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Tim - finishing up and moving on
Name: Tim
PhD discipline: History/American studies
Area(s) of work: Academic research support administration
Year of graduation: 2000
Date of Interview: 19/06/2008

Now Playing: Tim - finishing up and moving on
Tim reflects in detail on looking for relevant employment; interview experiences and first jobs; and on his gradual acceptance that he would not have an academic career.

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At what point did you start to think ahead as to what you'd do after the PhD?

I don't think I did. I think it was one of those conveyor belt moments. I sort of finished and I thought 'ooh now what do I do?'

Were you at all anxious in the last year of the PhD about what would come next?

Well I think when I was finishing I was still reasonably optimistic about an academic career so the prospect of doing ad hoc teaching, trying to get a post as a post doc that was not unappealing at the time so that I think that was certainly the route I was still thinking about by the time I finished. So it was not even a year afterwards really and I'd already started to think about alternatives.

So you'd been doing some sessional teaching in the year after your PhD


And applying for post docs?

Well there weren't many post docs, I mean again its an irony of my current job that there are now more post docs in the arts than there were eight years ago, but they were extremely rare eight years ago, there just weren't many opportunities around, I mean there was ad hoc teaching, then there was cover teaching if people had research needs and we might get a post for three months or something like that. There were very few research positions.

Did you apply for more permanent teaching positions?

Yes, I had a couple of interviews for a number of posts.

Can you talk to me about those interviews and what the experience of being interviewed for an academic job was like and the sort of format for the interview?

I think both times it was a very similar. There was a presentation to a cross-section of the department, so quite a few people there who were from a very broad spectrum of research interests, so actually probably people from outside the department as well in related fields. So people would come in and ask questions. So you're basically giving a paper, a short conference paper, and sort of encapsulate your research in 10 minutes or 15 minutes, so that was part of it. And then we went and had lunch so all the candidates went and had lunch with several members of the department so you could have a discussion in a more informal setting. And then in the afternoon there was the formal interview with the Vice Chancellor, Dean, Head of Department, and one other person.

How do you feel that you performed in those interviews?

I remember thinking that the first interview I had that I was the last candidate in and it was very late in the day and I sort of got the impression that I was almost making up the numbers, which is very difficult to pick yourself up from because you get that impression that its been a very long day for them and they were obviously going through the motions which was frustrating really. But yes that was my experience of that, so that was quite difficult to get through. I know lots of other people have had similar experiences, got that impression that there was a very strong candidate, having met the candidates you kind of got that impression that there was one sort of candidate who was head and shoulders above the rest of us. Which again is quite demoralising to go in, in that environment, but it was good experience to happen to you, because I think it was even before my viva so I was much less experienced than everybody else who was being interviewed, so it was good to get an interview. Get a feel for what the process was like, because obviously I'd seen it from the other side, I'd been on to other people's presentations, but this was different from other types of job interview.

Did the experience of being interviewed for academic posts put you off applying for any more?

To a certain extent it did although I did carry on applying for things so it was, I mean I don't think I didn't have the qualifications required, I mean I probably had teaching experience, but I think teaching experience particularly in researching terms in university is only going to get you so far. So I think the things I'd fall down on in the interview I would have fallen down in subsequent interviews but there isn't really an alternative at that stage but to keep plugging away.

Did you do any other paid work during your PhD, except for teaching?

Well I was a hall tutor which led to subsidised accommodation which was very useful. And quite a useful experience in itself, it was to provide pastoral care to first year students. I think in my first year as well I had a Christmas job. That was it.

At what point during the year when you were undertaking sessional teaching and applying for academic jobs did you start to consider other options?

There was one – I mean I think during the year there were a couple of things I did apply for, I applied – did the Civil Service exam which was slightly odd because my students were also attending this.

Tell me more about that?

Well it was just a very strange experience really. It was just one of these ones where you have neutral people sitting exams in a university hall somewhere just at the sifting stage. I think it was one of the things as an undergraduate I quite fancied doing and then I saw it advertised and I thought it couldn't do any harm to apply. So that was – I think that was the only thing I actually applied for during that year when I was doing lots of teaching. But then – I think it was probably, well it was yeah, after the exams I sort of realised that I was unemployed for at least three or four months over the summer once the marking had finished, because with sessional teaching you don't get paid in the summer so I thought I needed to do something at least on a temporary basis. And I had spoken to somebody who was putting in a grant (….) so there would have been a place or position there but I think that was the first time I realised quite how long the process could take. And so there wasn't – they weren't going to hear within a month or two, it was going to be six months before they heard anything so I mean initially it was sort of part-time work, summer work that I started doing.

What sort of things?

The first thing I did was I did some work for – we were working on an online dictionary so I got some work for a few weeks doing that.

And that was because you knew people who were already working there?


And they knew that you were looking for a job?

