I’m a junior academic…get me out of here!

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Dear fellow PhD students and early career researchers,

I have had a glimpse of the other side. By which I mean I have seen what lies beyond the perimeter fence of the Ivory Tower Complex. And my, does it look exciting!

During my time at POST I liaised with lots of people who had PhDs however had pursued careers outside of academia. So, in this blog post I’m going to tell you about six jobs I’ve discovered you can go into with a PhD: three in the private and public sector and three specifically in Parliament. I’m also going to make suggestions as to how to explore further.

  1. Academic-practitioner

Who’s it for?

Okay, I confess, this job would see you based in the Ivory Tower. However, if variety is your thing, and you’re keen to engage with the wider world whilst keeping a foot in the academic world, this could well be a path for you.

What might it entail?

At POST I liaised with forensic linguists and phoneticians who were based in universities, but who were also practising experts. This meant that, as well as the teaching and research, they also did forensic casework. This entailed compiling forensic reports for the Crown Prosecution Service, police forces and solicitors. They also appeared in court as expert witnesses.

Interested? Suggestions:

  • Think about how and where your expertise could contribute in the wider world.
  • What skills have you been developing that you could apply elsewhere?
  • Are there any academic-practitioners in your department or field? What do they do? If there aren’t, does that mean you’ve discovered a niche?!
  1. Practitioner/ consultant/ industry specialist

Who’s it for?

If you don’t want to stay in academia, but do want to stay in your field, this could be the path for you.

What might it entail?

During my fellowship I came across practitioners (in this case forensic consultants) who were using the expertise they’d acquired during their studies on a daily basis. As a specialist, it’s obviously important to keep up to date with developments in your chosen field. The consultants I met were members of professional bodies and also attended relevant conferences; however, they didn’t have the research and teaching pressures that come with academia.

Interested? Suggestions:

  • Look into the professional bodies that exist in your specialist area.
  • Struggling with the bullet point above? Try looking at your research with a wide-angled lens (e.g. what school subject would you class it under?) Now think again about professional bodies or learned societies in your general area. Google them and dig around their websites.
  • Next time you’re led by PhD-boredom to Google academic conferences, focus on those attended not just by academics, but also practitioners (look at previous programmes). Can you attend? If not, use the info there to investigate companies and organisations in your area.
  1. ‘Public body’ specialist

Who’s it for?

It might be that you want to make use of your specialist knowledge or skills, but don’t want to work in the private sector. If this is the case, then maybe the public sector is for you.

What might it entail?

When researching my POSTnote, I talked with specialists in the Metropolitan Police Service and the College of Policing. Some of these individuals were doing jobs closely linked to their area of expertise (like industry specialists). Others had roles in which their research and communication skills were significant and their academic background less so.

Interested? Suggestion:

  • If neither the MPS nor the College of Policing are for you, have a gander at this webpage which lists all the government-affiliated agencies and public bodies, for example UK Sport, the Environment Agency, and the Met Office. By my calculations, there are 361 to look through!

Now to Parliament

Perhaps you’ve been entertaining the idea of pursuing a career in government or parliament, but don’t concretely know what that might look like. Well, now I’m going to tell you about three different jobs I came across. But before I do that, here’s a free cheat:

  • If you’re anything like I was about a year ago, you’ll know the words ‘government’, ‘parliament’, ‘cabinet’, ‘department’, ‘civil service’ and  ‘committee’ but don’t really know how they all fit together. If that’s you then look at Newton’s Apple An Introduction to Science Policy. For scientists and non-scientists, it gives a comprehensible and concise explanation of the structure of government and parliament. So useful!
  1. Committee specialist

Who’s it for?

Judging by the age of the committee specialists I met, this is a job you can do from relatively early on in your career! It entails supporting a Commons’ or Lords’ select committee. If you don’t want to pursue a career in your field, but like research and report writing, this could be your dream job!

What might it entail?

If you don’t know, select committees have the remit of scrutinising government departments so, for example, the Defence Committee scrutinises the Ministry of Defence. Committees, which are formed of backbenchers, carry out inquiries relevant to their area. Committee specialists support the committee in gathering and collating written and oral evidence and assisting in writing the reports. Crucially, committee specialists are not necessarily specialists in the areas covered by the committee. For example, I met one specialist who had worked for three completely different committees. What you’ll require, then, are brilliant report writing skills and an ability to get to grips with new areas and disciplines fairly quickly.

Interested? Suggestions:

  • Have a browse around the different select committees that exist.
  • Have a look at some of the reports produced by committees; they’ll give you an idea of the kinds of research you’d be doing, people you’d be interacting with and reports you’d be pulling together.
  1. Library specialist

Who’s it for?

