Where, if anywhere, did you see yourself beyond the PhD? And did this change while you were doing the PhD?
I found it hard to imagine having a nine to five job, so I tried to think of lots of careers that didn't involve one but which would pay me a living wage. So that was one set of thoughts. I also had, I speak fluent Russian, and I thought that there might be some way there of working as a translator that would allow me to have freedom, because generally they're self-employed and not tied to a desk. So that was one set of thoughts and I did apply for a job at BBC monitoring, which is a part of the BBC that looks at the foreign press and makes translations with them available. I didn't get the job, and that was quite badly paid and so I began to think towards the end of my PhD that I was going to have to go for a nine to five job, because frankly I was fed up of being poor on the research grant that I had. Although it was much more generous than nothing, and it was perfectly possible to live off it, it wasn't going to meet my aspirations in the long term. So I began to see that in order to have the salary I wanted I was going to have to work nine to five and obviously I've said elsewhere in this interview that now I find that to be a positive experience because I found that it absolves me from lots of the guilt I used to feel about not being a consistently hard worker every day for a certain amount of time, but back then it felt like it might be a negative experience.
Did you apply for any academic jobs?
No. Apart from the one job I applied for at BBC monitoring, which I applied for on spec because someone brought it to my attention, I didn't start planning the future in any great detail and it was really, events overtook me. So around the time when I probably would've started to plan, in the autumn of 2004, I then got certain opportunities that made it easier to understand where I was going to go next and made, for me, the switch from a freer form of life to a nine to five job easier to make – because in other parts of my life as a writer, I was retaining freedom of movement and thought, and a sort of self-employed element so that was, it meant it didn't feel as though I was selling out.
Did you do anything during the PhD that you might look back in retrospect and see as career building?
There were things I did as well, I mean I think first of all doing a long-term research degree is one of the most career building things you can do. It is a proof, so long as you can talk cogently about the specific types of research you have done, and you can communicate them clearly to someone who's not a specialist, I think it is walking talking proof of the many, of the career development you have undertaken since doing your BA, since doing your first degree. So that's the first and the main thing and I think I was aware of that the whole way through. But it does, the work has to be allied with an ability to talk about the work in a way that's understandable to people. The second thing is that I did quite a lot of university admissions interviewing of candidates wanting to come up and do BA and that was paid work – and that was the main reason for doing it – but I was aware that that was developing an interviewing technique that I have used a lot in my job at the National Audit Office, because interviewing is a large part of that, and I've also used in my writing because interviewing is a large part of writing non-fiction. So that would be the other thing, but I never actively pursued career development, and actually always thought doing that seemed a bit naff, I suppose, if I'm honest. And I haven't found that to be a problem. I would say for people who aren't confident public speakers, I mean, taking the opportunity to give conference talks and seminars in public is probably one of the most important things, because academia is an unusually solitary activity and almost anything else you could imagine doing outside will involve more personal contact with other people and will rely more on your ability to communicate verbally – so although I didn't have a particular problem there I do think that keeping that skill up, keeping that muscle exercised all through the years of doing the research was useful.
Although you didn't do anything career building as such, were you at all anxious about what would happen after the PhD?
Yes, I was anxious on two levels, I was anxious on a mundane level in that I was going to run out of money and I didn't know what I was going to do and I didn't want to have a bad job, which didn't pay well. Nor did I want to have a sort of filler job that involved, you know, selling sweets in a corner shop. I was also anxious that I should be able to describe the trajectory my life had taken in a way that didn't make it look like I had suddenly switched course and therefore denied the reality or the usefulness of the preceding four years. So I wanted to be able to describe what I had done as being logical even if lots of people wouldn't immediately see it as that.
Can you unpick that a bit more?
Yeah, I think that's probably true for a lot of people who see that they wanted to do a PhD and they enjoyed it but they don't want to have an academic job, or they can't get an academic job. I think I realised that you can see the PhD in two ways, you can see it as a professional qualification that gives you almost the equivalent of chartered status – to allow you to practice as an academic if you like – but you can also see it as a qualification that provides a lot of deep knowledge of a subject area other people outside of academia require. Or you can also see it as a set of skills that are acquired at a very high level and which can be redeployed outside of academia. It's in those latter two categories that I think people should try to see their skills if they're thinking of moving outside of university life at the end of a PhD.
