Susan | English Literature | University administration.

Susan shares her educational journey leading up to her pursuit of a PhD, detailing the various endeavours she undertook to bolster her CV for an academic career. She candidly discusses the challenges of juggling a job alongside her doctoral studies, reflecting on the hurdles encountered and her ambitions for securing an academic position. Throughout her narrative, Susan emphasises the valuable skills she has gained through her PhD journey and offers insights into the highs, lows, and profound lessons gleaned along the way.

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

The background to Susan’s PhD
The meaning of the PhD
Susan’s PhD experience
Finishing the PhD
Anticipating an academic career
Building a career

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Career Pathway

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Turning Points

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Audio Interview

The background to Susan’s PhD

Tell me a bit about your educational background.

Well, I was born in Northern Ireland. The education system there is slightly different. So I attended a grammar school, because we have, we still have the 11 plus, so it was sort creamed off quite early on. From there I went to Queens University, Belfast. I applied to Cambridge, didn't get in. But that was on the whole positive because it meant that I was able to spend a year in the United States on a full scholarship, supposedly studying Business, but as it turned out, studying, you know, English and Women's Studies and the kinds of things I was actually interested in, which was really, I was really good. I spent here in Tennessee. then I came back, finished my degree in English at Queens.

And quite early on in my third year, I thought I wanted to do a Master's because I could, I wanted to go to, well Queens, Queens is a very good institution.

I wanted to come away from Belfast, get more experience in that. I wanted to come to, you know, a top institution in Britain, in England. So I applied and got to do Women's Studies at the institution in question and, and, got on well with my supervisor and decided to stay on to do a PhD.

The meaning of the PhD

How do you think the PhD has equipped you? What has it given you?

Um, massive have inferiority complex. I think it's made me really confident in my own ability to, you know, to look at, you know, to look at a situation and say, right, well this is what needs to be done. You know, or my own kind of, I suppose, I mean, I guess my ability to generate models of thinking, I suppose.

And because with research, being, research always gives the impression that you are drawing material from somewhere else, which to some extent is true. But something that I took from research was the ability to basically generate something purely out of my head. So, but all this material, I'm gonna have to think of a way to make it all work together, and that is purely coming from me.

That's the, you know, that's, that's not sort of in innate to the material. So it makes you very, makes you very confident in your ability to do that, I guess. And also the fact that I finished at all is makes me think if I can do that, I can probably do anything, any kind of sustained body of work that just has to be gone on and on and on and on. Just be able, that sort of sense of being able to just keep going and, to some extent, yeah, I mean I, I suppose a really strong confidence in my own opinion on things and that if I think something is so, then I can always make the argument for why it is so.

And that's not, that's never going to leave me now because I've got a rubber stamp saying, yes, your opinions count, your opinions matter. And when you're starting out, you almost feel like, “Oh, these are just my opinions. How can they possibly mean anything?” But actually no, that's fair enough, that's a contribution to knowledge in terms of being equipped for, to pay the electricity bill and, you know, to put in a full day’s work and all that kind of thing. I don't think it equipped me at all. But, yeah, I think having a, yeah, confidence in my own intellectual abilities. Definitely.

Susan’s PhD experience

What stage are you at now?

I have just completed my PhD. I've just submitted my corrected copy to my internal examiner, and she has told me for, you know, verbally that it's fine and I've passed. So I have a PhD.

Congratulations.

Thank you.

And tell me a bit about your experience of doing a PhD.

Well, I think there's two very distinct parts of the PhD. The first probably year and two thirds, and then the last third and the third year. And the first one was very much, retrospectively, I'm not sure I really knew what I was doing for a lot of the time. I think I was my, my super, I would meet with my supervisor and she would ask me to write something every term. So I would present her every, every couple of months or so with some, with a 10,000 word essay and something that I'd written sort of just generated, off the top of my head. And she would say, “Hmm, maybe, I don't know. Let's think about this, think about that”. And I'd go away and do something else. And, but in the meantime I was, you know, still carrying on, being a student, going out, drinking, generally having a good time, meeting people, being really involved in, university life in general. And then towards the end of my second year, that was all fine, but I, it was, that was, it was all really good fun, but at the same time, I really didn't feel like I knew where I was going and what, what the final project was going to look like.

