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Alan - career building during the PhD
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Name: Alan
PhD discipline: Spanish Literature
Area(s) of work: University teaching
Year of graduation: 2003
Date of Interview: 16/06/2008

Now Playing: Alan - career building during the PhD
Alan describes the various activities he undertook in preparation for an academic career, but also as a means of income when his funding ran out.

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Did you actively pursue career development activities? 

I produced two articles for publication from my Masters thesis – they were published in 2001. My internal examiner in the department said to me 'there are a couple of pieces I think you could definitely create a discreet piece for publication.' In fact that is not entirely correct, the internal examiner said 'why don't you send a piece on this to this particular journal,' which I did and it was published. And the external examiner actually said 'why don't you send this piece to my journal and publish something' and so I did that as well. And thinking again with hindsight now you know it looks very good on my CV that I have got two publications at the point where I am not even halfway through my PhD. Admittedly one of the journals was not a very prestigious high ranking journal but that is regardless I think and so I did that. 

I'm trying to think when I started giving conference papers actually. I didn't get into conferences probably until I was in the third year of my PhD. Again, observing other people, I see they sometimes tackle that much earlier. I think I started with a postgraduate conference at my home institution and the other thing I did was give a paper in my department research seminar. But I didn't start to kind of apply to give papers at bigger external conferences. I think actually the first one would have been the October 2002 at the point when I was just starting.  There was a conference on a new author who I was working on and so I felt, you know, I have to do this and it would be a good way to actually make sure I write something that I can use in my PhD and so basically it became a way to make myself write a chapter of the thesis.

Did you also think about the way that it might help you in your application?

Yeah, I think by that stage I was starting to definitely think 'yeah, I need to do these things.' Again my supervisor wasn't very, I mean she was a great supervisor but she didn't lay down the law if you like, she didn't say 'I really think you must do X Y and Z in order to you know get ahead in academia.' But she encouraged me, obviously to start giving papers and she read – if I remember rightly – I think she read through a couple of the things before I gave them.

And so would you say that your final year of your PhD was your most active year in terms of preparing yourself for an academic career afterwards?

I think that came more in my writing up year rather than the final year of my PhD. I think in my final year of my PhD I was still trying to get my head around what I was doing…

You mean the final year of your funding?

Sorry yes that's right yeah in the final year of my funding I was still very much engaged in thinking about what my PhD was about and starting to really get a sense of the plan and the actual 'what it is?' Which sounds very late actually and probably it was too late with hindsight. And so it was only in the final year of my PhD during the writing up year when the funding had completed when, yes, I definitely at that point started to think about what kinds of things can I do to increase my profile in readiness for searching for an academic job.  

But one thing I definitely did in July 2003, and so this is at the end of that final year, after I had submitted, I co-organised a symposium with a colleague from a different university. Another finishing graduate. We organised a symposium on a theme that we were both engaging with, both in very different kinds of ways. And, you know, invited in keynote speakers and obviously went through all the funding applications and things like that to put together a two day symposium, which took place at my institution. And I think that was something I am very glad I did. I thought this is something I want to do and it will also something I think will look good on my CV.

And what about teaching? 

I taught throughout the whole of my postgraduate career, even in the MPhil year. The MPhil started as would you like to do a couple of small group teaching in the department. The department was quite odd in that it had these kind of first year small groups of six or seven student situations where they would teach but would not be teaching towards an exam, they would be just kind of giving them a background on Spanish culture and literature, which is something they since don't do. And so I agreed 'yeah, I will take on a couple of hours of that' even during that MPhil year. And that is something I continued all the way through my involvement with the department. And then as each year went on and I increased slightly the amount of teaching I was taking on, mainly on that kind of small group teaching, and so there was no essay marking, there was no real demands on my time in terms of preparation because even if I were teaching three groups, I would be teaching the same thing.

Then I forget which year exactly it was, possibly the second year of my PhD, I started to do a little bit of language teaching for a separate department in the university, which was effectively the language teaching centre. I think I was teaching translation to engineers, for example, and also 'beginners Spanish' to kind of anybody in the university who wanted to pay for those classes and so I was doing that as well certainly by the final year of my funding for my PhD.

Also during the final year of the funding for my PhD I took on some teaching at a different university, which was about 20 miles drive from my own institution.

How did you come across that?

