff that's, you know, your subject as it were, you are kind of up to, we should be up to speed with the historiography. In my case, it's going on around it. So you just add to it as it as it comes really.

And how did you learn how to teach or?

Got thrown in at the deep end really was, when I did my PhD, the way I might come onto this later, but the way I was funded was as a graduate teaching assistant.

So part of the deal was that I got a certain amount of money a year in return for six hours of my time teaching a week. So I all of a sudden started a PhD and straight away was told, “and you'll be teaching a first year group for six hours or six different groups or six hours”.

And so I literally just had to, that, that was 'cause the first year group, the course was kind of laid out for me. I didn't really have to do much, do too much planning of course, but I obviously had to decide how I taught and what information I discussed. And so, yeah, so it was just literally a case of being thrown in and I wouldn't say there's always a case of sink or swim, but it went okay enough for me to think this is all right and I can do this and I know how I can, I could see immediately the ways that this, that it would be a bearable way to, to go on.

But it, it is difficult. I mean, the first time, first time you teach. And usually, again, it depends on the people. Usually you are not too much older than the people you are teaching. That's quite strange. As you get older, it gets a bit easier 'cause the gap opens up and you don't kind of, you don't quite feel the same affinity in a good way.

Can you describe what your work environment's like?

Again, it work depends on, on time really. in term time and in a normal term. My work environment is probably two, I'd say three days a week. I'll be in the university in my office doing or in the seminar rooms teaching and doing administrative stuff. I used to, I tend to like to do my writing and research outta the university.

So when I'm in my office or in the department, you, I can't get anything done like that. There's always gonna be somebody come and knock on the door or you know, you going out for a cup of tea and all that kind of stuff. So my work environment there, oscillates between being at the university in my office with colleagues and students and being at home doing my research, kinda quite isolated, cutoff and thinking about what I do.

Does your job have any connection with the subject area of your PhD?

Yeah, I still teach the, the same subjects and my, I like to think my research has evolved from it and my teachings evolved from it and that my, my PhD was about British communists, and that came out just an interest about kind of, I suppose, I like the idea of kind of, I like think first is the idea of people kind of kicking against the grain of it, which I find very interesting.

And secondly, I, I think I've a, a love of, glorious failures and I think the British Communist Party kind of summed it up and everything I've kind ever done since you could probably fit under that umbrella of glorious failure. So, yeah. So everything is all bound.

Do you feel that you are using your PhD experience?

Yeah, very much so. In lots of different ways. first of all, the knowledge you gain from spending that time researching a subject, so in depth.

And then applying it in a teaching, environment, you are using it when you go into research, your next project, everything you've learned from your PhD you take with you and some things you discard and other things you keep and some things you do slightly differently, but everything relates back to that, that experience. And thirdly, very important. And on that score is, your own postgraduate students.

And when they're doing their PhD and they're having the crisis, everyone has after nine to 10 months thinking, I can't do this. Is that, you know, to say, well, no, everybody goes through that and weighs around that, how to structure your research and all that kind of thing. I mean, everyone's slightly different how they do their PhD's no generalised pattern, but I think there are common experiences in which, you know, having been through it, you can talk to people about that.

Do you think there's something about the PhD experience that equipped you or equips you to, to do your job?  

On the research side of things, definitely because it teaches you a kind of, not just an intensive trainer, intensive period of actual research and how to sift through an awful lot of material construct into an argument, all that kind of stuff, which you learn as, undergraduate and have a post group. But as we're doing a PhD, it's really quite intensive.

So, so yeah, definitely, definitely on that side of things with the teaching, it's more a transfer of knowledge. It's not like your practice of your PhD doesn't really affect your teaching per se.

And do you have an idea about where your work might go in the future?

Yeah, I tend to have ideas as I'm going on about what I want to, to do next. And usually I have two or three that are kind of in my head.

And as I get closer to the end point of what I'm doing, those ideas, I begin to narrow down to whatever project it is next. So I suppose in terms of my research life at the moment, I'm onto my, just coming to the end of my, I suppose my third if you, if I kind of divided it up into stages. My third stage of research, I did communist party, then I did a, a big project on the Labor party and now I'm doing a project on Sir Oswald Mosley when he left Labour to become a, become a fascist.

Eventually I'm looking at that thing and they all kind of link up and they're all within the same period, but they're all kind of part of a, a stage at the moment. I'm then thinking about two or three projects in the future that once I finish the Mosley project, which will be next year, I'll then start on, on that.

Are they all books?

I tend to think around books. Yeah. One of the ideas I've got for future research involves teaming up with somebody from another university and setting a project, which would, include hiring, if that's the right word, post grads to do research so that maybe PhDs or postgraduate research would spin off the project.

So, and as that suggests, that would be quite a broad ranging topic of which I'd be doing something in it, but also supervising other people, doing other strands of research relating to it.

And this is in a very, beginning stage at the moment where we literally kind of mulling over the logistics of doing such a project and talking with it with a colleague at another university about how we could perhaps have one person at one end of the country and one at the other supervising students in around those areas and doing certain research into, into the wise. And where thoughts or the, sorry, the relationship between communities and politics within certain constituencies around the country.

Do you feel that the pressure for research mainly comes from you or from externally?

There is pressure externally on people, not so much to do research because I don't think you'd be in the job if you didn't like research. I wouldn't have thought. But there is pressure to produce and so there's a debate that goes on amongst colleagues about how the, those old projects where people should spent 10 years on something at the end of it would be a book or even just one article or something.

They just, you know, they absorbed all this information and produce what they'd like to see as the kind of definitive piece of work that, that's perhaps less the case. Now there's more an, an emphasis and this has to do with kind of making sure you, you keep up a steady, a steady stream of, of publications. So whenever I think of a project, I think in terms of a book and at least two articles that could come off it, and that's how I kind of picture it in my head, given that I say to write a book, you are looking at a five to six year period from start to finish, from having the idea to publishing it.

So there is, for myself, I tend to put deadlines on myself, which occasionally I get a tizzy about thinking, well, you know, I've got to meet that deadline. Then I usually realise, well, no, I set that deadline so I can just revise it if I really want to. But there obviously are other deadlines, like if my funding body, I got research money from the AHRC and they wanted me to say when I would finish a project.

So that's what I'm, I'm, I gave them a, a date and I'm aiming at that date. And nothing's ever fixed in stone, but I want to try and meet that, you know, I've aimed for it and I've, I've signed a contract with the publisher, so there's a date there. So there are these deadlines that do come in. I mean, they're never insurmountable, I wouldn't have thought. But I think I, and personally I find that good to have something to aim at rather than a, a big open-ended field in front of me seems more daunting than having a deadline.


The work trajectory

And when you said that you did part-time work, was it like sessional teaching?

Yeah, I'd, the first thing I did at the university I'm at now was, one course for one term. Okay. Because somebody was leaving I think, and I covered their course and that went okay. And so I did the course again the next term and also did a, a first year course as well. And so it kind of built up bit by bit like that.

Considering what he may have done differently

If you could do anything differently, what would you have done differently?

I would've definitely saw some publications out a bit earlier. I'd have gone to a few more conferences and that kind of thing. Why I didn't do, which, because I was living in London while I was studying somewhere else, was I didn't really integrate within the kind of postgraduate community at the university I was at. And I, that's not really something I'd necessarily do differently, but something I kind of regret a bit. I, I didn't for, for good reasons and I don't think it hampered my work particularly, probably made me work better, but I think I missed out on a little bit of that kind of, social side where other people are going through the same thing as you and they're not gonna get bored to tears when you talk about academic stuff.

So I possibly have done, done that differently. Other than that it was just a case of crossing bridges as you came to them, really.

I think probably things I could have done things slightly different, but I don't know if that would've helped at all. So there's nothing else I would've definitely done differently.

Sophie | French | Parliament; Civil Service.

Sophie shares her journey through and beyond her PhD, delving into the pivotal moments and influences that shaped her path. With a keen eye on the skills honed during her doctoral studies, she illuminates how they seamlessly translate into her current role as a clerk in the House of Commons. Exploring her transition out of academia, she offers candid reflections on the emotional landscape then and now.

From the inception of career considerations during her final year to the intricacies of navigating the parliamentary sphere, Sophie intricately maps out her trajectory. She grapples with the significance of her PhD status, juxtaposing her expectations with the reality of her experience and outlining the core of her research.

In weighing the pros and cons of public sector work, she offers insights drawn from personal experience and articulates her motivations for pursuing a PhD. With a seasoned perspective, she extends valuable advice to those contemplating a civil service career while reflecting on the profound impact of her doctoral journey in her professional milieu.

Explore Sophie’s journey further by clicking the links below:

The background to Sophie’s PhD
The reasons behind her PhD
Sophie’s PhD Topic
The meaning of the PhD
Finishing the PhD
Sophie’s PhD experience
Sophie’s connections
Feelings towards academia
Sophie’s current role
The pros and cons of working in the public sector
Sophie’s advice



Career Pathway

  • Undergraduate degree in French and Arabic at Oxbridge
  • MPhil in European Literature
  • Started PhD on the eighteenth-century French novel
  • Time spent researching in Paris
  • Started applying for academic jobs. Meeting with university careers advisor to discuss non-academic options
  • Application to civil-service fast-stream
  • Accepted for various civil service posts
  • Started work in the House of Commons as Assistant Clerk (fast-stream civil service equivalent)
  • Submitted PhD
  • Viva
  • PhD Graduation



Turning Points

  • 4th year undergrad when I decided I wanted to do a Masters then a PhD and got funding to go to America for this
  • Following summer when I decided I would stay in England for my MPhil and PhD
  • Autumn 2002 when I decided I would apply for non-academic jobs after my PhD
  • I considered leaving my present job, but decided to stay
  • Considered leaving House of Commons, interviews with management consultancies
  • Promotion to Senior Clerk, House of Commons (Grade 7 civil service equivalent)



Audio Interview

The background to Sophie’s PhD

When did you complete your PhD? How many years did it take and what was it in?

The PhD was in French literature, 18th century novel, a novelist that no one has ever heard of, but quite similar to kind of “Dangerous Liaisons” type of writing. I did three years of it full time and then I started working here about a day after my three year mark. And I didn't actually submit the final thesis until about six months after that. Although I, I completed a full draft before I started working here. So the bulk of the work was done.

And how old were you when you started?

I was, I guess I must have been 22 'cause I did a four year degree and then a one year Master's -22 or 23. I can't remember exactly.

And, and how did you fund your study?

It was all funded. The first year of the PhD was funded by Cambridge University, which was the university I went to. And then after that I got an AHRB as it was grant for the rest of it.

Did you work before you started a PhD?

Only student jobs in the holidays. Not, not a proper job.

What kind of jobs did you do in the Holidays?

I did, I worked for a market research company that basically, because it happened to be located in the town where I grew up and they did, research with the companies abroad and people abroad, so they needed French speakers. So I did that. And then I also worked in Cambridge between my Masters and my PhD for a software company doing translation of their software into French in German.

Was there any significant obstacles that you had to overcome in order to embark on the PhD?  

Well, getting the funding was the significant obstacle because I didn't have, I was entirely reliant on getting funding from a research council from the university. 'cause I didn't, I don't have a particularly rich family and I didn't have any savings. So if I hadn't got the money to do it, I wouldn't have done it. And it was as simple as that really. When I was finishing off my first degree, I, I also actually applied to do a Master's and a PhD in America, on the recommendation of one of my tutors at the time because he thought, you know, there's quite a lot of funding in America, which I was also accepted on, but I always wanted to stay in England if I could because my boyfriend's here and all my friends are here.

So I didn't really want to go off to America on my own.

The reasons behind her PhD

What were your motivations for doing a PhD?

Mainly personal interest, and I still would say that the only reason to do a PhD is because you are actually really interested in the subject. It, it was in a sense it was also to do with carrying on, carrying on, because I finished my degree and I did pretty well and I enjoyed it. So I did a Master's and I finished my Master's and I did pretty well and I enjoyed it. So I did a PhD. And I wasn't really, although I'd, people would ask me, “Do you want to go on and carry on in academia?”.

