In the fourth part of our transcription of the ‘Life Post-PhD’ roundtable discussion that took place at the RMA Research Students’ Conference in January at the University of Bristol, Kieran Fenby Hulse discusses his career since completing his PhD. Kieran advises us to diversify as much as possible and to consider ‘alternative’ academic careers.
With careers, I think what’s coming through is that passion is very important. However, you’ve got to be critical of it because it’s the one thing that can lead you astray and leave you in a little bubble, thinking something will come along at some point. What you really need to think about is your ambition: where do you want to go and what opportunities are there? And then you’ve got to think about change – because things are constantly changing – and chance. Careers, ambition, opportunities, change and chance. What you’ll see in the field of musicology alone is we’ve lost a lot of jobs in classical music studies and there’s been a huge surge of pop music studies jobs in the last two to three years. Performance is becoming increasingly of interest to broaden out departments. That’s real, that’s happening, that’s where the jobs are, that will change again as people die, which is how a lecturing job comes up! Someone moves, someone dies! This is the reality! I’m going to hit you with some figures, but hopefully I’ll lead you to a more optimistic outlook: 0.02% of PhD students become professors; that’s statistically true across all disciplines. That’s not because everyone failed. It’s actually because people took different roots, decided on different things, and other things became important.
I want to talk a bit about my career. When I finished my PhD, the hourly-paid teaching wasn’t an option for me; I needed a full-time job. I needed the money coming in for my partner and I, so I had to look for full-time work. My first full-time job after my PhD was at Glyndebourne opera house. It was selling tickets and opening envelopes, but I did get to see all their operas for free. That was amazing having done my PhD in opera, but after nine months I explored what the opportunities were at Glyndebourne within the arts, and I realised it was badly paid and not quite right for me, so I moved to Bradford. I was looking for jobs in Bradford and a job came up in the university. I thought maybe I want to be a lecturer, so perhaps getting my foot in the door in an admin post in a university is the way to go. I left my PhD not really knowing what to do, and that’s a big mistake. I got a job in Bradford that was in postgraduate admissions in the business school. I was looking at doctoral business applications, masters applications, doing visa work, using a system called SITS, which is what all the UCAS applications go through. I did that for about a year while I did a few tweaks for the resubmission of my PhD and got that submitted, passed and then awarded.
A job came up at Bradford which I saw advertised in the research support office; I didn’t know what that was – I thought that was where all the research happened, and it seemed an exciting place! It was a research and knowledge exchange support officer. This sounded really interesting, but I didn’t really know much about it. They wanted someone with a PhD in engineering so I didn’t apply because I didn’t think my degree in music would help, and then they re-advertised. I was busy; I was planning a wedding, but I chucked in an application that wasn’t that good, self-admittedly, and got an interview. So then I did the research: found out about the job, found out about knowledge exchange, found out about what research officers do, found out about the research assessment exercise, which is now the research excellence framework. I found out about funding councils and what funders were. I got the job. I got a 10k increase on my salary, so I left my data-entry work with the admissions office and moved into this one-year maternity cover post in the research support office. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done but it was by accident and it was an opportunity: they wanted an engineer and they got me. I was there reviewing grant applications for the engineering department, the life science department and some social science when they were applying to funders such as the engineering and physical sciences council, the national environment research council and the ones that were more science based. I learnt a lot about policy, strategy, how to write an argument, and a lot about disciplines that I hadn’t ever come across before, such as biomarkers in cancer. I’ve learnt a lot about different areas of research and a lot about impact. They said impact was coming for the REF so I was the designated person to start working on impact case studies.
My contract began to draw to a close. There was potential of an extension, but a job came up at Brighton. They wanted a design historian. I applied for the job which was a research officer post. It was academic – I was in professional services and then I was in an academic post – and it involved working entirely on the research excellence framework, working with the creative practitioners on developing their impact case studies, explaining why their practice was research, which is a very hard task sometimes. It’s not necessarily the case that the practitioner likes to think in the same terms. I did that for a year and a half. The REF results came in. The impact case studies have all been reviewed three and four stars, so I feel very proud.
I left that job, on the day the REF was submitted, to take another job that had come up at Bath Spa University, where I am now. I went for this job because it was permanent and full time. I didn’t want to keep being on these short-term fixed-term contracts; at some point you think ‘I want a more stable job’, ‘I want to create a network of people’, ‘we want to settle down’. That’s just as important for some people, and there’s nothing wrong with it. I took the job at Bath Spa University as the research and development officer, and now I’m not on an academic contract again. I’m hopping between the two. Never in any of them have I ever really had research time, and people on lecturing jobs probably say that too. I know as I speak with many as part of my job. What I do in this job is to train researchers. I train PhD students on careers, I train lecturers on how to write bids, I train on ethics, I train on health and safety principles, global context, impact, engagement, creative thinking – a broad skill set.
For those of you that know the Vitae Research Development Framework, they are all about careers, they all about researcher development, and they’re all about skills. They’ve got lots of tips for you to be thinking about your career. So that’s my main job now. I’m really enjoying it. Although I’m not research contracted, I’m still doing research in my role which is why it is sometimes called an alternative academic career. I do research on how creative practitioners can do impact. As part of this role I’ve gone to Sweden this year, and I went to Belgium just before Christmas. I say this because working in professional service roles aren’t as dull as you might think they are; they’re actually quite interesting. I get to work with lots of people in lots of different disciplines. I’m saying this just to open up that field a bit. What you’ll find in professional services are more and more people with doctorates working there. The person who works in knowledge exchange in my office is a social science doctorate from Edinburgh. I know people in careers offices in London universities that are doctorates. More and more, it’s because the academic side helps inform the nature of the job, so the research carries on. There’s a lot of change with regard to whether these should be classed as academic roles or non-academic roles.
Start to think about other opportunities. What’s your passion? Is it teaching? Is it training? Is it music? What type of music? Where are the jobs in music? Am I going to sit and hope and wait, or am I going to diversify? Your PhD does not constrict you; it gives you something to go with. Don’t use it as something that limits you.
Just to end on, I’ve sat on panels for employment of academics – they usually drag someone from the research office there to look evil; I’m that third person on a panel that says ‘do you know about the Research Excellence Framework?’ – you will get questions like that because there are people like me asking them. What gets you the job is not your PhD or your publications – all candidates have them. It’s the thing that singles you out as someone different. If you’ve got a fruit bowl of skills, make sure it’s not all apples, but rather apples, pears, bananas: do some public engagement work, work in a research office for a year – it doesn’t mean you’re stuck in a research office. I’m still questioning whether I want to apply for lecturing jobs, and I’ve just sent a few applications off recently. It doesn’t stop you but it fills that gap between a PhD and a lecturing job. There are post-docs, there are central office positions, arts areas you can work in, you can go freelance for a bit. Start to think about the broad options because you’re going to have to fill a gap anyway.