Life Post-PhD: An Alternative Career in Higher Education

Dr Michael Byde studied at Leeds University for a PhD on music analysis and criticism focussing on William Walton. He is now Faculty Education Service Manager for the Faculty of Education, Social Sciences and Law at the University of Leeds. He also serves the RMA as Member Communications Officer with responsibility for the website, social media, and the Newsletter. As part of our ‘Life post-PhD’ series, Mike gives us a refreshing perspective on academia and reflects on how undertaking a PhD in music need not inevitably lead to a career as an academic .

 

There is something about the progression from undergraduate dissertation to taught postgraduate programme to research degree that leads you to the inevitable conclusion that you want to be an ‘academic’. For a long while I thought that this was what I wanted. Then, in the final months of my PhD, I faltered. I went through a rigorous and demanding application process for a post-doctoral research post. This was the perfect next step, it was a challenging and engaging process, and I was lucky and honoured to be offered the job. The realisation that I could not say ‘yes’ was confusing. I thought I was open to different career ideas; I hadn’t realised the emotional attachment I had to the academic route. There was, I assumed, an expectation that the ‘best’ PhDs went on to be academics, and although this was in my head rather than in what colleagues actually said, it created a kind of silent pressure. Yet I found teaching stressful (as well as rewarding) and research lonely (as well as, occasionally, exciting); an academic job was not for me.

During my PhD the Research Councils were increasingly promoting the ‘transferrable skills’ that research degrees develop. This had seemed to me to be a cliché with limited tangible application. But now these questions suddenly became important. What sort of job should I look for? What was I trained to do? What would an employer value about me? A PhD on music analysis did not, on the surface, seem like a great way to open up career options.

But I quickly realised I could actually do a lot that employers might value. I could present, and especially write, to a good standard. Since these are the standard ways of selecting candidates for jobs I had a head start. I had learned, through responding to Calls for Papers and applying for funding, to adapt proposals to reflect what institutions thought they were looking for; again this turned out to be a useful way of approaching job applications. Although I did not know the language of project management, I could certainly manage projects. I began to realise – as I have said in most job applications since – that music is not an esoteric specialism but is immensely broad and varied. Music graduates can balance technical analysis and attention to detail with judgment and tact, bringing with them technical and analytical ability as well as sensitivity to meaning and context.

I now work in the Student Education Service at the University of Leeds where I oversee the work of around 40 support staff in one of the Faculties. The team delivers services to academic staff and students ranging from timetabling to processing assessments to giving students advice on welfare and employability.

One thing that has surprised me about my work is the importance of networking. On the face of it my job is about administration. But my employer is a complex organisation with over 7000 staff; to be effective I have to know how others are approaching their work and about their developing plans and ideas. You can’t learn these things from committee papers, only conversations. And, as I cannot possibly know the details of all the services within my areas of responsibility, I have to draw on advice and expertise of those around me. I used to cringe at the idea of the ‘networking session’ at a conference – I still do. I didn’t think I was a good networker because I struggle to engage with social situations where there isn’t an existing relationship or a clear objective. But I’ve realised networking does not mean embarrassing small talk with strangers. It is the ability to build and sustain supportive relationships with colleagues. A PhD prepares you exceptionally well for this, since you rely on so many others to complete the programme. You work with your supervisory team, with peers within your department, with wider research networks, with undergraduate students, and with the university administration. All of this means that the complicated network of relationships and accountabilities of a large employer, with the various sensitivities and complexity of communication that this brings, are familiar territory.

When shortlisting for vacancies within my team, all too often candidates don’t make the most of their experiences at university. We don’t focus on the candidate’s degree, but on the examples they give to show their skills and experience. Sometimes very well qualified candidates seem unable to articulate what they’ve learned through their studies and why it might be valuable to us as an employer. Perhaps the research degree focus on ‘contribution to knowledge’ can sometimes lead us to neglect thinking about our own role in the research process and the skills and behaviours we are developing.

Occasionally I found that academia could draw you in to an unhealthy kind of competitiveness in which you compare yourself to your peers; one day soon, you may be competing with them for a job or research grant. This can lead to insecure moments, and although these are often masked by false bravado, they can undermine your confidence. So it is worth remembering that as a PhD candidate in music – whichever specialism – you are among the most intelligent and creative individuals around here. That is why you are studying at doctoral level. But to make the most of this does require reflection: thinking through what your research, and your approach to it, teaches you about yourself as well as what it contributes to your discipline.

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