And as, as I would say to them at the time was, “Yes, at the moment I think I do”, but people change their minds and I, I knew people who'd said, “Oh yes, definitely going to be an academic and gotta to the end of their three years” and said, you know, “I can't stand it anymore. I definitely want to go and do something else”. So I wasn't, I was quite open-minded about not necessarily carrying on.

Sophie’s PhD Topic

Can you tell me a little bit about your PhD topic?

The PhD was in French Literature, 18th century novel, a novelist that no one has ever heard of, but quite similar to kind of “Dangerous Liaisons” type of writing.

The meaning of the PhD

 What does the PhD mean to you personally?

I'm, I'm very glad I did it and because it's a big achievement and I got a lot out of it, even though by the time I got to the third year, I was basically fed up with it and couldn't wait for it to end. I'm, I kind of see it as a, a thing that I can look back on and say, “Oh, well”, you know, if I ever get a bit depressed or something, I say, “Oh, well actually I did that and, you know, I finished it and it was a big piece of work and it was good”.

How do you feel your PhD status is regarded by your employers?

I think they think it's a good thing. I think it's not, it's not completely unusual to have a PhD and be working here, so I don't think they thought about it that much. You get paid slightly more when you start. Yeah. It's nice to have doctor before your name, 'cause then when people ring you up, they don't think you're a secretary, you know, that kind of thing.

I don't think it's, it makes a big difference though.

Finishing the PhD

Can you talk me through that last year of your PhD?

So at the beginning of my final year I was sitting there thinking, okay, I've got a year to run. I'm funded for a year and then after that I've got to find something else to do. And academic jobs starting the following October were being advertised at that time. So I started applying for them. I basically took the decision then that I was gonna have to apply for them at that point because I didn't want to be in the situation where I got to the end of my funding and didn't have anything to do. So I spoke to my supervisor and we had to talk about it and she said it's, it's difficult to get a job if you don't have your PhD in hand or pretty much finished, which I didn't.

But given the situation, she was very supportive and wrote me references and all the kind of things that supervisors do. So I sent off some applications for that and at the same time I went to see my careers advisor, booked an appointment, just went to see her. I had this idea that I wanted to combine my academic interests with something a bit more real world. So this is the idea that I had that I could maybe work for a think tank or something like that.

And I went to see her and she told me about this job that I'm doing now in the House of Commons, which is recruited through the civil service fast stream, but it's not actually part of the general civil service. It's a separate thing. They kind of piggyback on the application process. I think that's changed. I think the civil service application process actually changed since I did it. So I wouldn't want anyone to rely on what I'm saying a hundred percent. But at the time they had two application rounds in a year, which were January and October I think. And I applied for the one starting in the January, I think it was at the time.

Which would, which got me in to start working in October that year. So it's quite a long process. You do have to plan ahead, otherwise you're gonna have a, a gap.

Can you talk me through the process?

Yes. So I, this definitely has changed. I know, the way that we did it was that you initially got invited to sit a test, which was a day long test that you had to do very like logical things, numerical things, et cetera. And there was a centre in Cambridge. So I went and sat in a sports hall and did a test all day and then you wait for them to write back to you and say whether you've got through that or not.

And that part I know is all done online now, so you just get, you go on the computer and you can do it from your house. So I got through that. And then the next section was to come to London for a two day assessment centre, which was group activities and interviews with various people. and some more kind of essay like written tests.

I got through that.

How did you find that?

It was fine. I think it was helped at the time because I still hadn't totally ruled out the academic route at that point. So I wasn't like thinking this is my entire future and I must do really well. And I think that took some of the pressure off and let me just be myself, because there's quite a lot of interaction in these group tests and things. You all have to sit there, you have to pretend to be policy people in the government and decide how to spend your budget and things like that and negotiate.

And I think I was a bit more, I took a few more risks than I would've done if, if I'd been thinking, “Oh I must do well”.

Were you among similar kinds of people?

It was a bit of a mixture really. There were people who were just grad, 21 year olds just graduated and there were plenty of people actually who had done various forms of postgraduate study and there were mature students or people who were career changing. So I didn't feel that I was older than everyone else. I felt I was older than some of them, but I didn't feel that it was an odd thing to be doing to be applying a couple of years later than some of them.

So then I got through that. and for this job and for some of the other civil service jobs, there is an extra interview session after that. But once the way that I did it, after you'd done that assessment centre, if you got through that you were guaranteed a job of some kind. But because I wanted to do this job particularly, I had to come for another interview session, which is more of a traditional interview where you just talk about your experiences and they give you questions in a standard interview format.

Was it daunting?

I, I'd say the same thing again really, which was because I wasn't thinking this is my one and only option. It was less daunting than it would otherwise have been. And I was more relaxed and I think that was to my benefit because I was thinking, you know, this is an option. If I get this job, that's great, but if I don't, probably something else will come along before October.

How did you prepare for the interview?  

I didn't prepare that much for it. I read some books about parliament, which seems like a fairly obvious thing to do. Although now I think in retrospect the amount I knew is quite little really. For the previous assessment centre, we'd had to pick a topic that we were gonna research ourselves to talk about and I'd picked Parliament 'cause I thought I could reuse it again in the final interview. And I think that was quite useful. But they didn't really expect you to have prepared as such.

They were just asking general questions.

Did they ask you anything about your PhD and were they particularly interested in the fact?

No, not, not really, no. They asked me what it was about as one of the early questions. I think that was mainly more, they didn't seem to like ask me any searching questions about it, just what information, what it was about and why I chosen to do it.

Could you sense any kind of attitude that they had about the PhD, whether they thought that generally it was a good thing to have done or might be useful in your job? Or did, was anybody dismissive of it or?

No, certainly not. No one was dismissive of it. I think they valued it and I think I got the impression that it was a good thing to have. But I think I was dealing with a job where all of the entrants are pretty highly qualified, so they, I don't think they thought it was going to put me ahead of anyone else. I didn't get that impression at all.

And when you went through the civil service fast stream application process, did you think at all about going down the, the line of the diplomatic corps?  ‘cause you have languages?

Yeah. That was when I originally applied for the civil service after I finished my first degree in languages. That is what I had envisaged doing. That's all European service. But, this time when I got this job, I think I was pretty unusual in actually applying to become a clerk. Normally the way people would become clerks is they apply to the first few and they discovered that clerkship's a part of it and then they come on an open day here or something and they say, “Oh fine, I'll put that as one of my options”.

And we only recruit three or four people a year, so it's not a big department. Whereas I was completely the other way around because I'd been so sold on this idea by my career as advisor and not in a bad way, in a good way. I'd always had this as the thing that I was trying to get out of it and if I didn't make it through the final board, okay, I could probably still get a job in another department somewhere, which would be great, but this was really what I wanted to do.

So how was it to be finishing up your PhD and working?

Mm-Hmm. That was quite tough actually. I wouldn't recommend doing it unless you have got a pretty full draft done already because what I was doing was rewriting and editing and moving bits about, it wasn't starting from scratch on any of it. I had all of my chapters pretty much done.

And still it was quite tough because, you know, you get to the end of your working week and you're quite knackered and you've gotta spend your whole weekend on your PhD. So yeah, it, it wasn't brilliant but it was doable and because the end was in sight so I knew it wasn't gonna go on forever and ever.

Did you ever at that point think that maybe the job taking the job would jeopardise finishing the PhD?

I know there are people in this job who, who have taken the job before finishing their PhD and never finished it. And I never ever wanted that to happen to me because I always thought, what have I done three years for if I'm not gonna actually finish it off? So I was quite self-disciplined really in a way in saying I have to do this and I'll regret it if I don't do it for the rest of my life. So yeah, but as I said, I was in a good position by that point because I had got the full draft out and if I hadn't, if I, if I'd still had a lot of it to write, I think it would've been a bad idea to have done that.

The other thing is it's quite useful here that you have to be on night duty some, some days 'cause the House sits until 11 o'clock at night and a lot of that is hanging around and waiting for things to happen. So I could use some of that time to do a bit of work on my PhD while I was, while I was here.

Did you apply for any other jobs?

I don't think I ended up applying for anything else because I applied for the civil service so far in advance because it's such a long application process and I think what I thought was, okay, if that goes wrong then I'll try something, I'll try for a different job.

But you know, it was far too early for something that you wanted to start in October to be applying in January for it pretty much any other, you know, publishing or whatever it might be.

If you look back at the kind of career preparation that you did, would you have done anything differently?  

No, I don't think so. But I think there was an element of luck involved that I happened to get this nice careers advisor who happened to see exactly to suggest something that's worked out so well for me. And I'm very glad that I did go and have a, you know, good half hours conversation with her about what I liked doing and what I didn't like doing. And I'm, in a way I am in retrospect, I kind of think, I didn't realise at the time how important it was for me to go and do that and to do it relatively far in advance of when the moment was going to come that I needed to make a decision so that I, I knew what was out there and I wasn't rushed into maybe doing something that wouldn't have been so suitable.

Do you think at the time other things had come together in your mind and that she just helped you to consolidate it?

The luck part of it I think is because this is a, the job that I'm doing, it's not a well-known job. It's not, if someone asked you what do you want to do, you wouldn't choose this job 'cause you wouldn't know what it was.

So if she hadn't mentioned it to me, I don't think I would've discovered it in another way just by, I don't know, going to the milk round or surfing the internet or whatever it is. So I think from that perspective, I think it's, we had a really good career service at university and we had a big database of what previous students had done in that kind of thing. So I think they were very clued up on a lot of things that you might not think of off your own back.

Did networking play any part?  

Not really, no. But I don't think it's a really, it's not a really networking job. You just, because it's such a long institutional application procedure, it's not gonna help you to network.

Sophie’s PhD experience

What was your PhD experience like?

It was, well, I, I think what I discovered from it was that I went into it thinking it was going to be all about cleverness and coming up with a clever answer, which seemed to be what undergraduate degrees are about. And actually it ended up being a lot more about slogging through the books and doing the research and sticking it out, which is fine. And I did, there were the clever ideas as well, but it was a lot more in depth digging to, to kind of bring them out.

Sophie’s connections

Does the work that you do now have any direct or indirect connection with the subject area of your PhD?

It doesn't have any direct connection at all, but then I think it would be hard to find a job that does have any direct con, you know, connection with 18th century French Libertines. But in terms of the skills that I developed, I think it does have quite a lot of relationship because there's a lot of, there is a lot of research and collating material and thinking critically particularly about the material.

With committees, what we are doing is we're, we are shadowing the government, so we are looking at what the government's policies are and criticising them basically when it comes down to it. So critical thinking and questions that you might want to ask to tease out holes in policy. That kind of aspect of it I think does relate back to what I did. I'm tempted to say transferable skills, but I think that's a bit of a, an easy phrase to use. I'm not sure that is, it is exactly transferable skills.

I think it's more direct than that. But it's definitely, I definitely think that I've been better at doing this job than I would've been if I hadn't done a PhD.

And anything that's mainly research skills and critical thinking?

And drafting skills as well. I mean, having written the how 70,000 words of it or whatever it was, when you come to write a select committee report of 20,000, it doesn't seem that bad.

Can you see some connection between the processes involved in writing a PhD thesis and in drafting the document for your committee?  

Yeah, I mean, what happens when you get to the end of an inquiry is that the clerk is responsible for drafting what's called the chairman's draft report. So it came as actually quite a shock to me that MP’s don’t draft their own reports. But I guess that's actually, if you think about it, it's quite obvious in retrospect. So yes, I think there is quite a lot of overlap.

What came as a shock to me as well when I started is that you write this draft report and then you give it to the committee and they change it all. And that's fine 'cause they, it's their report. But if you are used to an academic situation where you are in control of everything that you write and you know, down to starting sentences with however it can irritate you a bit that your committee has taken your wonderful thing that you've beautifully drafted and torn it all to pieces and changed it all. So that's, I think it's, it's obviously, it's right and it's healthy that it's their report and they write whatever they want in it.

But in terms of psychology or it, it's a departure from academic style of writing. But in terms of writing the report and putting the issues together and doing the research and picking out the bits that are most relevant, then it's quite similar.

