Life Post-PhD: On Expecting the Unexpected

Dr Lauren Redhead is a composer, sound artist, experimental organ performer, and musicologist. She is Lecturer in Music at Canterbury Christ Church University, and her AHRC-funded PhD was awarded by the University of Leeds.  
As part of our “Life post-PhD” series, she shares with us in this post a frank, often hectic, but nonetheless encouraging account of her experiences pursuing a career as an academic composer.
This autumn Lauren will be performing a programme of music for organ and electronics in London.

The first thing that I did after finishing my PhD (in composition, with an accompanying thesis) was to write a piece of music. This might seem surprising to some: surely I needed a break from the very thing I’d been concentrating my time and energy on for three years? But, for me, this felt like the next step on the road to achieving my goals. I’d finished writing my PhD within three years, leaving lots of time to check it and re-check it and even investigate different types of binding. I’d been teaching a variety of University modules covering performance, composition and musicology, and I’d been on pretty much every training course available to me during my time as a doctoral student. I was hooked on the academic lifestyle and keen to both find out what research-life after PhD would be like and to get started on enacting my future plans in which I saw myself building on my doctoral research, pursuing new directions, and planning ever more innovative teaching in contemporary music.

The piece that I wrote, I think, can be considered a success. It has been performed many times and I’ve delivered a paper on the research behind its conception which I’m in the process of writing up for a conference proceedings. In short: it fulfilled all of my expectations of life after PhD. The rest of my plans didn’t quite manage to keep up though. I imagine that in itself that is surprising to no-one. My plans were hopelessly ambitious and did not take into account that the complete control I’d been allowed to have over my life and work as PhD student could not possibly continue once I’d handed it in.

As I handed in my portfolio and thesis I began four contracts as a visiting lecturer. The absolute positives of this were clear: I really enjoyed teaching at every institution I worked at, there were some very good students and I was gaining more and more good experience for the future. The negatives are not often spoken about: I was teaching for about 16 1/2 hours per week, in four different cities, and spending most of my life looking at the inside of trains which also had become the (very much less than ideal) place in which I conducted most of my research. At the time, it seemed to me a dangerous thing to discuss these negative aspects. I knew plenty of people struggling to look for employment after finishing PhDs and also had a financial imperative for taking on so much work. I didn’t want anyone to think I was less than completely happy with the situation. Now I’d advise others to be more open about such circumstances: at the time I believed that very few other people were experiencing anything similar and I now know that not to be the case. I also learned how important both time and space are for conducting research, and how life as an itinerant early career research can preclude either of these things.

The restrictions on my research time and space meant that I abandoned many of my grand plans to focus on publishing work that had been part of my thesis. I also looked for other opportunities as a composer. Many of these, necessarily, didn’t have any relationship with research at all. Despite attending training in public engagement with research and in media as a doctoral student (see above for my enthusiasm regarding extra-curricular training) this put me in a number of situations where I needed to negotiate the expectations of ensembles, institutions, and my own research interests. It was clear to me that there was little point in writing music that no-one would be able to hear, but also that outside of the university the articulation of my research questions wasn’t the first priority of many of my collaborators. This encouraged me to develop a whole set of skills that I think are invaluable: really engaging others with your ideas and finding out how to take your work and research to people who could be interested in it. Many of the people I worked with believed that academics, and thus composers with PhDs, might be dull people writing over-intellectualised music, and that the idea of a piece as a “research outcome” implied something both soulless and music-less. I hope I’ve been able to challenge some of those ideas.

After a year I left my four jobs (along with some other jobs that I had which made seven in total) and took up a full time, short term contract at another University at the other end of the country. This felt like a triumph. My computer hard-drive showed that I’d applied for over 100 jobs, both academic and non-academic. By this point I felt cheated by the generic advice I’d received in so many of my enthusiastically-attended training courses (Have you thought of arranging your research outcomes into a list? Why, yes!). The truth is that no amount of training can counter the fact that very many people are applying for very few jobs. The best advice and support came from my PhD supervisors who, both having trodden the career path I hoped to take, were able to give me advice tailored to my work and experience which they knew well. Throughout my PhD they, and my institution, had prepared me for the fact that looking for a job after graduation would be very hard, but they also supported me unwaveringly whilst I looked for one.

After finishing my contract I’m now moving to a new University for a longer term contract in the new academic year. I’ve been undertaking artistic residencies in the UK and Belgium, and have a lot of international performances taking place this year. I’m currently putting together my REF submission which is giving me an opportunity to reflect on what I have been able to achieve in my work since my PhD, despite many hurdles. The transition to this new job hasn’t necessarily been a smooth one either, but almost two years later I’d say that my life is starting to look a little bit more like the grand plan that I had when I handed in my thesis.

If life after PhD didn’t exactly meet all of my expectations this is mostly because it is very difficult to know on what to base one’s expectations. In my case it was the hope of the best possible outcome in all circumstances. I personally think that the successes I’ve achieved after finishing my PhD are down to the experiences that I had during and shortly after it, and the support of my institution, PhD supervisors and the other students (now all Doctors) who were working at the same time as me. It’s also clear that whatever plans one wishes to make for life after PhD it will be hit or miss whether they turn out they way that they are imagined. This isn’t meant to quash anyone’s ambition: without ambition I doubt I’d have got anywhere. But being able to completely relocate at very short notice and to spend far less time sleeping than I should have done also played a very big role in allowing me to undertake many of the things that I did, which are not possibilities for everyone.

As a result of the experiences I’ve had I’m not in favour of measuring success after PhD in terms of employment, publications, or performances. For a long time after finishing my PhD I waited for the moment where I would “feel” clever, competent, more academic. I did think that goals of employment, publication, and performances would help me feel this way. As I’ve reached and passed those milestones this hasn’t been the case. The support of others who have been there before me has been invaluable at each step of the way, and with each achievement I realise that there is no end-point in my academic life but that there will always be more that I want to learn, try out, and work towards. So, when I think about that first piece, I realise that it wasn’t a “first” at all, only a continuation, and that this state of constant change and development is in itself my academic life rather than merely the journey towards it. Life after PhD has been unexpected in many ways, but I’m now looking forward to more of the unexpected in the future.

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