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Robert - deciding against an academic career
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 - deciding against an academic career
Robert talks in detail about what happened towards the end of his PhD to put him off the idea of pursuing an academic career.

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Can you talk me through what's happening in the last year of your PhD?

I was bringing together loose ends and very aware that my funding was going to expire. And really knowing that I wasn't going to get finished by the end of my fourth year, the September, end of the academic year. I was sending off various job applications for quite a lot of things, some of which I was getting interviews for, some of which I wasn't, both academic and non academic, and also at that point signing on with temp agencies and that was largely dictated by agencies which I knew about that actually specialised in kind of you know the cultural sector, arts and that kind of thing. I had friends who had said to me 'this agency deals with the Tate Gallery' or this agency deals with this art college or whatever so I'd really been guided them in thinking that if those were areas outside of academia then I might be interested in them maybe signing on with agencies might actually help get some insight into what those kinds of things did.

And so were you temping at the same time as finishing that?

I was, yeah for the last five months which was very, very difficult. And I reached a point where I had done a stint with a company that shall remain nameless and an agency that will also remain nameless where the work had not been all it was advertised as being and had been very, very difficult and at that point I realised my PhD still wasn't finished. I hadn't looked at it for about two months and that if I didn't just stop everything else for the period of weeks, it turned out to be three weeks, then it would never get finished. So I just, you know, more or less took the phone off the hook for three weeks and just sat down and bashed it out basically, knowing that if I didn't it would never get done. And so that would have been early 2003 and I eventually submitted in March 2003, had a viva in May 2003, and all that while I was applying for other jobs. And I actually had an interview for an academic post on the day that I submitted at a large institution in London in an area that was not particularly related to my PhD but which I certainly would have taken had I been offered it, and I had another few interviews around that period for academic positions that didn't come off.

What kind of academic positions, were they research positions?

Yeah at that point yeah, things like research fellow, research associate, that sort of stuff. And I had those at institutions in London and outside London. I was applying for things all over the place really but as I say it was always in tandem with applying for other stuff as well. I never really had that feeling that I think a lot of people do after finishing their PhD that they're going to go all out to get academic jobs and then if that doesn't work out, do something else. I was always a bit more scatter shot about it really.

What were the interviews for the academic positions like that you went to?

Very varied. I think that the first one I went to which was on the day that I actually submitted my PhD went very well, even though it was an area that I was not entirely familiar with. It was for a research position on a very long running, very well known to people in that area, intellectual history/biography type project in London. And the people made it clear that they were interested in what I had to say that even though I wasn't directly familiar with the subject matter, at least having a background in intellectual history was of interest to them and was valuable.

A couple of others I felt the interviewers were going through the motions a little bit. One of them was something where I found out that the person running the project had given the position to a mate of his, but they'd had to advertise it because of HR regulations and you think 'well it would be nice if they told me that beforehand.' One of them was a while later, actually it was the last interview I had for an academic position, not coincidentally was absolutely horrendous and I felt was the interviewer was uninterested, rude, and anybody else who had behaved like that at an interview would probably have got themselves in trouble. But I felt a little bit better when I spoke to other people who had known the woman who was chairing this interview and they said that she had a terrible reputation for behaving like that. I think really that which was in mid 2004 which was when I was already working in a full-time position doing something similar to what I'm doing now, was kind of the last straw for me with academic jobs. I sort of felt I'm not going to be spoken to like that and to be blunt, could earn more money and have better job security doing something else.

So that experience or rather those experiences of interviews for academic jobs actually shaped your feelings about applying for any more?

They were a contributory factor. It wasn't that in its entirety but it was a contributory factor, particularly the last one. But I think that they were I think symptomatic of something that I already felt about academic positions which is that they're very (…) at the early stages, which can go on for several years, tend to be very short term, tend to be going from one fixed term contract to another, often on I mean not bad salaries in the grand scheme of things but not very much if you're living in London. And I felt that I didn't want to go on chasing that kind of thing. I think with the first couple of things I applied for or was interviewed for I certainly would have taken them had I been offered them. But increasingly I just felt well is it really worth it? I mean I felt that I could get this, I could be earning x amount of money for two years but then it would finish and I won't be any better position than I was when I started. And I think I feel sort of vindicated by that a little bit because I've seen so many – sorry that's going to sound very wrong, it's not meant to imply any kind of schadenfreude or whatever but I do see people I know who are in that position who have, you know, gone for it in terms of academic jobs, have done things for a year, two years, three years then come out and found themselves in exactly the same position as they were when they started. So I think it was the lack of career progression and structure and security and as a function of those three things, money that I think was the main issue, but I think the thing with the interviews was symptomatic of that. I think it's very difficult to disentangle all those things. But yeah the interviews were a contributory factor. If it had just been a case of you know one woman behaving badly in an interview, I don't think it would have bothered me that much but it was the way that that seemed to re-confirm a lot of things that I'd already started to think about academia as a career that really put paid to it I think.

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