So while, while my project was narrowing and I was progressing, I was progressing very slowly and without any kind of real sense of that I had anything to say to, to the topic. The summer of my second year, I got very stressed out because it became very clear that I didn't really know what I, and I only had one year to go and I was very much one funded year, you know?

So, I sort of pulled it together quite a lot in that year. And at that point it became a sort of really intense nightmare of working really hard all the time and writing up and, you know, pulling everything together.

And, well, at the time I felt very much like making it up as I was going along, but, retrospective, I think it was only in that period that I felt like I really became a researcher and that I felt like I sort of came into that identity a lot more.

Can you talk to me a bit more about the identity of a researcher?

Well, because, because, well, because my PhD's in English, I was only ever doing what I'd always done, which is go to the library and read a book, make notes on that book and then talk about it a bit. In my final year, I got much more interested in various other bits of, primary sources, for example. So I, was one, one part of my thesis was about, this, pair of writers in the late 18th century about which there’s very little information.

So I went on a massive mission to try and find out more information about them. And I ended up looking at, you know, books that were written about Somerset on, you know, at the end of the 18th century and, prints from the period and, sort of arc sort of arcane references to, local myths in Somerset and that kind of thing. So it was all, it was quite interesting. I didn't mean, I found out I limited amount, I found out enough as it turned. As it turned out, I mean, the information's not really out there, but, it felt like I was really looking for information in a way that I hadn't really done before.

And I also got a bit more clarity about exactly how reading texts contributed to a kind of wider social world. Because until then I'd been looking at things like I'd been looking at, you know, philosophy of the period and what people had said about different things and about women gender issues.

It was all very kind of nebulous less. In my final year, I got a much clearer sense of what I was doing, what, what, what I wanted to achieve by reading a text. So I said what I was looking for, what exactly about the language I was interested in drawing out. And I basically, I sort, I, I find a framework for what I was doing, I think is slightly unhelpful way to put it, perhaps, but I felt like I was working within a system mode that I, that I had, that I had developed for myself.

And that's what I think me, I mean by saying I felt like I had a research identity because I, I had decided what I wanted to do and I was doing it, the information I wanted to find out and the way I wanted to model the thinking that I was doing.

What have been the most memorable moments of the PhD, highs and lows?

Do you know, I think the most memorable moments have been times when I've been sitting down with a group of friends and, you know, not anywhere near the desk or the library, but, you know, having like a drink in a bar or something.

Maybe sort of the rituals that you develop with your friends and you're talking about your research and you're saying, “Oh, I think this, but I think that - but I don't know, but what do you think that”, you know, and you sort of thing, look at me and I think I'm, I'm having this really intense intellectual conversation with somebody and the, the way which people sort of work together to be supportive.

And that's what, when I went back in my PhD, that's what I'm, I'm going to remember talking about interesting things with my friends. Not, not gonna remember sitting in the library. I mean, I can think of a few occasions when I realised something or I leapt out of bed and thought, you know, I've, I've just thought of something. This is really important. I can make this work. and there's quite a lot of that happening towards the end because I'd done so little for the first two years that I had to really kind of work, work very hard to put it all together.

Those were the, but that's not gonna stay with me forever. It's gonna be that sense of community of all working together under sort of really quite adverse conditions. The lows, I think the lowest point was when, right before I started to write up and I thought, I thought, right, I'm gonna write up over the summer in my third year. And I sort of thought, right, I'm gonna get going around May, and for about a month I couldn't, I couldn't lift a finger, I couldn't do anything.

And I spent most of that month just lying on the sofa crying and going, I can't do this. This isn't gonna happen. I have wasted you two and a half years of my life. I'm not gonna have a PhD at the end of this. The AHRC is gonna want their money back. You know, all that kind of stuff. the fact that I go over that is in itself a positive memory because it shows that I, I could cope with it.

But yeah, it was touch and go for a while. So that's, yeah, that's definitely my lowest point.

Is there some ambivalence now that you've reached the end?

Yeah. But that, that, that's still very, because I'm so close to the end of it. I mean, what I was, I was really euphoric when I finished writing up. And I felt like it was all completely worth it immediately after I'd had my viva, I felt like I quite sort of forcefully had the PhD put into perspective because I felt like a whole other set of challenges presented themselves in terms of getting published and finding a job. And, you know, the kind of the really, really quite narrow nature of the PhD as it is when it's been done in three years flat.

