Finding Fulfilment in ‘Other’ Spaces
I have always loved learning. As a child, I was captivated by the world around me and wanted to figure out how it all worked. It didn’t matter what it was I was studying, I was just intensely curious. This intellectual curiosity is what propelled me through my undergraduate and master’s degrees, and is what ultimately encouraged me to do a PhD. I wanted to learn as much as I could about the world and our place in it. I had majored in history in my undergraduate and master’s, studying everything from modern Canadian politics to pre-Columbian migrations to the new world.
I wasn’t so much interested in a particular society, as in our fascination with things that had happened long ago. Why should a people who lived thousands of years ago still hold such meaning for us today? How did we understand the past, and what impact did the past have on us? When it came to choosing a topic for my PhD I knew I wanted to study an ancient society, but it didn’t matter so much which society, as it was our fascination with the past that really captivated me. I ended up researching Archaic and Classical Greek political discourse, looking at Greeks and Barbarians, and how the Greeks conceived of the ‘Other’.
I enjoyed the process of doing a PhD – the intellectual freedom, the opportunity to read and study ancient texts, the ability to immerse myself in a topic and really come to understand something in depth was exhilarating. But I recognized pretty quickly that I wasn’t cut out for academia. While I loved the research, my topic was not what interested me. In truth, I could have studied any ancient society and been just as fascinated. What I enjoyed was the process of learning and the environment in which I was working.
Going into the PhD I had assumed that I would pursue an academic career, not only because I wasn’t aware of the other opportunities available to me, but also because I loved this environment and thought that I had to be an academic in order to continue to be a part of this world. I quickly became disenchanted academia, though. I knew that I could do it – my research was interesting, and I enjoyed teaching – but I never really felt I had the necessary passion required in order to succeed in the academic world. I balked at the thought of moving my family around year after year as I went from one temporary contract to another, as so many of my friends and colleagues have done.
I didn’t really know what options were available to me, though, so I continued to apply for academic roles while I completed revisions on my thesis. And then I was hired as an intern with the newly founded Bristol Doctoral College. I didn’t really understand what a Doctoral College was, or how it fit into the existing structures of the University, but I was intrigued by its emphasis on skills training, something that I had felt had been lacking in my own experience. Within days it felt as though a light had been lit within me. Suddenly, my work mattered. I was surrounded by people who listened to and respected my opinion. They appreciated what I had to offer and I could immediately see how what I was doing was improving the situation for others. I’ve never looked back.
I am the Postgraduate Researcher Development Officer at the University of Bristol. My main responsibility is to coordinate the University’s Personal and Professional Development Programme for postgraduate research students. As such, I work with a variety of teams around the University, including the Library, Careers Service, IT, and many others, to coordinate a programme of workshops and resources specifically designed with the needs of research students in mind. I also deliver a number of workshops, focusing in particular on the challenges researchers might be facing at specific points in their project, and equipping them with the skills and resources necessary to be successful.
One of the things that I enjoy most about my job is working with students.
I love hearing about the projects they are exploring, the exciting discoveries they are making, and the challenges that they are facing. I am still surrounded by the vibrant intellectual environment that I had always wanted to be a part of, but now I can see how my work is directly benefitting others. When I put together a training package or help to coordinate an interdisciplinary event I can see how I am equipping others to be successful, empowering them to recognize the value of their work, and helping to forge connections that might not otherwise have happened.
I used to think that I had just ‘fallen into’ this role. Researcher Development had only very recently started to emerge as a career when I started my PhD, so it wasn’t something that I could have planned for when I began my research degree. But it also wasn’t entirely serendipitous that this is the career I have built for myself. I had always enjoyed teaching, as it not only provided an opportunity for me to share information that I was genuinely interested in, but it provided a forum in which to enable others to excel. It was inevitable that I would continue to seek ways to share my passions and to utilize my teaching experience to support others – training and development was a logical next step.
Likewise, managing a large research project such as a PhD taught me valuable project management skills, which have been reinforced through formal training and leading large-scale projects in a professional context. The inherently critical nature of academia developed my resiliency and persistence – skills which have been invaluable as I transitioned into a non-academic role.
But the biggest advantage that I had was that I was open to new possibilities and did not hesitate to take advantage of the opportunities that were offered to me. This was partially my own natural aptitude, but the PhD reinforced in me the need to be flexible in my approaches, to be open to new avenues of exploration, and to follow my instincts. Often, the greatest contributor to success isn’t just recognizing a need but realizing that you are able to fill that need. I didn’t have a clear plan when I began my PhD, and I didn’t complete my PhD with much more clarity, but I did emerge with a set of skills that have been invaluable in my career.
One of the most valuable skills a PhD provides you with is flexibility of thought. Completing a doctoral journey isn’t just about the degree qualification, but the skills acquired along the way, and their applicability in different contexts. If you’re open to these different contexts new career paths will inevitably open up before you.
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