Joanna Parr is a Data Analyst at the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education. She joined the Agency after completing a PhD and a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Portsmouth. She tells us about post-academic jobs.
Can you tell us a little about your PhD thesis? How did you come to this field? Did you work before considering academia) and if so, did this affect your research interests and your current career?
My PhD thesis analysed French policy towards and perceptions of the British colony of Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) in the post-war period. By charting a French presence in a British colony from 1947 onwards, it challenged the discourse of exceptionality frequently associated with Franco-African relations and stressed the importance of trans-national and trans-colonial approaches to the history of decolonisation. I first became interested in this area of research whilst taking a course on France in International Affairs (1940-1981) in the second year of my BA History course at LSE. The course was very small (about 7 students) so we used to meet every week in the office of the unit coordinator (Dr Robert Boyce). I became fascinated by France’s relationship with Africa, but increasingly aware of the lack of scholarly research into French policy towards territories that weren’t part of their colonial empire. I went onto research British responses to French policy during the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970) for my undergraduate dissertation. From this point on, I was completely hooked! I explored French policy towards Rhodesia in the four year period after the white settler population declared a Unilateral Declaration of Independence from Britain in 1965 for my masters’ dissertation. This research provided the starting point for my PhD thesis, which I was fortunate enough to complete at the University of Portsmouth under the supervision of two of the most eminent scholars of French colonial policy and Franco-African relations: Prof Tony Chafer and Prof Martin Evans.
When did you submit your thesis; what did you do in the months following submission/the viva?
I submitted my thesis at the end of September 2013 and had my viva about 8 weeks later. This process took place alongside me beginning a two year post-doctoral research fellowship at the University of Portsmouth in September 2013. It was great to have this job lined up as it gave me a fantastic incentive to submit my thesis on time and also helped keep me occupied in those tortuous weeks post-submission! I stayed in this post until the end of August 2015. During this time, I wrote up parts of my thesis for publication (including a paper that won the IHR Pollard Prize in 2014 and was subsequently published in Historical Research), carried out new archival research in Paris, Nantes and Aix, organised a number of conferences and events, managed the launch of the University of Portsmouth’s Francophone Africa blog, taught European, imperial and African history to undergraduates, and completed a work placement with BBC Afrique in Dakar, Senegal. It was a hectic and immensely rewarding two years!
Did you apply to jobs or work outside of academia after the end of your PhD?
Not immediately after the end of my PhD.
When and why did you start considering a career outside of academia?
It was probably about four or five months before the end of my research fellowship. Over a year and a half of commuting 2+ hours from the Cotswolds to Portsmouth made me realise how important it was for me me to find a job closer to home. I read a fantastic book about finding careers outside of academia (So what are you going to do with that?: Finding Careers Outside of Academia by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius) and found some insightful posts on Jennifer Polk’s brilliant blog, From PhD to Life. These resources helped me reflect upon the skills and experience I gained whilst working in academia, and consider how these might be applied in different contexts. They also challenged me think very seriously about what I wanted from my life and career in the long term, and made me realise that I could find happiness and fulfilment in a post-academic job.
How tricky and long was the application process until you landed in your current position?
While I knew where to look for academic jobs and understood the application process, the situation outside of academia seemed much more complicated and diverse, so I found it hard to know where to start initially. However, I did know where I wanted to work and my period of soul searching gave me some ideas of the types of jobs I wanted to do. I began by identifying potential local employers and looking at the careers sections of their websites for suitable vacancies. I also looked at a number of online job searches, the most useful of which was jobs.ac.uk (the professional/ managerial/ support services section is great if you are looking for a post-academic job but would like to stay within the sector). Alongside identifying potential vacancies, I also re-worked my CV completely (I knew my lengthy academic CV would not win me any fans outside of academia!) and had re-think my approach to cover letters. The book by Basalla and Debelius gave me some really helpful advice on both of these areas and made the experience of cutting large sections of my CV (notably all those slaved over academic publications) a bit less traumatic. Several of the jobs I applied for came to nothing, which made me feel quite disillusioned and disappointed. But the breakthrough came when I received an invitation to interview for a post at QAA. I spent the next couple of weeks frantically preparing (the interview included a work-based assessment, a presentation and a panel interview so I wanted to make sure I was as ready as possible for all of these elements). I was very, very nervous on the day of the interview! I really wanted to do well but, as it was one of my first ever job interviews, I didn’t really know what to expect. Thankfully the interview panel members were really nice and made me feel at ease, and the interview itself was actually a very enjoyable experience! I was absolutely over the moon the following evening when I received a telephone call from someone in HR offering me the job.
What are your main responsibilities?
I am a data analyst in the team responsible for the Access to Higher Education (HE) Diploma, which prepares people without traditional qualifications for study at university. I am responsible for analysing the annual data returns from Access Validating Agencies and preparing annual reports based on this data. I also conduct research into the Access to HE Diploma, students that complete this qualification and policy environment in which it operates. Alongside my work on the Access to HE Diploma, I also research other areas related to the widening participation agenda.
How does a typical week in this job look like?
Very varied! I am currently working on a range of different projects, so am constantly moving between topics and doing different types of work. Alongside my on-going projects, I have to respond to requests for information and complete other tasks, often at very short notice. There certainly is never a dull moment! I’m based principally in QAA’s head office in Gloucester but also spend time out of the office at meetings and events further afield.
How has your training as an academic facilitated the transition to a job outside of academia?
Definitely. I use my skills in research and writing all day, every day! My experience of working within a higher education provider is also proving to be invaluable.
What advice can you give to graduate students considering a career outside of academia?
I would really encourage those nearing completion of their PhD, those who have recently submitted their thesis and even those a bit further along the line to consider applying for jobs outside of academia. After years of slaving away on a thesis, often with the main objective of securing an academic job, it can be hard not to view a post-academic career as a failure. But, there are so many exciting and rewarding opportunities out there. These are jobs where you can apply the skills and experiences gained whilst writing and researching your PhD (and don’t forget all those other things you’ve done alongside your academic studies!), fulfil your professional ambitions and be happy too! Although it can be hard to think outside the academic “box” and the process of securing a post-academic job is far from easy, I can tell you from personal experience that it is 100% worth it. I have found a job that I love! It is intellectually stimulating, in a sector I am passionate about and provides me with daily opportunities to put to good use everything I learnt whilst studying, researching and teaching in higher education. It is absolutely fantastic!
Thank you Joanna!