Re-framing my PhD – preparation for a career in Higher Education

Postgraduate Employer Liaison Officer, Higher EducationHolly Prescott
Dr Holly Prescott
PGR Careers Case Study

Introduce yourself by providing information about your research and current role

I studied for a PhD in the English Department (under Dr Deborah Longworth and Dr Jan Campbell) in English Literature and Cultural Geography (representations of urban space in contemporary British fiction). I graduated in December 2011. I then started work as a Postgraduate Recruitment Advisor in PG Recruitment at University of Birmingham and am currently seconded to Careers Network in the role of Postgraduate Employer Liaison Officer.

My role is to build relationships with employers looking to target postgraduate students, especially Masters students. This involves meeting employers to talk about their needs, sourcing vacancies and opportunities for Masters students, and planning and delivering a range of careers workshops and activities for postgraduate students. Back in my substantive role, I work to promote postgraduate courses at UoB to prospective PG students in the UK and EU.
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How has your PhD prepared you and given you relevant transferable skills for your current role?

I realised that my PhD could be re-framed as preparation for a career in higher education professional services, rather than solely being viewed as an apprenticeship for academia. It was this reframing (in career theory terms, allowing me to deconstruct and reconstruct how my PhD would inform and fit into my work self-concept) that I found particularly empowering.

Was it always your goal to pursue a career outside of academia? If not, at what stage of your PhD journey did you decide not to build an academic career?

Probably about half way through my second year I decided not to build an academic career, although I loved teaching, but realised that teaching-focused contracts were few and far between. I found research isolating and frustrating, and didn’t have a five-year research plan post-PhD that you need for an academic post in my area. Also, I was starting to gain experience in outreach and widening participation work, and started to realise that I could use my qualification, skills, and knowledge of the university experience differently, supporting students in other ways.
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What support have you had to help you make the move from your PhD to your job? For example from Careers Network, mentors and academics?

I saw a Careers Advisor during my third (final) PhD year. I had started to apply for an array of non-academic jobs (arts administration, museum sector, Higher Education) and was receiving a barrage of rejections, which after always having been encouraged as to my potential; I found very demoralising and demotivating.

Lucy supported me in realising that there was no shame in stepping away from academia, and that I could ‘choose’ a career in HE, rather than merely seeing myself as a ‘failed’ academic. It was more
about confidence building, self-belief and self-efficacy, understanding that I might have to create my own job initially… which is exactly what I did (I went for an interview; didn’t get the job but was taken on part time casual anyway because the panel liked my ideas; started in the PG Recruitment office part time casual for six months; was able to make the case for a full-time contacted role to be created; secured the contracted role).

I’m a big subscriber to Happenstance theory (Krumboltz), which says that ‘making a career choice’ or naming a singular career goal shouldn’t really be the main focus of Careers Education Advice and Guidance (CEAIG); instead, CEAIG should prepare students to put themselves out there and to make the most of situations they find themselves in, to optimise their environments and take appropriate advantage of resources and opportunities. As coaching says, we are all ‘resourceful.’ My chats with Lucy helped me to see just how resourceful I was, in effectively shaping and creating my own job. As a result, I think I will always be open to other things, and open-minded about what I might do next.

Once I got that p/t casual job, my line manager was very supportive; he was the first person I came across in my job search that I felt really valued my PhD experience and my skills and ideas, and invested in me. The team I found myself on were very supportive and I was able to learn from them very quickly. My PhD supervisors (and some friends) were very insistent that I should stay in academia and make ends meet through short-term contracts to try to secure a post, but I felt the professional services route offered me a better work/life balance and better security.
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Please add any tips or advice for researchers considering a career outside of academia.

  • If you decide on non-academic careers, get as much different experience as you can. I volunteered at a refugee hostel, did some teaching and got some web content development experience as well as my p/t job in recruitment, to ‘test out’ whether social work/NGO work, teaching or digital careers might be a ‘fit’ for me. It confirmed I preferred to stay in a HE environment.
  • Be convincing. Employers might think that you are only looking for a ‘stop-gap’ job, and you will take their job whilst you look for an academic career. If this is not the case, be convincing… acknowledge that you did a PhD, be able to articulate why you did it, why you didn’t want to carry on in academia, and why you have made the conscious choice that the career/sector you are now aiming for is the choice for you. Is there anything from your PhD that actually makes you stand out over other candidates that might have more direct experience than you (e.g. research skills, publications, etc…).
  • Network! Do everything you can to meet people who are working in the field you want to work in. Or, if you are undecided, identify possible options and research how you can meet people (career fairs, recruitment exhibitions, conferences, expos etc…) working within your option areas and gauge firstly whether they are ‘your people’ (do you feel you have things in common with them?) and secondly ask questions about how they got to where they are.
  • Join Jiscmail list service for the sectors/ areas that you are interested in… a great way to keep up-to-date with in the area and see what roles are coming up.
  • Don’t compare yourself to other people. It is the source of much suffering in your life. Distance yourself from the noise and surround yourself with positive, supportive voices. Understand that you are on your own journey and are working at your own pace… do things that make you feel like you are making progress, and reward yourself.
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