For the uninitiated, the tagline of the post is the tagline of the 1964 comedy DR STRANGELOVE, starring Peter Sellers. This may seem a little incongruous. As I sit here eating my dinner (a tupperware box of completely plain white rice as I don’t get paid until the end of the week and I ran out of money two weeks ago) it doesn’t really seem that way. Doing a PhD and completing a PhD is bloody hard work. It is mentally, emotionally and psychologically challenging, never mind the intellectual rigour that it requires. Even with the best supervision, you are on your own, and you are ultimately responsible for whatever you produce.
This is not really a cheerful analogy.
I am in the fortunate position of having my own house that I can rent out if (read: when) I need to move, and can share with a housemate who contributes to bills in the meantime. I have a permanent part-time job that I worked throughout my PhD, and still maintain. Even more fortunately, this was with my institution as a receptionist for a division of Campus Services, so after they suspended my PGR email account and so on I was still a staff member and had a staff email account and affiliation.
I knew it was going to be tough.
A lot of PhDs seem to be under-prepared for life after the viva, especially those who have always planned to stay in academia – I sure as hell was, and I don’t think it is something you can really “prepare” for. For those of us who want to stay, there are few (and sometimes no) jobs available. Those that come up are fixed term, maternity/paternity covers, and offer no job security. Everyone has to pick and choose their paths.
When applying for these precious precious jobs, everyone in your networking circle within your field become your rivals. At least, it’s very easy to see it that way, and that can become very isolating and troubling. You start playing the comparison game with friends’ CVs – they have this, I don’t have that – and then there’s the very real problems of Real Life which do not go away because your PhD has ended, nor do they seem to care about the commitments you’ve made to Academia. Bills still have to be paid regardless of whether or not you have the funds to pay them. And that’s just a mundane (but pressing) example. I can’t decide whether it would be better, worse or just differently awful if I had a partner or a family to consider as well as myself, so I’ve come to the conclusion it’s better to thank God it’s just me.
I’ve learned a few things, though, and I’m aware, even as I am reduced to taking change *out* of my charity boxes on the mantelpiece so that I can get to work tomorrow [charity begins at home], that I’m incredibly fortunate. I’m also highly employable, if not in academia then certainly elsewhere. I’d rather not leave, but if I had to, I could.
Here are the few things I think I’ve learned:
1. Don’t Be A Hermit
Before I went off to Uni to do my BA, with teenage dreams of completing my doctorate one day and lecturing somewhere awesome, possibly with chalk, the man who shared the small hospital ward with my Grandad at Velindre told me, “Don’t be a hermit.” I never forgot that. The problem with a PhD is that you lose perspective on your work-life balance, and everything becomes about the work. Actually making friends with lecturers and staff in your department is daunting and difficult, but actually, it’s the best thing you can do. Not only because most if not all of them will turn out to be lovely (with any luck), but they are the ones who have struggled up before you. Getting support from the great people at Cardiff has been fantastic, and I couldn’t have carried on post-PhD without their continued support. A little goodwill goes a long way.
2. Think About Widening Your Opportunities
I had no idea about the importance of widening access and public engagement until the second year of my PhD – again, massively fortunate, as not all institutions offer their PGRs direct access to these kinds of projects if they aren’t managed by someone within the department, and a lot of PGRs are too swamped to think about anything other than research, teaching and publication. But getting some sort of impact case study or getting involved in some sort of outreach activity is not only amazing for your CV (it counts for more than a monograph) it is also a really stretching and challenging experience. It also broadens the scope of things you can apply for within the academic sphere – if you can set up your own project based on your research, or plan to link in with existing activities, you can look at applying for a wider variety of positions within an institution instead of being limited to teaching and research posts. Alright, the admin Outreach/Events/Public Engagement positions are not what you want, but they come up more often than academic posts, are usually full time and most are permanent contracts. They are good money, you get yourself onto a scale of pay, and you have institutional affiliation albeit in an administrative capacity. Not only that, but jobs pop up in the Heritage sector too, and I was even shortlisted for a job with the Heritage Lottery Fund (London-based) despite not having enough experience at the time to actually get the job! It’s also easier to apply for a job from a job. So if you’re not sure how to go about widening your experience, ask. Especially before you finish. Or even after you finish. Just ask. You never know what sort of opportunities are available but not widely advertised. (I’m not getting at anyone who’s finished and never thought about impact, by the way -! You can’t do *everything*, and you probably have your path mapped out. Just saying there are wider opportunities out there.)