This is a job for those of you who are good at keeping secrets! Also for people who might want to stay in their general area of interest, and who enjoy doing shorter pieces of research with quick deadlines.

What might it entail?

Library specialists might have expertise in their area; however, this is not always the case. They work in one general area, for example ‘environment’, and compile briefings for MPs and Peers on relevant topics. If a debate is planned to take place in parliament, a specialist might also compile a debate pack including relevant policy documents, recent press articles etc. to help brief the MPs and Peers. As for the secret keeping, well, that’s because library specialists provide an ‘answers service’ for MPs’ and Peers’ questions. And that answering service is confidential! Why confidential, you may ask? Well, because they might not want others to know their game plan, nor the gaps in their knowledge!

Interested? Suggestions:

  • Read more about the commons library and its research service here.
  • Have a think about what it is you enjoy about research. Is it: a) increasing your own knowledge in a niche area; b) setting your own research agenda; c) carrying out a long piece of research; d) researching new areas; or e) finding an answer to a question, then moving on? This might help you establish if this is the job for you.
  • Maybe you didn’t know how to answer above? Why not try this challenge: find a topic of policy relevance in the headlines and, in the space of a couple of hours, see how much information you can pull together on that topic. How did you find the challenge?
  • Or what about this challenge: get a friend to ask you a question – any question. Then, go away and have a go at answering it. Do NOT rely on Wikipedia alone! How did you get on?

And finally,

  1. Parliamentary scientific adviser

Who’s it for?

Do you like finding out about new subjects within your broad area (say, for example, ‘energy’ or ‘ICT’)? What about talking to people from different backgrounds: industry, government, academia, for example? If you answered yes to both, then maybe this is for you.

What might it entail?

As you know by now, I did my fellowship in the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. As well as the fellows, the office has permanent staff – scientific advisers, who cover different areas: health, biological sciences, physical sciences, ICT, energy, environment and the social sciences. Advisers produce briefings on topics in these areas and supervise fellows as they research their briefings. They liaise with parliamentarians, organisations and industry, and put on events for MPs and peers, raising awareness around topics of policy relevance.

Interested? Suggestions:

  • See if you are eligible to do a POST fellowship: if you’re Research Council-funded, you’ve got until the 28th August to apply here.
  • Have a look at the POST website and the POST briefings.
  • The remit of a POST briefing is that it is for an intelligent, non-specialist audience. When was the last time you wrote for a non-specialist audience? Challenge yourself to try writing a couple of hundred words about something from your area of research that would make sense to a non-specialist. How did you get on?

Et voilà! You have options!

In my next blog post, I’m going to talk about some of the secret skills of a PhD student. I know some of you are concerned that apart from your studies, you’ve not got much on your CVs. So I’m going to cheer you up by flagging up some of the awesome desirable skills you might not have realised you’ve got!

Don’t fear the feedback!: how to handle edits as a writer

I’ve never been particularly good at handling criticism, particularly towards my writing. This isn’t a great attitude when you’re a postgraduate researcher and what you do is write.

Over the past three years, my writing has been subjected to scrutiny by peers, supervisors, colleagues and journal editors. With every piece of feedback I have been growing increasingly insecure about my writing, opening edited documents with anxiety and trepidation. Or rather, I had been; my recent fellowship at POST completely transformed my attitudes both towards my writing and towards the feedback of others.

What I didn’t know when I embarked upon the POST fellowship was that it would also turn out to be the writing equivalent of an SAS training programme. So, sparing you the pain (although more later on good pain) I’m going to share three insights I gained into how to handle feedback on your writing.

Insight #1: an edit is like a massage

Pretty much from the get-go I was submitting drafts to ‘Officer X’ (my supervisor) on a weekly, if not daily, basis. When the first one came back all I saw was a sea of red tracked changes and my immediate response was to panic and feel gutted. Then I read her changes and, unsurprisingly, they were good: it sounded better and she’d made it way shorter. Alongside this I also had ‘Agent Z’ (a friend trained in web-writing) editing a couple of my blogposts, giving me feedback and explaining why he’d done what he had. He too had the knack of making it better and shorter. At first, his edits had a similar deflating effect on me.

With time, though, and as the edits continued to come in, my fear diminished and I started looking forward to them. And that’s because getting an edit is like getting a massage…

Imagine you’ve never had a massage before, you rock up not quite knowing what to expect, but since you feel more or less physically fine, you’re sure it’s going to be an enjoyable experience. You get into position and the massage starts. It’s all going well, then suddenly – OWW – pain! Operative S has come across a knot in your back that you didn’t know you had, and now they’re trying to sort it out – and it hurts! Afterwards, though, when it’s over, you realise your body feels better. You get the picture? If there’s a bit of pain in an edit, the outcome is a better piece of writing. So it’s good pain!

