Ian Archer

Skills Development Officer for Postgraduate & Postdoctoral Researchers.

Former research staff in history at the University of the West of England, UK.

This story comes from our What do research staff do next? project, investigating the careers of research staff who moved from research posts to other occupations and employment sectors. You can use these stories to better understand how these researchers transition, what careers they have and their reflections on the transition process and current career paths.

Ian Archer

Research staff experience

For a decade after completing my doctorate my dream was to have an academic career. With humanities posts difficult to obtain, I first worked outside of the higher education sector for a couple of years. I then decided it would be helpful to do a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE). I reasoned that a career as an academic inevitably meant teaching, and I didn’t feel equipped to do that purely from my experience as a postgraduate researcher. 

Following the PGCE I found employment as a Research Assistant on the Bristol Historical Databases Project at the University of the West of England (UWE) in Bristol. Several university-published articles came out of the project, as well as electronic versions of the databases we had collated, that were sold to local and family historians and others. 

The Project ended because we were unable to secure further funding, so my job ended. At that point, nothing else was tempting me to move away from this career – I would certainly have continued as a historical researcher if I’d been given the opportunity. 

Transition to new career

At the same institution, I was offered the opportunity to continue in the department as a visiting lecturer – teaching the core syllabus to mainly first year undergraduates, with up to 13 contact hours per week. Historical research is often quite cloistered and solitary, so first teaching and then working with a wider range of people was a challenge. I drew on communication and people skills I didn’t know I had, though having the PGCE under my belt eased the transition. 

I think my major achievement as a teacher was in passing on my enthusiasm for the subject to the students. Some years later, I heard that a former student of mine had been inspired to be an historian herself, and was now doing a doctorate. If I had an effect on just one person, I think I achieved something. 

My move away from being an academic (if not from working in academia) came after four years of teaching. I was on a rolling short-term contract, with no job security and unclear long-term prospects. I had applied for a couple of research positions within the department, but was overlooked for cheaper pre-doctoral candidates. I was offered the position of Training Officer at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) in London. It allowed me to stay within the discipline, but with a permanent, full-time position, albeit moving away from purely teaching and research. 

Other career experience

Along the way, I worked in other sectors. Between my doctorate and teacher training, I had a clerical job in motor finance. I was also temping as a personal assistant (PA) over the summer vacation between teaching contracts at UWE, to make ends meet. But I did learn a lot from this. By working with a wide range of people, my team-working, people and communication skills were broadened considerably. Some bosses thought it strange that their PA was a doctoral graduate. But, in general I was respected for my experience and my particular skills (accuracy, attention to detail and ability to write). I have long felt that the qualification gives you a certain insulation from the disregard most people have to put up with in the working world. 

Current job – and how it compares

I am now a Researcher Developer – and have been so for most of the last 13 years: firstly just with historians at the IHR, and latterly with early career researchers from all discipline areas at Aberystwyth University in Wales. 

In my current role I am responsible for the design and organisation of professional development programmes for research staff and postgraduate researchers. I am still (infrequently) engaged in teaching/training as well – giving courses in skills such as time management and team working. 

I get most job satisfaction from talking to researchers (often at the end of their time at the university) who ‘get it’: those who have taken the development opportunities offered to them and are prepared to think more broadly about where they want to go with their career. 

The aspects of my job I like least are the routine tasks that make me feel just like a glorified secretary sometimes – being in a small department, I have to do things like the finances, persuade people to run courses for us, tell students they have to come to compulsory sessions, and so on. 

Competencies old and new

One of my responsibilities within my department is practitioner for two widely used personal development tools: MBTI (an instrument that defines personality type) and Belbin (which looks at behavioural strengths and weaknesses to identify preferred team roles). So I do a lot of consultations with staff and students on what type a person is and how they work best. I think I’ve personally developed a lot since I was a researcher. In Belbin terms, I think I’ve moved from being a Specialist (an expert, but narrowly focussed on a small area) to much more of a Team Worker, though my major type is still Monitor Evaluator (with strengths such as objectivity and judgement). In MBTI terms, Introverted Thinking is my dominant function, but I’ve moved much more into exploring my Intuition and Feeling preferences. 

What I mean by this is I think that I (and maybe most academic researchers) can be solitary, introverted, constantly thinking and reflecting by nature. They are also my strengths, and how I operate most comfortably. But interaction with other people was always more of a struggle. And I possibly could have gone on like that, if I’d remained a researcher. Working as a teacher  (and being fully engaged as a teacher – not just seeing it as a distasteful necessity to carry on the real work of research) and then as a researcher developer and trainer has made me work a lot more outside of my ‘comfort zone’, developing new skills and interests in the process. The ability to carry out research and reflect deeply never goes, and is still invaluable in aspects of my job – I do give the time to think through and thoroughly research issues that most of my colleagues never do. But I have learnt a lot from them too, over the years, and I think I’m a more rounded person and better at my role as a result. 

Reflecting on my career path

I’ve often said that being a research assistant was the best job I ever had. It was partly the circumstances of the period – I met my wife then and had a great social life. But it is still true to say that it was a great experience – being paid for what I had trained to do and loved doing: historical research. My time doing it seemed all too short. But maybe had I done it for longer, my memories might not be quite so rosy. After another four years of doing the follow-on teaching job at UWE, I was sick of being exploited on short-term contracts and wanted a regular job and a life – so I could get a mortgage and so on. 

Around the turn of the Millennium, in my mid-thirties, I gave up on the academic dream. I was happy then, I'd found my future wife: enjoying life was more important than pursuing that career. Teaching at UWE and working with historians at the IHR, I’d seen enough to become disillusioned with the academic treadmill. Maybe also, I was moving on. In my career, moving into the area of personal and professional development, though it was kind of accidental, maybe interested me more than I realised at the time. Certainly MBTI/Belbin and personal development work in general is something that interests me now. These are aspects of my career and of our provision at the University that I would like to develop further. 

Suggestions and advice

If you still love the research and are able to stay as a researcher, do so. But don’t be afraid to move into something different. Don't feel you've failed if you have not ended up as an academic/research professional. It's certainly not a bad thing to gain the much wider experience of working in the 'real world' outside of academia: the communication skills; the working with people; the respect that's given to you because of the background you come from. The skills you bring from being a researcher are probably more scarce in the new sector you'll be working in. It’s very easy to get tunnel vision and believe that your subject is the only thing you can do. You do have a lot more to offer than you think