We’re delighted to hear from a researcher who has wrestled with the post-phd limbo and come out the other side with an alt-ac career. Dr Rob Edwards has found a career that makes the most of the knowledge and skills he honed on his PhD – and builds new ones. Read on to find out how he found his alternative career path.
In the beginning…
I started my PhD with the same hopes and dreams most of us have – graduate and have a PhD that really marks me as an ‘up and comer’ with brilliant new ideas to contribute to the world. I wanted to get a few publications out, secure a book deal for my thesis, get a tenure-track job – and life would be beautiful. Of course, the very fact that I am writing this blog suggests that many bits of that dream didn’t come true:
- Got a few publications out?
- Book deal?
- Tenure-track job?
- Beautiful life?
- I’ll get back to you on that one.
My thesis was a social history on Australian rural and regional popular culture, specifically looking at festivals in a particular Queensland country town: how they have changed over time, and what those changes mean in terms of identity for the residents in that town.
I had a great time doing the research.
Sure, there were the tedious bits of staring at microfilm of the local newspaper (all 150 years of it!), but other parts seemed intrepid at times, poring through ephemera collections of festival organisers, and examining agricultural show minute books – which, incidentally, were kept in a random store room in dusty piles, rather than your traditional, carefully maintained shelves in an archive somewhere.
Then there were the churches, and the remarkably different approaches to record-keeping. The Anglicans were very orderly, had a centralised archive in Brisbane for the entire Archdiocese, and marvellous records from the town’s Anglican Church Ladies Guild. Visits involved appointments to enter the archives, agreements signed, and tea and biscuits consumed at the appointed hour. The Catholics, on the other hand, prefer records to be kept by the individual churches, which leads to some interesting record-keeping practices. The local Catholic Daughters of Australia League chapter’s records were kept in a filing cabinet tucked inside the school attached to the Church. It took hours to find, and they let me spirit away the minute books to the bed and breakfast accommodation I was staying in to analyse them.
The sleuthing was extraordinarily fun.
I also had to interview people, discuss with them their experiences of organising, working at/for, and attending the festivals. I loved having people tell me their stories, and then listening to them over and over again on my headphones as I found the bits I could use. People were incredibly generous with their time, their memories, and, often, their freshly baked scones. I was truly living the dream.
After the PhD
And then: submission. I passed with minor revisions, and much praise from the professor I had requested to examine my work. I had been daring enough to critique his assumptions about rural Australian popular culture, and had been rewarded for it. Beauty. A stellar career awaits; a job will pop up, my brilliance will shine through, and bam! Tenure town here I come!
I was ill-prepared for the reality of the tenureless, aspiring academic, working from sessional contract to sessional contract, trying to find my feet and at the same time write journal articles with no job security, no actual teaching experience worth a damn, and competing against people who had already managed to acquire two-and three-year full time contracts somewhere along the way. Their security meant that they had published a bunch of articles, scored that much-desired book contract, and were well on their way.
So I taught as a sessional for a few years, and simultaneously managed three research projects for a different university’s professional arm. These were about how well they were engaging with their alumni; their fundraising program; and how to best maximise donations to a fund devoted to giving struggling students a leg up to finish their degrees.
This life was getting harder and harder to sustain, especially since I had met my (now-ex) partner, we were planning a life together, and I wanted to do my bit financially.
That last part was not exactly going well, especially since I was beholden to the whims of University administration regarding ongoing sessional work.
Friends helped out. I got a short-term research assistant gig in a related field to my own with a colleague’s wife. I was tapped on the shoulder to put in a quote for writing a social history of a regional airport, which was great fun, and a welcome influx of cash at a time that I really needed it. In the middle of the airport history job, my then-wife and I moved across the country to Perth, going the long way, driving across Australia, through Broken Hill and across the Nullarbor Plain.
In Perth, I had managed to secure a tutoring job at a university, but it was one with no prospects for continuation after that first semester. Thankfully, I had the airport history to fall back on, while I looked for other things. To my horror, I had absolutely no luck finding other work at universities. There were no Australian history jobs going anywhere – even overseas the possibilities were scarce – and post-doc positions were not leaping out at me, even when I had support from senior academics who wanted to work with me, good applications, and so on.So I had to look elsewhere. While I applied for jobs in the Western Australian public service, I took on a job as a removalist (it’s a great weight loss program – let’s go with the glass half full) and as a cleaner of offices at night.
