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.
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Can you tell me when you completed your PhD, how many years it took and how old you were?
Yes. I was into my thirties when I began and I think that was January 2002 and work was finished by the end of '05 I was viva'd in February '06 and then graduated ceremonially in July '06
And 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.