Recently, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by the excellent Kelly Preece, Researcher Development Manager and Research & EDI Manager at the University of Exeter, for the podcast Beyond Your Research Degree. We talked a lot about my own transition from PhD to an ‘Alt-Ac’ career, and the lessons learned along the way. Here’s a reflection I had listening back, and a chance to hear the episode below!
Something I find myself saying more often these days is:
Career is an emergent property.
The physicists amongst you will already recognise that this idea comes from chaos theory. Rather ingeniously, Australian academics Robert Pryor and Jim Bright have applied chaos theory to careers, to devise… you guessed it… The Chaos Theory of Careers.’ In one of his works in this field, Pryor says the following:
“Career” is an emergent property of individuals as a result of their interaction with the environmental influences in which they typically function. This captures the increasingly extended concept of career which includes individuals’ work and non-work lives, since the two cannot be effectively separated from one another.” (Pryor 2016).
I like this idea because it naturally suggests that the more ‘interactions’ you have different people, ideas, information etc…… the more fractal patterns are likely to emerge from this, and the more possibilities there are for your career to grow out of these sets of interactions. I also like it, because it recently helped me draw up an analogy that I’ve been using a lot recently with Postgraduate Researchers I work with at Birmingham.
One of the most popular questions I get asked by Postgraduate Researchers is ‘when is a good time to start thinking about my future career?’ My gut answer to this is that career is always happening. It’s not a case of ‘the PhD is happening now… my future career is something that comes after it.’ Instead, your future career (and the ideas you have for what that career could look like) emerges out of the interactions that you have with ideas and people during the PhD. You’re in your career now… so think about that and how you can shape it as early as you can.
The analogy, therefore, goes something like this: it’s unlikely that your ideas for your PhD came out of nowhere. The research question you wanted to answer… the molecule you wanted to work on… the problem you wanted to solve… your ideas for these kinds of things probably grew from your contact with ideas, people and bodies of work you came across in some area of your life. Perhaps they came out of work you’d done at Masters level. Perhaps they came together during your recent professional work. They may even have taken shape from other projects you’d been involved in, in your community for example, or even from campaigning or activism. So, just as your PhD ideas didn’t come out of nowhere, or didn’t come ‘after’ whatever you were doing previously… the same follows for what you’ll do next. This is why having some broad ideas of what you might want to try out next, from an early stage, can help you to be strategic about creating the interactions that are most likely going to help those next steps emerge.
I’m never more struck by this analogy, or by the importance of being consciously aware of this ‘career is always happening’ thing, than I am when I reflect back on my own professional life so far. The way that what I do now came out of bits of part-time work, comments by friends, chance encounters… and how I sometimes accidentally put myself in positions where my current line of work could ’emerge.’
So, if you’re looking for a starting point to crack on with your thinking about your next steps, give yourself twenty-odd minutes to listen to the episode here, and check out the Beyond Your Research Degree podcast for more post-PhD career stories!