- What Do PhDs Do?
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- John, lecturer, PhD in geography
John, lecturer, PhD in geography
Occupation: Lecturer in Human Geography, National University of Ireland, Galway
Sector: Education (Academia)
PhD subject: Geography
Why did you do a PhD?
After my first degree (from University of Dublin) I took a year out to go travelling around Eastern Europe and Africa. My degree had gone well and I was interested in cultural geography, so I wanted to continue learning and contributing to this field. I didn’t want a 9-5 job and was more interested in developing my own career path, rather than being funnelled along a set career path. Academic research seemed to be unusual in offering this degree of flexibility.
I was offered PhD in Ireland, but want to broaden my horizons (as a cultural geographer it made sense to experience different environments!) and selected an ESRC funded PhD at Exeter University.
Describe your current job briefly:
As a Lecturer in Human Geography, I teach at all levels in our degree programmes with class sizes ranging from 300 (in 1st year) to about 80 in third year. I also supervise approx. 20 students in both 2nd and 3rd year. My career development is based on my research success and there is pressure to publish, so it can be difficult to find a balance between research and teaching. I also do some administrative work, although we have a departmental administrator, so this isn’t too onerous.
Why did you decide in this career?
I am interested in cultural and historical geography and I am determined to have a career which I enjoy. Academia offers freedom on a day-to-day level and in the long term – I feel I have more control over my career path. Luckily I’m not motivated by money, which can be a down side to academia!
What was your job search strategy and how were you recruited?
After my PhD I was kept on at Exeter on a one year rolling contract as a tutor. The danger with this was that it was easy to become complacent and allow the contract to continue indefinitely. I knew that if I was going to progress I had to do two things effectively: publish and network. I also started applying for jobs in the hope of getting interviews so I could begin to understand the recruitment process better and improve my interview skills.
I signed up for email alerts from jobs.ac.uk and was notified about my current job. I was invited over for 2 days of interviews and presentations. My interview panel included 2 of the leading international experts in my field which was a surprise! The department felt that they didn’t have sufficient internal expertise in my area so they invited the key researchers in the field to help them find the right person.
Why do you think you got the job?
The panel were obviously willing to take someone with potential rather than a proven research record because I had fewer publications than some of the other applicants. The advert was quite general, but having researched the department, I decided to adhere to what I was genuinely interested in and put together a portfolio of ideas for new courses rather than traditional ones. Obviously these were relevant and important in the field of human geography, but they were quite different to what was currently being offered in the department. The year I had spent teaching in Exeter gave evidence of my ability to teach, so I had more to offer than just my PhD. I think I convinced them that I was bringing something new to the department.
In my current job in Galway and previously at Exeter, I have seen presentations that were poorly delivered without enthusiasm and left me with the impression that I wouldn’t want to work with that person – even though the work may have been of good quality. Even in academia, where there is so much said about publications and funding, you can’t lose sight of the person because they have got to fit into an existing team. My rule for interviews is to get across what you do and do it with a smile on your face!
Do you think a PhD has had a positive impact on your career?
Absolutely. Quite aside from the fact that it is essential for a career in academia, my PhD has taught me to seek context and different perspectives, to look for the bigger picture in any circumstances. I have learnt to confidently assess situations and think laterally to solve problems – not just one-dimensionally.
I also recognise the transferable skills and interpersonal skills which I developed as a researcher. The ESRC offers an extensive training programme to its students, including IT training. I also went on a GRADschool which really helped me to work out all the other things I had to offer besides knowledge and research expertise. This broader education has proved very useful and the skills I developed have branched out into all elements of my work.
What advice do you have for PhD students to boost their employability?
Aim to start to develop your career during your PhD if you know which direction you want to take. I’ve identified the key to my success as networking. Get involved in societies which often have special interest groups, such as, in my case, the various research groups of the Royal Geographical Society and Annals of the Association of American Geographers. These groups meet many times a year, so by attending you will meet other researchers in your field (thus avoiding the isolationist horror that can strike PhD students!) and begin to get your name known. If you get involved in the committees of these groups you are also demonstrating your commitment to the field in a less individualistic way.
You also need to enjoy writing, because this gives you the edge and energy to do it well. I couldn’t have done a PhD without this. Even during the difficult patches when things are not going so well, be stubborn with yourself and remind yourself that the quality of your work will be so much better if you enjoy it. Always be determined to aim for this at least – once you start, you will surprise yourself! And remember, the only time that you won’t worry about writing up is actually while you are writing.
Finally, I was determined to do what I enjoyed so I took a few risks along the way. My teaching post at Exeter was RAE “invisible” and on paper was a fairly poor deal, but I got the best out of it and it helped me to get a better post. Work out what motivates you and what you enjoy doing – I’d rather be doing this than something I didn’t enjoy even if it was better paid.