Chris | Languages - 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

 

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Career Pathway

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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.

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