So yes, it's PhD, but it's only a PhD and I felt like that for quite a long time. Now that I'm starting to say “Doctor” rather than “Ms”, I'm feeling quite positive about it again, and I, I think I would, I absolutely would do it again. I don't think it, I, I think it was really, It was an amazing opportunity and it was an amazing three years and I, in many ways I wish I was still doing it because just the, you know, the relationships you build up, the experiences you have are absolutely invaluable.

The research itself perhaps a little less valuable. So maybe that's where the ambiance is, is that, you know, it's, it's so much of the PhD I think is more about the experience than about the product. And that's, but if I think once you've sort of dealt with that, you'll find it a lot, well, I found it a lot easier to, feel grateful that I'd had that experience.

Can, can you explain a bit more about that?

Well, I mean, I suppose there's a lot of debate about what the PhD is for, and I think people still see it as this, sort of, you know, magnum opus sort of document that, you know, this is, this is what you leave with the world. and I think once you've finished, it becomes very clear that what you have produced is not the final word on the subject.

And something that I, I find very well that I, I found great in one and not so great in another is that I'm now already thinking about how what I've, what I've done can be changed and improved and have more things added to it and could work with other things that I've looked at and, could be turned into something publishable for starters, because the PhD is not publishable. You know, how I can develop what I've done.

The fact that it's not publishable and it's present for means that it's essentially a worthless document, but at the same time, having now produced that document, I know that I can produce another document of similar, of a similar length and better quality, which would then be sort of something that will go into the, go into the world in a way that the PhD doesn't. And having gone through that process of producing that long document, sort of like a practice, you know, the practice document is sort of saying, well, this qualifies me to be the kind of person who gets to publish articles, rather than this itself is something that I will, you know, I would be ashamed to really sit on the world right now, you know, in a current state.

But, you know, but, but it was good enough. It got me a PhD, it got me that kind of got me the rubber stamp. So that's, that's all I needed it to do. And I think that's what I mean when I say the product is less important than the process.

And people now are beginning to think in terms of the PhD as an apprenticeship, especially if it's only going to last for three years, there's no way that you could possibly produce anything of value to the learning community in that time or of, you know, of significant value. So it's kind of scaling down your expectations and saying, right, well I will produce this. And then somebody somewhere will say, yes, that's why they've a doctorate, and that's fine. And then I will use that massive amount of information that I've garnered to create wonderful things because now I'm authorised to.

Finishing the PhD

 What about your sense of identity, as an academic, or as someone who's got through the PhD? Do you see yourself as an academic?

I see myself as an academic in waiting. I have quite a strong sense that I have more to say. And that I have a contribution to make to the intellectual community, if, you know, one can use such a cheesy phrase.

But, it's still quite up in the air whether I'm going to be, it's going to be possible to make that contribution. And whether that contribution has value unless it's coming from the position of being in an academic post. And that's what's slightly difficult perhaps is that you need to have that kind of institutional affiliation or stamp to say this. For you to feel like what you produce and what you contribute is of value.

Do you mean that if you didn't decide, if you decided not to carry on in academia, it wouldn't be as valuable, your contribution, your publications, wouldn't be as valuable as they would be if you were in an academic post?

Mm. I think the answer to that is twofold. And the first thing is that they would not be perceived to be of value because you wouldn't have that institutional affiliation. So, you know, “such and such lecturer at the University of…” just carries more weight in the world of academia. I mean, maybe it shouldn't be so, but it does.

You know, there's always, you know, the curse of the independent researcher who is very hard to distinguish from, like, the crank who just, like, loves this particular topic. And I think it's important to when you're producing research to be a participant in this sort of intellectual work culture because otherwise you are just looking at someone who’s because you need to be able to work within that to some degree.

Do you want to be an academic, I mean, in terms of that you want to get an academic job?