Feelings towards academia

When you embarked on a PhD, were you anticipating an academic career or hadn't you really thought through what you’d do at the end?

I was, I would say I, I was, I thought that was quite likely, yes. I'd never really, even growing up, I never really had any burning desire to be one thing or another thing. And to be honest, up until I got to university, I never really knew that you could just have a career in academia. 'cause it hadn't, when you're at school, it's not something they generally present to you as an option. I'd always, I'd always thought about careers and when I started my PhD, I'd also previously applied to the civil service fast stream at that point in case I didn't get funding for the PhD, then I would have an option to do something else.

So it wasn't that I wasn't bothered, I wouldn't, you know, it wasn't that I was too relaxed and thought, “Oh manana, it'll all be okay”. It was just that I hadn't ruled anything out or in definitively.

Did you do anything during the PhD that you could consider in retrospect was sort of career building?

I didn't go to any of these kind of week away things that they do.

I didn't go to any of that. I did some conferences, which I guess it depends what kind of a career you think you were building. 'cause if you're building an academic career, then okay, I did conferences and I published papers and that's career building for academia. And I guess the public speaking experience is quite nice to have. 'cause I used to be quite terrified of doing public speaking and I kind of got over it a bit during that.

Any Teaching?

Oh, I did do teaching, but I hated it.

I think, yeah, that would've been a pitfall. I just, I'm not a natural teacher and I think to an extent you do have to have a natural gift for it. And I find it quite uncomfortable to be stood in front of a class and them all writing down what you're saying and you think, oh, didn't write it down and I didn't, you know, I'm just thinking off the top of my head and they're all writing it down faithfully and that, that bothered me. So, and I, yeah, I just, I've never been that interested in teaching.

It was the research aspect that was more interesting for me.

So was that partly why you decided against going down the academic route?

I would say it was a factor. It wouldn't be the main factor. And I have to say that I do think the main factor why I didn't go down the academic route was because I didn't get an academic job and I did apply for them. And if I had got one and I prob almost certainly would've accepted it and done it and I would be carrying on doing it.

So when did you start applying for academic jobs?

Well, it was, have been about a year before my funding ran out. So at the end of the second year, which is not a terribly good time actually because most places want you to have already finished your PhD.

What kind of academic jobs were they? Were they, junior research fellows?

Yeah, they were junior research fellowships in general posts because there wasn't anything that was specific to my area that was advertised. So I think, to be honest, I think it was mainly the economic situation because I knew the day that my funding ran out on after the three years, I didn't have anything to live on.

So I had to be doing something the next day that would be earning me money and I didn't, I wasn't going to scratch, I know people scratch around and do teaching for a year and wait for something else to come up and I, that didn't appeal to me at all.

And did you get any help from anybody in thinking about what you'd do if you didn't do an academic job?

Yes, I went to see the careers advisor at my university. This is about the same time when I realised that most academic jobs start advertising a year before they start.

At the same time I went to see the careers advisor about non-academic options, which was the fast stream, which is what ended up bringing me here.

Do you have any regrets about not pursuing an academic career? It was something that you were at one point quite interested in?

Yeah, I, it was, I don't regret it at all now because I think I'm enjoying my current job and I can see things in my personality that wouldn't have tallied very well with the academic side of things.

Like, I don't like teaching and that would've ended up being quite a big part of the job. But at the time, I would have to say it was a bit of a wrench, mainly because of just momentum that it's so much what you're expected to do is carry on in academia that, you know, it seems like a bit, it seems like you are doing the weird thing by leaving in a way. So at the time I did feel a bit, not exactly upset, but I can’t, kind of wondering whether I should have given it, you know, if I'd done this or that or given it or applied for this or that other job, maybe I should have could have carried on.

But in retrospect, I'm quite glad I didn't.

Sophie’s current role

Now we can talk a bit about your current role. What do you do?

I'm a clerk in the House of Commons, which is a bit of a funny job title, but it's basically like being a civil servant, it’s recruited through the fast stream and you work in the House of Commons, but you don't work for any political party. You are a neutral person, so you're just working for parliament and you are advising MP’s on whatever it is they want to do. If they're on a committee and they want to write a report, then you help 'em with that. Or if they want to put amendments down to a Bill, then you help them with that or whatever it might be.

The House of Commons as a whole, I think employees about a thousand people directly. And within that there are about a hundred people who are clerks, which is what I am. And a clerk is an old fashioned term for, basically a, the person who is like a civil servant in the government department. So they're doing briefings, they're drafting amendments to Bills, anything that members want to have happen that requires, you know, a certain amount of drafting skill and research skill clerks will do that kind of thing.

In addition to that, there are lots of support staff who are doing administrative things. There is a House of Commons Library who are all subject specialists. Some of the Select Committees employ subject specialists, and quite a lot of them have PhDs and it, it can be a part of their academic career to come and on here for secondment.

And obviously, I mean, we are divided up into departments within the House of Commons, so I'm just talking about my department, but there are, you know, there's a refreshment department and there's a finance department and so on, that we don't really have that much day-to-day contact with.

And on a day-to-day basis, can you give me an idea of exactly what your activities are and what your responsibilities are?

Yeah, there are two kinds of jobs here and one is working for a Select Committee and one is a procedural job. And at the moment I'm working for a Select Committee. So what the Select Committee does is it will choose a topic and run an inquiry into it and gather evidence and eventually write a report on what they think about it.

So I'm the clerk of a committee, so I'm responsible for, we have a team of people working for each Select Committee, so I'm responsible for kind of directing that team in order to reach that goal of running the inquiry smoothly, getting all the research done, getting all the people in that the committee wants to talk to, et cetera.

And so would you at one point have been working on a committee but not the clerk?  

Not the clerk, yes, exactly. I, I've only been the clerk of the committee since October, so I spent the first four years, well the first two years working for, for a committee with this more senior clerk as the clerk of the team. And then the next two years I worked in a procedural job, which is the other half of the jobs that clerks do, which is more connected with the chamber. So you're not working in teams really. You're working on your own little bit of whatever it might be.

What does that involve?

It's a wide range of things and they're all quite specialist.

The one that I worked on was called the Journal Office and that is to do with preparing the written record of the decisions that are made by the House of Commons. It's not like Hansard, so you're not writing down every single word that everyone says. It's just keeping the record of, you know, divisions and votes and what has, what has been passed and what has been rejected and so forth. And every day at the end of the day we publish a, a sheet that says, this is what the House decided today. And I was responsible for doing part of that.

Is that an Interesting job?

It is an interesting job, and the thing about the job here is that we move within the House of Commons every two years and you don't necessarily get to decide where you're gonna go. So you have to be a bit comfortable with that when you join. But if you are comfortable with that, it, it is very interesting 'cause you move around a lot and you see lots of different subject areas and different sides to the House. And if you're interested in politics, which I am, then it's a great place to work.

I think you have to be not party political because you have to be neutral and if you were very party political, I wouldn't suit you very much because you'd be seeing everything through that lens. But if you, if it's just the fact that you have a general interest, which I think is what I do, then it's a great place to work.

So you’re clerk of a committee and what kind of topics does the committee look at?

Well the committee I've worked for at the moment is the Scottish Affairs Committee. So we are supposed to look after the bits of Scotland that are not yet devolved to the Scottish Parliament, which are things like Defence.

So we're doing an inquiry on, you might have heard there's some new aircraft carriers that are going to be built on the Clyde Shipyards and we're doing an inquiry on that and how it could, how the economic benefit could be maximised for the rest of Scotland and that kind of thing. We are also seeing, we're having a one off session with the people who are involved in the constitutional commission, which is looking at whether more powers should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament or not. So we'll be talking to them.

What else? We recently finished a quite a long inquiry into poverty in Scotland, which is also a reserved matter because the treasury deals with benefits and that kind of thing. So, it, it's, it can be particularly with Scotland because you are kind of doing everything that is still reserved. It can be quite a wide ranging remit.

How long might you be working on a particular inquiry?

It varies. The longer ones can be a year or more, more normally I would say maybe four or five months.

It's all interrupted by the parliamentary recesses as well because we have a long summer recess. So it's a bit like university terms really. And for the most part nothing happens during the long summer recess, so you have to try and finish things off beforehand and then start new things afterwards. And obviously if there's an election at any point, then everything stops 'cause Parliament's dissolved.

So does it mean that you go on holiday?

We do to an extent. It's not, I think people who've worked here for a long time will remember the days when the recess happened and everyone just disappeared and they were never seen again.

That's not really the case so much anymore because we still get inquiries from the public and the press and so on. So we still have to be in touch and check emails and if anything comes up we have to be able to be here. But there is a lot less to do in the recesses that you do have the opportunity to go on longer holiday. I mean it's a bit like university terms. You have the opportunity to go away for a bit longer than you might in another job. The flip side of that is that you can't take any leave at all when the House is sitting, you have to be here all the time. So that's a bit inflexible. You can't say I'd like to avoid the school holidays and go off skiing because Parliament's bound to be sitting at that time.

Can you give me an idea of what you do on a daily basis?

If we think about what I've done today, it's probably quite a typical day. I've written up some briefing material for the committee's session next week, which is background material and the types of things they might want to ask questions on.

I've, I've got a meeting of a different committee that I also work for tomorrow, so I've been speaking to members about that and they've had some questions about exactly what we're considering. So I've been answering their queries, sending out papers for members to look at. Our secretary does that, but I will check off everything to make sure that it's, you know, it's the right thing to send out.

And who are the members?

For the members of Parliament. So, I, in addition to the Scottish Affairs Committee, I also work for a committee called Modernisation of the House of Commons, which is, it doesn't meet as often as some other committees, which is why I'm doing it in addition to the other committee.

And it looks at things like sitting hours and whether they should be made more family friendly and that kind of thing. So the members on that can be quite high profile. Harriet Harmon's the chair of that committee and we have people like Theresa May is on it and Simon Hughes on it. Scottish Affairs is obviously Scottish members and they're not so well known down here, but obviously they're known in Scotland.

Mohammed Sarwar, the chairman of that committee. And I, you would normally as a clerk liaise more with the chairman than you would with the other members of your committee because the chairman is the one who's deciding the program subject to the agreement of the rest of them.

Do you have to do much traveling up to Scotland or is it because you're looking at devolved and un-devolved issues at the moment?

There is, there is a fair amount of travel. I think I've been four or five times since October, which is probably quite a lot. I mean, it it, it's because the members are keen to be seen in Scotland and not be remote in a way in Westminster.

I mean we are dealing with reserved issues, but they're happening in Scotland so they want to do things in Scotland. For example, I said we were doing that inquiry into Defence and they had a visit around the shipyards in Govan to see what was going on. So yeah, we do kind of go up and down quite a bit. I wouldn't want to give the impression that it's not a desk job because actually a lot of the days that I spend here are typing on the computer from quite early in the morning to quite late at night. But it's flexible in the sense of you can do that at home.

We have, remote access, so if you need to be at home for whatever reason and you are just drafting a report or whatever it might be, then you can do that. And in terms of meetings, your, your committee will be meeting at least once, probably twice a week. So you are over in the palace in the meeting room for possibly two, three hours at a stretch doing that. Committees normally go on visits a few times a year abroad and within the UK I've been at the, well, when I first started I had a great time because then the first visit I went to and they said, you have a glamorous time, you can go to Slough to look at grammar schools because Slough is one of the few places that still has grammar schools.

But then the following January I got to go to California for a week, which is very nice. In the cold January winter. I've been to Vancouver, Denmark, Germany. One of the things that we do is kind of a, a strange part of our job is we get sent on loan to the various European institutions, the Council of Europe, to help out with their temporary sessions that they run for parliamentarians from all over Europe.

And there are various different jobs that you'd be doing there. You start off by summarising people's speeches. It's a bit like Hansard, but you're not doing it verbatim. You're doing more of a summary and then, as you get a bit more experience, you're the minute writer writing the minutes of the meetings, or handling questions. They have a question time like we have in Parliament, they have a European style of question time, so advising members on how to phrase their questions to make them on the subject matter that is allowed to be asked about and that kind of thing.

