Welcome back to ‘Voices of Early Career Researchers’, a monthly feature on the French History Network blog. Each month we’ll post a short interview with an Early Career Researcher of History, giving you an insight of the different paths that recent PhD holders are following in and outside of academia. We invite our interviewees to share their experiences and we hope that the conversation carries on in universities, conferences and social media.
Heather Campbell completed her PhD in History at QMUL in 2014. After working for QMUL Careers & Entreprise Centre she is now a Learning Development Assistant (part of QM Learning Development). Alongside her current job she is working on turning her doctoral thesis into a book that she intends to publish with a non-academic publishing house. She tweets @campbell_ha .
Can you tell us a little about your PhD thesis? How did you come to this field? Did you work outside academia before the start of your PhD and if so, did this affect your research interests and your current career?
My thesis looked at how Britain reacted to the rise of Bolshevism and the increase of nationalist and pan-Islamic agitation in Afghanistan and Persia after the First World War, a topic I came to in a very roundabout way.
I had decided as an undergraduate that I wanted to be an academic. I enjoyed my degree so much, and it seemed to me that being an academic would be a wonderful thing – I could get paid to read history books! I then learnt that to be an academic I needed a PhD and I didn’t think too much more about it. I concentrated on doing well in my undergraduate degree and then my Masters, and on being accepted to do a PhD.
In terms of what to focus on in my academic career, well, I really enjoyed Russian imperial history, particularly this tension that seemed to exist between Russian society and tsarism. However, one of my lecturers pointed out that any pre-twentieth century Russian documents would be handwritten and learning Russian would be a hard enough task in itself without also having to decipher handwriting. And so my focus moved to the twentieth century and into the revolutionary period. Likewise, being unable to access Russian primary sources for my BA and MA, I started to look at British perceptions of and reactions to what was happening in Russia.
Unfortunately, although I took a postgraduate diploma in Russian I was terrible at picking up the language. Taking a couple of trips to Russia to scope out the archives also demonstrated how mammoth the task was going to be without excellent Russian. Luckily for me, what started out as a convenient way of getting around this – using British primary sources – turned out to be a much better thesis idea (in my opinion!). So my research pivoted – instead of being a thesis on the Bolsheviks, it was to be about British perceptions of Bolshevism. And it quickly became apparent that British concern was related to its control over India, and to those countries which affected India (Persia and Afghanistan) as well as to past perceptions of Russia based on the Great Game.
When did you submit your thesis; what did you do in the months following submission and the viva?
I submitted in September 2013 and had my viva in January 2014. By this time I was working full time at Queen Mary in the Careers & Enterprise Centre, so I enjoyed being able to do a normal 9 to 5 day and relax in the evenings! I was also writing an article to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) on the recent war in Afghanistan as related to past British involvement in the country, something I’d been wanting to do for a while and not had the time.
When and why did you start considering a career outside academia?
I think it was in the late second/early third year of the PhD that I decided not to be an academic. I had begun to learn more about what it entailed, seen closer hand what academic life was and it didn’t seem to be what I had thought it would be when I was an undergraduate. At the same time, I had learned more about what it took to be a fully-fledged academic – ie doing a post-doc. While I had enjoyed the PhD, the idea of more of the same was too much. I wanted some stability and a job I could switch off from when I got home. I also wanted to be able to research and write ‘popular’ history rather than only academic work. The trouble was, having for years assumed I was going to be an academic, I didn’t know what I was going to do instead.
What fields (outside academia) looked the most appealing and why / how did you feel you would fit into them?
Given the nature of my thesis I first began to look at Think Tanks and NGOs that focused on foreign affairs. I figured that this would combine my research skills with my interest in foreign relations. I also looked at the publishing industry, particularly the academic press. Again, I thought that my knowledge of academia combined with my love of reading would be suited to the publishing industry.
What were the challenges you faced during the application and interview processes?
Applications were often relatively easy. Working in the Careers & Enterprise Centre certainly helped with that! The areas I was looking at were related enough to my experience and skills that I could write cover letters and answer application questions with little difficulty. This also led to me getting a fair amount of interviews.
