PostGradual: what’s this all about, then?

Image description: a single lit light bulb resting on a wooden desk

In the beginning was the word, and the word was… ‘overqualified’

My post-PhD job hunt wasn’t going well. It was mid-October, T-minus three weeks to viva day. I’d finally gotten sick of the endless ‘oh, it’s your viva soon? Well, I heard a friend of a friend was in theirs for 6 hours and then had to revise-and-resubmit’ stories that I now constantly attracted like a hapless viva-horror-story-magnet. I was shut up at home where I tried my best to hide from the PhD folklore and do some viva prep.

At lunchtime I took a quick break to check some emails, and was greeted with this:

Good Afternoon Holly,

Thank you for attending recently for interview in respect of our <XX> vacancy. I regret that on this occasion you have been unsuccessful. However, we have some feedback for you in the hope that this aids you in future ventures:

“Holly came across a little too “academic” with regards to every answer seemed to be an essay. If she could be more succinct with her answers she will be more successful.  We also questioned whether she actually wanted this role due to her previous experience and ambitions.

We did consider her a good candidate, however there were candidates with more working knowledge and experience for this particular role.”

Please accept our thanks for your time and interest in <XX>, and our very best wishes for the future.

I’ll let my actual reply speak for itself on how I felt about this:

‘Dear X

Many thanks for getting back to me and for the feedback. Unfortunately, this has been the case with all the jobs I’ve gone for so far: my academic background has counted against me, even when I try my best to explain that I don’t want an academic career and am eager for hands-on experience. Then I get caught in a catch-22 since other recruiters explain that I don’t have enough relevant experience, but then I can’t gain any relevant experience because I can’t get any jobs!

If you have any voluntary opportunities available or any other openings just to gain some experience, I’d be really grateful if you could let me know, or direct me to wherever I can find out more.’

I can’t remember how many interviews I’d had by this point. 10, perhaps? 15? Maybe 20? By this point, the jobs I was applying for were all blurring into one but the message was clear: I didn’t want to be an academic, but somehow I was coming across as one. In turn, that was confusing my audience: ‘why is she here going for our job in the arts/ cultural sector/ heritage/ marketing when she quite clearly wants to be doing something academic?’ It was nothing short of infuriating, and the toll on my mental health was real.

It also struck a chord. Let’s go through it bit-by-bit, with the privilege of hindsight:

  1. ‘Holly came across a little too “academic” with regards to every answer seemed to be an essay’: The interview was for an arts organisation who were looking for someone to help them grow and diversify their audience. One question they asked was ‘what does equality and diversity mean to you?’ Completely bypassing the focus of the job and how this question linked to it, I launched into a diatribe about the outgroup homogeneity effect and social identity theory. In fact, whenever I got a difficult question in a job interview, the only comeback I had was what I had learned to do at academic conferences, as endorsed by Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye: ‘All you have to do is say something nobody understands and they’ll do practically anything you want them to.’ Safe to say I can’t imagine Holden landed many non-academic jobs with that strategy.

  2. ‘We also questioned whether she actually wanted this role due to her previous experience and ambitions’: But I’d told them that I didn’t want to continue in academia! True… but I hadn’t told them why I now wanted to work for a small arts organisation, in an audience development role. In fact, I barely talked about them at all, or why their programming excited me. As a result, they knew what I didn’t want to do, but they didn’t know what I did want to do, and how they fitted into that.

  3. ‘There were candidates with more working knowledge and experience for this particular role’: Before going to the interview, I hadn’t spoken to anyone doing this kind of job before; I just thought it sounded fun. The fact I had no idea what was involved in the job day-to-day meant that I couldn’t connect up any of my previous experiences with how they’d make me good at this job. Did I tell them that I’d set up a research forum and paired up with an LGBTQ+ society to promote it, meaning that I already had experience of tailoring messages to attract different and diverse audiences? NO. but I did talk about Shakespeare. A LOT.

Now, I made it through to several interviews. Some interviewers actually offered me feedback…  I know not everyone is so lucky, and that countless applications get sent out into the abyss with not a peep in reply. Even so, it still took a lot of reflection on how I was putting myself across, a new focus on learning how professionals in different fields talk about themselves, and a hiring manager who valued what a recently-completed PhD could bring to advising prospective postgrads (thanks, Steve) to switch things up and secure a job. Having gone through that job hunt though, I knew that I didn’t want other PhDs to have to navigate it alone.

That’s where PostGradual comes in.I’ve now worked with postgrads for 10 years, and connected with PhD careers specialists across the globe. PostGradual is my way of sharing some of what I’ve learned during that time to help you:

  1. Slow down, and simplify the maze of post-PhD careers;
  2. Deconstruct the dualities of the post-PhD job hunt;
  3. Connect to the latest postgrad-specific careers tips and resources from around the world – in one easy place

Plus, the advice we’ll cover won’t just be me preaching like an angry woman shouting at the sky. In every PostGradual post, we’ll take a top tip from a different commentator or practitioner in the field of PhD careers, strip it down, and turn it into practical actions that you can apply to your post-PhD job hunt. We mostly focus on career routes in sectors beyond academia, but every so often there’ll be something in there about careers in academia, too.

So, hop on board and let’s get started… PostGradually, one tip at a time.

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