Hello, as my first blog post here, I thought I’d consider the road that got me to the PhD before talking in more detail about my post-PhD life in future posts. After all you have to know where you’ve been to know where you’re going right?
I finished my PhD earlier this year, and I looked at the role of stage drama as a response to HIV/AIDS. I was a self-funded PhD student and I came back to academia after some time away. So often there is a misconception that the path has to be a linear one, but personally I’ve always found those who had time away in between to be far more focused PhD students, and often more determined having taken a step off whichever career trajectory they were previously on.
My academic and career path was a winding one. My Undergraduate degree was in History with American Studies. My motivations for this were fairly arbitrary-I’d done best at History in GCSE and A Level and I wanted to do a ‘Gap Year’ without having to sleep in a hostel. While on my ‘academic Gap Year’ I discovered a love of theatre and following my Undergraduate degree I did a Masters at Drama School and decided to direct my attentions to the arts. However during that time I also began to feel that I wanted to continue and do a PhD. But a Masters degree in London doesn’t come cheap so I moved home to save some money and reflect on my options.
I continued to apply for PhDs at this stage, but it became clear I wasn’t ready in any way for it. I had gone straight through school, a four year degree and a fairly intensive Masters programme. So I put on the breaks and took a fairly soul destroying data entry job in local government. In the meantime I tried to figure out if carving a career in theatre/arts was a better approach that continuing my academic path.
It was a temp job in a Univeristy that put me back on the PhD route. An enjoyable enough job I couldn’t help but look at the lecturers I worked alongside and think “I could do that” and eventually I did, in that very University. But not before another slight detour. Having another crisis of confidence, I decided against the PhD and applied for a PGCE instead.
Now the PhD was ultimatly the hardest thing I’ve ever done, mainly due to it’s longevity. But the PGCE is a close second. I loved and hated it in equal measure, but by Easter I knew it was now or never. If I took a teaching job I’d never take the leap and do my PhD. But if I did my PhD now, I’d already done my PGCE and could go back to teaching. So I finally made the leap and did the PhD.
This is the short version. The one that leaves out all the jobs in between and during. These ranged from every temp role imaginable, to working for a charity to undressing Opera Singers (no, really). I’ve always kept my arts career running parallel believing that a better theartre academic understands the workings of theatre today. And continually being unable to commit to just one career.
What this path did for me was twofold. Firstly it made sure I was absolutely certain before I made the leap. I’ve seen too many people get offered a PhD out of Undergrad or Masters and jump in without thinking. I thought a lot about it and I knew I was certain before I got there. Mainly because I’d seen what else there was. The second element was that I understood the outside world, and I understood work. In being outside the academic bubble I got to broaden my horizons, work with a wide range of people and generally understand that the world doesn’t begin and end with footnotes. In my experience you can always tell those who have never stepped out of the academic treadmill-they may be incredibly talented people, but it’s a narrow life experience. What I also understood was the world of work-both satisfying and unsatisfying jobs having been on my CV, and so I appreciated what a gift the PhD was-to work on what I was passionate about, not just what the company needed. I also knew how to (mostly) structure a work day.
I’d recommend taking time away from academia before a PhD to anybody. I took about 4 years, but even a year, would do it. To step back, get some perspective, some different experience. Not only will it give you skills you didn’t know you needed, but also make you appreciate what you have.
I’m fast learning that the same applies at the other end of the process. I don’t think I could have gone straight into another academic role, I am burnt out, tired and a tiny bit bitter. By hitting pause again I think I’ll come back to academia refreshed and re-energised, or I will step away knowing fully what both sides can offer me, and I can offer myself.
Linear career paths to a PhD may be for some, but I wholeheartedly recommend the slow winding path, the scenery is better and you learn a lot on the way.