And that's quite fun because it's always in Strasbourg or Paris or there was one recently in Kazakhstan. So you can get sent all over the world. Not all the time but good, good few times a year.

You said you work early mornings, late nights, but is it more or less a nine to five job?

It's a 10 to six job, which I think is quite common for London.

You are expected to do night duty as I think I mentioned earlier, which involves being here for, the, the late night sittings. A certain core number of staff have to be here all the time. So we do that on a rota and see what you would do perhaps is spend, I'm on a Tuesday night at the moment, it's my night, so I'll spend the early part of Tuesday here in the office from 10 till 2:30, then the House starts sitting at 2:30. So I'll go over to the palace, where there's a, a duty desk basically as a hot desk for the people who are on duty that night. And log into the computer over there and take some work with me and carry on till 11.

And then you can go home?

And then you can go home.

And what is your working environment like? How would you describe it?

At the moment I'm working, we have, offices across the road from the House of Commons itself. So it's quite, it's just a standard office block pretty much. And I'm lucky enough at the moment to have my own office, but a lot of it is open plan, so it's pretty much like anywhere else that you would work.

Last year I worked in the Palace of Westminster itself, which is, it's a great place to work in that's very atmospheric and you know, it's, you really feel that you're in the thick of it when you are there. But on the other hand it's, it's not very modern so it's not really set up for, for computers and that kind of thing. You tend to get wires trailing all down the walls where they've tried to fit things around the corners. but it's, it's a great place to work and obviously it's not very far to get everywhere that you might need to go on a, on a day-to-day basis.

And what about the people in your environment?

The people are fantastic. That's one of the best things about working here is that all of the clerks here, they, they tend to be a load of people who have very odd interests. Quite a few of them have done PhDs and you know, you find people who in their spare time and writing books on bridges or the history of Newcastle or whatever it might be. So, and they're all very supportive and there're a great bunch of people to work with really.

Does that surprise you that there are so many people with PhDs?

Not really. And there are quite a lot of people who, if they don't have PhDs, they have Masters or they've done some kind of further study. I dunno if this is anticipating what we're gonna come onto to later, but when I first looked into doing this job, it's because I went to my careers advisor and said I have quite academic research interests, but I'm also more interested in current affairs and I'd like to try and combine those two. And the idea I'd come with was working for a think tank or something and she suggested this as a job that combines the kind of academic style 'cause there is a lot of research and preparation of briefing and written material with a more political environment.

What are things that you enjoy most about your job?

Well, I do, I do enjoy the drafting part of it. 'cause I quite like, putting an argument together and marshalling all the bits of evidence that we've heard and coming up with a conclusion at the end of it.

So I, I actually do, although you still get the essay crisis mentality when you've got to do it by a certain deadline, actually, it's quite satisfying to do that. The other thing that's, that I enjoy is the fact that the committee can basically call anyone they want to come and give evidence to them. So, you know, if you're on the, I started on the education committee and we are doing inquiries into secondary schooling and they'll just say, “Oh, we need evidence on the best, you know, do grammar schools are grammar schools better than comprehensive?” So let's just call all these academics in and call all these people in and they all turn up because it's, it's the House of Commons.

And they have, they have the ability to just get the world's expert at the drop of a hat.

Are you having to get these people in?

We are, yes. But they're usually very willing. It's very rare that they don't want to do it.

What other kind of research might you doing? Do you, do you consult any source material? Is it mainly people and experience?

We do. I mean it's not really academic source material. It's, it would be things like government, green papers, white papers, reports in the sense of, you know, if there's been an independent commission set up to look at something and they report on it, that kind of material.

And the academic, we are influenced by academic opinion. So in the example of secondary schools, there was academic research done on whether people in grammar schools perform better or people in comprehensives. And the way that we access that is by getting the relevant academic to come and tell us about it. We wouldn't really trawl through their research papers. It's, everything is organised around what we call oral evidence sessions where we get the person in and ask them questions and it's all recorded and we have a shorthand writer, excuse me, who takes a complete record of it and we get a transcript at the end.

So that's how we're taking evidence mainly.

The pros and cons of working in the public sector

What would you say are the main advantages and disadvantages of working in the public sector?

The advantages are that most of your colleagues are very nice and friendly and it's, it's a friend, it's a good working environment. And I, I think this is a public sector feature in that, although sometimes you have to put in long hours because the work demands it. Because for instance here, if there's gonna be a vote at 11 o'clock at night, you have to be here for that vote at 11 o'clock at night. Say the next day if it's quite a light day, no one minds if you go home early or you work from home or whatever.

So it's, it is that kind of flexible. You are doing what the work demands, but you're not doing more than the work demands. You're being here for the sake of being here. And there is a sense of kind of common goals and common efforts. The, the advantages as well, if you get fantastic pension, which I guess most people don't get in the private sector anymore, they say you get paid less. I don't know if that's actually how far that is true. You certainly get paid more than you would in academia.

I guess you don't get these six figure salaries, but then if you're looking for that, you are obviously not looking for to go into the public sector anyway.

Sophie’s advice

If you were giving advice to somebody who's doing a PhD and thinking about going through the fast stream civil service recruitment process, what would you say to them?

I would say that, if you're not sure, it's always worth doing it because it is such a long process still that if you change your mind halfway through, you know, if you, if you decide two months down the line that actually you did want to do it, you're, you're gonna have to wait quite a long time till the next round. So it's always worth starting off with it. And then if you get through, great and if you don't get through, well, you know, that's one option ruled out for you.

And there are quite a diversity of jobs within that structure of recruitment, so it's worth looking at all of the different streams within the fast stream to think about which one you might actually be more interested in rather than just going down to the central department's route that the bulk of people do go for. I think in terms of this particular job, there are quite a few people who have PhDs who do it, and they, they do Open Days and they, they do outreach to universities and they, there are lots of people who are quite keen to go and tell people about it.

So if anyone was actually seriously interested in doing this exact job, it's not hard to find someone to talk to, just to go and have coffee with and tell, tell you about what it, what it involves more generally. I think possibly one thing that I've learned is that when I was doing my PhD, I was so focused on the subject of the research and thinking, you know, 18th century French is not applicable to any kind of job.

I'm just chucking this away if I leave. And that's not really the case. There are, I mean, you do get a lot more out of it than just the subject that you are studying and that is valued more than I thought it would be, really by certain employers. So it's not hopeless if you are not, if you're not interested in carrying on the academia, it's not like you have to start again from before you did your PhD.

Susan | English Literature | University administration.

Susan shares her educational journey leading up to her pursuit of a PhD, detailing the various endeavours she undertook to bolster her CV for an academic career. She candidly discusses the challenges of juggling a job alongside her doctoral studies, reflecting on the hurdles encountered and her ambitions for securing an academic position. Throughout her narrative, Susan emphasises the valuable skills she has gained through her PhD journey and offers insights into the highs, lows, and profound lessons gleaned along the way.

Explore Susan’s journey further by clicking the links below:

The background to Susan’s PhD
The meaning of the PhD
Susan’s PhD experience
Finishing the PhD
Anticipating an academic career
Building a career



Career Pathway

  • Start BA in English in Northern Ireland
  • Delay decisions regarding career choices
  • Women’s Studies Masters course
  • Begin DPhil, at Oxbridge and also undertake admin for the Women’s Studies Masters committee
  • Give my first conference paper. Join a new teacher-training scheme. Discover I love teaching
  • Crisis in confidence about thesis – lie on the sofa eating jelly sweets and watching DVD boxsets
  • No time to apply for academic jobs. Still don’t know what the argument of my thesis is
  • Finish my draft thesis
  • Apply for and get a job coordinating postgraduate training. Continue rewriting my thesis
  • Submit my revised thesis/pass viva. Make elaborate plans for the summer ahead



Turning Points

  • Kind encouragement from faculty members at my undergraduate university in Northern Ireland helps me channel my love of reading into critical practice and gives me confidence to pursue further study
  • Year in America gives me the extra time to think about what I want from the future
  • Acceptance to Oxbridge for Masters programme sets my future course outside Northern Ireland
  • Receipt of AHRC funding for DPhil programme at Oxbridge
  • Taking the Developing Learning and Teaching course inspires love of teaching and nascent interest in educational development
  • UKGradSchool experience gives me the impetus to finish my thesis and set about finding a job, to plan my time better and pursue career goals in a reasonably constructive manner



Audio Interview

The background to Susan’s PhD

Tell me a bit about your educational background.

Well, I was born in Northern Ireland. The education system there is slightly different. So I attended a grammar school, because we have, we still have the 11 plus, so it was sort creamed off quite early on. From there I went to Queens University, Belfast. I applied to Cambridge, didn't get in. But that was on the whole positive because it meant that I was able to spend a year in the United States on a full scholarship, supposedly studying Business, but as it turned out, studying, you know, English and Women's Studies and the kinds of things I was actually interested in, which was really, I was really good. I spent here in Tennessee. then I came back, finished my degree in English at Queens.

And quite early on in my third year, I thought I wanted to do a Master's because I could, I wanted to go to, well Queens, Queens is a very good institution.

I wanted to come away from Belfast, get more experience in that. I wanted to come to, you know, a top institution in Britain, in England. So I applied and got to do Women's Studies at the institution in question and, and, got on well with my supervisor and decided to stay on to do a PhD.

The meaning of the PhD

How do you think the PhD has equipped you? What has it given you?

Um, massive have inferiority complex. I think it's made me really confident in my own ability to, you know, to look at, you know, to look at a situation and say, right, well this is what needs to be done. You know, or my own kind of, I suppose, I mean, I guess my ability to generate models of thinking, I suppose.

And because with research, being, research always gives the impression that you are drawing material from somewhere else, which to some extent is true. But something that I took from research was the ability to basically generate something purely out of my head. So, but all this material, I'm gonna have to think of a way to make it all work together, and that is purely coming from me.

That's the, you know, that's, that's not sort of in innate to the material. So it makes you very, makes you very confident in your ability to do that, I guess. And also the fact that I finished at all is makes me think if I can do that, I can probably do anything, any kind of sustained body of work that just has to be gone on and on and on and on. Just be able, that sort of sense of being able to just keep going and, to some extent, yeah, I mean I, I suppose a really strong confidence in my own opinion on things and that if I think something is so, then I can always make the argument for why it is so.

And that's not, that's never going to leave me now because I've got a rubber stamp saying, yes, your opinions count, your opinions matter. And when you're starting out, you almost feel like, “Oh, these are just my opinions. How can they possibly mean anything?” But actually no, that's fair enough, that's a contribution to knowledge in terms of being equipped for, to pay the electricity bill and, you know, to put in a full day’s work and all that kind of thing. I don't think it equipped me at all. But, yeah, I think having a, yeah, confidence in my own intellectual abilities. Definitely.

Susan’s PhD experience

What stage are you at now?

I have just completed my PhD. I've just submitted my corrected copy to my internal examiner, and she has told me for, you know, verbally that it's fine and I've passed. So I have a PhD.


Thank you.

And tell me a bit about your experience of doing a PhD.

Well, I think there's two very distinct parts of the PhD. The first probably year and two thirds, and then the last third and the third year. And the first one was very much, retrospectively, I'm not sure I really knew what I was doing for a lot of the time. I think I was my, my super, I would meet with my supervisor and she would ask me to write something every term. So I would present her every, every couple of months or so with some, with a 10,000 word essay and something that I'd written sort of just generated, off the top of my head. And she would say, “Hmm, maybe, I don't know. Let's think about this, think about that”. And I'd go away and do something else. And, but in the meantime I was, you know, still carrying on, being a student, going out, drinking, generally having a good time, meeting people, being really involved in, university life in general. And then towards the end of my second year, that was all fine, but I, it was, that was, it was all really good fun, but at the same time, I really didn't feel like I knew where I was going and what, what the final project was going to look like.

So while, while my project was narrowing and I was progressing, I was progressing very slowly and without any kind of real sense of that I had anything to say to, to the topic. The summer of my second year, I got very stressed out because it became very clear that I didn't really know what I, and I only had one year to go and I was very much one funded year, you know?

So, I sort of pulled it together quite a lot in that year. And at that point it became a sort of really intense nightmare of working really hard all the time and writing up and, you know, pulling everything together.

