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Heather - career building during the PhD
Name: Heather
PhD discipline: English Literature
Area(s) of work: Self-employed writer; dyslexia support tutor; tutor in creative writing
Year of graduation: 2002
Date of Interview: 07/05/2008

Now Playing: Heather - career building during the PhD
Heather discusses how the PhD process and her extracurricular activities equipped her for a non-academic career.

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You say you've always had an agenda and a sense of purpose. How did you bring that into play whilst you were doing the PhD?

I think that was the frustrating thing, that I started out, as I said, with the PhD that started out being much more imaginative and creative and drawing on those skills that I have, but in the end it ended up being more, erm, sort of less creative and imaginative than I had hoped. Some of it did manage to be and that worked well but other bits of it I didn't feel lived up to my creative hopes and I just don't think academic writing can often. I think lots of academic writing in English isn't particularly creative. The best of it is but generally it isn't, it's too left hemisphere for me and I'm a right hemisphere person, I think. That's putting it very bluntly and in a psycho-pop way, but I think that's what it was. It ended up being a very left hemisphere skill which has been really useful for me to develop because I always used to be overly developed in the right hemisphere I think and it's really helped me to develop very useful skills of discipline and structure and argument and research skills and managing large amounts of material so it's been incredibly useful but it didn't use right hemisphere skills enough.

And beyond the thesis, like outside of the thesis during your PhD did you have opportunities to submerge yourself in that sort of, your creative world?

Erm I feel like I did in other ways in that I had extra-curricular things I did. Making stuff and being very interested in film, but I didn't do much creative writing during the PhD. I just didn't have any space to develop it really. I think it was going on subconsciously and it was really after the thesis was finished, about a week after my viva, I just sort of erupted into creative thinking and it was just all quite suppressed during the PhD I think. But quite usefully, I think it was all sort of building and you know, what's the word, distilling underneath the thesis so I don't think nothing was happening even though I wasn't explicitly writing you know, so – no it just took all my energy to do the thesis. It took absolutely every ounce of energy to be able to do it. I think that's true of everyone I know so it doesn't leave you with much time or energy to do anything else.

Can you remember what you were anticipating about finishing and afterwards?  Did you have a sense of what the future would be like?

No, I remember feeling like just because the last year of the thesis I couldn't think about anything except getting it finished so I didn't have any sense of a future. All I had a sense of was that I wanted this to be done and I wanted it to pass and I wanted to be finished with it and it took so much energy that I didn't have any left to think about the future and it was only once it was done that I could then turn my attention to the future really. I mean I vaguely sort of thought about careers and I kind of did some exercises to think about what careers I wanted but I turned my attention to that when I finished and could only really think about the future once it was done.

So you didn't really engage in any skills training or kind of career activity?

No. I went to the British Academy - as it was then - career weekend or week, yeah, I don't know what it's called now and I found it totally useless and in fact the only thing it gave me was a sense that I never want to be put through something as ludicrous and patronising as this ever again and in that way it was useful. It was ridiculous. It was totally designed around science students and they just kind of grafted a few humanities people on the top and it was just ludicrous. It was utterly pointless and it made a mockery of what I was doing in fact because it didn't address anything to do with the values or the concerns or interests that I was actually dealing with in my PhD and it was a total waste of money and I was very angry about it at the time and felt like it was a total waste of taxpayer's money. I wasted my time and it made me very cross actually and it put me off pursuing other kinds of structured ways of thinking about careers. Careers services I found utterly useless so I ended up reading books and I particularly found What Colour is your Parachute really helpful which I think is a book that lots of people read about careers. I went through those structured exercises very carefully and I found that incredibly helpful and talking to other people once I'd finished and working through mind maps and brainstorms and thinking about underlying interests and values helped me. So I absolutely addressed career issues but only after the thesis was done, except for this week during the thesis research when I went to this hopeless British Academy week which was counter productive.

Can you remember any courses or workshops put on by the faculty or the careers service that you noticed and ignored or got involved in?

I think I was probably one of those students that was a bit bad at reading bumph that comes through about the careers services. I've just never been particularly good at that. So I probably did ignore things that might have been useful provided by the careers service at my university but I didn't pursue them. I've always wanted to be self-employed and quite self-directed and I don't feel that careers services are often very good at providing information about that and I felt that I needed to develop my own sense of future and career quite organically through my own interests and my own things that I really care about and that's what I've done and I don't think careers services can provide you with that. You know it's more of a case of take a good look at yourself and ask yourself what you want out of life - which is what the What Colour is your Parachute book does very successfully. It doesn't talk about careers but talks about values and interests and kinds of environments you need to be in and lots of much broader questions which I think are a more useful way of thinking about careers. So I found there was some useful workshops run by the department about how to become an academic. They were very good at that. They provided workshops on how to write reviews for journals and how to approach journals with journal articles and how to publish and they were very helpful on that but the department didn't really acknowledge or countenance the idea that people might be doing a PhD who didn't want to become academics - so there wasn't really a venue or avenue institutionally for me to pursue my future. I had to kind of do it by myself once I left really.

What sort of value did you place on networking, socially and academically?

Mmm, that was the most useful thing that came out of it. I feel that I met a really interesting range of people who were doing PhDs and who have gone on to do a range of really interesting things inside academia and outside that have developed into a very useful network. I met lots of other people who have become writers since, who've become academics, who've become agents and editors and publishers and artists - so it's definitely, the sort of circle of people that I met through it that have been the most useful and brilliant part of it really. 

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