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How is a work identity formed?
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: How is a work identity formed?
The group explores issues that link personal identity to career, with particular reference to PhD researchers. They talk about the feelings and emotions that accompany career changes, the temptation to rush into taking a new direction, and the period of adaptation which follows any entry into a new environment and a new career.

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Phil: You mentioned the word identity and I wondered whether we should spend some time talking about identity. It's an issue that has come up in previous conversations and conversations with PhD students. One student has said to us, well, if she wasn't going to pursue an academic research career she didn’t know who she was. Is that something that dovetails with your experience?  

Catherine: Yes I think it is very common isn't it, yes. How we perceive ourselves is so much engaged with what we do with the day to day that once that particular role stops then the identity falls away.  

Helen: They have been thinking in those sort of terms for such a long while, particularly people who have been perhaps considering an academic career, and then sort of withdraw from that. They are really sort of experiencing feelings of loss, in a sense. 

Catherine: Yes  

Phil: And also feeling that they are behind schedule; they’re not on the ladder where they should be, and so there is this sort of slightly manic ‘oh, I'm must decide very quickly, I must decide now.’ And some careers advisors find themselves saying ‘well slow down’ to take the pressure to decide off – there is a necessary period of trial and experimentation for you to go through here.  

Catherine: And that continues even into the first post I think doesn't it, because suddenly you've signed that contract and arrived in the office on day one doesn't mean that you suddenly are that new identity – it takes a while for those clothes to fit comfortably. For you to wear that cloak and for it to feel like your clothes as opposed to somebody else’s clothes. And for you to enjoy that identity. And I think some people act it more quickly than others; they naturally can act themselves into that role and feel comfortable in it – others take longer to adapt into that new environment. And sometimes it's the wrong environment and they won't adapt into it, you know, and that's another decision that might need to be made later on.  

Helen: That reminds me of a student that I worked with last year when she completed her PhD and had been thinking seriously for sometime about working for the big four, which she ended up doing, which was obviously marked quite a departure from her sort of research area and discipline. She rang me up, actually last week, to say that she's very unhappy; it wasn't meeting her expectations and she was feeling really quite unsettled. And I think I had sensed at the time that she was very much rushing it. But then she did have other primary concerns; she had a young family to support as well and so she felt that sense of urgency. But obviously now she is deeply concerned that she wants to withdraw from this post and how is that going to appear to employers or future employers; somebody who has maybe had six months experience and nothing else beyond that to sort of promote her really.  

Catherine: Do you know what she will do next?  

Helen: It’s very, very difficult; we are sort of having quite deep conversations at the moment about sort of reorientating herself, but she's lost a tremendous amount of confidence during this experience. And I think she’s feeling quite unsettled by the fact that she’s in what is primarily a graduate role, and that's not how she defines herself.  

Catherine: But a lot of those entry positions will be for graduates and postgraduate researchers, won’t they, and then how do you manage that – suddenly being with a different peer group who haven't had the same experience of you, are in a different stage of their lives sometimes, different ways of socialising, different ways of being in work that just seem very alien to somebody who has completely a PhD.  

Helen: Absolutely  

Catherine: And some fit in really easily and it's a ball and for others it's a struggle  

Helen: Yeah  

Phil: I think it’s realising that an academic research career is not the only arena in which you can use cognitive intellectual skills and research skills. And one example is a PhD student who decided not to pursue an academic career initially. She went on to join a human resource facility and then subsequently went into teaching, into primary school teaching, and she has actually realised the application of theories of learning is an area that she is particularly interested in. And so she's actually using her intellectual training in a different capacity and she's actually kind of reinventing her identity in a teaching role as opposed to a full research role.  

Catherine: But I think that's what I was talking about evolving earlier on – you sort of can't see that from where you’re at, you don't know what's going to happen next and how that's going to change you and change your thinking. And so this sense of the ‘planned happenstance’; the being open to the opportunities as they arise, and aware of how you are evolving, keeps it alive and vibrant. 

Helen: It does and I think the identity obviously changes and evolves because first starting out on this path you're still very, very close to the academic epicentre if you like and so obviously you will sort of define yourself by that culture. I think things do start to change as you start to sort of almost reengage with society beyond university and recognise everyday discourse and how people approach things.

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