- What Do PhDs Do?
- What Do PhDs Do? Case Studies
- Case studies in social sciences
- Helen, researcher, PhD in politics
Helen, researcher, PhD in politics
Occupation: Marie Curie Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Sector: Education (Academia)
PhD subject: Politics
Why did you do a PhD?
The favourite part of my BA degree was my dissertation. I had spent a year in Germany as part of my degree and was able to base my dissertation on what I had studied out there. The supervisor I worked with on that was very supportive and encouraged me to apply for an MA, for which ESRC funding was found. During my MA I applied for ESRC PhD funding which I hadn’t really expected to get, but I was successful and was able to start my PhD immediately after my MA. This success interrupted the process of really thinking about what and why I was planning to research before I started my doctorate, so on reflection it wasn’t as carefully planned as perhaps it should have been.
Describe your current job briefly:
My research interests as a postdoctoral fellow are related to my PhD research and I am still developing the outcomes of my doctorate. I also teach on an MA programme and provide scientific support for a network of interdisciplinary researchers in my field.
Why did you decide in this career?
After my PhD I made a determined farewell to academia as I had seen the downside very clearly – short-term teaching contracts, failure to secure research funding – and decided that I wasn’t prepared to work in that way. I entered the Civil Service Fast Stream programme and spent a year in Scotland working for the Scottish Executive. It only took three months for me to realise that I had made the wrong decision. I expected the role I was in to involve advising ministers on policy, but Civil Servants are administrators and I seemed to spend all my time in endless meetings! I found myself on a fast track to a career I didn’t want whilst still so interested in my research that I was spending my evenings in Edinburgh University library catching up on recent publications!
Around this time I saw an advert for my current fellowship and decided to resign, therefore throwing away the job security I thought was so important a few years earlier! I really wanted to carry out research with a policy connection, which this post offered along with an international orientation (the Marie Curie Fellowships are aimed at promoting researcher mobility) and a chance to teach – something else that I missed from my PhD days.
What was your job search strategy and how were you recruited?
For the Civil Service job, it was a natural alternative to research in my subject area so I began the applications procedure during the second year of my PhD. I took a year to progress through the various tests, interviews and assessment boards, but was successful and managed to defer the start date of my job until I had completed my PhD.
My fellowship came about through networking. I had let it be known that I wanted to return to research. One morning I logged onto my account to find that five people had emailed me with details of the fellowship! The recruitment process was tough, but that is probably a reflection of external circumstances – I was interviewed for a fellowship in security policy on September 12th 2001, when the world was suddenly much more attuned to international security. I was competing with other researchers from across Europe who were considerably older than me (Marie Curie fellows must be under 35) and the panel were concerned that I was too young (I was 26, with a PhD, whereas in many European countries it is impossible to achieve a PhD before your thirties). I managed to convince them that my relative youth and gender (my research field is male dominated) didn’t affect my ability.
Why do you think you got the job?
I think I got the job because my PhD research fitted the post and because of previous international experience and language ability. I had studied and researched abroad before, so it was clear I was adaptable.
Do you think a PhD has had a positive impact on your career?
My PhD has got me this far, but I am now approaching the end of my fellowship without having secured a job back in the UK. I’ve found it difficult to return to the UK because my subject area isn’t well developed in the UK and my publications don’t fit into a neat “RAE” box. My current employment is based around three different roles, which I’ve found confuses UK universities as they don’t translate easily to the UK system and there is a perception that a US postdoc carries more value than a European one (even though I research European policy!). I’ve had a very specialised experience and am finding it difficult to identify alternatives to academia. Along with other colleagues and friends in the same situation, in having to accept short-term research contracts abroad I’m afraid that my PhD has increased my job insecurity.
What advice do you have for PhD students to boost their employability?
Decide whether your future lies in academia or not because you need to adopt a different approach. If academia beckons then during your PhD you need to develop a publishing strategy, start networking with influential people, be seen at the right conferences and raise your profile through presentations. This cannot be emphasised enough.
Now I look back, I realise that the most useful element of my doctorate was the thing which I was most opposed to at this time – the social science training programme. It is much maligned, but the skills I developed have been invaluable in many ways. My second message is therefore to take advantage of all the training available.
Finally, I think that working in different countries has given my employability a boost, in the long-term if not in the short-term not just in terms of the languages I’ve learnt, but also as evidence of my motivation, adaptability and interest in my field. If I leave academia I think it will be valued by other employers. Few UK researchers take advantage of the opportunities to work in Europe, but they can be hugely beneficial.