However, the interview process for most of these jobs helped me realise these areas probably weren’t for me. Both areas are incredibly competitive, and I was up against those who had wanted to work in publishing or for a Think Tank for years while I had only decided a few months ago.
I think this probably came through in the interviews in answer to the inevitable question of motivation – why did I want to work for X? I imagine this is where I fell down, because I wasn’t offered any of these jobs!
Could you tell us a little about your non-academic career so far and your current job? What are your main responsibilities? How does a typical week in this job look like?
I had started working in the Careers & Enterprise Centre at QMUL in the final year of my PhD when my funding had run out. The job was perfect when I was still studying, but was not fulfilling enough as a career. There were also limits to career progression.
While I was there, a friend sent me the job description for my current role as a Learning Development Assistant. I was sceptical at first – the job was only part-time so I would have an immediate drop in salary. But it looked like an interesting role and I was starting to feel a bit stuck in a rut, still working in Careers and not being successful with any other applications. So I applied, was interviewed and got the job! As it turned out, there was also scope for the role to become full time after a few months, so I’m very glad I went for it.
As a Learning Developer my main role is conducting one-to-one tutorials, drop-ins and workshops for students to help them with their writing and studying. I also administer the workshops and retreats we organise for PhD students and staff (booking rooms, taking payments and so on).
A typical week in autumn (our busiest time) would involve nine hours of tutorials. Each tutorial involves about an hour (sometimes more) of admin and prep time, including reading over the work the student has sent in and thinking about what their need is and how to address this. This is the most difficult but the most interesting aspect of my job. It’s also the most rewarding. Each student is different, and although there may be similarities in terms of what they are struggling with (structure, critical analysis, referencing etc) each discussion will be different. When you are able to help a student through a particularly tricky aspect of their work that they are struggling with it can be a lovely feeling.
While my work is very busy, because of the nature of it I am also able to continue writing and researching in my own time. Currently I’m working on adapting my PhD for the non-academic history press, an enjoyable experience and one I’m only able to have because I am able to draw a clear line between my paid work and my personal time.
How has your training as an academic facilitated the transition to a job outside academia?
My academic training has been vital to what I do now. Having not only completed the PhD, but been a TA and marked essays, I have a good insight into what academics are looking for when they mark work, and can help students to understand this. My history training in regards to weighing arguments, questioning assumptions and using sources is also invaluable as I find that often these are things that students miss out on their work. The students I see have done all the reading and been to the lecturers, so they have the information. But that an essay is not simply a presentation of information is often not recognised by them.
What advice can you give to graduate students considering a career outside academia?
The meaning of academia is in itself an interesting idea. Technically, I am not an academic and I’m not on an academic contract (I’m in Professional Services), yet my training is academic and the work I and my team do (teaching and researching in the field of higher education/pedagogy) is by most definitions academic. This reflects changes that have happened in HE, and I think with the advent of Tef there is only going to be an increase in ‘third way’ jobs – roles which sit between ‘academic’ jobs and ‘professional services’. This is a good time for you if you like the university world but don’t want to be an academic.
If you want to get out of Higher Education altogether, the only advice I can give is to think very carefully about why – you need to be able to articulate to an employer why you want to work in an industry which is not the one you’ve trained to be in (and whether you intended it to or not, currently a PhD largely trains you to be an academic). Not wanting to work in academia is not going to be good enough motivation for an employer. You also need to look at how the skills you have gained as a PhD student transfer to a non-academic industry. And of course, talk to the Careers & Enterprise Centre! They have a Careers Consultant specifically for PhD students and lots of information and events to help you find a non-academic career. For me, these sessions with a Careers Consultant were invaluable for helping me think deeper about what I wanted to do with my life, what my skills were and what I was good at.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
To those who are job hunting now, don’t despair. I had a hard time after the PhD when I was applying for jobs and being rejected. It’s hard when you have given so much of yourself to your thesis, and spent so much time and energy on it, and then employers outside of academia don’t even know what a PhD is (I was actually asked this at one interview). It’s difficult not to get despondent when you face numerous rejections. With hindsight this was a useful period for me, in that it helped me to learn what I really wanted from a job, and what my skills really were. But that’s easy to see now!