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Robert - advice
Name: Robert
PhD discipline: History
Area(s) of work: Academic research support administration
Year of graduation: 2003
Date of Interview: 17/06/2008

Now Playing: Robert - advice
Robert discusses some of the benefits of working within a university setting but in a non-academic post. He also considers the possibility that there is a trade-off.

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If you were asked for advice by somebody who was coming towards the end of their PhD who was uncertain about whether to take the direction of the career in academia or in HE but not an academic position, would you have any advice to give them?

I wouldn't try to persuade or dissuade them from doing one or the other. What I would say is that they should be very clear and quite hard nosed about what the academic route would actually entail and I think it is the case and I don't think I was unusual in this respect, that a lot of people even relatively late in their PhDs don't realise what the academic job market is like and don't realise the kinds of things that influence the academic job market as well as perhaps they should. I still think that although you know I was probably quite naïve in doing my PhD and it was really all about the work and I didn't think about a lot of those other aspects very much. I still think that a lot of people who are perhaps a bit more worldly than I was still don't really think about that. I think there's still a perception that it's all about one's individual research when it isn't, not really. I mean it's down to so many other things and of course you've got to be good at the research and of course that's the most important thing to the individual but departments in hiring people or even before that in kind of – the kinds of positions they advertise for are going to be under so many other constraints and have so many other things that they're looking for and people shouldn't under estimate the work that actually looking for an academic job entails and how often they're likely to get knocked back.

I mean that's something that nobody ever really tells you, and I don't mean to suggest that I would try to scare people off, but certainly at the beginning of a PhD it's not –

no matter how much people talk about the PhD as career preparation as distinct from producing a piece of work, I still don't think very many supervisors – because of the way that they come through themselves by definition, they're the ones who made it, ever really appraise people or the way that universities work and the way that the academic job market works, and having stepped outside it and still working within a university and seeing and to an extent being not responsible for those things but being involved with the kind of processes that lie behind those things, I think I see that much, much more clearly than I ever did.

That's interesting. And in terms of staying within HE, I don't know, I suppose I've got this question in my own mind - there are certain, there's something comfortable about, or not comfortable but familiar about staying in the institution, and there's something incredibly comforting about the nine to five and the secure income.


But is there a trade-off?

I think there's always a trade off in any job but I would say that the nine to five, the secure income are yeah after having a number of years of not having very much money, either doing a PhD and a PhD is anything but nine to five. You never really switch off from it, that those things are very, very good. The trade off, I mean there is a certain trade off in the sense that although I said earlier that my job is very autonomous and it is on a day to day basis in terms of not being – it's autonomous in terms of being self managed. It's not autonomous in the sense of the kind of intellectual autonomy that a PhD gives you. And in an academic position I think you have a kind of – you have a level of autonomy but it's a sort of circumscribed level of autonomy. A lot of people said to me while I was doing the PhD, people who are successful academics as well, not people who could be saying anything like this out of any kind of bitterness, said to me when I was doing a PhD or immediately after I'd finished 'that's the last time you'll ever get four years to do what you want to do'. And I think, you know, very few academics have the level of autonomy that allows them to do what they want to do in terms of their research. I mean, most are circumscribed by their institutions and departments research policies, strategies, priorities, the funding that's available. Things like the RAE. Nobody does what well I'd say from my own discipline, the big historians in the 70s did that you could translate that to the big literary critics or whatever in that period did in terms of taking several years and producing block busters. I mean it's all about getting your four outputs for the RAE. And that's what I mean when I say people aren't taught enough during their PhD about those kinds of things and about that sort of – those kinds of external pressures that are intrinsic to the academic world. But they're not anything to do with research in its purest form or scholarship, I mean people I think and I'm as guilty of this as anybody else, can get a little bit rose tinted about that kind of autonomy and academic life, but it's very, very circumscribed.

So you have that trade-off that it's important not to believe, you have that trade-off and do what I'm doing I mean, but it's important not to assume that it would be so drastically other in an academic position. And certainly you compare it to all kinds of other things that people I know work in, you know working in I don't know, IT or advertising or finance or whatever and the working conditions in a university in whatever position you're in are vastly better and that comes down to the amount of leave that you're allowed, it comes down to a degree of flexibility about your hours. What you have to wear, you know all kinds of things. I mean it's not that bad.

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