Some notes on the transcription…

I wanted to provide a transcript of The PhD Life Raft podcast episodes to make the material more accessible.

I have used an automated transcription service to produce this document. These, as we all know, are not 100% accurate. Please excuse the odd typos and grammatical mis-translations. I hope that you will find the documentation of this conversation useful.    

You can find the full interview here: https://thephdliferaft.libsyn.com/

Emma  

Hello, Naomi.

Naomi  

Hi, Emma.

Emma  

So lovely to have you here from the beautiful Devon, I’m very jealous of you. So today, today is going to be a good one. I’m really looking forward to this conversation in terms of answering the question of like, what if I decided don’t want to be an academic anymore, which I think is a point that lots of PhD researchers get to some on a regular basis. So we’re gonna we’re gonna think about that question today. But first of all, I’m going to invite you as I do with everybody to tell us a little bit about yourself and your PhD story. Yeah, brilliant. Thank

Naomi  

you so much for having me. I’m really excited about having this conversation with you. So I got my PhD a long time ago feel very old and but, um, so I got my PhD in 2006 and for the University of Wales, Swansea, and I kind of went straight through. University didn’t have a gap before I did. My PhD was fortunate enough to get University of Wales funding, which was brilliant. And I really did a PhD because I loved what I was researching, which was Child and Family migration. So I didn’t really do a PhD because I knew I wanted to be an academic. I did a PhD because I really loved research and that particular research area. And then yeah, I was fortunate enough to get the funding that then led on to a postdoc, which was, you know, a child migration project funded by the European Commission and the first one of its kind with that project on child migration. And so yeah, really, really exciting time. And then I just kind of carried on in academia. I had a brief stint working for and research and evaluation company doing commercial research, but then went straight into postdoc and, you know, life continued, got permanent academic post and then, after my first child was born, I was like, Oh, I don’t think I want to stay in academia. Actually, it’s not fitting with what I want out of life and career, and there was far less research involved than I’d anticipated. And I think the PhD can be an amazing period of time to really get into a research area. And it’s then becomes a bit of a bit of a privilege to still be doing research as an academic because you’ve got so much up in and teaching, which I love that it was like constantly spinning plates, and feeling like research was really being marginalized. So I absolutely loved my PhD time. And you know, people who are listening who are at that point and loving it, I can absolutely understand and appreciate where you’re at people who are thinking, Oh, actually, I’m not sure I want to do research or I’m not sure I want to do research in academia. Because of the way academia seems to be. And then just I guess my tale can hopefully give you some pointers in how you can be an active researcher and post PhD and beyond academia, if that’s something that you’re considering.

Emma  

So I love that this is a love story. I love that you fell in love with your subject and you wanted to be with it and spend time with it. And that’s what the PhD was for you and I think ideally, that is what a PhD is, isn’t it is just thank you. For sharing that that warm glow day. But then there’s also this this other bit which which came to you later, and in terms of I’m not sure this is for me anymore, but I say something for some people comes to them during their PhD in terms of like, oh my goodness, I’ve set off on this project. And maybe it started off as a love story for them in terms of I just love this thing. But now I’m really not sure and at that point, some people think well then I should give up the PhD and go and do something else. And I guess that was what we’ve we’ve had a little chat before we started and it’s the sense of like, you don’t necessarily need to give sometimes it’s right to give up the PhD, isn’t it but you don’t need to give up the PhD necessarily. And so I think this your next bit of your story, which then leads us into discussion in terms of so so what if you decide then you don’t really want to be an academic anymore, but you’re you have this qualification? Have this PhD? What does that mean? So I know there’s an expert of whose story so you’ve had your first child and then you then you decide and then things happen. So can you tell us a bit about that? And then that might lead us into this discussion of what they want. Can you what can you do? Yeah, absolutely. So