Yes, I do I do, but I think I mean just be briefly, to you know, go further, I mean I would say, I would not say that if I produce, when I say that if I produce something and it wouldn't be of value what I mean is that it's like, outside of academia it's pretty hard to produce something of value partly because you don't have that kind of, because you're not within the culture so it's just harder to sort of generate material but also you literally don't have the time, if you're working 9 to 5 it's very hard to research outside of, or even to pursue research outside of, an academic post which is, in theory, supposed to build in time for you to, for you to do that.

So that's, so, that would be my perspective. But, yeah, I want, I find the idea of academia really appealing because it just, it just ticks so many boxes in terms of, you know, making, making contributions and getting that personal fulfilment and developing people and working with people and taking, you know, having a stake in a public role, I suppose, in that, in that you're sort of affiliated with an institution and that you have a role in improving that institution and, you know, you, just from the personal point of view, you just get you get to organise your own time so much more and you get to you have so much freedom of, of action because that's what the maybe this is a romanticised view of the role. And I know, I mean, I know academics complain about administration and how they don't have time to research and how teaching takes up all their time and stuff like that. But I don't think I would mind.

Why not? 

Because there's so many ways to get fulfilment. And it's that because it's, if you're doing an administrative job, then, you know, you can get, you can get personal fulfilment out of that because it's, you know, it's good to be organised and it's good to support other people in doing what they're doing. And there's, you know, there's satisfaction to be had in a job well done.

If you're doing just research, then satisfaction you can get is much more long term, and it can be really easy to get bogged down. If you're just doing teaching, then you know, there's a more immediate satisfaction because you're sort of, you can see the visible results of your teaching and you're getting immediate feedback, but again, you could sort of see that you might just be, you might feel like you're a treadmill.

And this sort of, you could almost see it in terms of, you know, the short term, versus the long term. And you've, if you're in academia, you have the potential to get something at all levels. So you've got that kind of, the most basic kind of organisational, getting things done kind of level. And you've also got that teaching, developing others kind of level and then you've also got that space to be just be in your own head and do what, you know, do your own thinking and you've got that sort of long term aspiration to get the next book out or to move up the, you know, move up the ladder, you know, become an editor of something, you know, you can have aspirations and all these different levels and I think that's what's appealing to me about academia.

 

Do you have any anxieties as you're at the moment making that transition from PhD student, into the, into the world of a, an academic, a working academic?

Well, yes. I'm aware that academia is very competitive. So there's always the chance that either I'll just not be good enough. That I won't get the publications because I won't just be able to get round to it. That I'll be out of it for too long that I won't be able to get back into it. So that's part of it.

The perfect job may come up, but it might be in Aberdeen, and then, you know, bang goes my social life. That,  that it might just become too big a, it might, it might just be too big a job to get into academia, and then I'd have to be satisfied with less, and that would be a sad thing to have to do, or that I might get into it, and then I might find that I don't like it as much as I thought I would, you know, but, I mean, that's the same of every job.

Yeah, my main anxiety at the minute is that I won't get published, and if I don't get published, I can't get a job, and if I can't get a job, then I have to figure out something else that I want to do and create new aspirations.

Have you been applying for jobs and post docs and things?

No, I haven't.

I've, because I left so much of my PhD to the last minute, I literally didn't have, I literally, I didn't have a project. When I was finishing my PhD, I didn't have, I didn't have in mind the next thing that I wanted to do. I didn't, I wouldn't have been able to put together a research proposal if, you know, you sat me down and held a gun to my head.

I would have just been like, I have absolutely no idea. The day before I submitted my PhD, I was still changing arguments. Rewriting and changing even through the whole take on, on the topic. So, which proves that it can be done. You can still be kind of generating your arguments, you know, the week before you hand in, but it also means that you're not very secure in your own sort of sense of where you fit in in the research world.

So, subsequently to finishing my PhD, and I should make clear that I had started my current post three months before I submitted, subsequently to finishing, I was able to take a bit of space to think about where I could take it, and to think up research proposals, and to think about what, you know, what would be the appropriate next step.

So I have an idea about where I would like to take it now, but at this exact moment, there are no jobs available to apply for. And I have thought about, I've thought about applying for postdocs for, will need to be, not this year coming, but the year after.  And I think I probably will. But then again, there's limited chance of getting one unless you have a publication.

And I need a publication soon. That's my focus right now.

You started a post three months before you submitted your PhD. How did the, what was the post and how did it come up and how did you get it?