Yes, it was very fortunate, I suppose its one of the advantages of university environment that there are occasionally these short term opportunities which give you a chance to do something slightly different. I mean other things that I thought about doing, I started thinking 'well, what's related to what I've done, because it's not very easy to just leap into something completely new.' I mean it is for some people, I mean I knew people who stopped doing a PhD and went off to work in the city and things like that, despite the fact they were doing history PhDs and things like that so some people found it quite easy but I thought it needed to be a very incremental process, that I would need to look for something in a related area so I had an interview at the records office, the National Archives as they are now, because I thought that was again related to what I'd been doing because I'd been spending a lot of time doing research in the archives.

Where did you see the job advertised?

I would have seen the job advertised probably in the Guardian on a Tuesday, something like that so it was probably advertised in, well it was probably advertised – it must have been a job that was advertised in the kind of areas where I was looking already, on the next page from the academic jobs, so that's possibly how I started to look at things like that. They were just a little bit outside what I'd been looking for previously, things that were academically related.

Were you shortlisted for that?

I had an interview, they seemed to be interviewing quite a lot of people so I'm not sure how short the short list was but because that's quite a long process. Cos it had everybody down for an assessment centre one week and then interviews and presentations the next week, which seemed like overkill really but I wanted to get some experience of applying to something in a different environment.

And what would the job have been?

I can't remember now. It wasn't actually an archivist job, it was more analysis I think so – well it was in between the two I think so it was – you didn't need the archivist training so they were looking for people with high degrees in history or related subjects I think. So people were producing reports maybe for a digest of documents, that sort of thing.

Were they looking for someone with a PhD?

I don't know whether they were specifically looking for people with PhDs but I remember talking to other people who were in a similar position to me who had a history PhD or were just finishing off doing a history PhD so it was one of those roles that was quite suited to somebody from that background.

Did you get some feedback as to why you hadn't been successful?

No actually, I remember it being quite frustrating because it was one of the first times I'd had an interview of that type and people said 'what's the feedback' so I didn't – I never heard anything.

Have you got a sense yourself why you didn't get the job?

I think at that stage I was probably still, I probably gave the impression I was looking for an academic job. I remember saying something to that effect, or would certainly have given that impression which didn't go across very well so I don't think I'd kind of moved far enough at that point from one world to another in terms of the – I probably came across as looking for something as a short-term stop gap, while still aspiring to get an academic position.

What came next?

Next would be a job again that started as a temporary thing working, doing some research in higher education so doing work on student satisfaction surveys. Interestingly I got this by knowing people. It was somebody who was actually further back than me in a PhD. But she'd sort of stopped doing her PhD for a while and got this job. And said why don't you do it over the summer as well so I went in on that basis, for a while. I thought it was an interview but basically they asked me to take the job which was fortunate definitely because again I would probably have thought I didn't have the necessary background because lots of the other people who worked there had sociology backgrounds or economic backgrounds so they had social science statistical training, which I didn't have.

What did the job involve?

I mean there was a fair amount of data analysis which I think was one of the reasons why I wouldn't have thought of it, because I remember when my friend who applied for the job, sort of that's not what we do but she got the interview because she got the job and so 'oh well we can do this'. And so there was a fair amount of that, but then the bits that I was probably more suited to, they were focus groups and interviews with people to supply some qualitative (…) reports that we were producing for HEIs on how happy or otherwise their students were, and then do a – and so this started off as a summer job for three months, and then became a permanent job or at least for a full year I think. So I did that and then I still carried on doing teaching one course at university one afternoon a week, just to sort of – because again I hadn't quite separated completely from that world. So I ostensibly had a full time job doing something else but was still keeping my hand in. So yes that job evolved and we did research for Universities UK, Higher Education Careers Services unit on careers and employability, those sorts of things.

And did you feel equipped to do that job when you arrived into it from the PhD? What had equipped you to do the job?

I wasn't conscious of having the skills to do it, I was put off by the skills I didn't have, the statistical skills and that sort of thing but obviously interviewing and analysing material is what I'd be doing. And a lot of times I'd go through reports, making sense of what people are saying and what they are not saying, which is what I'd been doing, so that was a very big part of doing that job, which I did for two years, yeah two years.

And where did you see the job going, were you not concerned really with the potential for promotion or career development?

I mean not initially because I'd kind of gone in on a part time basis and then you obviously do start to think about it once you've been there for a while and you start to think about it as a career, and it was a slightly strange job because there was an awful lot of fairly mundane work which was feeding reports through a scanner and this sort of thing. Which is an extremely dull thing to do, and sort of data checking and that sort of thing, and that was sort of the core business of the office. But the more interesting bits were the writing reports and doing research into educational policy and those sorts of things. And I think that's where it was more interesting, where I wanted to go if I'd stuck with that for a bit longer. And there was opportunity for that I think. So once you got your foot in your door just doing fairly mundane things, because I suppose they'd be having more developed research skills than were strictly necessary to the job, there was an opportunity there to go beyond the basics and sort of develop them a bit more, with a certain amount of autonomy.

So there was a real sense of say falling off the end of the conveyor belt when you'd finished your PhD and just having no sense of where to go next. Well that was certainly my feeling.

 And how do you think you managed that feeling? Did you sort of kind of blanket apply for lots of academic jobs and keep your eye on related jobs being advertised in the Guardian and that kind of thing? I mean what kind of kept you going, how did you deal with that uncertainty?

