Arts & Humanities PhD Case Studies: the other side of academia

This interview, and the others to follow over the next few weeks, are with the employers represented at the recent King’s College London Arts & Humanities PhD careers event. They have been written by PhD candidate Valeria Valotto, to whom we are very grateful!

From Cultural Studies and Media Phd to Academic Services Research: the other side of Academia

Dr. Laura Speers

Current position: Laura is Post-Doctoral Associate at Queen Mary University London. She works in the Post-Graduate Training and Knowledge Exchange Unit.

Starting point:

I received a BA in Philosophy at the University of Newcastle. Prior to beginning my PhD at King’s, I studied for an MA in Telecommunications at Indiana University.

First turn – Temporary Research Position

Immediately after finishing my PhD I was not sure whether I should pursue an academic career. I got a temporary research position through my supervisor. This was at 53 Million Artists, a collaborative project between KCL Cultural Institute and an external organisation. My role involved helping shape the research agenda of the project, synthesising academic and policy literature for research reports, and devising evaluation activities to assess project progress.

Second turn – Post-Graduate Training and Knowledge Exchange Unit

My position, for which a PhD is a requirement, entails researching, developing and co-ordinating the delivery of research training and knowledge exchange activity for the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences as an associate member of the London Arts and Humanities Partnership (LAHP), which is an AHRC-funded Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP). The role involves the planning, programming, organisation and delivery of knowledge exchange activities by working closely with academic Schools, external partners and cultural institutions both in London and overseas.

I am very happy with the change. This postdoc position offers the best of both worlds (academia/outside) as I’m still in Higher Education so have university affiliation and library access (I’m in the process of publishing my PhD). I’m doing something new by applying my PhD experience and knowledge to researcher training and development. Researcher development is satisfying because it’s people-focused and you’re making a direct difference to the working lives and experiences of PhD students and ECRs.

How did you make it?

I encourage a twofold strategy to career transitions: hunting for information on the short run and chasing one’s interests and passions on the long run. Before applying for jobs I would make sure to shadow and interview people in that position, to understand better what the role implies. My active participation to extra-curricular activities led me to discover Post-graduate Training. As a PhD student I attended training sessions, which gave me the opportunity to understand the importance of Postgraduate Training and to understand how this service could be improved. At King’s I was Humanities PhD Students Representative, in such a capacity I organised workshops and gained valuable experience in chairing meetings and events. This made me realise that I enjoyed managing people and facilitating ideas exchanges. I had been cultivating these skills since her time at Indiana University, where I was an associate instructor, research assistant and served on the Graduate and Professional Student Organization (GPSO) committee.

For an in-depth interview to Laura and for pratical tips about how she made the transition, see the following article on King’s Careers Blog.

Arts & Humanities PhD Case Studies: Staying in Academia

This interview, and the others to follow over the next few weeks, are with the employers represented at the recent King’s College London Arts & Humanities PhD careers event. They have been written by PhD candidate Valeria Valotto, to whom we are very grateful!

From PhD to Postdoc: The Academic Route

Dr. Pyi Phyo Kyaw

Current position: Pyi Phyo is Research Associate in Abhidhamma Meditation at King’s College London.

Starting point:

After studying a BA in Economics and Management at Oxford, I completed an MA in Buddhist Studies at SOAS in 2010, and eventually studied at King’s for my PhD in Buddhist Studies (2014). Prior to that I trained as a precept-nun in Myanmar in nunneries at Pyay in 2007 and Sagaing in 2012

What was your first step outside academia?

To date (2015) I am a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Buddhist Studies at King’s. Although this is a research post, I teach two modules: Introduction to Buddhism and Buddhist Ethics. I am very busy organising conferences as well as juggling academic commitments and juggling admin work.

How did you make it?

Upon applying for this post I had already published two articles and gained teaching experience as GTA. Patience, determination, and passion were key factors in securing the position, however.

What is the next move?

I hope the fellowship will be renewed. Most of my colleagues are employed on 1 or 2 years postdoc contracts – either on research-only programmes or combining research and teaching, depending on the funding body.

Women in Academia

I recently attended the launch of a new report by the Institute of Physics jointly done with the Royal Astronomical Society, Gazing at the Future.  The report looks at the experiences of male and female physics and astronomy researchers during their PhDs and their expectations of whether or not they will enter academia after the PhD.

The stats in the report make pretty depressing reading: female doctoral students rate the overall experience of their doctorate lower than their male peers; and the proportion of female doctoral students happy with their doctorate is on average 7% lower than for male doctoral students.  Only just over 55% of female doctoral students across all years of study agree that they would make good research scientists (70% of male students overall would agree).

Particularly stark was the finding that 48% of female students, in their final year, envisage that they might have a university role in 3-5 years’ time, compared with 65% of male students.

The report suggests reasons behind these stats, including the issue of a lack of role models (thus reinforcing unconscious bias amongst recruiters and setting an unconscious bar on ambition on the part of candidates).

It doesn’t seem to me, though, that physics and astronomy are particularly alone in these findings.  While efforts such as Athena SWAN and the Equality Charter Mark, as well as the fantastic photos of female professors in the Strand building, all help to promote academia as a welcoming place for women, the conversations I have with female researchers across all Faculties point to structural issues around the competition for grants and working culture that are off-putting.  In fairness, they are often off-putting to men looking for work/life balance too.

What to do?  Find resilience, set examples, seek good advice, take opportunities.  Find a mentor, find a ‘supporter’ [someone who actively looks for opportunities for you], and don’t be pigeonholed.  Think about protecting your self-esteem and promoting your self-confidence.  And retain a love for research.


Athena SWAN successes across the Health Faculties

This month three faculties: the Dental Institute, the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience and the Florence Nightingale Faculty of Nursing & Midwifery have been conferred Athena SWAN Silver awards by the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU). A further four Divisions in the Faculty of Life Sciences & Medicine have been granted Bronze awards.

The Divisions: Cancer Studies, Genetics & Molecular Medicine, Health & Social Care Research, and the Randall Division of Cell & Molecular Biophysics join the five existing award holders in the Faculty of Life Sciences & Medicine that received awards last April.

The awards recognise commitment to advancing women’s careers in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, medicine and mathematics) subjects.

The faculties who received Silver awards carry out a range of impactful activities that support gender equality for both staff and students. Some of the activities for postgraduate students and postdoctoral staff include:

In Nursing & Midwifery, male staff and student ambassadors are encouraged to participate in recruitment events and outreach activities. The Faculty has seen an increase in male students on PGT pre-registration programmes by 5% since 2010/11. Read the full Athena SWAN Silver application here.

At the IoPPN, the submission noted initiatives such as a PGR parenting network launched in 2014, and a post-doc network to help staff with making the transition to lecturer posts. Read the full Athena SWAN Silver application here.

In the Dental Institute, online promotion of work by women researchers through their Women in Science campaign, is used to celebrate success internally and to make the Dental Institute more attractive to female job applicants. Read the full Athena SWAN Silver application here.

To achieve Athena SWAN awards, applicants sign up to the Athena SWAN Charter and undertake a thorough self-assessment of their practices, and develop measurable action plans to further good practice and address areas for improvement within three years.

The ECU commented that: ‘It is the highest number of awards [across the country] presented to date, with the success rate increasing in this round’.

Throughout 2015 and 2016 Health departments across the university that do not currently hold an award, or which hold a Bronze award, will continue to work towards progressing to Silver status.

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.