The post is, it's what I do now. It's coordinating graduate training for one of the, for arts and humanities students in my institution.

So, the post was created to deal with a problem of lack of flow of information between the different parts of arts and humanities. So it was to a large degree, and administrative post. I applied for it because it was linked to something that I'm very interested in, which is, the training of graduate teachers and educational development in general.

Partly because I went through a pilot program to do with that area during my doctorate. I got very interested in this whole, in the world of teaching. I just, you know, I like teaching. I find it fulfilling. And I thought being involved with that would be really interesting, while I sort of got my head together in terms of, you know, where my research is going and what the next step is in terms of my career.

The post has slightly evolved since I took it on, because, having just done a graduate degree, I get very aerated about the lack of support available to graduate students. And, so I took on quite a lot of, I took it upon myself to try and develop the support that was available when I probably didn't necessarily need to.

Like, that wasn't really part of the job. But, I thought that was probably more important and would contribute more to my personal development and to my career satisfaction. So, that was what I ended up doing. Unfortunately.  When you work in, you know, research support or university administration in general, you're quite often given an awful lot of freedom to basically interpret the role as you see fit.

 

So that's what I did. So I think perhaps the form that the job is in now is probably more contributing to my academic development in terms of getting me involved in actually delivering training and teaching training and, learning more about educational theory, that kind of thing. But at the same time, it's also taking up more of my time, which makes it harder to get the research done.

So, I want to know a couple of things about that. I want to know how difficult it was finishing up a PhD in the last three months of it, when you're actually also juggling a job and a PhD. And then I'd like to know what the prospects are within this role that you're in and whether it'd be something you'd consider doing instead of an academic career?

Okay, I will deal with the first question first - how difficult was it? So, for, yes, it was very difficult, as is the short answer. Because I was learning a new job, and, basically, especially because I was moving into the world of work, it was, it was very difficult to, at the same time, it what was, to a large degree, a complete rewrite of the final draft of my PhD, it required  working 9 to 5, which I wasn't used to, coming home, and, you know, working on for another couple of hours in the evening, every evening, and working at weekends.

Having said that, because it was for a short period of time, and because I knew that I had an end in sight, I just did it. I think I've probably blocked that out because it was really quite stressful. But I mean, it was, it was for a discrete period of time. So it just was a matter of saying, right, well, I'll pull out the stops, get it done, get it handed in.

Then that'll be that behind me. So, by the end of, uh, handed in just before Christmas, by Christmas, I was a complete wreck. But, I sometimes think that that's worth it just to get it over with. Rather than just letting it drag on and drag on and drag on. Like, I've, I've known people who've taken up jobs.

And I suppose the other thing, well, actually, I mean, in many ways, there was so much satisfaction in that, because so many people told me, oh, if you take a job, you'll not finish your PhD. And I was very kind of like, well, I shall prove you wrong. Ha! And did. So, that made me feel quite good about just the whole thing.

And, so I suppose that was what drove me. Actually, to some extent, it's sort of saying, right, I have to get it over with. I can't have this thing hanging around like an albatross around my neck. And also, you know, everyone thinks I'm not going to be able to do it, so I'm going to do it. And I think also there's a sort of sense of, because what I might have done instead was I had quite a lot of teaching lined up, but it wouldn't have been enough to make, to live on.

So it was like living on, you know, super noodles and doing teaching. So for example, there was a job at an institution that is close to my institution, but that isn't my institution, that was basically doing their 18th century English teaching, over two semesters, you know, and that would have been a really good career opportunity in terms of building up my teaching portfolio.

And similarly I had various bits of teaching lined up at my institution but none, you know, even put all together that would not have been enough to pay my way so I had to let that go to do this job. So in many ways I suppose I was driven by the sense of that I'd made my choice and I had to make it work.

So, but I wouldn't recommend it. I would, I think, ideally say, yes, no, do try and finish before you take up a job, because it's really very stressful. But, there's a lot of sense of achievement to be had from it as well.

And what are you doing now, and what is the job like, and do you want to continue doing it?

Oh yes, I remember. The job is, the job has good points and bad points. I don't know. It's interesting because, basically because the post is newly created, I was taken on to plug a gap. Having been taken on, and being in post, it, it's quite, in many ways, it's quite an isolating role because it's very much, oh, well, you know, she'll take care of everything to do with that.

