Staying in Acedemia? the “what next?” question

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Sophie Bisset (doctoral researcher in History) assesses the question of what comes after the doctorate,

At the recent “preparing for your final year” seminar, group discussion quickly turned to the issue of whether to stay in academia once we finish our PhDs. This is the same question that I have been agonising over myself in the past few months and so I decided to write this blog to share (and help clarify) my own response to this issue. In truth, we all know that there is good reason to feel anxious about the “what next?” question: we will finish our PhDs at a time when there are increasingly more applicants for increasingly fewer academic positions, as well as massive changes on the horizon for Higher Education as a result of new government proposals. But if the future looks daunting then one thing is for sure, it is worth asking what’s right for me in all this?

Well, when faced with this question, I did what all good PhD students do and I downed my research sticks in order to spend a few hours searching the web for interesting and useful sites. To my mind, the best and the most terrifying is An Academic Career: Have You Got What It Takes?. The website as a whole has loads of valuable information on the reality of pursuing an academic career but this particular section encourages you to be honest with yourself about the demands of academic life. When I read it, it was quite a shock to see so many of my own fears put up there in black and white and answered with such candour. The personal experiences videos that sit alongside these candid truths soften the edges of this reality check by making the hurdles seem manageable. In addition to this site, there are also a number of good university run PhD careers blogs: Manchester, Queen Mary’s and Salford, as well as a collection of audio recordings of people sharing their own experiences on the realities of the “what next?” question on Beyond the PhD.

Having had a good think about the question of what’s right for me, I wanted to know how many of my predecessors had successfully pursued academic careers within my own discipline of history, rather than relying solely on word of mouth gossip. Luckily for me, Vitae conducted some research into what PhD students from the years 2003-2007 did after they finished their theses (What do Researchers Do?). In history, 27% entered a UK Higher Education lecturing role. This seemed quite low to me, but Vitae reassures me that this is in fact higher than the average across all disciplines taken together (14%). A further 14% of History post-PhDers found employment in the more general sounding category of research staff in UK Higher Education (below the all disciple average of 23%). So using these stats as a rule of thumb, less than half of us (historians or otherwise) are likely to take up some kind of research role within Higher Education. The good news is that even if you don’t stay in academia, you are less likely to end up unemployed than first-degree and master’s degree graduates (only 3.1% across all disciplines compared to 5.6% and 3.7% respectively).

The trouble with the stats is that they don’t tell us how many wanted to stay in academia, rather than just how many did stay in academia. Nonetheless, it makes having a non-academic Plan B seem like a jolly good idea! According to Vitae, the most popular alternative to an academic career among History post-Phders is teaching. This is something that I personally find quite appealing, but generally speaking the trouble with making a Plan B is that it is such a personal thing that web surfing quickly becomes a bit of a search for a needle in a haystack. Despite seeming all-powerful, Google cannot write an algorithm to help me discover what I should do with my life! So at this point in my little journey into the “what next?” question I abandoned new technology and headed off for a good old-fashioned one to one session with Catherine Reynolds at the Careers and Employability Centre. Catherine and her colleague Jane Riley specialise in helping lost and lonely researchers get some perspective on the “what next?” question. In the hour or so that I spent talking to Catherine, a whole mixture of my various career ideas, fears and hopes tumbled out but by the end of our session I felt like I had some new avenues to explore. Just talking about what I wanted to do with someone who knew a lot about the practicalities of the real world, a.k.a. the process of getting a job, helped me refine my thinking and a few days after our sessions I realised that my own feeling about the question of whether or not to stay in academia had shifted considerably.

Setting aside my own decision about whether academia was the place where I wanted to end up or not, one surprising thing that came out of my own experience of giving some time to thinking about the “what next?” question just as I am beginning to write up my thesis is how it changed my feelings about the thesis itself. Lurking in the back of my mind had always been the belief that the thesis – as much as I loved it for itself – was essentially a means to an end and that end was an academic career. But thinking about whether I would want an academic career, or would realistically succeed in pursuing it, I came to see my thesis as having an intrinsic value of its own. Even if I don’t end up in academia and even if the only people who read my thesis aside from me and my supervisor are my two examiners, I am beginning my write-up knowing that the process of doing a thesis has taught me a whole host of valuable things about myself, about history and about life that will inform and shape my professional career wherever I end up.

Who inspires you? Who do you inspire?

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Guest blogger: Sarah Pannell, Sussex doctoral researcher and STEM Sussex Outreach Manager

Sarah completed a BSc in Biochemistry at the University of Sussex in 2006.  She then refused to go out and get a life, staying for a DPhil studying the structure function relationships of a family of proteins.  During her DPhil she became a STEM Ambassador and enjoyed it so much that in September 2009 she joined the STEM Sussex staff, managing the STEM Ambassadors programme (amongst other things) in the Sussex area.  She is intending to finish her DPhil.  Soon.

Why does Mr. McCavanagh matter?

Here’s the thing: Mr. McCavanagh is the reason I’m where I am today.  I don’t think he knows that though.  He was my science teacher at the end of secondary school (about ten years ago now) and is one of the first reasons that I chose a career in science rather than in English or French (the other A*’s I got at GCSE and subjects I also enjoyed.  Yes, I’m a geek.  I know.  I’m fine with that.).  He was inspiring, enthusiastic and gave me the encouragement that I needed to pursue a subject that is seen by many pupils as difficult and boring.  Admittedly there have been a few other people that have influenced my life since then, but Mr McCavanagh was the start in the chain.

Most people can identify a few individuals that have made a profound impact on their career choices.  Who inspired you?  Who continues to inspire you?  It might be a family member, friend, a teacher, lecturer or someone completely different.  These people impact our lives at different stages, but it is the people who influence our very early career choices that really transform the people we are to become.

Would you like the chance to inspire the next generation?

If you study a science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) based subject, or have a career utilising STEM you could become a STEM Ambassador.  STEM Ambassadors have the chance to volunteer with school pupils and be the motivation that some of these young people need to become the next generation of scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians.

As part of a national programme to encourage pupils in STEM subjects, the STEM Ambassadors scheme links people who are working or studying STEM with local schools.  The activities that STEM Ambassadors get involved with are incredibly varied – from supporting a STEM club in a primary school to talking about careers with A level students, ranging from a ten-minute assembly to a day or more in a school.  There are opportunities available at different times and days that can hopefully fit in to even the busiest of schedules!

The only requirements for anyone to join the programme are that you are enthusiastic, willing to wax lyrical about your subject to young people when required, and are interested in inspiring and supporting the next generation to become skilled in STEM.  Fortunately you don’t need to be an expert in the education system!

All STEM Ambassadors must have an acceptable Enhanced CRB disclosure and attend a short induction session to ensure that you are confident to make school visits.

If you would like more information about the STEM Ambassadors programme please see or  Alternatively, phone Sarah Pannell at STEM Sussex on 01273 641876.