In the third 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, Dr Tim Summers offers his advice on how best to use your time once you’ve finished your PhD.
Like Jonathan, I was a PhD student here, but I finished in 2012. I came from an undergraduate degree, and I did an MPhil in Research here. That was quite useful, to have additional research to draw upon for conferences. During the PhD, I did quite a lot of teaching; as we’ve already said, that’s a great resource. I would encourage you to think about the diversity of the teaching you do, rather than the amount. I think it’s important to get a range of experiences so that when that job application comes up you can say, ‘yes, I’ve done small groups, large groups. I’ve done this and that’. It’s very useful to be able to say that.
Once your PhD finishes, your supervisor is still there as a resource for you. It’s not as though suddenly they stop responding to your emails. In the case of my supervisor, and Justin [Williams], who was an examiner of my thesis, I still email them with reasonable regularity about job applications, but also about other things I’m writing. Use your networks around you to say, ‘I’ve written this thing, what do you think of it? Am I crazy or not? Does this make any sense to you?’ That is a resource that you can use, and the teaching will stimulate an interest in, and research both relevant to the PhD and outside it as well. Once I finished that, I got a job as a college lecturer at an Oxford college. It was a lovely job but it was unsustainable in the long run.
That time after your PhD I found quite useful for writing up your papers. Often at that point you might find that you don’t have the funds to go to conferences, so keeping networks in other ways, being active on social media for different research groups is very helpful. At the moment, I am currently based at the Education faculty in Cambridge, and at Homerton College where I research, but I’m also training to become a teacher. This is useful for me because, on the one hand I can start moving into education research a little bit as well, and it also means that there is that job opportunity for me there in terms of being a teacher as well.
Rather than boring you with my life story and, because I’m not terribly interesting, what I wanted to do was to give you about four little ideas or things that I’ve found useful or that I wish I’d known a little more about. So the first thing, that Justin and Jonathan already said, is about diversity. Go to lots of different kinds of conferences, write papers on all sorts of different things. If you have an idea to write an article about something that is entirely outside your field, as long as you do it properly, I mean don’t just sort of dabble in it, do it properly, then yes, go and write it, go and research it. Ask for advice from somebody who maybe is more familiar with the field as well, but do it, diversify your portfolio. I did my MPhil on the musical depiction of aliens in science-fiction film. I went off to a couple of conferences, and it got to the stage where people were saying, ‘oh yes, you’re the aliens guy’. I didn’t really know quite how to take that but the advantage is that you can get known for your research in particular ways, and you can sometimes be lumbered with that baggage. I successfully shifted that now to be known now as the ‘video game music guy’. My point is also that diversity is important to ensure you’re not just a one trick pony.
Yes, articles and publications are fine. Don’t rush too much to publish, but it is important. The other thing I’d encourage you is to try out new things. Academics are incredibly supportive. I run a conference which is now in its fourth year which started out as just three people meeting in a pub and saying, ‘this is interesting, we’re both sort of researching similar sorts of things, shall we have a conference on video game music?’ I said, ‘yeah, alright, how do you do that? OK. Let’s put out a call for papers’, and this has now become something that happens yearly. We never thought, ‘yes, let’s embark on this great project’. It happened because we just fancied it. We thought, let’s do a thing. Let’s ask for help from academics. How do you do an abstract review? How do you sort out a conference? And you won’t know unless you ask and you collaborate with people. Don’t be afraid to email academics you’ve heard of or who you’ve seen speak; ‘I saw you when you came to talk. It was nice. Can I ask for your help with this? What would your advice be on that?’ The worst thing they can do is ignore you and that’s not a problem.
In terms of this diversity, you also have to think about the diversity of how you defend what it is that you do when it comes to an interview, or in research proposals. So, I think its important to have almost more than one argument why what you’re doing is important. I’ve written some research proposals and I’ve been to interviews whereby, saying I’m doing video game music, with an argument along the lines of ‘well I think this is important to study because there are millions and tens of millions of people who listen to this music and it’s important to them, and video games are billions of pounds worth to the UK economy’. Now, for some research groups, for some funding bodies, that is a convincing argument because it’s based on demographics, on money, on the number of people. For other panels, and I have misjudged some interviews quite spectacularly this way, that argument doesn’t really mean anything. The fact that it’s a number of people, the fact that it has to do with finances, that doesn’t make any difference. Instead, for those panels, you have to argue on the basis of the scholarly value. You have to say this is important because it changes our understanding of X or Y. It’s difficult but you do have to consider the value system of the people that you’re applying to, and I don’t think that I appreciated that quite as much when I was, I am, applying for academic roles and bits and bobs.
The second thing: I remember being quite aware of a particular narrative that was being told to me about how you go about being an academic. That goes: you do a PhD and then you do your postdoc, maybe one or two, and then you get your academic career, and I think we’re quite used to this idea that this is the progression and if you don’t get that, sometimes you can feel as if you’re doing something wrong. The reality is, it isn’t like that. There isn’t this sort of straightforward line through it. It’s messy, it’s complicated and just because it doesn’t necessarily go to plan, doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen. I think that’s important, as is being adaptable, exactly as Justin and Jonathan were saying – going for other departments, other research councils.
The third piece of advice, the penultimate thing I wanted to talk about is about rejection. It can be difficult when you’ve put lots and lots of time into a research proposal and nothing ever comes of it, but it is part of the process and you have to learn to deal with that. You have to be resilient. The other thing is, if you’re writing lots and lots of articles and you think, ‘oh, I’ll go for this journal but maybe not that one’, and you are not getting rejected, then maybe you should also be sure that you are getting rejected so that sometimes you’re aiming at high impact journals so that you do get to that stage where you are being rejected. It’s difficult and it’s hard and when you get really nasty reviews it can be really awful, but it is worthwhile.
And that leads me on to my final point here which is that you are not your work. You are not your ideas. We do this in academia a lot. We say, ‘oh it is so-and-so’ and what we actually mean is it’s so-and-so’s ideas, and it can be very easy to conflate the person with the ideas so when your ideas are under attack, it feels like you are under attack. And this is something that I feel I have struggled with a little bit, is knowing the difference between those, and learning to distance myself from my ideas and my work so it becomes less personal. You are so much more than what you write and what you research. It’s an important part of your identity but you are more than that. Don’t subsume one into the other because that can become rather unhealthy. Keep a good balance. Be optimistic, just be adaptable. You’re all people who have come from backgrounds where you are used to doing very well at exams. You’re used to being the person who is the high-flier; you’re all high-fliers. Therefore, it can be tough when you’re getting to the stage where you’re not getting the things that you might feel as though you should be doing, and therefore be gentle to yourselves and be forgiving, and try and keep a healthy balance of everything else.