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Caroline - deciding against an academic career
Name: Caroline
PhD discipline: English Literature
Area(s) of work: University teaching; media; business (property management)
Year of graduation: 2001
Date of Interview: 24/06/2008

Now Playing: Caroline - deciding against an academic career
Caroline reflects on the gradual way in which a series of lifestyle choices steadily led her into a non-academic career.

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When you gave up lecturing full-time to work full-time on the PhD, did it change your ideas about what your career would be after the PhD?

Yes it did. By this stage I was much less inclined to academic work actually because I was feeling browned out if not burnt out by having taught in a context where my colleagues were fine and some of the students were but I did find the administration not very sympathetic and I found that some of my students especially from overseas who were expecting straight As and would get Cs or whatever but I did occasionally give Cs and they were furious so I was much less starry eyed I suppose about the possibility of lecturing in higher education partly because I didn't know if I had the stamina for it and I also could see what was happening to higher education, not only here but overseas because I was in touch with friends who were lecturing elsewhere. It seemed to me that assessment in the humanities was becoming more and more complicated. At the institution where I was teaching we had three governing bodies for different degree courses and so we had to provide a huge amount of paperwork for each of these governing bodies and each one had external examiners so there were meetings regularly and a lot of external moderation and I could understand the rationale behind it but I wasn't convinced that our students necessarily benefited because lecturers had to spend so much time on this kind of administrative work that in my case I couldn't prepare lectures as well so I did more workshops and less lectures. Now it's a matter of debate whether one or other form of teaching is better but I didn't enjoy the teaching as much as I expected to so by the time I had left that full-time and I was researching and writing full time and also starting to apply to jobs because my supervisor and friends here were saying 'look at this job, what about this job. It mentions post colonial studies as a strand, why don't you apply?'  So I did start applying cos I knew that within the next 18 months I would be ready for my viva but I did so with I think some mixed feelings and gradually as I was shortlisted and I started going to interviews I realised that I was actually being quite selective. I didn't want a job at any cost. I was looking for particular qualities I think.

What were they do you think?

I think one important quality was space for research and publication. I should mention that by this stage I had published a handful of articles and interviews from my MA research and this was something that I loved to do 'cause I like writing and long before getting into post graduate study I had done freelance writing for publication so this was just something that I could quite enjoyably. It took time but I liked it so I wanted to find a job; if it was academic I wanted the research and publishing space to be there. I also wanted to have significant time working teaching in my specialist area and in fact there were very, very few jobs that mentioned post colonial studies at all and I applied to a great number of jobs. I got up to I think 28 applications. Some of them, I had already graduated by this stage but I probably started applying in the 12 months prior to my viva I would say. I also had geographic requirements because we still had one child at home and I didn't really want to disrupt her education again and my husband's media business was now going quite well but our daughter's care really required two parents. We couldn't afford to buy in any kind of staff at all, nor did she qualify for direct payments, so we drew lines on the map how far I could apply and this was something that I chose. I was very aware that plenty of parents in my position would have a semi-detached kind of arrangement with their family but for my own personal reasons I chose not to do that. I chose not to disrupt the nuclear family and I chose to remain fully involved in our daughter's development so that my husband and I were, I suppose, 50/50 care givers there. So there was that geographic limitation that we imposed on the job search and so for example I heard about a job in southern Ireland. There was another one in Scotland. Another one in the north of England. Another one in Cornwall. Actually I did apply to the one in Cornwall because it did at least theoretically on the map look feasible. It was in the southern part of Britain and I was shortlisted for that but by that stage the media company in which I was now working as researcher and writer cos I had now finished my PhD research and I was waiting for my viva.

This was your husband's media company?

My husband's but I had joined forces with him doing some writing for the Youth Justice Board and other clients. By this stage we had quite an important client base in the London/Reading/Oxford area and we thought that to move way off west would strain an important part of our family finances and so although I was shortlisted for the job in Cornwall I decided not to go to the interview and I don't know to this day what would have happened. Ironically since then it's become clear that in fact it would have been quite interesting and possibly very good to move there because of the way the property market has gone and the way companies are moving west and so on. But again hindsight and we took what I suppose was a fairly timid choice. I suppose it brings me back to the theme where now the way I weigh risk up I'm probably bolder and more confident with the resources. If I look after the resources that we've got, including my own confidence and health and wellbeing in my relationships, we will find creative solutions but at the time we were feeling a bit nervous about how it might go.

You were a bit more cautious then?

A bit more cautious at the time and so that job didn't come to anything. I don't know I mean I might not have been offered the job anyway but looking back I think it probably was a bit foolish not to go to the interview.

Did you go to any academic interviews?

Yes I did. Yes I did.

And in general what were they like?

In London and in Nottingham. They were very interesting. I learnt a lot and my supervisor even after I'd graduated we kept in touch because I was teaching here part time at that stage, part time seminars and I would have lunch with him from time to time. He was very supportive and I went to interviews with the idea of gathering information to see how they would suit me but of course I had my own wish list and I didn't find an interview that struck me as something that would really suit me very well. It seemed to me that those jobs would, of course there would be a salary but they would also come with quite a high personal price tag and they wouldn't necessarily tick the boxes. They weren't in my specialist area. They were related to English literature or communication or research skills so I could bring in some of my general teaching experience but they didn't have anything in the syllabus for those particular jobs related to what I had spent my seven plus years doing my doctorate for so when I wasn't offered those jobs it didn't break my heart. I just kept on applying. I think also by this stage there weren't a great number of jobs within my field. We had expected that there would be because round about the time that I embarked on my doctorate people were saying that this was a growth area and they were expecting that in the next five to ten years there would be a great number of post-colonial lecturing positions. In fact they were few and far between and they tended to be too far away.