And because it's a brand new post, there's really, there's no system in place for me to slot into. There's no sense of what kind of training I would require, what kind of career development would be useful for me. There's no sense that, of even a sort of set of discrete tasks that I'm supposed to achieve.

So basically, I set my own goals, and when I accomplish them, I pat myself on the back. I think I find, I find it, I find it less difficult now. I find it quite difficult to go from organising my own time to having it organised for me, being obliged to be somewhere nine to five. Having to deal with other people so continuously I find very difficult because, with academics if you contravene protocol then they can get quite shirty and you have to be a bit sort of, you know, careful.

 

Not having that sort of, not being able just to step out and be by myself because I'm in a shared office, that kind of thing. I've just, it's quite, it's a big adjustment but, you know, you do get used to it. But the real kind of, that's the difficult side of my job, and it can be very stressful for that reason.

But, on the other hand, I'm completely, ridiculously in charge of the direction of graduate training. Which is brilliant. To my agenda, it's what gets done, which is great.  And there's real benefit to be had when you actually do, like, create some kind of support for graduate students, and you see them being happy about the fact that they're being supported in this way, and that's really, really fulfilling, and I just wish I could do it more.

But, with limited funds, limited resources, and it being just me, it's quite difficult to do as much as I would like to do. Which I suppose is back on the frustrating side, but yeah, I mean, it's swings and roundabouts.

But you don't want to stay doing this?

I would not be averse to staying in educational development and, you know, taking on this, supporting people who are researchers and building up their, you know, building their skills, building their confidence, all that kind of stuff and  teaching them how to teach, how to, you know, how to be an academic.

All of that stuff is really worthwhile and I could probably do it forever, but I would need to do it in a context in which the qualifications that I have are valued. And the remuneration was quite substantially higher. So the fact that I have a PhD would be something that would be seen to be contributing to what I give, what I bring to the job, rather than sort of at the minute, which is basically, it's an administrative post and it just so happens that I have a PhD, which means that I can bring certain qualities to the job, but it's not part of the job.

And I think I would want to work in a, within a framework where the value of what I do is recognised and my sort of special qualities are a part of what the job requires. In, in a slightly different way to what it is right now, which is that I have an administrative position that sort of happens on the side.

What was your interview like? Because I guess it was your first interview for a job.

Mm, yeah, not since I applied to Tesco's have I been interviewed. Interestingly, I applied to work in Tesco's when I was sort of 20, and the interview that I got for Tesco, this was much more like what I thought an interview would be like than the one that I did for this job.

But, the interview was actually, the reason, I knew I got the job because we were giggling for most of the interview. And, it just, it felt really, really good. Actually, actually, no, that's actually not true. I had interviewed for various jobs. So, for example, in, I'd interviewed to be, to be involved with, with outreach in one of the parts of the university.

And, that particular interview was very, it was just horrible because, you know, it was just, it was really, really formal. The questions that I was asked didn't seem to make any sense to me. I wasn't getting any kind of  feedback from the people who were interviewing me. And I think, basically, because they were looking for someone who wasn't me, I think it was quite obvious.

Whereas the interview for this job, it was much more, it felt very informal. They were really interested in what I had to say. They picked up on things that I said, and they said, oh, tell us more about that. When I made a joke, they laughed. It was just very, I walked out feeling like, they liked me, which I suppose is not what you think is going to be, you know, it's not what, you don't think that you're going to be hired because they like you, but I suppose if they're looking for a certain type of person and you happen to be that person, then it's easy to generate this sort of warmth of, you know,  we can, you know, we can work together, we can help each other.

The feedback I got from the interview was that I was very charming, which I'm not sure how I feel about that because I'm not sure if I want to be hired because I'm charming. But I think at the time. It was understood that the kind of work that I would be doing would require actually quite a lot of charm in the sense of having to persuade people to do something that they wouldn't necessarily want to do.

So, I suppose that was part of the job criteria.

How did you prepare for the interview? 

Well, I was given, I had to do a presentation. And, I mean, the presentation should have given it away. I had to do a presentation on, the need for transferable skills training to, an imagined or sceptical audience of graduates, of postgraduate students and their supervisors.

