This is first in a series of interviews with PhDs who chose careers outside of academia – hopefully will provide inspiration and an insight into possible paths after the doctorate!
Dr Ruth Price is Senior Consultant (Talent Solutions) at CEB, where her background in occupational psychology is helping leaders manage and leverage talent to achieve business goals. She gained her PhD in Psychology in 2007 from City University London and her research focused on job application forms.
Why did you decide to embark on a PhD?
Lots of different reasons! Although I can probably trace the initial origin back to the fact that my dad had done a PhD and was a “Dr Price”; so that was something I aspired to as a child… I enjoyed school and had a thirst for learning and, for me, a PhD represented a pinnacle of intellect and challenge. During my masters in occupational psychology I was lucky to work with a fantastic supervisor and, under her guidance, I applied for a PhD scholarship, which I won. I was passionate about my doctoral topic area, which focused on competency-based application forms as a selection tool for job roles. It feels funny telling people that I spent four years researching this, but it was something I genuinely cared about, especially the experience of the applicants themselves.
What was the PhD like?
It was a huge privilege and opportunity to have the freedom and time to immerse myself fully in the topic and to direct my own research. It pushed me to be a critical thinker, a project manager, a rigorous researcher and to work with a very high level of precision – all skills which I have carried forward since completion. Alongside my doctoral studies I also taught on the MSc Occupational Psychology programme and got involved in other research consultancy projects, and I loved the variety and personal development this gave me. However, it was much tougher than I expected. I saw myself as pretty academic and capable, having achieved a first class undergraduate degree and then a masters. I don’t think I quite appreciated the step-up, in terms of the challenge, going into my PhD. The biggest difference for me was not really knowing where the goalposts were and the fact that they were constantly shifting. With a masters, if you participated in lectures, engaged with the assigned reading, revised, sat the exams and handed-in assignments, you were pretty much guaranteed to succeed at the end of the year. With a PhD, you could put in loads of effort – read every journal article on a topic, prepare your research study down to the finest details – but your results may not go as you hypothesised, and it would feel like you hadn’t even got off the starting blocks. Another key difference was the need to produce something new and to add something to the literature base, rather than simply assimilating and integrating what had gone before. At the same time, there was no guarantee that you would be able to create that new knowledge, it was all a matter of trial and error. I also found the PhD to be quite a lonely process because you are focused on doing something so niche.
What did your post-PhD transition look like?
I thought I’d go all the way from my PhD into a lectureship, then senior lecturer, then course director and finally a professor; I still remember that during the interview for my PhD I was very clear that this was how I saw my career path. The first inkling that there may be a diversion to this path was perhaps when a close colleague of mine – who was a couple of steps ahead of me career-wise – left the team to work in industry. I had to re-evaluate that vision of following in her footsteps. I was also becoming more aware of the fact that I lacked the ‘real-world’ experience I felt I needed to be authentic in my role as an occupational psychologist, particularly as a lot of the MSc students I taught were mature career changers. Therefore, I felt that it was really important for me to get work experience outside of higher education, and then perhaps return to academia at a later stage.
Most importantly, I’d been in the education system from the age of four, and it was time for a break! I’d had four extremely intense years during which time the PhD became inseparable from my life; I became so engrossed and there was no “off” switch. I did have opportunities to stay on or move to another university as a lecturer but at that time the option didn’t appeal. I no longer had the same energy and passion about the subject. I remember delivering a lecture and talking about occupational psychology in the third person as if I wasn’t one myself. For me, that was a moment when I realised I’d lost my way and I needed to do something else in order to regain my passion.
Why did you decide to work in the charity sector?
As my PhD went on, I increasingly felt I’d lost my connection with my core values and my original motivation for studying occupational psychology, which was to improve people’s working lives. I no longer knew how to achieve this and I felt I needed to hit the reset button. After my viva (which I passed with minor corrections) I decided to go travelling around the world for 6 months. Before I left, and whilst doing my corrections, I spent some time doing volunteer work in a charity shop and with an assistance dog charity, caring for a puppy at home. This was something that really stayed with me and I talked about this experience during my trip around the world. I remember having a conversation with an Australian lady I met who said to me, “why don’t you work for them then?” and I thought to myself, “why don’t I?!” That idea stayed with me. I used internet cafes to check their website for jobs and at my last destination in the USA, I applied for a job as a dog trainer. I got an invite for an interview shortly after arriving back in the UK, and two months later started in the post. I was a dog trainer for a year and a half, which was tough because there were people in my family who found it very hard to understand why I had left my career in psychology. But I felt so passionate about the work of the charity and the direct impact I was able to make on people’s lives. The role was very practical and I did miss the intellectual stretch at times, so I enrolled at night school and did a course in anatomy, physiology and Swedish massage. I ultimately realised that even though I loved dogs, I wasn’t a ‘natural’ dog trainer.
How did you get into the learning and development area of work?