I eventually fell into a job in the public sector, in regional development, where my PhD was immediately identified as a major plus for the organisation. My interview occurred on my mobile phone while I was in a van returning to the depot from a removalist job. It was surreal, so much so that I was a little bamboozled when I was asked, “so, do you want the job?”
Light at the end of the tunnel?
The work was exciting, engaging, and, importantly, it didn’t require me carrying around someone’s overpriced furniture. It was also challenging. I had to learn a whole new way of thinking – political considerations, careful phrasing, not because a fellow academic’s ego might be bruised, or a term was carelessly reified, but because saying the wrong thing in a publicly available document had real-world consequences for a stakeholder, a Minister, and, ultimately (as someone on a temporary contract), for my employment!
As my PhD was in rural and regional history, and it dealt with festivals, I had pretty good knowledge of the types of drivers that regional areas required for their economic development. I knew what types of challenges existed, appreciated the situation of indigenous people, and so on. As a result, I quickly grasped the business of the Department and found my knowledge and skills appreciated by most.
My writing, research, and critical analysis skills were greatly appreciated, and I acquired strategic thinking skills and an understanding of government administration processes.
A permanent role followed, in a different area of the Department: Crown land administration. I was successful in obtaining a permanent position in the policy team, which wrote the operational policies, and provided instructions and advice to lawyers on amendments to the main governing legislation for Crown land in Western Australia.
At first, I was extremely disappointed that I had not managed to land that first proper academic job, and I had continued to do academic work – reviewing journal articles, publishing one last article (in a highly-rated international journal, I might add), and forever scouring the academic jobs websites in the hope that something might appear. It didn’t.
As a result, I had to let go. I embraced State Government, and began to focus on building a career as a policy professional. To date, I have been promoted once, taken on acting positions at an even higher level, and worked on some really fantastic projects. I constantly find myself calling on my academic skills, whether it be in writing a report, a submission to a Parliamentary Inquiry, arguing the case for a particular amendment to legislation, or presenting a policy to my Departmental Corporate Executive.
Job satisfaction gained
The thing I have learnt through all of this is that a PhD is really portable. Universities don’t tend to prepare you for the brutal reality that very few of us will get an academic job at the end of the thesis journey (unless you study literature, apparently – all my close friends who completed literature PhDs got tenured jobs, and I’m happy for them; no, really…). Instead, they focus on developing your intellect, sharpening your writing skills, building your ability to analyse things, whether they are texts, arguments, “hard” scientific data, or whatever. However, these skills are the nuts and bolts of so many different roles and professions in the non-academic world.
My skills have translated very well into the public service.
I know others who have transitioned into Unions, Silicon Valley (maths PhD), working as professional writers, and high school teachers. Therefore, my advice to those of you still in the throes of your doctorate, would be to consider how your skills and interests might translate into an Alt-Ac career. Don’t discount it. Do you need to do additional training, such as a teaching diploma, so that you have a plan B, in case plan A doesn’t pan out? Think about it. It can’t hurt, and even if you don’t use it and plan A does come to fruition, you’ve still got additional skills that will no doubt help you in the future.
My point is this: while my trajectory has not been what I had hoped for, I have landed well and truly on my feet. I have a good job that requires me to use my brain, my writing and analysis skills, plus a range of other skills (including, believe it or not, people skills and public speaking), that is challenging, pays well, and enables me to have genuine work-life balance. In fact, I challenge any academics out there to compare my work-life balance to theirs. I rarely take work home, I don’t obsess about that deadline on my weekend, I generally do my Award-mandated 7.5 hours per day and then go home: not every day, of course, because deadlines do come up and Ministers can’t be kept waiting, but generally my work conditions are brilliant.
A beautiful life
Back to my checklist, as promised. Do I have a beautiful life? I think so. Despite being separated, I have a good relationship with my ex-wife, we have a beautiful 3 year old son together, I have a house, two dogs, and a job that is (mostly) fulfilling and challenging. Is it perfect? Of course not; nothing is. Do I wish I had my feet under a desk at a university? Sometimes, but increasingly less and less.
I have new dreams now, and hopes for my son’s future, so that keeps me focussed. And happy.