To Be Or Not To Be An Academic That Is The Question?

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When I finished my PhD in 2010, it was not fully clear to me whether I would pursue a traditional academic career. This is not to say that I did not love teaching or academic research. Indeed, the time I spent running my own third year module in the final year of my degree confirmed that this was the career path for me. Yet in the summer of 2010, I recognised that I was not a serious candidate for an academic post. While I had my PhD in hand and a CV with a growing teaching portfolio, I had still to produce my first published piece of work. Though I didn’t dismiss the prospect of returning to Higher Education in the future, I knew that I needed time to think about my publications, a break from my doctoral thesis and time to pay off a few debts.

I must confess that it was daunting thinking about what alternative careers I was eligible for. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the industries that interested me were all relevant to the academic profession in some form. These included academic publishing; knowledge exchange; outreach; and research bid management. Again I found myself faced with the same problem of experience in a competitive market. I realised that the only way that I could build up my professional portfolio was by volunteering in the sector that was of most interest to me, academic publishing. I spent two weeks volunteering at two local university presses, but the experience that I gained here led to a number of interviews in publishing and research management. By the winter of 2010, I had been offered two jobs, one as a Journals Editor and another as a Knowledge Exchange Co-ordinator. In the end, I went for the knowledge exchange post within a local university, as I could develop experience in outreach, bid writing and events management.

My advice would be for early career scholars who are looking for a break from mainstream academia is firstly not to be afraid to ask for work experience in an industry of interest to you. Secondly, do not think that working outside of academia closes your potential to return. Thirdly, think seriously about relevant careers that will help you later on as a university lecturer or researcher. In all of my academic interviews, I have always been asked about my professional skills. Though I can draw upon the organisational, networking and communications skills from my PhD, it is important to recognise additionally the benefits that a professional CV will bring to an academic department. This is a challenging time for universities with widening participation agendas, and recruitment and retention issues. If you are able to show how you can draw upon your professional skills to respond to these various challenges, you will stand out from applicants who can only offer teaching and research.


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