And, well, at the time I felt very much like making it up as I was going along, but, retrospective, I think it was only in that period that I felt like I really became a researcher and that I felt like I sort of came into that identity a lot more.

Can you talk to me a bit more about the identity of a researcher?

Well, because, because, well, because my PhD's in English, I was only ever doing what I'd always done, which is go to the library and read a book, make notes on that book and then talk about it a bit. In my final year, I got much more interested in various other bits of, primary sources, for example. So I, was one, one part of my thesis was about, this, pair of writers in the late 18th century about which there’s very little information.

So I went on a massive mission to try and find out more information about them. And I ended up looking at, you know, books that were written about Somerset on, you know, at the end of the 18th century and, prints from the period and, sort of arc sort of arcane references to, local myths in Somerset and that kind of thing. So it was all, it was quite interesting. I didn't mean, I found out I limited amount, I found out enough as it turned. As it turned out, I mean, the information's not really out there, but, it felt like I was really looking for information in a way that I hadn't really done before.

And I also got a bit more clarity about exactly how reading texts contributed to a kind of wider social world. Because until then I'd been looking at things like I'd been looking at, you know, philosophy of the period and what people had said about different things and about women gender issues.

It was all very kind of nebulous less. In my final year, I got a much clearer sense of what I was doing, what, what, what I wanted to achieve by reading a text. So I said what I was looking for, what exactly about the language I was interested in drawing out. And I basically, I sort, I, I find a framework for what I was doing, I think is slightly unhelpful way to put it, perhaps, but I felt like I was working within a system mode that I, that I had, that I had developed for myself.

And that's what I think me, I mean by saying I felt like I had a research identity because I, I had decided what I wanted to do and I was doing it, the information I wanted to find out and the way I wanted to model the thinking that I was doing.

What have been the most memorable moments of the PhD, highs and lows?

Do you know, I think the most memorable moments have been times when I've been sitting down with a group of friends and, you know, not anywhere near the desk or the library, but, you know, having like a drink in a bar or something.

Maybe sort of the rituals that you develop with your friends and you're talking about your research and you're saying, “Oh, I think this, but I think that - but I don't know, but what do you think that”, you know, and you sort of thing, look at me and I think I'm, I'm having this really intense intellectual conversation with somebody and the, the way which people sort of work together to be supportive.

And that's what, when I went back in my PhD, that's what I'm, I'm going to remember talking about interesting things with my friends. Not, not gonna remember sitting in the library. I mean, I can think of a few occasions when I realised something or I leapt out of bed and thought, you know, I've, I've just thought of something. This is really important. I can make this work. and there's quite a lot of that happening towards the end because I'd done so little for the first two years that I had to really kind of work, work very hard to put it all together.

Those were the, but that's not gonna stay with me forever. It's gonna be that sense of community of all working together under sort of really quite adverse conditions. The lows, I think the lowest point was when, right before I started to write up and I thought, I thought, right, I'm gonna write up over the summer in my third year. And I sort of thought, right, I'm gonna get going around May, and for about a month I couldn't, I couldn't lift a finger, I couldn't do anything.

And I spent most of that month just lying on the sofa crying and going, I can't do this. This isn't gonna happen. I have wasted you two and a half years of my life. I'm not gonna have a PhD at the end of this. The AHRC is gonna want their money back. You know, all that kind of stuff. the fact that I go over that is in itself a positive memory because it shows that I, I could cope with it.

But yeah, it was touch and go for a while. So that's, yeah, that's definitely my lowest point.

Is there some ambivalence now that you've reached the end?

Yeah. But that, that, that's still very, because I'm so close to the end of it. I mean, what I was, I was really euphoric when I finished writing up. And I felt like it was all completely worth it immediately after I'd had my viva, I felt like I quite sort of forcefully had the PhD put into perspective because I felt like a whole other set of challenges presented themselves in terms of getting published and finding a job. And, you know, the kind of the really, really quite narrow nature of the PhD as it is when it's been done in three years flat.

So yes, it's PhD, but it's only a PhD and I felt like that for quite a long time. Now that I'm starting to say “Doctor” rather than “Ms”, I'm feeling quite positive about it again, and I, I think I would, I absolutely would do it again. I don't think it, I, I think it was really, It was an amazing opportunity and it was an amazing three years and I, in many ways I wish I was still doing it because just the, you know, the relationships you build up, the experiences you have are absolutely invaluable.

The research itself perhaps a little less valuable. So maybe that's where the ambiance is, is that, you know, it's, it's so much of the PhD I think is more about the experience than about the product. And that's, but if I think once you've sort of dealt with that, you'll find it a lot, well, I found it a lot easier to, feel grateful that I'd had that experience.

Can, can you explain a bit more about that?

Well, I mean, I suppose there's a lot of debate about what the PhD is for, and I think people still see it as this, sort of, you know, magnum opus sort of document that, you know, this is, this is what you leave with the world. and I think once you've finished, it becomes very clear that what you have produced is not the final word on the subject.

And something that I, I find very well that I, I found great in one and not so great in another is that I'm now already thinking about how what I've, what I've done can be changed and improved and have more things added to it and could work with other things that I've looked at and, could be turned into something publishable for starters, because the PhD is not publishable. You know, how I can develop what I've done.

The fact that it's not publishable and it's present for means that it's essentially a worthless document, but at the same time, having now produced that document, I know that I can produce another document of similar, of a similar length and better quality, which would then be sort of something that will go into the, go into the world in a way that the PhD doesn't. And having gone through that process of producing that long document, sort of like a practice, you know, the practice document is sort of saying, well, this qualifies me to be the kind of person who gets to publish articles, rather than this itself is something that I will, you know, I would be ashamed to really sit on the world right now, you know, in a current state.

But, you know, but, but it was good enough. It got me a PhD, it got me that kind of got me the rubber stamp. So that's, that's all I needed it to do. And I think that's what I mean when I say the product is less important than the process.

And people now are beginning to think in terms of the PhD as an apprenticeship, especially if it's only going to last for three years, there's no way that you could possibly produce anything of value to the learning community in that time or of, you know, of significant value. So it's kind of scaling down your expectations and saying, right, well I will produce this. And then somebody somewhere will say, yes, that's why they've a doctorate, and that's fine. And then I will use that massive amount of information that I've garnered to create wonderful things because now I'm authorised to.

Finishing the PhD

 What about your sense of identity, as an academic, or as someone who's got through the PhD? Do you see yourself as an academic?

I see myself as an academic in waiting. I have quite a strong sense that I have more to say. And that I have a contribution to make to the intellectual community, if, you know, one can use such a cheesy phrase.

But, it's still quite up in the air whether I'm going to be, it's going to be possible to make that contribution. And whether that contribution has value unless it's coming from the position of being in an academic post. And that's what's slightly difficult perhaps is that you need to have that kind of institutional affiliation or stamp to say this. For you to feel like what you produce and what you contribute is of value.

Do you mean that if you didn't decide, if you decided not to carry on in academia, it wouldn't be as valuable, your contribution, your publications, wouldn't be as valuable as they would be if you were in an academic post?

Mm. I think the answer to that is twofold. And the first thing is that they would not be perceived to be of value because you wouldn't have that institutional affiliation. So, you know, “such and such lecturer at the University of…” just carries more weight in the world of academia. I mean, maybe it shouldn't be so, but it does.

You know, there's always, you know, the curse of the independent researcher who is very hard to distinguish from, like, the crank who just, like, loves this particular topic. And I think it's important to when you're producing research to be a participant in this sort of intellectual work culture because otherwise you are just looking at someone who’s because you need to be able to work within that to some degree.

Do you want to be an academic, I mean, in terms of that you want to get an academic job?

Yes, I do I do, but I think I mean just be briefly, to you know, go further, I mean I would say, I would not say that if I produce, when I say that if I produce something and it wouldn't be of value what I mean is that it's like, outside of academia it's pretty hard to produce something of value partly because you don't have that kind of, because you're not within the culture so it's just harder to sort of generate material but also you literally don't have the time, if you're working 9 to 5 it's very hard to research outside of, or even to pursue research outside of, an academic post which is, in theory, supposed to build in time for you to, for you to do that.

So that's, so, that would be my perspective. But, yeah, I want, I find the idea of academia really appealing because it just, it just ticks so many boxes in terms of, you know, making, making contributions and getting that personal fulfilment and developing people and working with people and taking, you know, having a stake in a public role, I suppose, in that, in that you're sort of affiliated with an institution and that you have a role in improving that institution and, you know, you, just from the personal point of view, you just get you get to organise your own time so much more and you get to you have so much freedom of, of action because that's what the maybe this is a romanticised view of the role. And I know, I mean, I know academics complain about administration and how they don't have time to research and how teaching takes up all their time and stuff like that. But I don't think I would mind.

Why not? 

Because there's so many ways to get fulfilment. And it's that because it's, if you're doing an administrative job, then, you know, you can get, you can get personal fulfilment out of that because it's, you know, it's good to be organised and it's good to support other people in doing what they're doing. And there's, you know, there's satisfaction to be had in a job well done.

If you're doing just research, then satisfaction you can get is much more long term, and it can be really easy to get bogged down. If you're just doing teaching, then you know, there's a more immediate satisfaction because you're sort of, you can see the visible results of your teaching and you're getting immediate feedback, but again, you could sort of see that you might just be, you might feel like you're a treadmill.

And this sort of, you could almost see it in terms of, you know, the short term, versus the long term. And you've, if you're in academia, you have the potential to get something at all levels. So you've got that kind of, the most basic kind of organisational, getting things done kind of level. And you've also got that teaching, developing others kind of level and then you've also got that space to be just be in your own head and do what, you know, do your own thinking and you've got that sort of long term aspiration to get the next book out or to move up the, you know, move up the ladder, you know, become an editor of something, you know, you can have aspirations and all these different levels and I think that's what's appealing to me about academia.


Do you have any anxieties as you're at the moment making that transition from PhD student, into the, into the world of a, an academic, a working academic?

Well, yes. I'm aware that academia is very competitive. So there's always the chance that either I'll just not be good enough. That I won't get the publications because I won't just be able to get round to it. That I'll be out of it for too long that I won't be able to get back into it. So that's part of it.

The perfect job may come up, but it might be in Aberdeen, and then, you know, bang goes my social life. That,  that it might just become too big a, it might, it might just be too big a job to get into academia, and then I'd have to be satisfied with less, and that would be a sad thing to have to do, or that I might get into it, and then I might find that I don't like it as much as I thought I would, you know, but, I mean, that's the same of every job.

Yeah, my main anxiety at the minute is that I won't get published, and if I don't get published, I can't get a job, and if I can't get a job, then I have to figure out something else that I want to do and create new aspirations.

Have you been applying for jobs and post docs and things?

No, I haven't.

I've, because I left so much of my PhD to the last minute, I literally didn't have, I literally, I didn't have a project. When I was finishing my PhD, I didn't have, I didn't have in mind the next thing that I wanted to do. I didn't, I wouldn't have been able to put together a research proposal if, you know, you sat me down and held a gun to my head.

I would have just been like, I have absolutely no idea. The day before I submitted my PhD, I was still changing arguments. Rewriting and changing even through the whole take on, on the topic. So, which proves that it can be done. You can still be kind of generating your arguments, you know, the week before you hand in, but it also means that you're not very secure in your own sort of sense of where you fit in in the research world.

So, subsequently to finishing my PhD, and I should make clear that I had started my current post three months before I submitted, subsequently to finishing, I was able to take a bit of space to think about where I could take it, and to think up research proposals, and to think about what, you know, what would be the appropriate next step.

So I have an idea about where I would like to take it now, but at this exact moment, there are no jobs available to apply for. And I have thought about, I've thought about applying for postdocs for, will need to be, not this year coming, but the year after.  And I think I probably will. But then again, there's limited chance of getting one unless you have a publication.

And I need a publication soon. That's my focus right now.

You started a post three months before you submitted your PhD. How did the, what was the post and how did it come up and how did you get it?

The post is, it's what I do now. It's coordinating graduate training for one of the, for arts and humanities students in my institution.