Insight #2: an edit is like a free personal training session

There came a point a couple of weeks into my fellowship when I realised that not only were Officer X and Agent Z’s edits making my writing better, but the tracked changes on my writing meant I could see exactly what my writing needed to improve. None of this generic advice! I also gave myself an attitude check and got off the defensive: no, they weren’t ‘criticising me’ because they wanted to destroy me (bit dramatic, perhaps); they were giving me constructive criticism because they wanted to help me improve…just like a personal trainer.

Officer X and Agent Z taught me to be ruthless in cutting out the unnecessary. Officer X taught me to reword sentences from the passive voice to the active voice. For example, ‘Samples of speech are analysed…’ becomes ‘Experts phoneticians analyse samples of speech…’: when you pin down who the agents are in a sentence (in this case, the ‘expert phoneticians’), you pack more punch. And finally, Agent Z taught me that the beginnings and ends of sentences are the most important bits. I’ve tried to apply that in this post; thinking especially about my subheadings.

Insight #3: edits on a document do not mean you’re wrong and they’re right

Usually when you send something for review it’s to one or two people. I don’t know about you, but when I’ve done that in the past I’ve sort of felt that the edits that come back must be right – otherwise they wouldn’t have said anything in the first place.

I’ve got empirical evidence to suggest the contrary.

Like all POST notes, my briefing went through intense SAS-style review. As well as reviews and edits from Officer X, it got reviewed by 5 of Officer X’s comrades (colleagues) and 25 external contributors. And here’s the thing:

Their comments and edits were NOT unanimous.

That’s right: different reviewers picked up on different things, which meant that where one person had deemed something in need of editing, another had deemed it perfectly fine. Of course, sometimes several people made the same point – and that was a pretty good indication that change was needed. But there was one instance where three different reviewers all wanted to insert a word in one particular place; however, they all proposed a different word! What do you do with that?

Well, you draw this conclusion: just because someone has made a suggestion, it doesn’t mean it’s right. The chances are it will be insightful and helpful, but don’t just assume that they are ‘right’ and you were ‘wrong’.

So, to conclude, next time you get some edited work back, try to:

  • see the edits like a massage: the pain is good and its purpose is to make you better!
  • feel jammy about the fact that it’s basically a free personal training session – lucky you!
  • remember that it’s not always a case of the editor being right and you being wrong.

Castle

How to love your office job…

* If you’re pushed for time, or just want the action points, scroll down to the last paragraph! 

Aged 15 I sat down with the careers adviser and told her the one thing I knew was that I didn’t want an office job. What I didn’t tell her (because I was too polite) was that this was because I thought that office jobs looked and sounded dull, boring and generally unpleasant. I held this belief until May 2015.

May 2015 marked the beginning of my first office job: a three-month fellowship in the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST).  You might think that, as the weeks of the fellowship went by and the novelty wore off, the appeal of going to work diminished. In fact, it did the opposite: as my time went on I loved going into the office more and more.

So that belief I held about office jobs being dull, boring and unpleasant? I was wrong.

The office job I’ve just finished was enriching, enjoyable and fun. I’ve been thinking about why this was. In part it must be because the work I was doing was fascinating. But that’s not all of it, and this is what I’ve concluded: Going into work, it didn’t feel like an office of colleagues, so much as a community

So, beginning with a bit of etymology (I am a linguist, after all), here’s the origin of the word ‘community’:

  • ‘Community’ comes from the Latin commūnitātem, which means ‘community’ or ‘fellowship’.
    • (fyi: fellowship = ‘friendly association’).
  • Commūnitātem comes from commūnis, meaning ‘common’ and, originally, ‘sharing burdens’.
    • (fyi: the ‘sharing burdens’ bit is because commūnis is made up of com-, which means ‘together’ and mūnia, which means ‘duties’).

And this is exactly what it was like in my office: friendly association and burden sharing. It sounds a bit odd like that, but look at it this way: my colleagues and I got on really well and, when someone had work-related problems, someone else would gladly come alongside and help. But there’s more to it than that. And communities are built on more than that. Think about the different communities and networks you participate in: sports teams, friendship groups, family… What ties you together? Several – or perhaps many – things, but I bet one of the significant ones is ‘shared experience’.

