This story actually starts before I finished my PhD, but is part and parcel of what working life in the post-doc phase can look like. I defended my thesis in late August last year, but had already been working full-time for eight months by the time my viva came around. Finishing the doctorate and working full-time is not something I’d recommend if you can avoid it, but not everyone has the luxury of sidestepping that bullet, for time and/or financial reasons. What made life – unexpectedly – even trickier was that the full-time hours were in the same university, but split 50:50 between two very different kinds of work.
One of my jobs has been as a research assistant on a project looking at widening participation, something I was already thinking about, working on, and have done a number of blogs around. This was mostly familiar ground in terms of the topic and was also in the same school/department where I did my doctorate. In many ways it was largely a continuation of my academic ways of thinking and being. I was reviewing and summarising literature, negotiating ethical approval, collecting and analysing different kinds of quantitative and qualitative data, drafting papers, discussing conceptual frameworks with colleagues, doing presentations, and even teaching a little and supervising a Master’s dissertation. No change there. More variety than during the doctorate alone, but all part of the same sphere somehow.
The other job was coordinating academic staff development projects across four universities as part of an emerging cross-university alliance. One of the most obvious differences from the beginning was in the language that some people used. There was a lot more ‘management speak’, such as ‘optimising resource’, needing to ‘square the circle’, or people finishing sentences with ‘going forward’. This was a world I’d not inhabited for about ten years, and it was initially unfamiliar, occasionally baffling, and sometimes amusing. Some of this work was very new, like negotiating working groups, steering groups, and summarising complex projects into a page (perhaps two) of bullet points for meetings. Much of the early work was fact-finding, speaking to senior academics and non-academics about issues around staff development, funding mechanisms, doctoral training, and research collaboration. In many ways, as a higher educationalist, this was grist to my mill, giving me fascinating insights into topics and subject areas that I wouldn’t usually come across, like diamond technology, cell biology, law, and medieval history. It also gave me a sense of how senior leadership in universities functions, of high level, strategic decision-making and a real hands-on understanding of how universities function and interact in practice.
Both were interesting jobs, and both had their pros and cons, although I was more comfortable – at least more of the time – in the research role. The greatest challenge was in combining them. Even after a period of acclimatising to the non-academic job, I found moving between them very difficult. I initially did two and a half days of each, switching mid-way through, but I’d often run into problems at that mid-point. I’d sometimes sit there at my desk trying to work out who I was and what I was doing! I also found that working on my PhD or publications in the evenings was much harder after the non-academic days, that switching back into academic mode. After a while I realised that I would have to try and arrange things so they didn’t cross over on the same day. I was lucky that I could do this, with both bosses being understanding, and both jobs being in the same university.
I’ll have done this for over a year and a half by the time I move into my lecturing job in September, and have learnt to shift between the two fairly easily. I’m not sure when it became natural to do so, but it certainly took a while. Both will have been useful to me in complementary ways, giving me experience that a junior research role alone may not have done. Of course being involved with seasoned academics on a collaborative research project (with publications!!) is something that will always stand me in good stead. But the other work has enabled me to develop some things that I’d be more likely to see a little later in my career, such as experience of budgets, project management, line management – those kinds of practical skills. I’ve also had a brilliant schooling in how universities function through having to liaise with and between academics across the disciplinary spectrum and non-academic staff who keep the whole thing running. There are some interesting tensions there, and I’ve had some experiences, revelations – and made some mistakes – that I’ll long remember with a wry smile. It’s not how I imagined the immediate post-PhD patch to look, but it’s paid the bills, presented some interesting challenges, and I’ve met nice people along the way.