Week 20: It’s about the journey not the destination – or maybe it’s a bit of both

I want to think about the What’s and Why’s of putting your thesis aside for a moment. In the past year and a half, I’ve learned that writing a thesis is much more than writing and particularly when it comes to the thinking process, getting blinded by a blank Word screen rarely facilitates this. I am (hopefully!) going to give some contextual examples of the buzzwords of professional development, engagement and networking.

I am not going to dwell too much on the over-used justification that it is no longer enough to come out with just a PhD. Firstly, because I am still at that stage of my PhD where I cannot say for certain that any of my extracurricular activities will make my job application stand out. Secondly and more importantly so, I think you can get much more out of these activities if your engagement has more ground to stand on than your fears about the precarious career in the academia. In fact, I’d like to think my experience of extracurricular activities has given me more opportunities and confidence to take part in challenging the issues within the institutional environments that we are placed in.

If anything, I think it’s crucial to think about these PhD activities in the context of the neoliberal academia and its inequalities. If I am being honest, my long list of CV fillers is probably more down to luck than it is to my ambitiousness. I have had incredibly supportive supervisors, who have actively given or signposted me to further opportunities. Equally, I have spoken to students whose supervisors have not even remembered their name after a full year of PhD studies. I don’t want to give the impression that all of these opportunities are simply out there, and it is just all up to you to grab them. The playing field is not even, and there are huge differences between institutions in how they treat their PhD students and what opportunities are available for them. Nevertheless, I wanted to share some of my good experiences, which will hopefully give others some ideas of what opportunities to look for.

I think it is really useful if you get the chance to become a rep for your Graduate School, School or School Committees. At worst these posts can be quite tokenistic, but at best you get the opportunity to get to know your Department staff and learn about the institutional environment and its expectations. We have six floors between our PhD students and staff, which makes it much harder to get to know the staff apart from your own supervisors. There’s not only a gap between the staff and students, but also a gap between doing a PhD and moving into working in the academia. I can’t say I’m still fully aware of everything that goes on upstairs, but sitting in different meetings has really helped me to better understand the REF, research expectations and academic workloads. Sometimes these committees can also directly influence your professional training and place of work; as an Athena Swan Self-Assessment Team student rep, I learned loads about the barriers and inequalities in academia and got the opportunity to conduct quantitative analysis focusing on our staff and student experiences. As part of this, I also had the opportunity to take part in important discussions and planning on how we can improve our workplace.

Teaching is often the obvious choice for many PhDs striving to pursue an academic career. I have had the opportunity to teach undergraduate seminars and mark undergraduate and master’s papers. Teaching can be really tiring, frustrating or even stressful. However, you not only get some dollah on the side, but it is also a great opportunity to practice your public speaking skills. But I find that teaching is much more than just speaking out loud – it is about practicing how to explain theoretical concepts, facilitate discussion and help students in building their confidence (and yours too!). PhD students are always encouraged to read papers outside their discipline, but this is not the only way to get new ideas. I don’t teach subjects which closely align with my PhD, but the focus on the wider society reminds me to think my own work from different angles.

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© PhD comics.

Research experience is another great way to earn while you learn. I started by doing transcribing for one project, and later found myself doing quantitative data input and analysis, international case studies, focus group facilitation and dissemination activities for other projects. Research work can develop your existing skills and give you an opportunity to practice the methods you plan to employ in your own PhD in a different research context. However, I would not shy away from research work that isn’t in your field; on the contrary, it can help you build up your methods skills and knowledge base. Research training tends to be a core part of doing a PhD, but I find it much more rewarding to learn through practice than just attending countless seminars. By working for a project focusing on young Eastern European migrants, I’ve had the opportunity to think issues around migration beyond my own research sample population. On the other hand, reviewing international redress schemes for victims of institutional abuse has really helped me to think ethics in practice.

Not all opportunities are within our institutions. Through my role as a BSA Postgraduate Forum co-convener, I’ve had the opportunity to organise academic events focusing on innovative methods and challenges in doing a PhD. You don’t need to be well-placed within an academic association to apply to roles like this; last year I attended my first BSA conference, and a month later I started as a co-convener. During my year as a co-convener I have had the opportunity to meet PhD students and academics who work across the UK, learn a lot about the academic work that happens outside of our institutions and develop my skills in planning and running academic events. There are a number of academic associations and networks that you can join, most of which have their own groups for postgraduate students.

For the past year and a half, I’ve also been volunteering for the Scottish Refugee Council Integration Development Team. This obviously has taken time away from my desk, but in return has given me invaluable perspective and skills that I can apply to my own research. I have written case studies to support asylum seekers and refugees and learned about the policy and practice context in which my own research is situated. I have also supported facilitating Peer Research training sessions and interviewed asylum seekers and refugees about their employment experiences and aspirations. All of this work has given me guidance for designing and conducting my own research, which I could not grasp by simply reading textbooks. I also think recognising and understanding the every-day experiences and realities is crucial in helping us to climb down from the ivory tower. Third sector organisations engage in a lot of different research related activities, and often have first-hand knowledge about the groups which we wish to study.

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That all being said, you want to be strategic about what opportunities to take and what to say No to. I have (yet again) been lucky to have been paid for all the work I have done at the University, but this is not always the case. I know others who have not been paid for their marking, or even worse, have been asked to teach full modules for free in the name of professional development. We may be learning, but we deserve to be paid nevertheless. The recent strikes have sparked a lot of valuable conversations about work-life balance and academia as a 24/7 business. The nature of the PhD makes it really hard not to be complicit in all of this, but I still think we need to, when possible, make sure our own work patterns don’t contribute to the institutional practices which often make academic careers an unviable option to many of us. Whilst getting away from your desk can give you perspective, skills and tools for your research, more is not always more when it comes to making sure you look after yourself and finish the journey.

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