I'm interested, really interested in what you were saying about the way that we think about our trajectories and the sort of narratives we tell ourselves about our lives. Can you articulate a little bit more about that whole area?
I think a lot of us who went on to do PhDs, looked at our friends who left after their BA in history or English or biochemistry or whatever, and immediately did a law conversion course, or went to work in the city, as people who had very abruptly changed course – possibly to the extent of disproving the reason why they had done the degree they'd done in the first place and certainly in a way that would mean that they would never, ever be able to use that information that they learned for their finals or their modules again. And we probably felt – I certainly felt – that we probably feel that we, there was more continuity in the decisions we took. Because you go on and do a masters and you do a PhD and you're refining and honing all the time what you're looking at, but basically you're staying true to an original set of interests that you began your adult life with, if you went to university when you turned eighteen. And so there's a real continuity there and I think that there is a lot of attraction, I think one of the reasons why people fight to have an academic career afterwards is because they want to be able to see that teleology, 'well, at eighteen I made these decisions and at twenty one these decisions and then I finally got my academic job at twenty nine and, you know, all the way through, I've been doing this'.
It is important to realise that most peoples' lives aren't like that and everyone talks nowadays about portfolio careers and people who do make sharp changes. Obviously the key thing is to be happy and that may necessitate a sharp break with the past. But I do think there are ways of leaving academia at the end of a PhD and telling yourself the story of how your life has been and why you're changing direction, which are not just disingenuous and not untrue but which allow you to make quite a sharp change but retain credibility with yourself because that's important, isn't it? You don't want to feel that you've somehow been living a lie for the preceding period of time or that you're moving into a period of your life when, because it's difficult to stay true to your feelings, you're going to live a lie and do something mercenary simply for money.
I think it is possible to stay true to yourself, and perhaps one of the things that I did, and I know this is a very specific example, but one of the things that made it much easier for me was having this not very lucrative, but really exciting and interesting opportunity to write a book on Russian issues for a popular audience. As I decided to leave academia at the end of my PhD and knew that I was going to be using lots of my research skills at the National Audit Office, nonetheless I had a fear that I was leaving behind, I was going to lose something of the pure essence of research, because I was going to be researching for a purpose, someone else's purpose, not my own and having, knowing that I had this other thing that I had to do, which was lots more work and in that sense not always that enjoyable, it did allow me to leave with a clear conscience and without too much concern about whether I was going to feel unfulfilled or not.
So I think that one option is to find a reason to continue the aspects of your PhD research that you enjoyed and that you think you might be about to lose in your job – to find a way of continuing those outside, which is serious and meaningful, all the while understanding, I think, that if it's not your main job then there's a risk of not being very motivated to do it when you come home and actually what you want to do is watch Eastenders or read a trashy crime novel. So it does take motivation to do it but that is one of the ways of retaining credibility with yourself and with your life story.
Can you talk to me about the transition from PhD into your current role with the National Audit Office?
I find it quite an easy transition that lots and lots of my friends were incredibly surprised when I applied for and got this job. They thought it was, they couldn't imagine why I would want to do it, thought it sounded very dry. I think I'd heard of the National Audit Office before and understood something of what they did and actually thought that it would really suit me. Like lots of humanities researchers, I was very interested in politics and followed the news very closely when I should have been looking more closely at my own research, probably at times. And in one sense National Audit Office value for money work is all about the news, it's about following current trends, looking at policies and what happened. So, I knew that all of the things being equal I would find the transition quite easy and I did, but I can't say that that was entirely because of everything that my PhD had set me up for, some of it was about other aspects of my personality.
