It is my last week at Bath Spa University and it feels like a good time to reflect on my career path so far and some of the decisions I have made since completeing my PhD. This has not proven to be a simple task, as the way in which a career unfolds is often the result of a combination of chance, ambition, and passion, as well as gut instinct, informed decision making, and personal and professional development.
I went through my PhD without ever thinking too hard about my career expectations or career path. I – like many undertaking a PhD in the arts and humanities – assumed that a lectureship was the end goal. However, the scarce number of postdoc positions combined with the fact that I needed a full-time job meant that on completing my PhD practical decisions had to be made – hourly paid lectureships (often thought to be essential to obtaining a lectureship) were a luxury I couldn’t afford. So, on finishing my PhD, and after a stint working at Glyndebourne Opera House and as a postgraduate recruitment assistant, I took a fixed-term Research and Knowledge Transfer Support Officer role at the University of Bradford.
To be honest, I had relatively little of knowledge of what this role would involve at the time of application, but was intrigued by the post and thought it would provide me with good experience for an academic role in the future – an alternative to a postdoc in effect. Within a couple of weeks, I had become fascinated by the role. I was working with people from a huge range of disciplines (including engineering, health studies, and cancer research), opening my eyes to research well outside of my humanities discipline. As well as a broad sense of research in the UK, the role also provided me a deep understanding of the inner workings of Higher Education Institutions and of research funders and policymakers. If began to feel as though this might be a possible long-term career. Since then I have held a fixed-term (academic) position at the University of Brighton (working on their Art and Design REF submission) and a permanent academic-related position at Bath Spa University (training researchers at all different levels of their career).
Despite my keen interest in this area of work, I continued to apply for lectureships – and got closer and closer to that goal with each application. A few months ago, though, I had a revelation, prompted by the advertisement of a position at Coventry University. On looking at the job specification, I soon realised that this was the job for me, the role building on my burgeoning interest in research training, funding, policy, and development. Whilst on paper the role may not signal a significant break in my career trajectory thus far, it did ask me to think critically and carefully about what I wanted from my career. Unlike previous positions, this career move was not the result of a contract coming to an end, but the result of a conscious process of thinking about priorities, interests, ambitions, work-life balance, and personal and professional development.
What become clear was that my career path up until this point had been dictated partly by the nature of the short-term contracts I had held and partly by the unquestioned long-term goal I had set myself of becoming a lecturer. It was only at this point of deep reflection, I realised that I had been applying for lectureships because that’s what I thought I wanted and, perhaps also, because that’s what my peers thought I should be doing. While the intentions were always honourable and the advice welcomed, the continued suggestion that I would make a good researcher/lecturer implied – albeit indirectly – that the various roles I occupied were not valued or credible professional pathways for someone with a PhD. The pressure, whether real or imagined, of our peers can severely limit the way in which we think about careers and can often affect the choices we make. Supervisors are often a great resource during a PhD, but everyone is limited by their own experiences. While it can seem difficult to know who to speak to regarding careers, I would highly recommend speaking to as many people as possible and reading career stories from others within your discipline or area. It is only then that you can appreciate the diversity of post-PhD and post-postdoc careers taken up.
It is perhaps fair to say that I stumbled into my career – but let’s face it, nobody when asked at school what they wanted to be when they grew up excitedly answered “I want to work in Research Development”. The fact is that careers are dependent upon the opportunities available to you and there are so many roles out there that you don’t necessarily know exist. My career path, I hope, is example of where seizing a chance opportunity has resulted in what I feel is a fulfilling and exciting career path. It perhaps also provides an example of letting go. Indeed, it is hard to put into words the excitement (and relief) I felt when I got the Coventry position. I now feel I have a clear sense of my professional identity and pathway. The relief came from finally letting go – letting go to musicology. While this is something I have immensely enjoyed (and will no doubt continue to enjoy), I realised that the knowledge and experience I have acquired in my research-related roles to date is now more important to me. Perhaps more importantly, though, is the understanding I gained about my PhD experience and how the skills I acquired during my PhD have underpinned and been enhanced by my work to date.
Letting go of my preconceived ideas of academic career pathways, I have found liberating. When thinking about careers it is important that you are honest with yourself, that you are critical and reflective about the opportunities available to you and your ambitions, and that you are open and responsive to all sorts of opportunities. While there has been occasions in the past where I felt as if on the outside looking in, I have to come to realise that this was never actually the case. Taking a different career from the norm does not mean failure or that your PhD wasn’t worthwhile. (In this case, a knowledge of research was essential and is is becoming increasingly valued in a range of professional service roles). Nor does it mean that you are then committed to solely exploring that path for the rest of your career – career paths are likely to fork and/or merge again and again.
Careers are both complex and multivarious. They are intangible, changing and in flux. Ambitions, needs, and wants change as you change and as your priorities change. As such, finding out who you are and what you want to be is an ongoing process (and sometimes letting go).
Interestingly, since writing this post, I took a sideways move at Coventry University, taking up the position of Early and Middle Career Researcher Development Programme Manager. And what is perhaps relevant in relation to the above is that this post is an academic post. While musicology is still in my past, research isn’t. The research I now undertake builds on the knowledge I have acquired over the last 5-6 years in research management and research development blended with the humanities methodologies I learnt during my PhD and the social science learning I have acquired when reviewing bids and supporting researchers.
I honestly could’t be happier. Career paths are winding and may surprise you, but that doesn’t mean your on the wrong path. In fact, although I was unsure of my path, I have actually ended up at the right destination for me.