So, the post was created to deal with a problem of lack of flow of information between the different parts of arts and humanities. So it was to a large degree, and administrative post. I applied for it because it was linked to something that I'm very interested in, which is, the training of graduate teachers and educational development in general.

Partly because I went through a pilot program to do with that area during my doctorate. I got very interested in this whole, in the world of teaching. I just, you know, I like teaching. I find it fulfilling. And I thought being involved with that would be really interesting, while I sort of got my head together in terms of, you know, where my research is going and what the next step is in terms of my career.

The post has slightly evolved since I took it on, because, having just done a graduate degree, I get very aerated about the lack of support available to graduate students. And, so I took on quite a lot of, I took it upon myself to try and develop the support that was available when I probably didn't necessarily need to.

Like, that wasn't really part of the job. But, I thought that was probably more important and would contribute more to my personal development and to my career satisfaction. So, that was what I ended up doing. Unfortunately.  When you work in, you know, research support or university administration in general, you're quite often given an awful lot of freedom to basically interpret the role as you see fit.


So that's what I did. So I think perhaps the form that the job is in now is probably more contributing to my academic development in terms of getting me involved in actually delivering training and teaching training and, learning more about educational theory, that kind of thing. But at the same time, it's also taking up more of my time, which makes it harder to get the research done.

So, I want to know a couple of things about that. I want to know how difficult it was finishing up a PhD in the last three months of it, when you're actually also juggling a job and a PhD. And then I'd like to know what the prospects are within this role that you're in and whether it'd be something you'd consider doing instead of an academic career?

Okay, I will deal with the first question first - how difficult was it? So, for, yes, it was very difficult, as is the short answer. Because I was learning a new job, and, basically, especially because I was moving into the world of work, it was, it was very difficult to, at the same time, it what was, to a large degree, a complete rewrite of the final draft of my PhD, it required  working 9 to 5, which I wasn't used to, coming home, and, you know, working on for another couple of hours in the evening, every evening, and working at weekends.

Having said that, because it was for a short period of time, and because I knew that I had an end in sight, I just did it. I think I've probably blocked that out because it was really quite stressful. But I mean, it was, it was for a discrete period of time. So it just was a matter of saying, right, well, I'll pull out the stops, get it done, get it handed in.

Then that'll be that behind me. So, by the end of, uh, handed in just before Christmas, by Christmas, I was a complete wreck. But, I sometimes think that that's worth it just to get it over with. Rather than just letting it drag on and drag on and drag on. Like, I've, I've known people who've taken up jobs.

And I suppose the other thing, well, actually, I mean, in many ways, there was so much satisfaction in that, because so many people told me, oh, if you take a job, you'll not finish your PhD. And I was very kind of like, well, I shall prove you wrong. Ha! And did. So, that made me feel quite good about just the whole thing.

And, so I suppose that was what drove me. Actually, to some extent, it's sort of saying, right, I have to get it over with. I can't have this thing hanging around like an albatross around my neck. And also, you know, everyone thinks I'm not going to be able to do it, so I'm going to do it. And I think also there's a sort of sense of, because what I might have done instead was I had quite a lot of teaching lined up, but it wouldn't have been enough to make, to live on.

So it was like living on, you know, super noodles and doing teaching. So for example, there was a job at an institution that is close to my institution, but that isn't my institution, that was basically doing their 18th century English teaching, over two semesters, you know, and that would have been a really good career opportunity in terms of building up my teaching portfolio.

And similarly I had various bits of teaching lined up at my institution but none, you know, even put all together that would not have been enough to pay my way so I had to let that go to do this job. So in many ways I suppose I was driven by the sense of that I'd made my choice and I had to make it work.

So, but I wouldn't recommend it. I would, I think, ideally say, yes, no, do try and finish before you take up a job, because it's really very stressful. But, there's a lot of sense of achievement to be had from it as well.

And what are you doing now, and what is the job like, and do you want to continue doing it?

Oh yes, I remember. The job is, the job has good points and bad points. I don't know. It's interesting because, basically because the post is newly created, I was taken on to plug a gap. Having been taken on, and being in post, it, it's quite, in many ways, it's quite an isolating role because it's very much, oh, well, you know, she'll take care of everything to do with that.

And because it's a brand new post, there's really, there's no system in place for me to slot into. There's no sense of what kind of training I would require, what kind of career development would be useful for me. There's no sense that, of even a sort of set of discrete tasks that I'm supposed to achieve.

So basically, I set my own goals, and when I accomplish them, I pat myself on the back. I think I find, I find it, I find it less difficult now. I find it quite difficult to go from organising my own time to having it organised for me, being obliged to be somewhere nine to five. Having to deal with other people so continuously I find very difficult because, with academics if you contravene protocol then they can get quite shirty and you have to be a bit sort of, you know, careful.


Not having that sort of, not being able just to step out and be by myself because I'm in a shared office, that kind of thing. I've just, it's quite, it's a big adjustment but, you know, you do get used to it. But the real kind of, that's the difficult side of my job, and it can be very stressful for that reason.

But, on the other hand, I'm completely, ridiculously in charge of the direction of graduate training. Which is brilliant. To my agenda, it's what gets done, which is great.  And there's real benefit to be had when you actually do, like, create some kind of support for graduate students, and you see them being happy about the fact that they're being supported in this way, and that's really, really fulfilling, and I just wish I could do it more.

But, with limited funds, limited resources, and it being just me, it's quite difficult to do as much as I would like to do. Which I suppose is back on the frustrating side, but yeah, I mean, it's swings and roundabouts.

But you don't want to stay doing this?

I would not be averse to staying in educational development and, you know, taking on this, supporting people who are researchers and building up their, you know, building their skills, building their confidence, all that kind of stuff and  teaching them how to teach, how to, you know, how to be an academic.

All of that stuff is really worthwhile and I could probably do it forever, but I would need to do it in a context in which the qualifications that I have are valued. And the remuneration was quite substantially higher. So the fact that I have a PhD would be something that would be seen to be contributing to what I give, what I bring to the job, rather than sort of at the minute, which is basically, it's an administrative post and it just so happens that I have a PhD, which means that I can bring certain qualities to the job, but it's not part of the job.

And I think I would want to work in a, within a framework where the value of what I do is recognised and my sort of special qualities are a part of what the job requires. In, in a slightly different way to what it is right now, which is that I have an administrative position that sort of happens on the side.

What was your interview like? Because I guess it was your first interview for a job.

Mm, yeah, not since I applied to Tesco's have I been interviewed. Interestingly, I applied to work in Tesco's when I was sort of 20, and the interview that I got for Tesco, this was much more like what I thought an interview would be like than the one that I did for this job.

But, the interview was actually, the reason, I knew I got the job because we were giggling for most of the interview. And, it just, it felt really, really good. Actually, actually, no, that's actually not true. I had interviewed for various jobs. So, for example, in, I'd interviewed to be, to be involved with, with outreach in one of the parts of the university.

And, that particular interview was very, it was just horrible because, you know, it was just, it was really, really formal. The questions that I was asked didn't seem to make any sense to me. I wasn't getting any kind of  feedback from the people who were interviewing me. And I think, basically, because they were looking for someone who wasn't me, I think it was quite obvious.

Whereas the interview for this job, it was much more, it felt very informal. They were really interested in what I had to say. They picked up on things that I said, and they said, oh, tell us more about that. When I made a joke, they laughed. It was just very, I walked out feeling like, they liked me, which I suppose is not what you think is going to be, you know, it's not what, you don't think that you're going to be hired because they like you, but I suppose if they're looking for a certain type of person and you happen to be that person, then it's easy to generate this sort of warmth of, you know,  we can, you know, we can work together, we can help each other.

The feedback I got from the interview was that I was very charming, which I'm not sure how I feel about that because I'm not sure if I want to be hired because I'm charming. But I think at the time. It was understood that the kind of work that I would be doing would require actually quite a lot of charm in the sense of having to persuade people to do something that they wouldn't necessarily want to do.

So, I suppose that was part of the job criteria.

How did you prepare for the interview? 

Well, I was given, I had to do a presentation. And, I mean, the presentation should have given it away. I had to do a presentation on, the need for transferable skills training to, an imagined or sceptical audience of graduates, of postgraduate students and their supervisors.


So, I basically, I did, I did a presentation, very much around what I still think, which was, and I was basically, I was trying to say, I tried, I tried to find a hook, basically, because I was sort of thinking, well, it would be easy to do a presentation about the need for transferable skills training.

I mean, everyone knows that, you know, you need to have transferable skills if you want to get a job, fine. What people don't quite understand is the value of transferable skills training during the postgraduate degree. So I tried, I had a strategy, I suppose, I would say. And what I thought most people would be likely to do in that situation would be to, to direct it at the, at the postgraduate students but forget about the supervisors.

And so what I tried to do was say, this is the value to postgraduate students. And then I did a special section about why supervisors should be on board with it. And the whole idea was that, if a graduate had training, then they're going to be more likely to get you their work on time, they're going to be more likely to be like finished and off your hands at a reasonable time, they're not going to be bugging you all the time with silly questions because they're going to find, you know, they're going to find out the sources of information elsewhere, you know, sort of there's added value to supervisors and  So that was my strategy and I also, you know, I think I put in a quote and, then sort of set it in a framework of about critical reflection.

So I put in a quote from Pope about making each day a critic on the last and that kind of thing. So I mean, I did a bit through quite bells and whistles and I made a, made a handout, which was very, you know, which had, the crest of the university superimposed on it. And it was very, I really, really went quite far in making it polished and have a little note cards.

That was very, I mean, I always feel like that was, I kind of think it's better to prepare too much than too little because, you might look a bit, and I mean, I suppose in many ways, I probably came across as being quite cheesy because I was like, but it's really important that we get people to reflect on these things and that, you know, that we support them but it's better to feel, look like you're passionate about something and that you have something to offer rather than to try and just sort of tick some boxes, I suppose.

The condition of me taking this job was that I would give up the teaching that I'd lined up, and I tried to negotiate, I tried to say, well, you know, if I did this teaching, then maybe I could, you know, that would, that would contribute to the job, and they just said, you know what, it's not going to be possible, it's a full time job.

You're not going to be able to prepare teaching and do this at the same time. We're not, you know, we don't mind you teaching, like we want you to teach in the long term, but when you're just starting a new job, you can't possibly just take on this teaching, so I, in the, so it was a hard decision, so, but I went at it from the point of view of I want to be offered the job on the basis that then I can think about whether I want to take it or not.

And there was a lot about the job that was appealing to me. And it was more money than I was getting as a graduate student. So as a result, well, that's a good thing. And it meant various convenient things, like I'd be able to stay in my institution where my, my partner’s, you know, in this institution. So there was a lot conveniences attached to this job that made it worth me wanting to, we were like really putting effort into getting it.

So, how long is the job for?

Oh, it's a three year contract, but I don't necessarily expect to stay in it for three years. I would, I would hope not, not to ideally. I'd hope to find something else.

An academic job?

An academic job. I think it's important to stay in a job for as long as, stay in the job long enough so that you can feel like there's something you can say that you achieved in it so that you can then put that on your CV and say, in this job I achieved the following.

I think that's my kind of perspective on, on career management, is that, you have to be in it for long enough to see through a project of some sort, even if it's something really low scale, that you can then sort of say, that's what I did in that job. And once you've got that, there's no reason to stay, really, if, you know, if it's not what you want to do long term.

Anticipating an academic career

It was, it clearly, it was quite clear to me that it was an option, Probably at the end of my, the beginning of my final year of undergraduate. And I think, I think yes, I think I, I wanted to try and see if that was gonna be possible. I didn't really know at the time what that entailed, but the lifestyle was appealing and I thought, well, the thing I have to do to do that is do a Master's. So I thought, “Right, well, I'll do a Master's and then I'll see how I get on with that.”

And if I like that and it seems that it's worthwhile, then I'll say, I wanna do a PhD. And if I like that and it seems to work out, then I'll try, I'll try and get into academia. So it wasn't, it was a, a long-term aspiration rather than, an ambition maybe is a good way to distinguish the two.