I think, yeah, it just became clear that academia wasn’t right for me. I was supervising PhDs at this point as well. And you know it you had a research grant and some smaller big research conferences for the ones who was, you know, working in collaboration with people and I think I realized that I’m, I love working with others. I love being a team player, and a team leader as well. And that you know, that quite a lot of academia is is very ego centric and very caring, you can feel very isolated. And so I decided to give up a permanent academic post, which was horrifying to some of my colleagues, but I went with my gut instinct, and became a senior research fellow on a temporary contract and finishing off an ESRC grant that I’d won with a colleague at Strathclyde. And then when that contract came to an end in January 2019, I thought, You know what, I’m gonna set up my own research business. I know I’ve got skills that have value. We’ll talk about that in a moment how we know that and I’m gonna go it alone. And gradually I’ve brought people into the company and the company’s grown through COVID We now have clients not just in the UK, but in North America too. And and I absolutely love what I do, and I’m doing research every single day, which is absolutely amazing. We do research, evaluation, and impact assessments and primarily for charities and social enterprises, but also for universities. Funnily enough, I’ve gone full circle and also for health care companies as well. So you know, if you’re at that point thinking, has my PhD got value beyond academia? Absolutely. Can I do research outside academia? Absolutely. Can you be fulfilled and feel like you’re using your knowledge, skills and experience outside of academia? Absolutely. And I love encouraging people to know that that is absolutely possible. You know, I speak to people on a very regular basis who do things that I do or or similar, or even very different things, but still using skills, knowledge and or experience that they gained from their PhD. So what you are doing now if you’re kind of thinking, Oh, should I carry on Is it is it worth it? If I don’t want to be an academic? I would say 100% Yes, if you can, you know, finish it and and get through that through that hump, then it is absolutely worth it. And it’s about matching the value of your PhD to the people who appreciate it beyond academia and actually increasingly because of the way I could do me as going. Increasingly the value of your PhD can be higher beyond academia than it is within because of precarity shortage of jobs. The workload issued your PhD can be appreciated by people beyond academia more than academic institutions. Which is a bit of a sad state of affairs, isn’t it? But I have found that to be the case for some people.

Emma  

Oh, I love this. I love this so much. I think it’s an odd one, isn’t it? Because academia can be like a really bad kind of relationship, in terms of in terms of this, you know, shall I shall I leave on a say in the sense of, uh, well, you know, maybe maybe you don’t know and I hope you don’t know but in terms of if you’re not in a great relationship, and they like where you can’t leave me because you won’t get anything better. You know, nothing better is going to be out there for you. Think of all the good times we’ve had that would never happen somewhere else. And actually knowing now it can be it can be better and I can be valued more somewhere else and actually making that step can be a really amazing, liberating, wonderful thing to do. Not for everybody. But But I think to know that you have value outside can be a really empowering thing to know.

Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, if you know, if you’re listening to this and you’re struggling, there is support. I think the other thing is we can sometimes feel in academia that we have to be able to figure out everything out everything out on our own, or we shouldn’t ask for help. But there is support available. There’s, you know, lots of different avenues for that and you know, Emma can probably put that in the show notes. You know, there’s lots of support out there at LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, you know, people have written books about getting the PhD to hunt they, you know, so there is support out there and I think probably far more support than there was back in you know, the early 2000s When I was doing my PhD, and people I think are having more honest conversations now around the pressures of a PhD. So if you are struggling, do seek support if you can, because there is support there for you. And if you want support for thinking about what else you can do then similarly that is there for you and probably your research or development team. Again, this is a growth area in universities recognising the need to support people through their PhD. Your first port of call would be your university’s research or development team. See what workshops and events they put on to support you. But you know if you’re struggling and want so you’ve got you know, you’ve got to finish of course, you’ve got to finish No, actually, I wouldn’t say that I’d say seek support and think about what’s best for you. If you’re kind of near the end, and it’s that final push and you think oh how can I get through it? I will say Maltesers did help me quite a lot in that time. And that’s how I got through it. But you know, again, if you’re at that point and thinking, Oh, well, is this really worth it, then from the people that I talked to him for my own experience? I would say yes, absolutely. It is worth it. It’s about thinking about where it’s going to be valued beyond academia. You don’t have to start again. You know, I think again, there’s a bit of a myth around or most I don’t stay in academia, I’ve got to start again, I’ve got to retrain. I’ve got spend loads of money doing something else again, you might want to do that. But you don’t have to do that. You don’t have to feel like you’re starting again. You can harness the power of having the PhD and apply it to areas beyond academia. That is absolutely possible. And I see people having, you know, stellar careers and doing amazingly well, because they matched what they’d gained from their PhD with the organizations and employers who valued it.

Emma  

It’s great, this is great stuff. So I think it is that sense of clarifying what in terms of what we say that if you are having that moment and thinking, I’m not sure if if what what is next for me, and there are there are things that you can do to kind of explore explore your options and you know, the academic route is likely to be really clear for you because it’s it’s there, you’re in that environment, but the other the other things may not be so clear. And as you said to me that there will be hopefully there will be support within your institution to help you start thinking about that, you know, there will be research to support career service. But are there any other things from your journey Nomi that you would offer in terms of what what to think about? If you do decide, I don’t want to be within academia?

