On the final day of RMA Research Students’ Conference in January at the University of Bristol, there was a wonderfully informative and helpful roundtable discussion on the subject of ‘Life Post-PhD’. The members of the panel were Dr Justin Williams (Lecturer in Music at the University of Bristol), Dr Tim Summers (Stipendiary Lecturer in Music for St Catherine’s College, University of Oxford), Dr Jonathan Godsall (Teaching Fellow in Music at Keele University), Dr Katy Hamilton (RMA Membership Development Officer, and freelance researcher, writer and presenter on music), Dr Kieran Fenby-Hulse (Research Development Officer at Bath Spa University), and Dr David Trippett (Lecturer in Music at the University of Bristol).
We recorded and transcribed the session, and will be posting the contributions from each panel member over the next few weeks. Introducing the roundtable, and first to speak about his own experiences, was Dr Justin Williams. Here’s what he had to say:
Welcome everyone to this session, entitled ‘Life Post-PhD’. We are going to discuss a number of perspectives based on our own experiences and how we’ve ended up where we are at this phase of our lives. One thing that we all have in common is that we have all done a PhD; we are part of that union, we carry that union card, so to speak. And from there I think our lives have taken very different directions, but all involve music, university life, or both.
First of all, I can speak from the perspective of someone who’s pretty much had only teaching jobs of some sort. I come from a long line of teachers, I’ve taught primary school supply teaching, secondary school music teaching, and university teaching. It’s safe to say that I’ve spent most of my time, most of my career, within the academy so that’s what I can speak best to.
I’ll start with a seemingly odd analogy: when one wants to convert to Judaism, the Rabbi spends about an hour or more trying to convince that person not to convert. And if you still want to convert after that speech then you’re on your way to the path. [So, you want to be an academic?] My own experience includes a countless number of job applications, things like JRFs, probably between 200 and 300 applications around the world (I don’t even want to know how much money I’ve spent applying to the various places, particularly in the US, where it costs a lot to send paper applications). After all of that, I then had subsequent job interviews, and the agony and stress of being shortlisted is not as fun as you hoped it would be (unless you get the job in the end, then you forget the stress). I was a candidate for a job in an institution in the third year of my PhD and I did not get that job, and one of the pieces of feedback – (in the UK they often give you feedback after a job interview, which is not the case in the US) – was ‘you were number 2, and well, you know, the other candidate had a book contract and you didn’t’ (they said it more eloquently than that). So I thought, OK, note to self: (and this is just how my brain works) I’m going to work really hard on getting a book contract.
One piece of advice I would give to people is to think broadly. Think broadly about your own skills, think broadly about what you can offer to the table to a number of fields and to a number of opportunities. What I would advocate is not saying ‘Oh I don’t do that’, or ‘I do this’ or ‘this’. While it’s nice to have some disciplinary fields to align yourself with, my first job opportunity was actually on an ESRC post-doc in sociology. Now, I’m not a sociologist, but I wrote a grant application to the Economic and Social Research Council and I got the opportunity, and received a one-year post-doc at Lancaster. I spent most of my time on that post-doc working on my book proposal. And I had a mentor (which is another important part of the equation) who writes about a book a year in sociology. And he made me do draft after draft after draft of this proposal. I sent it to a number of presses, and got some good news from a few of them, then went with one which helped me to secure other permanent jobs in music departments.
Before I was here [University of Bristol] I was at a post-’92 institution – if you don’t know what that means you may want to look it up – and I have been working here for three years. And I just have to say that, you know, as you have all been doing, getting an academic job requires a lot of work but it also requires a certain amount of understanding of higher education, of UK higher education, and where things are going. So, as PhD students – and I am primarily speaking to the PhD students in the audience – you are still a student. You are still – if we wanted to be cynical about it, you are still our customer, you are still our client. And I would use that to your advantage; I would use that to ask for teaching opportunities. I think universities have a duty to their students to help prepare them for things, not least teaching experience. However, there’s a danger, I think, sometimes with PhD students is that you might end up doing a lot of teaching. You might end up being able to use the university staff room. You might start feeling like a member of staff, which could make someone slightly over-confident about their place, because you are a PhD student and so staff to a certain extent will have – I don’t want to say this but I’ll say it – shielded you from a number of scarier realities going on sometimes [in a department or institution, or with UK HE in general]. And so my recommendation in light of the fact that you may be sheltered from certain realities is to get informed. If you don’t know what the Research Excellence Framework is, or the REF, if you don’t know what that is, you really need to figure out what that is soon if you want a job in UK academia. Start reading Times Higher [Times Higher Education magazine], start thinking about the debates and the things that are going on in UK higher education or elsewhere if you want to cast your geographical net a bit wider. So be informed, don’t come into the situation in a naïve way, come informed. Buy a pint for the member of staff in your department who is the most honest and most forthright, and perhaps they will also lend some insight into the situation. That’s all I’m going to say, and it may be a very cynical view but it’s actually me wanting to be helpful. And if you still want to convert to Judaism, then, good luck.