Building a career

What kind of things were you doing through the PhD, to kind of build up your CV for an academic job?

I did all this kind of, I did all the supplementary stuff. So for example, I took, I took a teaching course, which was, the program that is in place that we have at my institution involves mentor teaching. So opportunities to teach are created for you and you're mentored through that process and you write a reflective portfolio on your teaching experience.

I took opportunities to teach where they came up, which, but they were quite relatively limited as it turned out. I attended conferences to some degree, but again, in the first couple of years of my PhD, I didn't really enjoy going to conferences. The ones I went to, I find them very impersonal, very kind of, there's no kind of, they didn't feel like I was talking to people who were interested in, in the kind of research that I was doing.

I just felt like people were coming just to present their papers and leave again, just 'cause it was a big national conference. So I tried, you know, I presented, I presented when I could and when I was, when, when I was invited to, mainly for the sake of saying, okay, I've presented at a conference in my final year. I went to a few more conferences where I actually got to speak to people and we talked about our research and that was really interesting and that was much more fun.

I, I did quite a lot of stuff. I got very involved in various things. So, one of the things I, one of the things I did, and it was partly because I was asked to, and partly because I thought it'd be a useful thing, was I worked for the, a master's program, throughout the time of my PhD. So at the master's that I had done in women's studies, the committee that ran that needed somebody basically to assist the chair, literally by doing the photocopying and taking minutes and that kind of thing. But it, I, I took the job and kept doing it because I felt like it gave me a really good insight into that whole process of running a course and what the kind of administrative side of academia would be like.

So I sort quite consciously did that. For that reason. I also, got involved in organising a conference with English faculty. I was involved in org convening a seminar on gender and history for a while. A lot of those things, the kind, the kind of things people sort of say, “Oh, would you be interested in that?” and you, you know, you say, “Sure, sure, why not?” but I did quite consciously try and be involved in things so that partly so that I would make contacts and partly so that I, well, partly because I was procrastinating 'cause I didn't wanna go to the library and partly because I thought it'd be useful to have a range of activities that I could then draw on and say, I've done this and I've done that, I know about this and I know about that. And try and get insight into, the world of research, I suppose. So, yes.

Where did your sort of realisation that those things were important come from? Was it someone you spoke to or?

It was, there was a session on academic careers in that I attended at, in, in my, in, in the English department in the first year of my PhD. And they run this every year. And it was, they run these very informal lunchtime sessions at which you come along and somebody quite high up in the, hierarchy says something like, “Oh, well, if you want to get published, you'll never get published ha ha!”. But, on this particular occasion, it was, you know, how to get a career in academia.

And they said a lot of stuff that wasn't very helpful, but the, the one thing they said was the Holy Trinity is research and publications, teaching and admin, and, you know, if you were funded through your PhD, that helps a bit. So I was like, well, I tick quite a few of these boxes. I, you know, I'm funded. I need to get teaching, I need to get sort of administrative stuff. Retrospectively, one could conceive of that as networking. And I think that people don't understand the extent to which being an admin kind of making contacts and meeting people.

I always, everyone I met, I was like, I'm supposed to be networking. I don't know. I was like, you are networking. You're right. You're, you're here, you're involved in organising this. You're just, you know, you're, you're, you know, and so someone who's involved in things, that is the, you know, it's the easiest way to network is to get involved in organising because then you, you're not being a, you know, complete lick-arse I suppose. But, yeah, once you start organising things, you find that next thing you know, you're being asked to organise something else or be involved in something else.

It's just, you know, making your face new and getting your name out there.

Did you meet anybody in the course of your networking that was particularly helpful directly, maybe by reading a proposal or by giving you advice on what to apply for all that sort of thing?

Not really, but I did find, and I think, I think what, what I got out of my, I really want to put this in inverted commas “networking”, was that once people knew who you are, then next thing you know, these other opportunities.

So for, so an example would be because I started working for women's studies and I, it meant that I met all the key feminist academics in my institution. And all they knew was that there was this person who sat there taking the minutes. But it also, it meant that when they were short a teacher for the master's program, everyone looked at me and said, “Oh, well, you know, you could probably do it”.

And so just, you know, I was there and that was handy. Similarly, when somebody wanted somebody to present at a seminar, then some, somebody who had worked with the Women's Studies program said, “Oh, why don't you ask this person? You know, she works in the 18th century, that might be quite interesting”. So in terms of actual concrete help, I mean, really my supervisor provided all of that.

Victor | Archaeology | Archaeology.

Victor shares his journey from being a gardener to embarking on a PhD, highlighting the importance of prior experiences. Offering a glimpse into his current role in a university archaeology department, specifically focused on a disability project, he discusses the perks of project-based work within academia and contemplates societal attitudes towards disability. Reflecting on the twists and turns of his career trajectory, Victor recounts transitioning through various contracts post-PhD. With sincerity, he delves into the personal significance of his doctoral research, reminiscing on both the triumphs and challenges inherent in the PhD journey. Victor also articulates his motivations for pursuing a PhD and reminisces about his viva experience with candour and insight.

Explore Victor’s journey further by clicking the links below:

The background to Victor’s PhD
The reasons behind his PhD
Victor’s expectations
Being a mature student
Victor’s PhD experience
What the PhD means to Victor
Finishing the PhD
The viva
Victor’s current role
Types of teaching
The challenges facing students with disabilities in archaeology
Anticipating an academic career



Career Pathway

  • Hospital Porter
  • Apprentice gardener
  • Agricultural college
  • Professional gardener
  • A-levels at night class
  • Open University
  • BA Archaeology
  • MA Archaeology
  • PhD Archaeology
  • Odd jobs
  • Various research jobs in Archaeology



Turning Points

  • Starting a proper career
  • First time I actually enjoyed studying was at university level
  • Enjoying studying and considered full-time education
  • Independent research – decided wanted to be a full-time researcher
  • Some time before getting a job in Archaeology, I wondered if I did the right thing
  • Building a career as a researcher



Audio Interview

The background to Victor’s PhD

I left school at 16, did various jobs. Got an apprenticeship and became a gardener. I was a professional gardener for, it was about 15 years. I did actually do college, full-time for one year, as a craftsman's course. And after that, I actually came to work at the university as a gardener. And I think I, I still quite miss it. But, and over the years I, as a hobby, I started doing evening classes, A levels, 'cause I only had three O levels when I left school, and I quite enjoyed that.

Then I started doing some Open University and enjoying it even more. And I thought I would quite like to do this, you know, full time. I thought, well, what am I interested in? Well, I thought historical things, but archaeology is a very practical thing because I had come from a very practical background. So I thought, I will try applying for that and see what happens. It, I cannot say things were rather planned.

I, I, I, I suppose I more drifted into it. But anyway, I applied and, everybody kept offering me places. So I thought, well, I will come here. 'Cause it is the university I worked at and, I did well as undergraduate. Did a master's, although I did not have funding for the master's, and that was very, very tough. And I got to the end of it thinking, do I really want to carry on?

But I had applied for funding for a PhD, got the funding for that. And I thought, well, I have got the funding. I will carry on.

The reasons behind his PhD

Can we, unpack a bit why you decided to do the PhD?

Interesting. I, although the master's was very difficult with not having funding, I had done a very, very good project and all the projects I had done were fieldwork-based. This was looking at, megaliths in, in, an area of Scotland and we had ideas to expand that project into a wider area of Scotland, taking a much larger area. And there is that, I suppose it is a research instinct, the academic side, you know, is this the right thing to do economically, financially? Probably not, at the time. But it was just so interesting. And I, I think I, I only just got in with the funding. I think I was very lucky, 'cause other people got heard they had funding a couple of weeks before I did. So I think perhaps I was just below the line, but somebody above the line had dropped out, which was enough to get me over the line to get me funding.

So I think it was very close. I am not sure what I would have done if I, I think by that point, even though I thought it is going to be hard, that is what I wanted to do. You know, do the four, all the three degrees all the way through, had a very interesting project. I was, which was very useful actually when I started the PhD. I knew exactly what I was doing from day one.

Did you have, family, input into the decision?

No. No, no, no. It has all basically been my own decision. I think the most advice I, I had, was from people within the department especially the, professor who supervised my MA and he helped me come up with the ideas for the PhD and was going to supervise that. And actually, he is the person I worked for on the first post postdoctoral, position.

Victor’s expectations

If someone had told you when you were 18 that you would have achieved the PhD and you would be doing what you are doing now, would it have been a surprise to you?

It would be very much a surprise. Oh, yes. Yeah.

What did you think life was going to be like?

I thought I would just be working my way up through a career as a gardener, but it just did not happen that way. Like I said, I, I started with the night classes as a hobby and just sort of drifted into academia.

There was no set plan. I think until my second year of doing Open University, I thought, I enjoy it. I want to do it full time. And I think even then I was unsure whether I would get up to PhD level. So no, I, I think that is the thing as well. It is very difficult to plan. They all, they all say you, you should have your career plan.

I think that is a load of crap. 'Cause in reality, it does not work out like that. And I, I have never really had a career plan. I suppose in some ways it, it has been looking into it industry, you know, three years of undergraduate, year of masters, three years of PhD, and then these three, two year, three year contracts that I guess after that,

So do you think that you just very much sort of person that likes to immerse themselves in what they are doing in the present, and you are not? You do not dwell on the uncertainties.

Try not to dwell on the uncertainties and you get on with what you are doing. You have moments of, you know, the insecurity. Yes, certainly. Again, going back to me, staff development review, the, personal review says, well, you do not seem very twitchy. He says, you do not seem too worried about it.

I said, well, perhaps when he gets a couple of months towards the end of the contract, that is when he gets twitchy. You think what is gonna happen next? And you just hope the work is gonna come up.

Being a mature student

Do you think that there are some advantages to coming into academia in the time of your life that you did and having had a career? Do you think there are some advantages to that?

Yes. I mean, it is using the usual cliches. You have got more life skills, the, transferable skills, things like that. And you can, especially, it works very well in something like archaeology where all skills can, can potentially be of use.

And I have managed to bring skills from my background into archaeology. So yes, it, that has helped, having that. And I, I do not know if I am that much more mature, I still try and behave like a 20-year-old if I can. I suppose there is some form of maturity you bring into it and staying power perhaps. Just trying to think of people who drop out of PhDs.

They do tend to be the younger ones. I imagine you must have had an enormous amount of self-belief to have gone from such different one's environment so different into another. You do not start off like that. I think I have the self-belief now having done it. I do not have the self-belief that you have some self-belief, but you do not have a lot of it at the time. And it has been a process of like say, you know, the night classes and some correspondence courses, then full-time undergraduate and you are building up to it.

It is something you build up to. It is, it is not something you just have something you go into. I believe, you know, there is sometimes I come across some tasks I am given. I thought, oh no, how am I going to do this? Can I really do it? And you surprise yourself. You do do it.

Victor’s PhD experience

What was the PhD like?

Again, very hard work. One thing I will say about a PhD, it is quite interesting that I have just had a, one of our current PhD students in who is a bit down at the moment, and it is mountain moments and trough moments, and it is a very up and down process, very exciting times, and there are times you just get totally exhausted and very, very depressed. It is basically because you are working on one thing, you have got to be very obsessed about it and you are working on your own most of the time.

If you have got a good supervisor, it is great. I mean, I was fortunate to have probably one of the best supervisors in archaeology in the country, who was very interested in what I was doing. But you are still very much on your own, you know, it is a very lonely process. Oh, and I know of people who have actually become ill, people who do drop out because the pressure is just too much.

They burn out.

What do you think that pressure is?

I think a lot of the pressure you create yourself from a lack of confidence in yourself. It is your first time at the working at this sort of academic level at such a high level. And I certainly was not that sure of myself. A lot of current PhD students who I talk to, I think they feel like that as well.

They are not really sure, you know, of things. and where the greatest help does actually come from is from your supervisor and, well, we do advisory panels for all the PhD students here. I think they are once a term and having an advisory panel, know as a support mechanism, how much support a department can give. It is very difficult. Everybody is so busy. But no, I, I, I think most of the pressure does come from, from ourselves.

And then what were the, the upsides? What did you enjoy?