 

So, I basically, I did, I did a presentation, very much around what I still think, which was, and I was basically, I was trying to say, I tried, I tried to find a hook, basically, because I was sort of thinking, well, it would be easy to do a presentation about the need for transferable skills training.

I mean, everyone knows that, you know, you need to have transferable skills if you want to get a job, fine. What people don't quite understand is the value of transferable skills training during the postgraduate degree. So I tried, I had a strategy, I suppose, I would say. And what I thought most people would be likely to do in that situation would be to, to direct it at the, at the postgraduate students but forget about the supervisors.

And so what I tried to do was say, this is the value to postgraduate students. And then I did a special section about why supervisors should be on board with it. And the whole idea was that, if a graduate had training, then they're going to be more likely to get you their work on time, they're going to be more likely to be like finished and off your hands at a reasonable time, they're not going to be bugging you all the time with silly questions because they're going to find, you know, they're going to find out the sources of information elsewhere, you know, sort of there's added value to supervisors and  So that was my strategy and I also, you know, I think I put in a quote and, then sort of set it in a framework of about critical reflection.

So I put in a quote from Pope about making each day a critic on the last and that kind of thing. So I mean, I did a bit through quite bells and whistles and I made a, made a handout, which was very, you know, which had, the crest of the university superimposed on it. And it was very, I really, really went quite far in making it polished and have a little note cards.

That was very, I mean, I always feel like that was, I kind of think it's better to prepare too much than too little because, you might look a bit, and I mean, I suppose in many ways, I probably came across as being quite cheesy because I was like, but it's really important that we get people to reflect on these things and that, you know, that we support them but it's better to feel, look like you're passionate about something and that you have something to offer rather than to try and just sort of tick some boxes, I suppose.

The condition of me taking this job was that I would give up the teaching that I'd lined up, and I tried to negotiate, I tried to say, well, you know, if I did this teaching, then maybe I could, you know, that would, that would contribute to the job, and they just said, you know what, it's not going to be possible, it's a full time job.

You're not going to be able to prepare teaching and do this at the same time. We're not, you know, we don't mind you teaching, like we want you to teach in the long term, but when you're just starting a new job, you can't possibly just take on this teaching, so I, in the, so it was a hard decision, so, but I went at it from the point of view of I want to be offered the job on the basis that then I can think about whether I want to take it or not.

And there was a lot about the job that was appealing to me. And it was more money than I was getting as a graduate student. So as a result, well, that's a good thing. And it meant various convenient things, like I'd be able to stay in my institution where my, my partner’s, you know, in this institution. So there was a lot conveniences attached to this job that made it worth me wanting to, we were like really putting effort into getting it.

So, how long is the job for?

Oh, it's a three year contract, but I don't necessarily expect to stay in it for three years. I would, I would hope not, not to ideally. I'd hope to find something else.

An academic job?

An academic job. I think it's important to stay in a job for as long as, stay in the job long enough so that you can feel like there's something you can say that you achieved in it so that you can then put that on your CV and say, in this job I achieved the following.

I think that's my kind of perspective on, on career management, is that, you have to be in it for long enough to see through a project of some sort, even if it's something really low scale, that you can then sort of say, that's what I did in that job. And once you've got that, there's no reason to stay, really, if, you know, if it's not what you want to do long term.

Anticipating an academic career

It was, it clearly, it was quite clear to me that it was an option, Probably at the end of my, the beginning of my final year of undergraduate. And I think, I think yes, I think I, I wanted to try and see if that was gonna be possible. I didn't really know at the time what that entailed, but the lifestyle was appealing and I thought, well, the thing I have to do to do that is do a Master's. So I thought, “Right, well, I'll do a Master's and then I'll see how I get on with that.”

And if I like that and it seems that it's worthwhile, then I'll say, I wanna do a PhD. And if I like that and it seems to work out, then I'll try, I'll try and get into academia. So it wasn't, it was a, a long-term aspiration rather than, an ambition maybe is a good way to distinguish the two.

Building a career

What kind of things were you doing through the PhD, to kind of build up your CV for an academic job?

I did all this kind of, I did all the supplementary stuff. So for example, I took, I took a teaching course, which was, the program that is in place that we have at my institution involves mentor teaching. So opportunities to teach are created for you and you're mentored through that process and you write a reflective portfolio on your teaching experience.