After 18 months as a dog trainer, I took a secondment to the HR team when the charity was restructuring, and so made a sideways move into learning and development. This role focused on the entire organisation and developing all staff and volunteers. I was in that role for a year and a half, during which time it became permanent. Given that the charity was fairly small and evolving, it was a great opportunity to get stuck in and initiate some key organisational development projects. For instance, I significantly updated the performance management process. I also initiated and oversaw a project defining and launching the charity’s organisational values as it neared its thirtieth birthday, and that’s where I worked very closely with the senior leadership team and the chief executive, which was brilliant exposure and experience. I don’t think I’d have had these kinds of opportunities in a larger organisation. However, I got to the point where I was looking for greater career progression. A colleague told me about a job at a similar organisation, which looked perfect as it was a regional role for a bigger charity. As it was only an eight-month maternity cover contract it was a bit of a risk, but I felt it was a great opportunity. It was a risk worth taking as I joined a larger Learning & Development team that I both learnt from and contributed to. I had a lot of autonomy and was able to use more of my occupational psychology training. After eight months my role turned into a job share and I picked up a second post as a Recruitment Manager, bringing consistency to the assessment and selection practices nationally.
Ultimately, I found it quite challenging to work two different jobs at the same organisation and so, after a year at the charity, I applied for a job as a People Development Advisor in the HR Directorate at my local University. I also carried on with my lifelong learning habit (!), being fortunate to get an internal place on the University’s postgraduate diploma in Human Resource Management.
Why did you decide to transition into consultancy?
The starting point was a moment of clarity, 6 years after submitting my PhD, when I realised I identified myself as an occupational psychologist again! Although HR and learning & development were aligned with OP, they weren’t the same thing. I realised that I missed working alongside other OPs and I wanted to be supported to continue developing as an OP. During my PhD I had been very involved in the professional network through my committee work for the Division of Occupational Psychology and conference attendance.
Once that decision was made in my mind, I applied for two different roles, one consultancy-based and the other a senior lectureship at another close-by University. The consultancy role was really appealing as they worked exclusively with clients in the public and not-for profit sectors, and when I read the job description I had the uncanny feeling that it had been written just for me! I also felt that if I went back into academia at that point then I might never make the leap into consultancy, whereas the experience I would gain in industry might only enhance my prospects to return to a business school environment. So I went for the consultancy role; I absolutely loved the job, the people in the team, the culture of the organisation, and the opportunity to work with top executives and leaders. I stayed at that consultancy for just over a year and a half. During that time I also achieved my postgrad diploma in Human Resource Management (with distinction), so I was kept pretty busy! Towards the end of my diploma I got a phone call from a recruitment agency, who headhunted me into a more senior role at a much larger, global consultancy. As the most well-known consultancy in my field I was delighted to join the team, and over the last 15 months I have had the opportunity to engage with clients in the private sector, undertake a wider range of OP activities and travel internationally for assignments.
What does a typical week/month look like?
The simplest answer is to explain that I spend 70% of my time on client work. The consultancy offers three different services, and so my time involves a mixture of these. For instance, I may be training people to use psychometric tests in-house at their UK office, I may be abroad running an assessment centre to recruit graduates for a management training program, or I may be conducting data analysis at my desk at home. The remaining 30% involves things like travel, admin (such as expenses and timesheets), developing others internally, my own CPD and corporate contribution. For example, I will be very delivering a guest lecture to the current MSc students at the University where I studied, which means I’ve come full circle in fourteen years!
I’ve been in the role for over a year and so far it’s been great working with well-known household names, there is so much variety, and I am still learning so much. At some point I’m hoping to be sponsored to do a coaching qualification. People recognise and respect my PhD background and skills and the rigour I bring to the role. This can also be a challenge, as this needs to be balanced with a commercial outlook. There’s a lot of international work and so I can be away a lot, which does impact work-life balance.
What advice would you give to other PhD students or graduates?
If you want to leave academia, spend some time figuring out what it is you are looking for and want to try or do differently. Equally, think about what you’ve already got and want to keep doing and don’t want to lose. Importantly, don’t let anybody tell you that you are “too academic”. I think this is something that can hold people back; don’t listen to these negative voices and don’t give into these self-limiting beliefs about what you can and cannot do as somebody with a PhD. You do have a skillset, it’s about showing to the employer how you can add value to the workplace or communicating that you are keen to do something different. For instance, when I was applying for the dog trainer role I was ready to answer the question: “why would a doctor want to be a dog trainer?” I was able to demonstrate that I understood what the job involved, thanks to my volunteering experience and how the role matched my motivation and drivers at the time. Being an academic can be a real strength if you package it right. Don’t be shy about how you could be an asset to an employer so they can understand what you bring to the table. At the same time, be humble in recognising your development areas – yes, you may have a bit of a learning curve in some areas but demonstrate you have thought these through – can you bring in experience from areas outside of your PhD, have you shown a natural potential for these areas, how do you learn best/how will you accelerate your learning if given the role?
I would say to people to think more broadly than the PhD; where else can you gain valuable experience that employers will value? Explore volunteering and remember it can come in many different guises, from hands-on to trustee. Go for something aligned with your values or passions; this could be at your University, for your professional body or in your community. Through this you will also grow your network, which is vital. On that note, I would recommend making sure that you have a presence on social media – it was through LinkedIn that I was recruited for my current job. It’s important to keep your profile up-to-date and use it to keep connected to others that you meet in person or that you read about and have things in common with. I’d say to others to make sure to read the trade journals and keep abreast of what’s happening in their current or desired profession; look at the movers and shakers in your field. Join professional forums, go to conferences, and think also about getting a mentor, I have really benefitted from this throughout my career. Start building these connections whilst you are doing your PhD – I was fortunate in the sense that I worked in an applied field that has natural links to industry, so you may have to be more creative. Still, there will be opportunities you can create for yourself, and you never know what doors that will open for you!
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