The upsides. I got to live in a tent for two summers in Northern Scotland and just travel around looking at sites, also finding the best cafes, the best pubs, and the best restaurants. And it was just great fun doing the fieldwork. for me personally, it is why I enjoy research. Getting a load of data in, it is a hard slog, analysing that data, going through it.

But then when you have got made all your databases done, all that, the hard work coming up with the results, all the patterns start emerging. That gets very exciting as well. And that is the exciting part of the search. Suddenly discovering that you have got some answers.

What the PhD means to Victor

What does the PhD mean to you? On a personal level, what is it?

There was an amazing sense of achievement, and I did a big project with a lot of field work. To me personally, I felt it was a really good achievement, something to be proud. I wrote a book based on it, you know, everybody has got a book inside of them. I managed to write a book now, so that is always nice. I just learned so much doing it, and even though okay, I was in, I was in my thirties when I did it, I think I matured even more doing it.

You do become more self-reliant. You work things out for yourself because you have to. Okay. I was sort of living in a tent on my own for a couple of months each summer I did, I was very fortunate, I had a supervisor who was just obsessed and really interested in what I was doing and kept coming, flying up to visit me whenever ever I was up there.

But I, I think even if it was a desk-based PhD, you would, you learn a lot of reliance, self-reliance. You have got to do it yourself. You have got to work to the deadlines. It, it really teaches you so much. it is a damn hard way of going about it.

Mm-Hmm. In terms of your identity, you were a gardener.


You were then a PhD student. Did you feel that people treated you differently, responded differently towards you when they knew what you were doing, especially people that had known you as in your previous career?

Interesting. I would say some of the guys in the pub were intimidated, you know, where I had come from. Those people were intimidated. I was very much accepted by students, very, very much accepted by the staff. they, they thought it was great, you know, one of the university gardeners doing, you know, ending up doing a PhD.

And they had always been very supportive, very helpful. And, I had a lot of opportunities to work on great projects. But no, I have, I always found, found that interesting. My original peers were a bit funny about it and intimidated and my new set of peers were accepting of me.

Finishing the PhD

Managed to get the PhD done in three years and six weeks, which was popular. 'Cause a lot of them do go to four years now, although that is a cutoff point. Got the PhD, but from, I, I suppose from finishing it to graduation was about six months. When, when, when you go through all the examiner, examiner's process and then they do the actual graduations. But from graduation it was, I was just doing odd jobs around.

The department would give me a few jobs and various other people around. We would put in for funding for a post, for me, a research post for three years. On the third try, we actually got it, but it was 18 months from finishing the PhD to actually getting a job. And that can be quite hard going through that sort of process. You think, well, you have, academically got the highest you can get, in qualification wise, and you do not walk straight into a job, you know, not, not, not these days.

And so that was a difficult process to go through. But I did that project. There was another project coming up in the department they wanted me to work on, but there was a six week gap, and I did do some, self-employed work in archaeology, basically writing reports for various, agencies and, government bodies.

And that again, was difficult because it was not the guaranteed income. Some months there was more money than others, and it was difficult process to go through again. Had a, another research contract, which I did, and then there was another post came up just as that finished. And I walk straight into that. And that is what I am working on at the moment. So I am really on my third postdoc, postdoctoral position.

Within the same institution?

Within the same institution. Yeah. So I have been very fortunate. I just get on with everybody here. It is a very good department and we all get on and I, I do seem to fit in. So, it is a pleasant place to work, which has its plus side. Perhaps on the downside, I am not getting the wider experience I should perhaps. But no, no, I, I think that is a summary. Well, the first project that was going to, various offices around the country to collect unpublished excavation reports.

There is masses of excavation done that is not published. And we realized that, we just did not really know what the prehistory of Britain is like. So if you look at my shelves and shelves of photocopies, that is all the material I collected and the map shows you everywhere I went. So that was basically going around collecting, well, actually having to negotiate with people, negotiate things like copyright, to copy the material.

Fortunately, it was a very popular project with the people who were doing the work, who held the copyright and they waived copyright. We never had a problem with that. getting the material in, putting it together, collating it, building the database, and basically providing all the support so that the book could be written, written, the disability project, that was when they first approached me and asked me to apply for it.

I thought, “Do I really want to do something like this?” but then I read the research, plan for it, and I thought, no, this is really a really well put together project. And I thought this, this can work. And I did get the job. that involved basically doing all the background work, finding out what is disability in archaeology like for students and people who are employed.

So there was a lot of doing questionnaires, lots of interviewing people, building up, quantitative and qualitative data. And it was the first time I had worked on qualitative data like that, which I, I found absolutely fascinating. and then we, designed a self-evaluation toolkit for disabled and non-disabled students to use. And although this was built as a teaching and learning project, it be, we managed to make it very much a research project, which again made a great film.

What I am doing at present is, working on a project that is trying to encourage students to, do their own research and also, do more work with actual hands-on with artifacts. So we have been building up teaching collections. I have been collating the collections, cataloging everything I have to, A lot of it is material I have never worked on before, so I have to teach myself it first, then do, catalogue all the stuff and produce all the teaching material to go with it.

So it is more like teaching development. I am on there, certainly just, just as you came, I was working on, the put putting together the, materials for background material for the field trips that we run. So yeah, it has been very varied, the work I have done, from one that was pure research into one that was partly research, partly teaching and learning.

And now I suppose I am more on the teaching and learning side at the moment. This particular post, where it will go after that, I do not know. Certainly it is not a career path that is been planned. these are opportunities that have come up and I have either applied for them or been asked to, they have said, we would like you to apply for this. And so really it is, it is, things have just happened as it has gone along.

The viva

Did you have any uncertainty about the viva?

Yes. Yeah. It's this thing by, by the time you get to your viva, you just don't know in your own head and it's very difficult to make, an objective judgment of your own work. You dunno what's gonna happen. And I, I was very fortunate I went into the viva and they said, they immediately told me they're very happy I'd got it, and they said, we want to talk about the issues that's brought up in it. So we spent two and a half hours going through that.

But before the viva yes, I, I was pretty nervous. But I think it's a piece of advice it'd always pass on. If you've got a good supervisor, he won't let you actually submit until he thinks it's ready to submit, you know? So until he thinks, well, he or she whatever, thinks that the PhD is actually at a stage where it will pass viva. So that actually comes down to your supervisor quite a lot.

Victor’s current role

A bit more about your life now. What, what is life like?

Still hard work. Lots of pressure. You know, you, you have to keep writing stuff, doing your own research on the side and publishing. but I suppose I am in a discipline where people go into it because it is something they are interested in. It is something you enjoy, you know, so you are quite happy to work long hours and do the extra bit.

But I enjoy that. There is always hanging over me that sort of insecurity, you know, 'cause it is the short term contracts. and I have got a year left, 12 months left on this one. nothing in the pipeline yet. And you always keep an eye on the job market. I have never actually walked out of a contract early, although they have always told me here, if the right job comes up, I must apply for it. they have very much stressed that with this contract.

I think, I think the insecurity is the thing, but I, I remember being quite insecure when I was doing the PhD anyway. So, recently having this staff development review, we discussed this and it is almost like the insecurity has become a way of life.

Can you explain that a bit more?

In that, you know, there, there could be periods where there is going to be that unemployment and you cannot see what is coming in the next month.

But then are not a lot of people like that in this country. Self-employed people, plumbers, brickies labourers, things like that. And on the building site now, it is very rare these firms actually employ people directly. Everything is contracted, subcontracted, subcontracted. so if I start thinking like that, well, I think actually I am not the only one.

Do you think there is anything about the PhD experience that equips you to deal with uncertainty?  

It helps you get used to it. Certainly that.

And can you give me an idea of what a typical day might be like for you?

For, for me at the moment?


Come in early, switch the computer on, oh, sorry, switch the computer on, make a coffee, do all the emails.

By the time I have done that, I want another coffee. And literally I am, I have got various jobs I have to do in this project. And I am just working down my list of the jobs I have to do. These are the smaller ones. We, we have got a meeting next week about some big, things we, you know, they have, to see if I can get done. So I just, I will sit down in the project direction, the line manager and, decide what to do with that.

But it is been very much, I am just left on my own. They say, oh, this needs doing and get on with it. it was when coins, I have never worked on coins in my life before. Coins, that is money you spend. And so I had to learn coins from all things. So I had to find out what, what are the books, you know, the, the, standard text you classify them with, how do you classify them? And really just being left to get on with it. although I will say if I do come up against a brick wall, I have problems.

There are people I can go and ask.


But no, I, I think the project director at one point I says, “Oh, I am, I am going to take a few days off holiday”. Said, he just looks at me and says, “Just manage yourself”. So I, I am very much left to, to do it.

I mean, you could only do your job with a PhD.


Anyway. But the, the very nature of this self-directed self-management sort of work style.  

Yeah, of course. Yes. Yeah. I suppose that is actually come out for the PhD now you talk about it. Yeah. 'cause going out and doing that in doing things independently, but then that is maybe something I have increased because a lot of the gardening jobs I have done, I have been a solo gardener and been responsible for everything myself and basically had to go out and work out what is doing and do it myself. So I do have actually have a background in that.

Types of teaching

Now you were saying that you, you love research.


And you don't think that you would want to have a lecturing career?


Can you talk to me a bit more about that?

I don't like lecturing. I don't mind, standing up, giving papers at conferences. It's quite interesting. Giving a paper at a conference and lecturing is a totally different way of talking. I don't, I, in some ways I, I worried that I was afraid of the hard work with all the preparation and this is hard work. But then what I do now is very hard work.

It's difficult to explain. I don't like lecturing. If possible I want to avoid all the administration that's involved. I certainly don't mind what dealing with students, I've always gone on very well with students, you know, been around students for what, over 25 years. It's the actual lecturing itself and probably the admin that goes with it.

And do you think you might have a change of heart?  

I dunno. I dunno. I enjoy teaching practical stuff. That's good fun. Now that's interactive. I think now, I mean, a lectureship in archaeology is just so competitive. I don't, I think at my age I don't think I'd get one. I might get sort of part-time teaching or, teaching part-time courses, things like that. But a full lecture academic post?

And happy doing research. You and just the practical teaching. Enjoy that. It's all very interactive.

The challenges facing students with disabilities in archaeology

Talking about disability, can you, unpack a bit more? What maybe are the challenges facing students with disabilities in archaeology?

I think the main challenge, if I can get the word right, is the perception of it, is the perception of, disabled people. And once you overcome that, you can actually do a great deal with disabled people. I mean, we, we, I had lots of volunteers, not just students, but we were getting from, one of the local councils were helping us with this.

They were sending me blind people, people in wheelchairs, all sorts. And we just worked out ways that they could actually do some of the jobs. The main thing I would say is that you have to basically recognize not everyone can do everything. And for one individual, they, there may be some, some activities they cannot do. That does not mean they can be excluded from archaeology.

'Cause there are some people with the label of non-disabled, there are activities they cannot do. A simple thing. I am not very tall. I could stand on a chair with health and safety. I am looking to get folders, to get files off my top shelf. Whereas I have colleagues who can get it off the top shelf. So I make a reasonable adjustment. I stand on the chair. But no, I, this is a thing that is changing. I mean, what was initially driving the project was the recent disability legislation, which is now come into effect across universities, across workplaces, employment and everything.

And people's perceptions of it are changing. it is not a thing that happens overnight though. but no, I, I think perception is the biggest problem. It is not, it is not any physical barrier. Its attitude is the biggest barrier.

Anticipating an academic career

Did you anticipate when you, when you embarked on the PhD, that it would be leading you into an academic profession?

I hoped it would. I hoped it would. For me personally, from what I have seen around, I do not think I would like to take on a lectureship. I do not think I would enjoy that, at the, certainly at the current moment, I am enjoying, doing okay. They are short-term contracts, so there is not that secure, but I get to do very interesting work.

And I worked on one project just traveling the whole UK and, Ireland collecting data, for a, you know, big overall synthesis of material. I worked on, with disabled students for just over two years, and now I am working, putting together all different artifacts. I had always worked in prehistoric things, but now I am getting a chance to work on material and things from other periods.

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