I’ve found it difficult to make it in the private sector, at least in terms of working for other people. The problem is getting a chance. One opportunity came to me through an employment agency. I interviewed over the phone and met the hiring manager in person over coffee. It was a role where they wanted a native English speaker fluent in Italian, which isn’t the most common thing in North Lanarkshire. I was getting seriously good vibes about my chances of being offered a £25k a year position until the hiring manager asked me to send him my CV, as the agency hadn’t passed it on to him. I never heard from him again. What was on my CV that I hadn’t disclosed to him in the process of doing his online tests and chats? My PhD. It made me look, I was told by the agency, overqualified. They recommended that I didn’t mention it when applying for jobs, unless it was part of the specification. I still don’t know if that’s good advice or not, but it did upset and depress me. I’m not kidding, there are times that I worry that I’ve wasted my life. Not often, but it does happen. That’s when we should focus on our own special skills and how we have exercised them in the course of our research.
My wife has been very supportive, and indeed, asking those who love you to reflect your qualities back to you might help you to realise where your strengths lie. This is very helpful when you are looking for opportunity. I have an ability to throw myself into things that I believe in, trusting my judgement and latching on to what really matters. It’s these skills that am using in my new career as the owner of a small business, making innovative products for people who make music.
And it’s these skills that have been enhanced by my training as an academic. Make no mistake about it: the training that the university gives you – whether it makes a special effort to or not – is valuable. As well as a certain status that, yes, the title Dr gives you, you will have a finely-tuned ability to look at data, get to what’s important and – this is the kicker – work with people to refine and crystallise your ideas.
Collaboration is more than just a buzzword in research. It’s fundamental to the process and always has been. Even the fabled old academician in his ivory tower debates and wrestles with his sources, the forebears and contemporaries who make up the theses and antitheses that he synthesises to produce original knowledge. And so it is in the real world. One thing you will almost certainly have learned in the course of writing your thesis is that your original contribution to human knowledge is built, necessarily, on the work of others. And so it is in the real world. You will have learned how essential communication is to the process of research and knowledge production: so it is in the real world.
I’m being provocative with this insistence on a ‘real’ world outside of academia. That’s how I used to see it, from the inside, and that’s how my friends thought of it. The truth is that the university is part of the real world, albeit a rarefied and special part, and it has given you skills that you can use in ways that you do not yet suspect. Whereas I once wanted to inspire students and write articles, now I direct my energy to helping musicians and providing employment. And the things I learned about myself and the skills I sharpened in the course of the PhD are a big part of that change.
There is a whole heap of opportunities open to you once you get through the PhD. You might make it in academia, and I hope you do if you want to. You might stay in the university, providing very valuable knowledge and expertise in professional circles. You might have things to bring to the private sector, the third sector or your own start-up. Just remember this: you’re exceptional, you’re up there with the smartest people alive. Maybe you ought to make your mark on this world?
Very many thanks to Chris for sharing his inspiring journey with us. We hope that you find it supportive to follow our correspondents’ and guest bloggers’ stories which might mirror your own experiences. Have you got any to share? We’re open to guest blogging posts, so please do get in touch…