3. Find Out About Affiliation
Most institutions offer a range of associate positions, some of which are Honorary (which means that they don’t need to pay you). You may have to search deep within the website of the institution you’re at, because chances are they won’t be advertised and no one will tell you about them. Unless you ask.
If you do dig out a form, you will have to apply for the position as you would a job, and they’ll want to know about your publication plans/history and so on. You may also be expected to do teaching etc for free. Fine. Take it. If you get accepted (I thankfully was!) the teaching experience they can offer you will not just be the limited range offered to PGRs. I’m now teaching (for free) on two MA modules (Paleography and Approaches to History), leading two seminars in one, and one seminar in the other. Not per week – just three throughout the whole year. That’s not a huge commitment, and I can put PGR Teaching on my CV. I wouldn’t have had that opportunity if I were not affiliated through my Honorary Research Associate status.
Through the PhD I worked for Campus Services – I trawled the University Jobshop ads and internal job site compulsively, and got lucky with the University gym – and I kept trawling and managed to get a teaching post (again, fixed term and part-time, only 4 hours a week) with the Centre for Lifelong Learning. As a current member of staff, I have also gotten interview experience for different types of university jobs through applying for Secondment positions, so I felt that by this interview I was much better prepared!
4. Screw The Five Year Plan
Alright, so this one is controversial, but it’s played havoc with my mental wellbeing.
I shall explain…
In my first year of the PhD, I was already thinking about what would happen next, once I’d done it. I did my MA part-time over two years to spread out the cost, and so I could plan and save for the next step. I knew the PhD would have to be full-time: I couldn’t face the idea of not being done by the time I was 30, and even the idea of being in my mid-to-late-20s without solid career prospects made me feel sick. So in my first year, I went to a workshop intended for those who wanted to pursue an academic career, so it was attended by PGRs in the mid-stages of their PhDs, some Early Career Researchers, and me.
We got asked: “Where do you want to be in five years? Plan for that.”
Well, in five years, I thought, I WANT TO BE EMPLOYED. I don’t care by whom or doing what, at this stage, I JUST WANT FULL TIME WORK. And I can’t plan to be in academia in five years. That depends on there being a permanent post appearing between now and then that I fight off all-comers to land. I could be in any country. I could be anywhere in any country. I could be doing anything. I just – don’t – know.
The workshop leader said, “Be mercenary about what you choose to do. That may mean saying no to things that aren’t going to benefit you, or going out of your way to do things that really will.”
From that moment on, I stopped worrying. I can’t control everything. But I will make damn sure that I am as employable as any person is able to be by the time I’ve completed this damn doctorate which has been my lifelong dream.
My plan has therefore been this: to tick as many boxes as humanly possible between 2nd Year of my PhD and 2nd year after I finished the PhD. Two years after I’m done was ambitious, and I didn’t realize then what living on the breadline for that long would be like. But I’m not regretting anything. This is a choice I made. I’m fortunate and so grateful that I have a support network who don’t judge me for making this insane choice or for sticking with it.
I can’t plan for everything. Academia is less like chess and more like Yahtzee – you know what you want to get, but you have to play with what you’re given.
And that’s how I learned to stop worrying, and love the bomb that is my career. I’m not speaking for everybody – this is really just me venting stuff for me. And if people find it helpful, fantastic! Let’s see what the next academic year brings, and then we’ll go from there.