Yeah, absolutely. There was something that I found really helped and it wasn’t at the start when I left it was a little bit later but Holly Prescott Birmingham has what she calls the keep lose add list, and you list out the things that you love about your current position. So what you’re doing in your everyday work life and you put that under keep so what you are doing that you love and would like to keep in a future role and then things that you really don’t like you put in a lose column. And then anything that you’d like to add you put in an add column. So I think that can be a helpful framework to start off with when thinking about like assessing what is it that I really love or don’t love or would like to bring into a working role for me and you can also think about that in broader life terms as well. I’m very much one for thinking about how our, how our work and our life fit together so that we can live our best life. And another thing that can be really helpful is just to think about all the skills that you have gained during the post your PhD. This might depend what phase you’re at, in relation to the PhD journey. But you know, we can sometimes just think about the next thing and the next thing and the next thing and academia always encourages us to do that, you know, it’s about the next paper or the next chapter or the Next Conference. presentation or the next bit of funding, rather than actually taking stock and evaluating what we have achieved so far. So I think it can be really helpful to kind of press pause, whatever stage you’re at and think about how far you’ve come. This can boost your confidence often and also if you list out what you’ve gained, what you’ve learned, what you’ve developed in that time period, you can begin to see Oh, actually, yeah, wow, that’s pretty amazing. And look at all the things that I can offer a future employer that I wouldn’t have been able to do a year ago or three years ago. whatever stage you’re at, and I will guarantee you there are hugely valuable skills and experiences that you were having that are relevant to careers beyond academia. I can absolutely guarantee it because I know the sorts of things that you will have been doing during your PhD. Most people cannot do all the things that you can do. They won’t be trained in all the things that you’re trained in, they won’t have experienced all the things you have, they don’t have the knowledge either. So not only have you got the niche knowledge that you have gained during your PhD, you also have surrounding that skills and experiences that are hugely valuable beyond academia. And most people don’t offer that kind of package. So you have huge value to an employer, beyond academia because you’re like a unique product. Not everyone can do what you can do and within academia because it feels familiar it might feel like you’re never good enough. You extract yourself from that university context. And I can guarantee you there will be employers who will want you because you offer so much to their organization.

Emma  

Ah, yes, yes, yes, yes. And you know, this gnomic because you work with people and help them to do that on a regular basis. Absolutely.

I’ve done it myself. I did it post PhD. As I said, I had that time in commercial research, which really kind of embedded in me and thinking about my value. But even then, when I had my decision that academia wasn’t right for me and I still had a wobble I break on LinkedIn and say like, oh, my gosh, what else can I do? And, you know, five years later now, I’m like, Why did I ever think that? It’s like, I’m only still using like a subset of my skills and experience even though I’m running my own businesses, you know, because we learn so much in academia. And we forget actually that a PhD is a rare commodity. Most people have not got and cannot get a PhD. It’s a rare commodity. And that does not only have value in academia, I’ll say it again. It’s hugely valuable beyond academia, but academia doesn’t encourage us to think this way. Things are changing a lot more support. For our tech careers, LinkedIn with the research and development framework and commitments universities have made to old tech career development. Old tech is like the shorthand for alternative to academic. So it has shifted and it has changed. But I still don’t think that there’s enough support and I still don’t think that we have these conversations often enough. And I know it to be true, because I’ve done it myself. And I help others to do it. And you know, I see people on social media all the time, and watching their journey is just so inspiring. So if you’re not following anyone who’s outside of academia, and you’re thinking that you might want to leave academia or that you might have to because of the limited number of academic jobs in your research area, just go and follow people on AIX, LinkedIn increasingly because of what’s happening with Facebook as well in groups and just learn from their stories because it’s so inspiring and there are so many of us, the majority of people with PhDs work outside of academia. Like How incredible is that? That is a ready made network for you for exploring. You’re out at options.

Emma  

Ah, this is this is brilliant. This is brilliant and I think the the energy which is common over the airwaves, I love talking about this. I think this sense of exactly. And this kind of sense of, of all that is outside of academia, you know, because I think that this sense of you can still be a passionate researcher, you can still have all that. All that is beyond that is still absolutely possible for you. Yeah, because I think, I think again, it’s that sense of if you are in that place of like I don’t think this is for me. anymore, it can be so disorientating because all that you know this, this is what I do. I do research this is what I do. Now what now what is my life gonna fall apart and actually, no, like you say that there is there’s life beyond and there are lots of actually fantastic options potentially for you.

