What next? Thinking sideways at early career

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As an early career academic (just!) I’ve always been interested in the ways in which postgrads and postdocs make career decisions and are supported in their choices. To do a PhD and not remain within the university sector seems to be, for many staff and students, totally crazy. You’ve worked your socks off – of course you deserve a lectureship! You’ll be very lucky if your first job is a lectureship.

Yet, this process of deciding on ‘what next’ is rarely openly discussed in departments – whether about academic or non-academic jobs. This is the topic of Athene Donald’s most recent blog post. Athene is a professor of physics at Cambridge. Her blog features posts about academic life, women, equality and science. For updates also follow @AtheneDonald on Twitter. Athene uses the following questions as a starting point for this conversation:

Are you on the right career path? Are you ready for the next step? How’s your life/work balance? Why do you enjoy what you do? What are your strengths? What motivates you? What is your next step? What skills and experience do you need? How can you gain these? Where can you go for objective guidance?

I’ve asked myself these questions several times during and after my PhD and during my time as a postdoc. They are tough to answer. When there is funding available and jobs to apply for the answers are in favour of academia. But when slogging on with the revisions for a paper, with feelings of loneliness creeping in, and a fear of letting anyone down (or know how you’re feeling (imposter syndrome)) – we can begin to question why we studied for a PhD, and how we can get a job as far removed from academia as possible.*

You might say who am I to talk about all this, from the safety of a permanent lectureship (probation-permitting). But it wasn’t an easy journey. I completed my PhD having spent the previous 12 months applying for postdoc positions. Some I realise were never for me and others took up a lot of PhD writing-up time to make the applications. I was awarded an ESRC Postdoctoral Fellowship. This was a big relief but lasting only 12 months, after a few months it was time to begin applying again. I took a job at the University of Exeter in Cornwall as a research associate. I moved to Cornwall and saw my husband and family at weekends. Taking it in turns to make the journey to Reading. After 18 months, I wasn’t sure I was doing a good job for anyone – travelling for work is not, for me, fun. There is no glamour in it. Fortunately my employer recognised the difficulty of the situation and I completed my contract living back in Reading and commuting to Cornwall as necessary. This time was tough. We all want to do a good job but at what cost? I’m not sure I could do it again. Prior to the completion of this contract I applied for another ESRC award but this time I took my geography seriously – London and the Thames Valley were my focus. While I waited to hear the outcome of my application I took the decision to work for the Science Museum. I’d worked with them since my PhD started and the 6 month contract on offer turned out to be a lifesaver. Offering financial security but also developing skills in an area of academia that is taking on increasing importance – public engagement and pathways to impact. Not to mention the small matter of commuting for a couple of hours per day rather than weekly/fortnightly. I was awarded the ESRC funding 18 months after I discussed the initial idea. Timescales are a challenge. 7 months into my project at UCL I saw a lectureship advertised and knew I had to apply for it. It was in the town where I live, the institution had interests in my area of research. The idea of knowing where I will be for longer than 12 months was too good to pass up. I applied, interviewed and was appointed nearly 6 months ago. I’ll write a post about academic job applications soon.

Looking at my PhD cohort – 0 took up a lectureship upon completion, 2 got ESRC fellowships, 1 a teaching fellowship, 2 research associates. 5 years on – 4 of us are in lectureships and 1 has a prestigious fellowship. We’ve all taken up a mixture of jobs as we built up our publications portfolio. If we add up all of our respective applications it would run into the 100s.

Be under no illusion – it is tough. Talking to friends outside of academia – it is tough everywhere.

I think we need to expand our definition of ‘academia’. For example my own work has always involved external collaborations – my time working for the Science Museum was no less academic than my job at the University of Reading is now. I agree with Athene’s comments about increasing numbers of PhD students, as I begin to supervise my first students. I will be thinking more broadly about their skills development and training and how we value sideways steps into, in my case, museums, archives, public engagement roles. The funding situation currently means that institutions are required to part-fund a research fellow’s salary at postdoc-level. This means some institutions are unable to submit applications with their newly-qualified postgrads. Yet when on jobs.ac.uk these same postgrads are confronted by pages and pages of studentships but few postdoc positions. Consider research council (and others) fellowships, also approach senior staff to write you into grant applications. But this needs to come from you. Thinking sideways about ‘what next’ is important. It also means that as early-career researchers we need to take the direction of our careers into our own hands. Perhaps we should ask ourselves as we consider ‘what next':

What motivates me? What aspects of my life are non-negotiable? What will success look like? How will I make this happen?

In April, I have been invited to give my very first keynote lecture. I am talking about being an early-career geographer through the themes of enchantment, enthusiasm and engagement. Athene’s blogpost has persuaded me to do some research of my own on the current situation in my own discipline. I’ll post my talk here.

For now – here are some words of advice given to me: go to the cupboard and take a big swig from the bottle labelled confidence; have faith in your ideas; be bold in your ambitions; and remember you will always be your own worst critic.

* I am writing for those who decide to remain working in universities.

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