Beyond the PhD
Dr. Julia Horn, Joint Director of the Centre for Career Management Skills (CETL) at University of Reading talks to Jane Watt about the fascinating research project and online resource Beyond the PhD
Why and how was Beyond the PhD set up? What was the motivation for it?
The project was developed by a team at the Centre for Career Management Skills at University of Reading. We wanted to experiment with new ways of producing web resources in the field of careers, and we wanted to help arts and humanities researchers, because there was very little available specifically for them.
We also hope to influence the future development of all careers web resources. The very personal, non-didactic approach we have used can, we believe, complement more traditional career ‘information’. Few people today want decisions taken for them, or advice given to them. They want to make up their own minds and they know that life is complicated. We believe a site like Beyond the PhD is a way to give individuals better insight into the lives of others, without imposing any single model of career development.
The very nature of doctoral research is very specialised and can be isolating. The individual subjects of research, although mentioned, are not the main focus of your project, you are more concerned about researchers’ emotional experiences and professional journeys. How important is it for researchers who are operating at such specialised levels to share and find out about other experiences, beyond their own specialist critical knowledge?
I personally think it can be enormously helpful, both from the point of view of extending and improving the research itself, and as a way of keeping sane! Very few arts and humanities researchers today would see themselves working in an objective or scientific domain. We know that emotions, personal standpoints and epistemological beliefs are crucial to how we construct our arguments in our research field. This is also true of our personal lives and our careers. So I don’t see it as two different fields: the specialist critical knowledge and the ‘real world’. Rather, I would say that the ability to interpret, to explore different standpoints and to acknowledge changes in culture and values are key ways in to thinking about one’s own career and, therefore, role in wider society.
The project website www.beyondthephd.co.uk presents material in a variety of formats – text, audio and video. Why did you choose to present it like this?
The three media formats broadly mirror three ‘genres’. The audio is very personal and interpretive – it allows the individual story to be told. The video shows group conversations amongst ‘professionals’ who work with arts and humanities researchers and, we hope, allows visitors a ‘behind the scenes’ look at career guidance and skills training. The written articles allow for a more journalistic stance: here individuals with a personal or professional interest in the careers of researchers can advance a point of view. The juxtaposition of all three can, we hope, highlight differences of opinion or draw out links between ideas.
What examples from Beyond the PhD do you find particularly inspiring?
Where do I begin?! Every story on Beyond the PhD has something special about it, and when we were listening to the recordings as they came in, we were all struck by the way we listened to the stories and measured the experiences of others against our own. If I have to chose, though, I’ll pick Russell, Joanne and Liz. Russell demonstrates immense persistence and resilience during the seven years it takes for him to secure a permanent lectureship. Joanne gives the most in-depth view of publishing I’ve come across, and Liz says things about personal identity and the PhD as a transformative process that I really identify with and couldn’t have said so well myself.
What are your top five survival tips for life beyond the PhD?
1. Don’t rely on any single person or source for information, advice or guidance.
2. Don’t assume you can’t have an academic career when you: don’t get an interview, don’t get the job, get an article rejected for publication, have to work in another field to earn money, or come across any other obstacle.
3. There are loads of interesting jobs out there which aren’t in academia. Most of them won’t have titles that you can find in a ‘career inventory’ and most of these jobs will only become really interesting when you have the power and ideas to develop them for yourself.
4. It’s OK to dislike a job. Including an academic one!
5. Try listening to Beyond the PhD and imagining yourself in the shoes of the person you are listening to. You won’t be exactly like anyone on the site, but you might find inspiration and you will certainly find others who you can identify with.
Are you expanding this resource? What’s next?
We are continuing to refine this resource, in particular by producing workshop ideas for student groups who want to use the resource in a proactive way, or for institutions who want to provide workshops for their students. We are also working on a new resource inspired by Beyond the PhD. This resource is called Student Stories and will hold audio stories of undergraduate experiences. So watch out for its launch in January 2010. Beyond that, we’d love to replicate the success of Beyond the PhD for other groups – social scientists, scientists, and so on. At the moment though, we don’t have funding for this, so if anyone out there has any spare cash, we’d love to speak to you!
Beyond the PhD
Centre for Career Management Skills, University of Reading
First published: a-n.co.uk October 2009
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