Stories of post-PhD transitions

  1. These notes are a record of my thoughts as I prepared for the “Beyond the Professoriate” Higher Education panel which took place on 7th of May. I only had ten minutes so for obvious reasons most of the text below didn’t make it into the presentation on emotional and practical challenges of post-PhD transitions, however I felt it may be useful to share my thoughts and invite comments.
  2. The gist of my story is that I got my PhD in sociology six years ago and I’ve been a project manager for almost six years now. The other narrative ark is that I am someone without a technology background who moved into IT project management, and I implement software and applications for a living. I do that at a British university, Birmingham City University which for the US-based audience is a fairly peculiar institution, an ex-polytechnic turned into a university in the 1960s, focuses predominantly on teaching with a smattering of research and where people like me are called “professional services”. We are also the ones who get blamed for everything that goes wrong with the systems, from HR/payroll to the student records system to anything else which happens on a daily basis. For my job, working at a university is almost tangential as I could probably be doing the job in any other public institution with its quirks, the public money, the short purse strings which mean a lot of DIY technology solutions and cheap and cheerful systems. Having a “Dr” in front of my name is a bit like an occasional bonus, it helps to speak academese but other than that, you could argue, I don’t need the PhD. So why did I get it in the first place?
  3. The beginning of my transition from academia to where I am currently coincides with running and so whenever I think about my own transition and post-PhD careers in general, I actually think about running. I do apologise in advance to all the non-runners who may want to insert their preferred leisure activity and/or chosen passion. A week ago, I completed the Gozo 55k race which covers the perimeter of the island and includes 1400m of elevation gain, one relentless hill after another with a bit of scrambling thrown in. I’ve done a number of ultra-marathons before, I’ve done trail events, I’ve never done a running event where I had to climb over boulders before. I do love the island and last year I happened upon images of what I call “shiny happy people” running along a limestone path with gorgeous views of the Gozitan cliffs. In fact, I have an image of myself doing precisely that this year – seems that was the only spot where the photographer could take the picture without risking life or limb, which is pretty much the rest of the course.
  4. This happens to be my starting image for the presentation today – because whilst the image screams “isn’t trail running fun” and it is that lovely and idealised vision of a runner out there in the wild, running free – to tell the truth, fun wasn’t exactly how the nine hours felt. I was hot, thirsty, hungry, stressed about navigation and missing the markers, which I did, a number of times. Not to mention the fact that I was getting blisters and my toenails were getting a beating from the boulders. And well, the race reminded me, that no matter how hard I try, I don’t really like trail running and will be relieved not to run any more trail races in the future. In fact, I have a 12 hour track race booked for December and that sounds like bliss, going round and round in a loop of 400ms for half a day. So what does it have to do with academia? That shiny happy picture of a free runner on the trail, that is something I spent a lot of time aspiring to, I had everything planned out, a masters scholarship, a PhD in the UK, a lectureship would surely follow… And when I discovered that reality was less than forgiving – and that I wasn’t willing to pay the price, well, that’s when things got interesting.
  5. The other image that is important to this story is that of me being a serious LGBT activist and putting my heart and soul into developing the fledgling LGBT movement. And realising my other passion, writing and I guess it is not just running, it is also writing that runs throughout this story. So the reason I got into academia – and then in a very round-about way into project management is because of LGBT activism when as an undergraduate student in languages (English and Spanish) I was running the local branch of Campaign Against Homophobia, think Stonewall and Outrage combined and organising mostly illegal pride parade marches, which as it later turned out, was very good preparation for managing projects, dealing with difficult people and their demands and what often felt like impossible logistics. Activism also helped me discover that even better than being at the barricades, I liked writing about being at the barricades and this is how I got mingling with a crowd that was developing the Polish gender studies and got my first inkling of what academics did – mind you, at that time I thought they mostly wrote passionate papers about queer studies and hung around at interesting conferences that I was co-organising so no wonder I wanted to be one of them. I got told that the best place to do Gender Studies was at Central European University so I worked really hard to get a fellowship and spent a year learning the art of critique and inhaling whatever I could about gender studies. And when the organisers of the Poznan March of Equality ended up getting arrested for organising a peaceful demonstration in November 2005, something I watched from the distance, hooked to the online coverage, with tears streaming down my face, I knew I had to write about it and this is how my masters and my PhD thesis was born. I applied to about twenty institutions across Europe to various English-speaking institutions, went with one that offered the most money and in July 2006 made the trip into Birmingham, UK to do a PhD in Sociology at Aston University.
