In the second 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, Jonathan Godsall reflects on his experiences during the year since completing his PhD in musicology at the University of Bristol. [Since the roundtable discussion, Jonathan has become a Teaching Fellow in Music at Keele University].
Unsurprisingly, I haven’t walked into a full-time academic post, and my desire is to go into an academic career. What I have been doing over the last year is focusing on the continued dissemination of my PhD research through conference papers, through articles and chapters, and I’ve been working on a book proposal based on my PhD thesis. I’ve been applying for jobs – applying but not getting them – and working as a part-time musician and a lecturer, and I’ve taught at several institutions. I’m not earning that much money, which means I’m living back at home with my parents. I might bemoan that situation occasionally, but it has given me the flexibility to carry on with my research, to attend conferences, and to take on the kind of work that will improve my CV rather than that which might be necessary from a financial point of view. It’s also given me the flexibility to take on things at late notice. I taught a course at Oxford Brookes this past semester, which was a very valuable experience for me, and which I took on at two weeks’ notice, so if I’d had any kind of employment, even part-time employment, that would have been very hard for me to then take on. I recognise that I’m very lucky to have the support of my family, and if you do have that kind of support available from family or from a partner it seems to me an opportunity that’s worth taking up. Equally, I recognise that it can’t go on forever, and certainly in the next few months to a year maximum the situation does have to change – there is more pressure on me to move on in some way.
The year has gone very quickly, and I look back and in some respects wonder if it could have been more productive from my point of view. Without the single overarching goal of a PhD thesis to work on and work towards I find it quite difficult to focus my work, and in some respects I feel that I’ve spread myself quite thinly, working on a variety of projects at once as well as doing teaching and other things. However, it’s also true that the academic world moves slowly in general, and that you’re often relying on other people – editors of journals, co-authors and so on. So there’s no guarantee that if I had concentrated on one specific thing that that would have resulted in something concrete. It’s about finding that balance, I think. It’s also good to take time over and time off from projects, particularly like a book proposal. I definitely found it valuable to take a few months off – because it [the book proposal] was a continuation of my PhD research, I took time off from my PhD research and then came back to it. So hopefully I’ve used my time well, and certainly I feel now that in the coming few months I’ve got several things that are about to happen or that are coming into fruition, so we will see.
The most valuable activity over the past year for me has been conference attendance, more so than conference presentation as such, though I guess you might as well present something while you’re there! Generally that’s because I enjoy being at conferences; being outside of an academic environment in my everyday life, when I go back into that environment it reassures me that academia is for me. More specifically, of course people get to know you, you get yourself known, and these people will then offer you work, they will recommend you for teaching jobs, for contributions to books and journals and so on. And I’ve found academics in general are really supportive and generous with their time and their advice, and very helpful overall. The importance of getting to know other people, the importance of who you know of course extends to, or rather begins with your supervisor, your PhD examiners, the other people in your department. And almost everything I think that looks good on my CV, in terms of teaching experience and publications, has been a direct result of networking, of people offering me things, rather than applications that I’ve put in out of the blue. And there are prospects of further things in the future, too, that academics have sounded me out on, about future projects that might come up, so I’m not reliant on those things but equally I might get an email tomorrow that’s offering me something. And the important thing is just to say ‘yes’ to absolutely everything and then maybe worry about the details later on! If I can do the networking thing then anyone can, because I’m a terribly awkward networker. I tend to go into a room and stand in the corner and hope someone takes pity on me. The key is to be sociable, go to the pub, buy people drinks as Justin said, and of course it gets easier because you meet someone at a conference and then the next conference you go to, they’re there and they’re talking to several other people you don’t know, and they introduce you, so it all goes from there, so – networking, very very important.
I’ll just say a little bit now about the traditional job applications that I have put in over the past year. They number, I think, around 21 – certainly over 20 academic posts, so a reasonable amount. And out of those 21 applications I’ve had one interview – well I’ve secured one interview which is coming up, which is exciting. The majority of those 21 jobs I applied for I didn’t really feel in many cases I had much of a realistic chance. But you’ve got to throw your hat in the ring, as it were, and you never know who else is applying and so on. And also there just isn’t that much work around, so I did feel I had to apply for quite a lot of things. Also, writing these things gives you practice at applying, at writing proposals. They do take time, so there have been instances when I looked at the job description and weighed up the odds, and thought that my time would probably be better spent working on something else. But even if you don’t get the specific job at hand it can be very helpful to get that practice.
The frustrating thing is that you don’t get any feedback if you don’t get shortlisted for a job; it’s just a ‘no’. So it’s often difficult to know whether you’re doing something wrong, or whether you’re just not the right person for that job. In that case for me it’s been very reassuring to finally get that interview; that’s been a minor victory for me already! And of course, again getting to know people, to ask for advice on your applications, is very important. I’m also sure, even though I haven’t had that feedback, that my applications are getting better; certainly I’m getting quicker at doing them as I get the practice. And that’s at the same time as my CV is getting better and I’m meeting all these people, and of course when you submit a job application and you’ve met all these people you’re more likely to have someone on the other end who recognises your name as well, which surely is an important thing. Since there aren’t that many jobs around, I don’t think in the past year that one has come up where I’ve read the advert and thought ‘that is exactly me’. Whether that will come up in the near future, that perfect job, is questionable, but I do feel that what I’m doing is putting me in the right position to get that job if it does come up. And as I apply for everything, get more experience of researching and teaching, expanding my interests as a musicologist, that definition of the perfect job expands as well, so I’m able to apply for more things. Perhaps now as a careers advisor with some seven minutes’ experience!