‘Research/ academia isn’t one job, it’s many. If the package deal isn’t for you, look for the bits you enjoy and find rewarding work with them.’
– Joel Huey
You’re at a party.* (*Other Covid-compliant virtual options are available).
Someone who has never previously met anyone with/doing a PhD asks ‘what do you do?’
What do you say?
You might define yourself by your broad discipline – ‘I’m a medieval historian’, ‘I’m a plant biologist,’ etc. – which makes you esoteric and mysterious. Or, you might give them a few more details, like ‘I’m currently researching the effects that coffee has on heart health.’ In this case, they think you are SUPER clever and interesting and instantly quiz you as to whether they can keep up their five-espresso-a-day habit without fretting over quadruple bypass surgery.
Alternatively, what might feel more accurate is something like what I might have spouted:
‘Well, first I wake up and remind myself what day it is. On Mondays I teach contemporary literature to undergrads. Some are super-keen so my seminars have to be really on the ball, but some don’t show up which means I also have to adapt my material on the spot to suit a group half the expected size. Then I go to the library and use several search tools to try to identify obscure publications; all show up patchy results, so I have to scour Twitter and reach out to people to compile a reliable list. Then I meet my supervisor and attempt to tactfully explain that, whilst they feel Jungian psychoanalysis is the only lens through which I can make a feasible argument for my next chapter, this might just deviate from the entire framework around which the project is based, rendering my previous six months of work redundant.’
Wow, just writing that was exhausting. I’m not sure about you, but my fellow party goer has already hot-footed it towards the crisps and dips and away from my neuroses. The point, however, stands: when you break it down, a PhD involves doing a lot of stuff. Saying things like we ‘do research’ or ‘do some teaching’ can often ‘hide’ the processes we actually go through to manage and execute those things, and the things that we get good at in the process. Hence, we can often forget what Joel Huey is saying in this edition’s feature quote… that academia/ research isn’t a single activity: it’s many, rolled into a demanding workload that is often difficult to describe to laypeople.
It can also be difficult to conceptualise for ourselves, too. Huey encourages us to break down the concept of ‘academia’ or ‘research’ into its constituent parts. This was an epiphanic nudge for me, as it highlighted:
- That during a PhD we don’t just become subject specialists: we learn to manage a whole host of other activities too. Writing. Designing. Analysing. Teaching. Presenting. Maintaining professional relationships.
- By doing those things, we gather a bunch of skills that are useful both within and beyond academia (hold that thought for a future post). In my example above, we can see evidence that I can design teaching materials, adapt my material to my audience, be flexible, employ a range of techniques to find answers, change tack when one method doesn’t work, synthesise information, identify who to ask for help, work independently, communicate with tact and diplomacy… to name but a few.
3. By understanding which of these activities we like to spend most of our time doing, and which of these skills we most like using, we can then work on finding out what types of jobs will let us do those things most of the time.
Huey’s quote also suggests a useful thought experiment that can help if you’re struggling to think through next steps post-PhD. If Huey is right, and identifying the ‘bits’ of your academic work that you enjoy the most can lead us to career ideas, then one way we might put this into action is to do the following:
Ask yourself: if you were going to turn your current PhD or postdoc into your ideal job, which ‘bits’ would you like to:
You might end up with something like this, using mine as an example:
|Working directly with students||Working in isolation||More contacts with people as part of my day|
|Teaching/ advising||Working on something esoteric and technical that is a right ‘mare to try to explain to people||To see the impact of my work more quickly|
|Feeling like an ‘expert’||Work-life separation|
And that’s great. I can see how those things play out in my work so far. I do a job that still gives me lots of ‘student’ contact, whilst specialising in careers support for PhDs means I retain that ‘expert’ status amongst colleagues. I work in a large team, and find it much easier to explain to crisp-loving party goers what I do every day.
What experience tells me we need to do, however, is break this down one step further. When I sit down and do this kind of exercise with doctoral researchers, I often hear the refrains: ‘Research – I really like doing research’; or ‘I love teaching.’ If we take this at face value, it seems to suggest that the former person should find a career that is focused on doing research, whilst the latter should find a job that will let you carry on teaching. Which sounds right, right?
Huey’s quote implies that as well as ‘finding the bits’ of academic work we enjoy the most and using these as a guide to career options, we also need to think carefully about what it is that we enjoy about those ‘bits.’
Let’s go to a specific example. After years of working with PhDs, one of the questions that still yields some of the most fascinating answers for me is ‘what is it about teaching that you enjoy?’ The answers I get are SO varied. Here are just a few, some of which might ring true with you:
- ‘I love my subject and want to inspire others to enjoy it too’
- ‘I really enjoy taking complicated information and simplifying it into something that people can understand/ use’
- ‘I like helping students: making their university life more manageable’
Here, we start to see that not all ‘loves’ of one ‘bit’ of academia are equal. All four of these people enjoy teaching, but the warm, fuzzy button that teaching tweaks for each of them is slightly different. This helps us level up and unlock our next nuggets:
- There are multiple types of jobs that can help you to continue doing any of these things
- Not all of these involve what we usually recognise as ‘teaching’
- Someone who loves teaching for reason A may not be as excited by jobs linked to reason B… and so on.
Person A’s love of teaching seems very much linked to the subject matter: they are passionate about their subject and want to advocate for it. Here, teaching their subject (at compulsory or post-compulsory level) might seem like an obvious option. However, there are other types of organisations that advocate for, and encourage engagement with, certain subject areas: professional bodies and learned societies, for example. Then there are all the places that subject-specific learning takes place beyond the traditional classroom: in community organisations; refugee hostels; museums; galleries; charities. If you relate to person A, then an education-focused role within one of these types of organisations might tick your box in similar ways to traditional subject teaching.
Person B’s enjoyment of teaching seems to come from a place that is less discipline-specific. They enjoy the synthesis and communication aspect of teaching: helping people to understand things better. This is something that forms a significant part of many types of jobs, for example:
- Policy-based roles, where you develop expertise in a particular area, advise on this area, and synthesise information into easily-digestible briefings for stakeholders/ decision-makers/ MPs etc.
- Industry roles like Technical Communications or Consumer Technical Insights, which involve translating technical and scientific aspects of products into communications that consumers and/or colleagues can understand
- Roles where you help customers and other stakeholders to understand how to use a technical device, drug or other product, like Field Applications or Medical Science Liaison
Finally, if you’re person C, you enjoy teaching because it helps you put into action the supportive, guiding side of yourself. You’re as interested in giving the students a good university experience as you might be in what it is that you are teaching them. Roles that can help you continue along this theme include many in student support such as academic skills support, student experience, career guidance, student welfare and international student advisory.
We’ve gone into a lot of detail about teaching here, but the principle is the same for ‘doing research,’ ‘doing outreach,’ ‘writing papers’… whatever ‘bits’ of academia you feel most drawn towards (if research floats your boat, here’s more on that). As well as identifying which ‘bits’ you like most, spend some time also pinpointing what it is about those ‘bits’ that you enjoy. Use the teaching examples above as a quick guide to the kind of statements you’re looking to compose. Doing this can not only tell you a lot about yourself and your priorities: it can also blast your options wide open.
Dr Joel Huey is a geneticist based in Perth, Australia.