I've said already I find it easy to transfer, to transition to a nine to five life. That actually lifted from me some of the pressure I felt about being a self starter and self motivated and, you know, that's perhaps a useful lesson for people contemplating a career outside of academia, lots of job applications tell you you have to be a self starter but actually almost all them, in almost all of them you have to be less of a self starter than you are doing a PhD, because actually they all require you to be at your desk at a certain time and stay there until a certain time. So in that sense it's not as much of a problem as it is for PhD students who genuinely have to drum up the energy to turn on the laptop and start tapping away at it. I suppose the one thing I missed or found difficult was the loss of the freedom to take leave when you wanted and of course it's a bit of a false freedom in academia because actually many people their leave ends up looking very much like their working life and they sort of take leave but it means that they've actually gone to different city where there's a library or a conference or whatever and they're not really relaxing and maybe they don't have any money to relax anyway but it is true in academia that you can take long periods of leave at a time that suits you and it's necessarily true in working life. First of all, you have less leave to take in the year but also you have to ask your boss whether it would be ok to take it now or maybe you'd rather I take it later. And I do still find that quite a struggle although I've had very good management who've generally let me take leave when I like – but that's something I miss. Other than that I loved it immediately actually, my job here, and was very sure, very quickly, that it was more than just a stop gap to pay bills while I try to become a writer, I was convinced that I would have a long stint here and I have.
Can you talk me through your application process?
Two absolutely key things. One is, I think this is true in any interview, certainly true at the National's, be social, show that you can speak coherently and that you don't hate doing it, and be prepared. Your biggest selling point, once they see that you've got a PhD is that you can research and make sense of large bodies of information in relatively short time periods and make sensible conclusions. So, don't belie that by turning up unprepared for the interview, was my attitude, and I think that worked. So, what does that mean in reality?
Well, the application is a CV and then a covering letter saying why you're interested in the job and I think there are some questions about, you know, tell us about a time when you led people through adversity and lots of things that people think they never do when they're doing PhDs. You've got to think quite laterally about what they are, and it might be helping a weak student who you've been teaching, it might be that the example is drawn from redoing a piece of work after having had some critical feedback on it, so that it becomes better. It might be carrying out additional research at short notice because you've discovered someone has made your argument that was previously correct, incorrect, or you need some extra proof for it and they're all kinds of things. Think of them as stories, separate incidents.
It's easy to think of your PhD as being a kind of one long piece of time that lasted for years and was all working towards this goal. Break it into separate stories, which is what I did and think about the research in your PhD in scientific terms, think about what the different types of research are, give them names, find out what the names are, check with a friend who works in scientific research or sociological research, find out the names for them if you're going for a research post, so you know, if it's quantitative analysis or social profiling or whatever. You probably wouldn't call it those things if you're just doing a thesis on it because you don't need to but it's very important to give them names that are recognised in the world at large, if that's where you're trying to get your job.
The thing that I did that I think was most helpful in getting the job was I read about ten of the most recent National Audit Office reports from cover to cover in the week running up to my interview. I think I surprised the people interviewing me by how much I knew about what they'd been doing in the recent past. You know, that's something that would be a familiar and recognisable activity for any PhD student – mastering a large body of information – but you might not always think about doing it for an interview. I think it's even more important if they're looking and seeing that you have a PhD, because they'll assume that that's where you're strengths are going to lie so don't make them unthink that. If they're already thinking you're going to be strong at research then don't give them any excuse to think 'oh I was wrong, he's not, she's not'.
So the interviewers were receptive to your PhD?
Very much so, yeah. That's probably partly to do with the organisation, there are lots of people with PhDs in the National Audit Office, maybe about five percent of total staff but it's also because most PhDs are very interesting and if you can put them across, if you can put across what you've spent the last three years doing in an interesting way, most people will appreciate that you have a depth of knowledge in that area that is unique and unparalleled. And most people on some level will be envious – in a good way – of you having had the opportunity to do that and they will also look forward to having you working for them, mastering large bodies of information on their behalf and saving them from having to read all of the dull reports that they have been before you arrived. I mean these are the ways of looking at it, you can solve these people's problems in part because of the experience you've had through doing PhD research.