Careers Inspiration: Researcher Development

A case study kindly contributed by Dr Laura Speers, KCL Alumnus now working at QMUL within researcher development

Can you remind us what your PhD was about at KCL?

My PhD, undertaken in the department of Culture, Media and Creative Industries, explored the identity politics of participants of the London hip hop scene, focusing on how artists negotiate authenticity and what ‘keeping it real’ means lived out on a day-to-day basis. This involved looking at issues surrounding race, class, commerce, creativity and place.

How did you decide what the next best step for you was?

Towards the end of my PhD, I was unsure whether I wanted to continue in academia so began exploring various jobs both inside and outside higher education. There were many personal preferences that I factored in too. For instance, I wanted to stay in London and was not prepared to move abroad or around the UK to chase academic jobs.

I attended various career events exploring my options, making the most of the services whilst I was still a student. For example, sessions held at UCL as part of King’s membership to the Bloomsbury Postgraduate Skills Network. I also informally chatted to friends, family members and contacts I had in various sectors to get an idea of what opportunities were out there as it’s a common pitfall that humanities PhD graduates think the only career paths are academia or in the publishing industry.

I started applying for jobs immediately after submitting my thesis. I registered on and set up email notifications alerting me to any new jobs. I kept an excel spreadsheet of the roles I was interested in, the application forms required, type of CV (whether academic or not) and most importantly, deadlines. I also went to see Kate Murray, the PhD careers consultant, to get feedback on my CV and advice on applications.

I landed a temporary part-time research assistant post through contacts in my department which I really enjoyed. However, the whole time I was keeping an eye open for more permanent positions and applying to them. In total, I applied to 12 different jobs (roles inside and outside academia to keep my options open). I got shortlisted and interviewed for two different posts which was a really good experience before getting my current job at QMUL. Of the few sociology lectureships I applied for, I was informed by the institutions that they had received unprecedented numbers of applications. Around 200-300 applicants were chasing each position so most universities were not interested in junior, fresh-out-of-PhD candidates.

How did you get your new role, what are you now doing, and what do you do day-to-day?

My official title is Postdoctoral Associate for Knowledge Exchange and Postgraduate Training at Queen Mary University of London. I found the position on and immediately started compiling the application materials. I emailed the named contact on the job advert to ask specific questions about the role so as to tailor my application. I asked a colleague in my department whether I could see her successful postdoctoral application which was a really helpful starting point to structure mine. I had my CV and application form checked by the careers consultant at King’s.

After being shortlisted for an interview, I contacted a person in the Graduate School at King’s who was doing a similar job to the position I was applying for and asked whether I could do an informational interview with her. This was really valuable as it gave me an insight into the role and the type of issues I might face, which I brought up in the interview. I then had a practice interview with a careers consultant which was instrumental in me getting the job, as the feedback I received was critical in shaping my presentation and answers to tricky questions.

On the interview day I was required to give a presentation on three questions that were sent to me beforehand. There was a panel of five people asking rather challenging questions but I felt quite confident with all the preparation I had done. I was offered the job that very afternoon!

My day-to-day job centres on events management – basically planning, programming and organising innovative research training for PhD students in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. In addition, I work one day a week for the London Arts & Humanities Partnership (LAHP), which is an AHRC-funded Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP) so I also have a desk at UCL. For LAHP PhD students, I also programme training activities, though focus on collaborative training with external cultural partners. These various responsibilities involve working closely with all levels of the university – from the Executive Dean and the Director of the Doctoral College, to academics and PhD students, and professional services staff – and increasingly with external partners and cultural institutions in London.

Have you experienced any differences in terms of working in a different academic institution?

As LAHP is a consortium between King’s, UCL, the School of Advanced Study and QMUL as an associate member, I am getting to experience quite a range of academic institutions all at one go! There are immediate differences one encounters such as in the infrastructure of how the university works and the communication channels one has to go through. It’s quite a steep learning curve realising how bureaucratic academic institutions are – you can have a brilliant idea but it often takes months and months to make happen because of the chains of command and budgeting protocol you have to go through!

When your time at QMUL ends, what might you move on to do?

My current post-doc position is for three years and I’m still unsure exactly what I’d like to do afterwards. However, I’m coming to many realisations about my ideal working conditions and that I enjoy variety so I’m starting to think about a ‘portfolio career’ and working on a freelance basis. In an ideal world this would involve working maybe 2-3 days a week in a fixed post and the other two days working on my own creative projects or writing/research.