  6. I started out by really, really wanting to be an academic and I even did all the right things. I spoke at conferences, taught, produced papers, sought research collaborations, picked my supervisors’ brain for all the right things to put on my CV but just like the reality of running that trail race, started discovering that the reality of being an academic was much messier than expected. To start with, I discovered, or rather was reminded once again that I didn’t really like teaching – I sort of knew that from my previous attempts at a career teaching languages. Turns out it wasn’t teaching languages that was the problem, it was teaching plain and simple. I also discovered that the prevailing culture of academic work where the work never ends because given that it is “the best job and the world” and your passion and your calling where the work never stops – that wasn’t doing wonders for my mental health and I functioned much better in a more stable environment. Yes, there are people in academia who do carve out a happy 9-5 balance but that felt like largely swimming against the tide and so bit by bit, the cons list started outweighing the pros. The big massive pro, the passion for the writing was still there but I also discovered that I was increasingly getting frustrated with the slow pace of academic research and the academic debates in gender studies and that frankly, I wasn’t that bothered. So the decision was made somewhere in between a class I hated teaching and a conference I found fairly tedious. Maybe this was the best job in the world but I was no longer sure I wanted it but wasn’t sure what else to do or even what else I could do at all.
  7. On the other hand, I was freaked out, I had three months of funding left and knew I needed a job, and an opportunity came up to work as a research assistant on an e-learning project my supervisor was involved in and I said yes. It didn’t matter I knew next to nothing about e-learning, one thing the PhD gave me was the ability to pick up anything new and become an instant expert in a short period so that’s what I did and that’s also what I did when the project manager left halfway through the project and I got promoted to his position overnight. That led to a number of fixed-term contracts and a rather scenic tour through various university departments, including a memorable stint in HR doing change management, which then led to a stint in Business Improvement Services picking up a role on student records system, all the while grabbing all the professional development opportunities I could amass and so I became qualified in a couple of different project management methodologies and a proud owner of a couple of postgraduate certificates, one in e-learning and one in coaching and mentoring. I discovered universities liked educating people and the worst that happened if you asked is that you said no. the only problem with that scenic route was the insecurity of going form one fixed-term contract to another and always waiting for an extension, not to mention living apart during the week from my fiancée and then wife.
  8. Turns out, I wasn’t that great at job-hunting and it took me fifteen interviews to land a job and countless job applications. It didn’t help that the economy isn’t that great in the UK and still hasn’t picked up. I was also still clinging on to what felt like vestiges of what could have been an academic career. Even if I rationally knew that I didn’t want it, that with every passing year I was moving further and further away from it, it was still difficult to let go which led to me initially applying for jobs only in professional services in academia, quite effectively narrowing down my field and frankly, going for some memorably bad fit positions and discovering during the interviews that my heart was sinking. Yes, I wanted a job, yes, I was desperate for a job but was I desperate enough? I won’t deny though, it was a dark and hard period and I felt very low at times. I threw everything at it but felt hopeless at times.
  9. Ironically enough, my decision to leave academia and use a recruitment agency is what brought me to my current job in a university albeit on the IT services side. They wanted somebody who could do change management, who could do software, who understood academics and who understood how universities worked. All the hard work paid off and I could actually talk in the interview in a way that worked. It was a ninety minute grilling and I spent the rest of the afternoon crying, convinced I failed but then two weeks later I got the phone call I’d been waiting for the entire year – I had the job. And so the transformation – and the words “as an IT professional” still shock me…
  10. We like to pretend there is a meaning and that things are linear. In ultrarunning, I am used to doing things which don’t make sense. For instance, I spent the day after Christmas running 48 times around a 0.84 mile loop between sunrise and sunset. The medal looked cool. Plus, I like running in loops. So that’s reason enough. So through running and trying out different things I learnt I’m happy on the road, I’m happy running round in circles and I’m happy running for a long time. That trail, the alleged freedom the trail represents – give me a short loop in a post-industrial landscape anytime. What I learnt through my journey so far and it is nowhere near finished is that it is OK to have standards, even if they differ from what you’re supposed to want. Academia may be the best job in the world but it wasn’t for me just as trail running is not for me, either, both leave me cranky. But there are different ways of being an academic and different ways of being a runner and neither are – what I wanted from my job was stability, security, ability to live in one location and weirdly, by engineering backwards, I got it.

 

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