They contacted the department, my home institution department, and the person they contacted, contacted me and said would you be interested in doing this. And so I obviously got in contact with the other university and, yeah, by mutual agreement we did that and I did that probably for two years I think, it might even have been three actually.

Was that 0.5 teaching how much? 

It was just kind of an hour and so it was an hourly basis but typically it was about three hours a week. And so effectively I would just go there for a whole morning one day a week and just teach.

And were you teaching small groups or lecturing?

It was small groups again and so they were effectively taking a module on Latin American literature and I was teaching three different texts to them in groups of about 98 or 9 and then marking the essays. In fact the first year I went there I also taught another course for the whole year to a group of about eight or nine and marked the exams at the end as well. If I remember rightly I think that was the first year I examined as well, which was an interesting experience. I still remember now my co-examiner was very experienced and eminent and we disagreed quite a lot on a lot of the marks that we gave. I didn't teach that course again I'm not sure if that was related or not or whether it was simply because he came back and decided he would teach it himself. But I carried on teaching the first year course anyway for two or three years.

And so by the time it came to the writing up year… and so my funding finished in 2002 I was interviewed for a research post within the department, they had a kind of junior research fellowship. I was beaten to that but they said to me 'would you like to spend nine months effectively of the academic year with us as a teaching fellow?' Because my supervisor was going to be on maternity leave and they were also missing other people on leave and so they just had a large gap to fill in their teaching. And so they secured the funding to pay me a salary I suppose. Before hand everything had been paid hourly for what I had done whereas this time they were actually going to pay me a fairly small salary for nine months worth of teaching. And they were expecting me to do six hours a week of lecturing and seminars with examining of course attached to that. And so I undertook that and at the same time I was also still teaching the language classes in the other department for two hours a week and I was also travelling to this other institution for a morning to teach two hours there each week.

And finishing up your PhD 

And writing up at the same time yeah

But your funding had run out the year before and so this was a welcome means of income 

Yes, exactly, I took it all on because I needed the money. I mean it wasn't desperate because my wife was earning we could get by but the money was obviously very welcome. And also because of the experience as well, because they were quite different. Well I thought it was a good idea to keep the other institution going as well because it would be something to offer on my CV – I can say 'look, I've been teaching for other people as well as for my own institution' and so it didn't just look very nepotistic, is that a word, like nepotism if you like – you know – keeping it all within the one department. And I wanted to keep the language teaching going as well because I wanted to show that I could teach a language as well as literature; predominantly my teaching was literature but I could also do some language teaching. And so there was that kind of forward thinking as well about my CV in addition to 'I need the money.'

Do you think though that having been through the same institution from your undergraduate degree work right the way through your PhD that it did place you in a good position to get teaching because you were a known quantity in a sense?

Yeah probably I mean the department was always very keen to get its postgraduates teaching. I think that was one of the things they definitely held onto and thought was very important for postgraduates. And I found it very useful as well, and the students found it very useful because I had been an undergraduate there myself and in fact when I had that teaching fellowship in the department during my writing up year when I was finishing the PhD it soon became quite apparent that… this is probably going to sound terribly kind of arrogant actually but a lot of the secretaries decided that if they needed to know anything about what was going on in the department they would ask me – because I knew, basically. I was very good at being there in the office as well because it was where I worked, you know, rather than at home. Many of my colleagues would just disappear when they weren't teaching or you know some of them just didn't really know what their students were expected to do. I mean something I have always been very good at anyway is just being organised and you know having an eye for detail and so it was quite interesting because I had had both those experiences as an undergraduate and also then becoming a member of the teaching staff that I could get those kinds of perspectives from both sides.

Do you think that your teaching experience made you more determined to pursue and academic career? Did it kind of confirm for you that you wanted to go in that direction?

Yes, yes it did. Yes I certainly felt more comfortable with that as part of an academic career than I did with the research possibly. I think getting funding, external funding from the Arts & Humanities Council for my research, signalled something to me that yes my research is worth doing and is interesting and relevant but I found it much more difficult to really get a sense of its worth. Whereas with teaching you can get a much more instant kind of response to that I suppose. And so if you carry on thinking of academia as being research and teaching I think research is a much more long-term commitment in terms of getting a response to that and actually you are starting to engage with people in publishing you know it takes a long time to get things published. 

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