What next? Life After the PhD

Acatia FinbowHere at the NRN, we’re very lucky to have great members who write for our blog and attend our events. The lovely Acatia Finbow has combined two of those things by writing about our latest event. Acatia is a third year Collaborative Doctoral Award student at the University of Exeter and Tate. She was attached to the two-year AHRC-funded research project ‘Performance at Tate: Into the Space of Art’ (2014-2016), which included generating case studies around both historic and contemporary performance works taking place across the spaces of the museum, which have now been published online. Her own research considers the value of performance documentation in the contemporary art museum, and she is particularly interested in generating new models for documenting works institutionally. Her other research interests include institutional documentation practices, mapping documentation, audiences as documenters, and the similarities and differences in attitudes towards documentation in theatre and visual art spaces.

The ways of academia have often felt like a bit of a mystery to me. From learning how to reference properly in the first couple of weeks of my undergraduate degree to a recent training session in my third year of my PhD about what the Viva actually involves, my experience of the world of academia has been a series of slow revelations. One particular mystery which has been haunting me for some time now, is how to break into the world of paid academic work. In short: how to get a job.

I went straight through from A-levels to my Master’s degree, meaning that when I finished at Leeds in 2013, I had never had what my parents would call ‘a proper job’. After my MA, I tried in vain to get jobs, paid internships, unpaid internships, work experience, in the museums and galleries sector, and eventually ended up working in a commercial art and craft gallery in Cambridge, after the sheer luck of handing my CV in at the desk when I was passing by. Now, coming rapidly to the end of my PhD and three years of very gratefully received AHRC funding, I find myself in the same position: where do I go from here?

This is why I jumped at the chance to attend the STR NRN’s ‘What Next? Life after The PhD’ at the University of Birmingham on the 11th February. Having the chance to hear about the actual experience of people who had gone through this process of moving into their field professionally, and being able to ask them the burning questions I’d been sitting on for a while, seemed like a perfect opportunity.

I certainly wasn’t disappointed. From Kirsty Sedgman’s frank and empowering keynote which addressed the difficulties of finding full times posts, and the uncomfortable but necessary task of branding yourself as a researcher, to the individual stories we heard from those who were in their first University roles, up to established Professors, there was a refreshing honesty from everyone involved. Professor Graham Saunders’ assertion that the work really gets done in the bar at conferences, and Naomi Paxton’s encouragement to stick our fingers in as many pies, and pie-shaped things, as possible will be two pieces of advice which really stick with me. Jumping in, accepting opportunities, creating your own chances, and being persistent but realistic were all threads which ran through the panels, and will resonate with me in the following months, as I try to apply this advice to my impending job hunt.

CV surgery

Working on CVs during the CV Surgery, (c) Ella Hawkins

The two practical elements to the day – a mock interview for a job at the ‘University of West Pluto’, and a CV surgery session – added a sense of real grounding to these conversations. My own mock interview, conducted by Dr Sarah Olive, forced me to confront the way I describe the research I do, and to be honest about the gaps in my CV. Her feedback was really practical, useful advice, and I’ll certainly make use of it in actual interviews in the future. The CV session was another process of demystifying, laying out clearly what is expected of an academic CV, but also being open about the flexibility of how that is presented, how to bring in non-academic experience, and acknowledging that different departments will require different information.

Overall, ‘What Next?’ was not a day designed to convince us all that we’re going to be able to walk into well-paid academic jobs the moment the Viva is done. Rather, it was about empowering PhD students and early career researchers to go into the process with open eyes, and an even more open mind, to allow us to understand the intricacies of the systems we will be up against (and perhaps, one day, in) and to recognise opportunities which might fall outside of our expectations of what an academic job is. I, for one, am feeling galvanised: it won’t be easy, but it can be done!


If you’d like to contribute to this blog, take a look at our call for contributions and get in touch!

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