I took opportunities to teach where they came up, which, but they were quite relatively limited as it turned out. I attended conferences to some degree, but again, in the first couple of years of my PhD, I didn't really enjoy going to conferences. The ones I went to, I find them very impersonal, very kind of, there's no kind of, they didn't feel like I was talking to people who were interested in, in the kind of research that I was doing.

I just felt like people were coming just to present their papers and leave again, just 'cause it was a big national conference. So I tried, you know, I presented, I presented when I could and when I was, when, when I was invited to, mainly for the sake of saying, okay, I've presented at a conference in my final year. I went to a few more conferences where I actually got to speak to people and we talked about our research and that was really interesting and that was much more fun.

I, I did quite a lot of stuff. I got very involved in various things. So, one of the things I, one of the things I did, and it was partly because I was asked to, and partly because I thought it'd be a useful thing, was I worked for the, a master's program, throughout the time of my PhD. So at the master's that I had done in women's studies, the committee that ran that needed somebody basically to assist the chair, literally by doing the photocopying and taking minutes and that kind of thing. But it, I, I took the job and kept doing it because I felt like it gave me a really good insight into that whole process of running a course and what the kind of administrative side of academia would be like.

So I sort quite consciously did that. For that reason. I also, got involved in organising a conference with English faculty. I was involved in org convening a seminar on gender and history for a while. A lot of those things, the kind, the kind of things people sort of say, “Oh, would you be interested in that?” and you, you know, you say, “Sure, sure, why not?” but I did quite consciously try and be involved in things so that partly so that I would make contacts and partly so that I, well, partly because I was procrastinating 'cause I didn't wanna go to the library and partly because I thought it'd be useful to have a range of activities that I could then draw on and say, I've done this and I've done that, I know about this and I know about that. And try and get insight into, the world of research, I suppose. So, yes.

Where did your sort of realisation that those things were important come from? Was it someone you spoke to or?

It was, there was a session on academic careers in that I attended at, in, in my, in, in the English department in the first year of my PhD. And they run this every year. And it was, they run these very informal lunchtime sessions at which you come along and somebody quite high up in the, hierarchy says something like, “Oh, well, if you want to get published, you'll never get published ha ha!”. But, on this particular occasion, it was, you know, how to get a career in academia.

And they said a lot of stuff that wasn't very helpful, but the, the one thing they said was the Holy Trinity is research and publications, teaching and admin, and, you know, if you were funded through your PhD, that helps a bit. So I was like, well, I tick quite a few of these boxes. I, you know, I'm funded. I need to get teaching, I need to get sort of administrative stuff. Retrospectively, one could conceive of that as networking. And I think that people don't understand the extent to which being an admin kind of making contacts and meeting people.

I always, everyone I met, I was like, I'm supposed to be networking. I don't know. I was like, you are networking. You're right. You're, you're here, you're involved in organising this. You're just, you know, you're, you're, you know, and so someone who's involved in things, that is the, you know, it's the easiest way to network is to get involved in organising because then you, you're not being a, you know, complete lick-arse I suppose. But, yeah, once you start organising things, you find that next thing you know, you're being asked to organise something else or be involved in something else.

It's just, you know, making your face new and getting your name out there.

Did you meet anybody in the course of your networking that was particularly helpful directly, maybe by reading a proposal or by giving you advice on what to apply for all that sort of thing?

Not really, but I did find, and I think, I think what, what I got out of my, I really want to put this in inverted commas “networking”, was that once people knew who you are, then next thing you know, these other opportunities.

So for, so an example would be because I started working for women's studies and I, it meant that I met all the key feminist academics in my institution. And all they knew was that there was this person who sat there taking the minutes. But it also, it meant that when they were short a teacher for the master's program, everyone looked at me and said, “Oh, well, you know, you could probably do it”.

And so just, you know, I was there and that was handy. Similarly, when somebody wanted somebody to present at a seminar, then some, somebody who had worked with the Women's Studies program said, “Oh, why don't you ask this person? You know, she works in the 18th century, that might be quite interesting”. So in terms of actual concrete help, I mean, really my supervisor provided all of that.

 

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