Do you feel that you were particularly well equipped though going into those interviews for academic positions considering that you not only had successfully completed a PhD but that you had extensive lecturing experience beyond that of most people coming out of a PhD?

Yes, yes I had. And it's very interesting, I think I was well equipped and I've got to be careful what I say here but I think that probably some of the selection criteria that the panels were using, I think I probably didn't suit some of those selection criteria on the face of it and perhaps I wasn't very good at selling myself to those specific criteria. I get very nervous in interviews. Not one to one but if you're being interviewed by a panel of I don't know between three and six people it's quite daunting and I tend to get quite apprehensive there. So I think one thing was that I might have perhaps sold myself better to their particular criteria with hindsight. I think another factor was that by this stage as quite a mature person, I was in my late forties by now, I didn't want to be squeezed into other people's agendas and that possibly came across that I would not, that although I was nervous I think they could tell that I was very determined and I knew who I was and I knew that I was a good teacher and I knew that I could communicate effectively with my students and although I didn't particularly like the assessment process in the humanities I knew that I could do that successfully. But I wasn't good at politics and I suspect that there might have been some people in the interview panels who thought 'well I'm not sure that this woman is necessarily going to be very easy to work with because she might not fit into our own department particularly well. She might be a little bit too independent, too erm, too clear about what she wants to achieve in the classroom'. I don't know. I'm guessing. I do remember talking to one of the lecturers here who was also teaching a Shakespeare seminar, a parallel one to my own. This was a lady who had taught for many, many years and she said to me 'you know you're actually a very unusual lecturer'. And I said 'oh, why is that?'  And she said 'well you're very enthusiastic about your teaching and you love the contact with the students and she said that's actually very unusual in this department'. And she said 'the other thing is that although you're an experienced, a published academic writer, the writing that you do is not obscure. It's scholarly but it's clear. It's accessible, you write to communicate' and I said 'but isn't that the point of writing'?  'Oh no, no, no', she said. 'Many people in this field don't write to communicate. They write to say look at this and if I can draw a (silk) screen to make it a little bit more obscure so that you can't access it that's fine because that is part of the exercise'. I was quite shocked because I enjoyed the academic writing as a communicative exercise and in fact my doctoral thesis which was all about how literature and reading and writing are acts of translation, this is about communicating, about ways of getting through to the audience and so when I wrote an academic article and had it published my objective was to explore the ideas with my readership in such a way that they could engage in the journey. I wasn't trying to impress anybody and if there was a choice between a short word and a big word I would use the short word if it would do the job. The only time I would use big words was if there wasn't a shorter word that would do it. Sometimes you have to use technical words because they are the only ones that will pinpoint exactly what you want to say. But very often a shorter sentence will do it, in fact more effectively so as far as my colleague was concerned; of course she was hoping that I would find work but she could see that already I was quite unusual and there was another factor. One of the jobs for which I applied where I wasn't shortlisted, I knew from a personal contact in that department that they had imposed an age limit because of the profile in that department which was an ageing group of lecturers. They knew that in the next five years there'd be x number of people retiring so they wanted somebody not straight out of university, you know not 28 but they put a top limit of 42 and I remember being very disappointed with that because I thought well I was probably what 48 or something at the time and I knew I had loads of experience, not only at teaching but also at writing for publication and being successfully published in quite prestigious journals in my field but I was well over 42 and I could recognise that they had their own reasons for doing that but I thought that it was an illustration of how if you draw the line for whatever reasons you might actually miss out candidates who though five years older might actually suit your criteria very well. But I suppose interview panels have got to work within their own parameters and you know they had their own limitations I suppose.

So at what point did you decide that you weren't going to pursue an academic career?

It was a very gradual process. My 28 applications that I sent off were mostly to universities but there were a couple of sixth form colleges one of which interviewed me in Hampshire. There were a couple of other jobs in industry related to communication and by this stage I had spent some months working as a writer/researcher in the media company that my husband had started which had now moved from video production into media in general and we did some literacy writing for young offenders and a range of other projects, ghost writing books and so on and I was finding that very rewarding, very exciting and there was lots, lots of opportunity there and whereas there weren't very many suitable jobs whether academic or industrial with the criteria that I was looking for  there was huge potential for writing material for clients who had wonderful ideas but couldn't convey them in written form, you know, just didn't have the skills whereas I loved to write. And so gradually I started applying to fewer jobs and getting more involved in the media work where there was frankly more work than we could take on so we could be quite selective. I was offered quite a lucrative teaching contract by the Basic Skills Unit for example because once we had done the Youth Justice Board young offender literacy project the Basic Skills Unit was looking for writers who could produce materials for the Skills for Life project and I went along to a day about that and they offered me the writing but because I had my own selection criteria which didn't fit at all well with the agendas there I turned it down and it was very lucrative but I think as I've got older I've become more confident about what I'm looking for, about what suits me and I don't like to be squeezed into other people's little boxes because I know from my years of institutional lecturing that there can be quite a high price to pay health wise for that and although you might earn some money, that is only one kind of wealth. There are other kinds of wealth which are harder to acquire and I think if you lose your health that has much longer term consequences than if you miss out on one contract because you will find other work. You will find other sources of money whereas it might be more difficult to recover your health or to recover your relationships I suppose.
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