My colleagues and I clocked up quite a lot of shared experience. We gathered outside of work on several occasions: not just post-work drinks, we also did an escape room challenge, a pub quiz, and visited a city farm! Importantly, though, we also built up shared experience in the office. So, for example, you know that 3 pm lull? On fairly regular occasions, several of us got up from our desks, took to the floor, and attempted the ‘crow pose’ from yoga. We managed it to varying degrees of success, but that’s not the point; we had fun together, creating a shared experience which we could look back on, forward to, talk about, and bond over.

What else do you know about communities? Think about sports teams. Here’s a clue: striker, defender, winger, goalkeeper…

Everyone has a role. Or, to sound less utilitarian, each member of the community brings, and is valued for, their unique contribution. And this was how it was in my office. How’s did that come about? Well, I think to a large extent because we talked to each other: we actually took lunch breaks most days and chit-chatted in the office. Through this we got to know each other. By that I don’t mean we heard about each other’s home lives etc; we did a bit, obviously, but it wasn’t just that. We chatted about all sorts of things: work; current affairs; popular culture; whatever, and through doing this we got to know each other and each other’s personalities and approaches to life. Moreover, spending so much time together (9 am to 5 pm x 5 + more), we got to know each other’s habits and quirks and, somehow, collectively and unconsciously, it seems we chose to celebrate them with affectionate teasing. So it was that everyone had a place in the community.

Finally, and I suppose this last point is the result of a combination of all of the above: there were in-jokes. Okay, so, any examples I try and give of these from my family and friendship groups would be totally lost on you: if I say digestive biscuits and cheese or Lee Mack then you don’t have a clue what I’m referring to. But some people know exactly what those are references to, and that’s precisely my point. Similarly, in the office, and over time, we came up with our own in-jokes and in-stories. Maria Sharapova, for example, will mean nothing to you, but a lot to my colleagues. The in-jokes we created were another kind of shared experience: a way for us to form and strengthen ties in our (office) community. And here’s something else important: these ties didn’t just go between peers, but also across levels of seniority; they were a great way to form connections with more senior members of staff.

So, beginning this final paragraph with the huge caveat that this was my first experience of an office, so I’m well aware of my relative ignorance, I’m now going to attempt the advice promised in the title of this blog post. If you want to love your office job (or maybe hate it a little less?!), why not try any or all of these:

  • Invest time (minutes add up to hours) in getting to know your colleagues – not necessarily the ins and outs of their home lives, but rather their personalities. Celebrate affectionately each person’s quirks.
  • Create shared experiences with your colleagues in and out of the office. (If you’re struggling for ideas, might I suggest beginning with crow pose?!)
  • Develop in-jokes. I can’t give you more specific advice on this; the whole point is it’s got to come from you and your colleagues.
  • Share burdens: help one another when you have work-related problems.
  • Finally, and I think most importantly, see your office as a community. For so many people the words ‘work’, ‘office’ and ‘colleague’ have negative connotations. ‘Community’, on the other hand, tends to have positive ones. Perhaps just by simply seeing the group of people you spend ±40 hours a week with as a community, you will love it a little more.

Crow pose

What can you learn in three months?

How often do you reflect on what you’ve learnt in a given period of time? My fellowship at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology ended last week. In the final days I reflected on what I’d learnt during the experience. One of the outcomes of this reflection is a work called ‘Educational Elements of a POST Fellowship’ which you should be able to see in the link below. In the form of a periodic table, and built around the symbols of the elements, this piece illustrates some of the different skills, facts, and pearls of wisdom I learnt during my time at POST.

Educational Elements of a POST Fellowship

In the actual periodic table, the actual elements are categorised according the kind of element they are: alkali metal, transition metal, noble gas etc. So, true to that form, I categorised the educational elements of my time at POST:

  • If you want to learn about parliament or politics, look at the purple boxes.
  • The blue boxes will give you some general and some niche facts.
  • Some of the things I learnt whilst researching my briefing on forensic language analysis are to be found in the orange boxes.
  • There are a couple of nuggets about London in green; however, unless you’re planning to visit Walthamstow or are likely to make the journey from Herne Hill to Victoria, I’d say you won’t get much out of these.
  • As for the pink boxes, these are skills that I acquired, so reading these you will either be envious, or, more likely, simply raise your eyebrows in shock that it is only now that I am developing some of these skills.
  • Finally, if I’m perfectly honest, the yellow boxes are basically in-jokes for my colleagues; however, if you’re after mild amusement or intrigue, then read these.

Now, as useful as they are to me, these 118 educational elements are of limited use to you.

However

Working at POST did enable me to bust three myths that I had previously thought to be truths. These relate to offices, writing, and the fate of people with PhDs. In my next three blog posts, I’m going to expand a bit on these myths: how I busted them, what the truth is, and what this means for you and me…

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