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