Yeah, absolutely. I mean that if you’ve fallen out of love with research, you’ve got options. So if you’ve, if you’re absolutely in love with research, you’ve got options. As I said, I do more research now than I did when I was an academic. And also increasingly and I think this is really interesting for people to consider, because again, there is this myth that it’s like a cliff edge you decide to leave. That’s it. There’s no going back. That has changed definitely in the UK in the last five years. That is not the case anymore for a lot of research areas. So some yes, that will be the case but for a lot actually that has changed. And if you look at who’s been employed in universities in the upper echelons, you’ll see that a lot of them have old tack experience, because universities need that knowledge and skill set back in at the top because of the corporatization of universities in the UK. So the idea that you need that’s it, and it’s over, increasingly is not true. This

Emma  

is such an important thing to say and exactly that if you go off and get industry experience, you may be actually more valuable come back

and then it becomes actually do I want to go back to academia and again increasingly people like no, I’m actually paid for the hours that I do when I work in industry. Why on earth would I go back and do loads of free labor? Thank you very much.

Emma  

Yeah. Oh, gorgeous, gorgeous. And we said that you do this kind of work and we’ll put all the links in the in the in the show notes that people are able to sort of find out more and because you can help people to connect into networks and all of that all of that kind of good stuff.

Yeah. They say like, you know, I have my my business and then I also have do offer help free and paid for help for people. But you know, I set up a Facebook group called old tech careers in COVID. Because I saw that actually, there was a lot of discussion and I think, you know, COVID was a really difficult time for a lot of people. And you know, that isolation increased and people thinking what else can I do? And I was like, there’s loads you can do let’s kind of get together and, and have a Facebook group where we can encourage each other support each other shared job share experiences, and that’s what it’s about. We’ve got over 2000 members now so yeah, lots of free support available. And, and, you know, I just, I just love talking on podcasts and with people in groups about this because it’s about dispelling the myths me you know, there’s still about what an academic career was like, and then people realize, oh, it’s not actually what I thought it was gonna be like, and then they feel stuck. And I’m all about helping people to become unstuck, like I did, and for them to know that there’s absolutely ways forward for them if academia is not right for them. Academia is brilliant for some people. I’m not one of those people who’s you know, bashed it all the time. There’s definitely things wrong with it, but it can work for some people and that’s brilliant if it works for you. Amazing. I don’t want to detract from that. And obviously, they’re really hard working people doing amazing work in universities. But if it doesn’t work for you, you’re not stuck. I

Emma  

love this. And I think it is that sense again, of like you say dispelling the myths and also this sense of removing the isolation because I think people then can go, Oh, it’s just me feeling like this. And it can also feel as a kind of weird kind of taboo, it feels like it’s naughty, like I’m doing, you know, going against things. And actually, that isn’t the case. First of all, you’re very clearly not on your own. A lot of people are on this journey. And it’s about exploring options. There’s a whole big world out there. And I think this sense of sharing your knowledge, as you said at the beginning, in terms of a place where it’s appreciated, where it can do, what you want it to do, where you can make a change. That’s really, really important. Yeah. And

here’s what brings us into a search, isn’t it? It’s that wanting to make a difference. And you can do that beyond academia, academia is not the be all and end all.

Emma  

Yeah, I’m aware of time and so I’m going to ask us the date very, you know, it’s it’s ridiculous question. I know but out of all that we have already talked about, is there a top tip for people to take away?

I do have a top tip because I thought yes, because it’s quite a yes. into one but I did do it for you, which is it’s never too early to start planning the stage after the PhD. And whether that is you know, whether you’re sure that you want to stay in academia or not. I would just encourage you to think more broadly about your skills, knowledge and experience where it could be valued, and where you would feel happiest and most fulfilled. So if you’re kind of feeling like you’re on the hamster wheel, maybe spend a bit of time considering where else you might like to go with the PhD. And if you’re thinking academia is definitely for me, sadly we know that doesn’t always work out for people. So again, it’s never too early. Just think Okay, what else could I do? I might not want to pursue that right now. But rather than feeling like oh my gosh, there’s nothing else I can do. Everybody at whatever stage the P PhD there I can think, okay, I know I’ve got options, so bring people into your network or join some of the groups or follow people on social media who could just kind of broaden your horizons about the possibilities for you, so that you don’t feel stuck if that time comes or so that you think actually I’ve got options here. If I feel like this isn’t right for me anymore. I know that there are other avenues that I can pursue.

Emma  

We love options. We love options. Thank you so much, Naomi for all of that.

Lovely to speak with you Emma and get the word out there that there’s life beyond academia.

Emma  

Thank you for all the work that you do. And thank you all for listening.