Well I mean I applied for most of the jobs I could apply for I think. Particularly in the year when I was doing quite a lot of teaching but I think the fact I was doing quite a lot of teaching gave me the opportunity again to go into denial a little bit because I was so busy I was writing a lecture or two every week. And I was thinking well this is all good career development stuff but at the same time I probably wasn't doing enough research and I was – I won't say I was trying to work my thesis into papers and that side of things but yes it was quite easy to get into a sort of comfort zone where you didn't have to face a lot of these things, and to keep bumbling along for a few months.

The first job that you got after your PhD, did you feel relieved because you'd found gainful employment or did you feel relieved because you'd found your niche? 

I think I was initially very relieved to have found any gainful employment at all,  where you got paid all the time and proper holiday and things like that because I really thought, I felt completely lost when I finished my PhD in terms of alternatives, it's a very difficult time. And so yeah I was pleased that I'd actually got a job. Which I don't know it seems silly in retrospect but at the time I didn't feel I was particularly qualified to do anything. So to get something - to get a foot in somewhere was a huge relief. And it wasn't terribly well paid but it was something, it was definitely a start, but it wasn't a fantastically exciting job at all. I mean bits of it were quite interesting but it was mainly just sort of getting into a different environment I think that was the main thing. It was just sort of getting a toe hold in a slightly different field of work than I'd been before, just to prove that I could do it really.

So the three months temporary contract in the research job was extended to full time position?


And can you talk me through, then, from that point to where you are now?

Okay so as I say I did research in this unit and for a couple of years. I was kind of bumbling along, I mean towards the end of my time there I actually started to get a bit more responsibility, a bit more than I realised at the time in retrospect actually. I could probably have made more of it than I did, which I sort of regret because we'd always had the sort of leader - he was a very good manager in terms of giving people responsibility, or delegating proper responsibilities to people. I just don't think I quite realised that's what he was doing to the extent that he did so I think I could probably have made a lot more of that role than I did. Because there are these opportunities there. Because I thought I was getting beyond my area of competence but I think he saw more potential in me than I did, I think, or even that I learnt more than I thought I had. But yes I did that for a while, then I mean partly for geographical and personal reasons I got a job in research.

In a different institution? 

Yes. I think that was probably the first time I applied for a – properly applied for a job and got it, although you never think 'oh I wasn't the first choice' it was one of those ones that the interview went very well, that's the first time I thought well that was a really good interview, I don't think I could have done any better. And then next day I got a phone call saying you did very well but you came second, and it was only a couple of weeks later they rang back and actually offered me the post.

Why did you apply for that job? What appealed to you about that job when you saw it advertised? Because it wasn't directly related to what you'd been doing before was it?

No, but again it was part of a sense of having to sort of move incrementally and sort of build around what I'd done which was how I thought I needed to develop my career. Rather than leaping into the completely new, I needed to do something where I could – had certain experiences that I could talk about and so I could talk to people to professors and lecturers about how to do research, and that sort of thing, and feel reasonably competent. So it was great, the next step really from the job which had been partly administrative and partly research into something that was predominantly administrative but was in the context of research. So I think my sort of – and I mean lots of my peers were still academic researchers, so I still spoke to people about these sorts of issues and so I had a reasonably good grounding in it. And it seemed to be a new area that was growing, there were a couple of jobs in similar areas I applied for before I applied for the job I eventually got.

Could you talk to me generally about the experiences that you had at those interviews for HE admin positions?

One thing that people did say was they wanted to make sure you weren't just doing this as a stop gap. I remember a couple of times he was asking me are you sure you don't want to go back to a research career. Because I think particularly in research, it is the kind of job that people could think that they can do straight away, because they think if you have a research background you can just walk into it, and its basically sort of doing research and that sort of thing. And I've spoken to people in similar positions and they thought it would be a very straight forward thing to walk into. And just for six months or so while they were waiting to get an academic job. So I think people are quite keen to see that you're serious about doing an admin job and understand the difference between that and doing that in HEI, there are some different responsibilities involved. So that was one thing I was kind of quite keen to do. The HE experience could feed into the job I was applying for, and that was relevant to what experiences I would bring that other candidates might not have.

Can you remember the kind of answers you gave to those questions about the relevance of the PhD?

I think it's probably, again, it would be about empathy with the people you're working with. Having sort of an understanding of the process and the way that HEI's work compared with other organisations. So just a sort of an understanding of the culture I think is probably one of the main things that people were looking for.

Did you ever think about spreading the net wider and looking beyond HE to other careers?

Yeah I certainly thought about it. Again its one of those things in terms of knowing where to start and I found it quite difficult to – I'm not a natural bluffer so I tend to need to have a sort of evidence base to go in so I can talk about something rather than talking about me in the sort of abstract sense or a more sort of general skill sense. I find it much easier to be able to relate to more sort of generic roles to more specific things that I've done in the past. So I think that's one of the reasons why I thought I needed to adopt this sort of gradualist approach to career development.

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