I’m taking a break from digital professionalism this month to consider an issue which is currently dominating PhD / Post Doc discussions on twitter – Career options for Post docs and where you fit Post PhD.
In the week before Christmas I had a couple of long, somewhat analytical and at times teary conversations with my boss about being unsure of where I ‘fit’ post-PhD. This was in part to do with the adjustment to starting a new job and part to do with being in this weird PhD Postdoc transitionary period where you have to find your feet on the other side of academia. When I started my PhD I didn’t think too much about the end result. I just expected for my career to be in academia and automatically associated academia with more research and lecturing. Thus when I finished I was full of happiness but also bemused about what to do next. There was a distinct lack of research jobs and although I applied and was interviewed for a seemingly endless number of positions I got sick of coming a ‘very close second’ etc. although in my head I was still expecting to go PhD post doc or two then lectureship. My PhD is from a Russell Group institution where the focus is on research and developing international, highly qualified researchers. Thus the way I had been brought up academically through my university career I saw this as the natural trajectory.
While I was applying for the jobs I traditionally associated with a life post-PhD I was continuing to engage in a number of online social media based resources designed to support researchers in various stages of their careers. I started out as the Managing Editor of PhD2Published and then began writing for the thesiswhsiperer, LSE Impact Blog, Guardian Higher Education Network and other online resources, including becoming a featured blogger here at Social Science Space. This had evolved through using social media techniques to collect and disseminate my research. Having recognised what social media could offer academic practice and researcher development I approached my Institution to ask why we didn’t provide training in the area of digital research methods etc. To cut a long story short (that will be part two of the careers pieces), I am now employed by KCL to provide such training. My job is non-academic and housed in what is interestingly referred to as ‘professional services’ in reality I am working in the Researcher Development Unit of the Graduate School as the E-Learning and Social Media Development Advisor, just think all things web based and communication related for PhDs and research staff and I probably have some involvement. I love my job but it isn’t where I expected to be.
Recently on twitter a number of newly qualified PhDs have been discussing the same question and others using the hashtag #phdpostdoc. This made me feel better, knowing that I wasn’t alone with not being sure about where I was in my career journey. Subsequently I have developed the wiki-based community phdpostdoc with two twitter colleagues (Dr Anna Tarrant & Dr Jackie Kirkham). Within that community and on twitter in general I began to notice that many expressing concerns where those who had social science PhDs so I began to wonder why are social scientists so lost.
The most important thing I have learnt to date is to view my PhD as a process rather than a product. In fact, it is was my boss who told me this some months ago after a Guardian HE Live Chat, after I had admitted to being somewhat freaked out that I was becoming known for my social media expertise and not my Geographical knowledge. I am doing the job I have know because of the knowledge I gained from my PhD. I am still involved in the research process, I am still working with students and research staff, I now writing a book and developing papers on the subject of social media in academia and I’m about to start an MA in Online and Distance Education. Seeing my PhD as a process rather than a product has allowed me to view the vast range of opportunities available to me post doc. Rather than the end of an era completing my PhD has signified the beginning of a new one.
So why do I continue to feel unsure of myself? My answer; the stigma that seems to be attached to a non-academic, or non traditional academic career. People seem to look down on me or, in some cases, feel sorry for me because I’m not in an academic dept doing what they call ‘proper research’. I’ve even been referred to as a ‘failed’ researcher. I love what I do and the team I am working with yet I get upset, not because I feel a failure, I don’t. I get upset because I feel that the stigma attached to exploring different post-PhD career options could potentially limit so many researchers from finding something unexpected or from trying different things. So I open up this piece to comments to begin to discuss other post-docs experiences, particularly those who have taken a non-academic career route; what would you pass on to those about to gain their PhDs and what can we do to remove the stigma of the non-academic career route?