I did a lot of ‘bits and bobs’ throughout my PhD. Taken together, they were instrumental in me getting my PhD, securing my lectureship and finding out who I am.
One of the first things I did was to help organise a faculty conference. I went on to do so many other things, including: coordinating ‘Pint of Science’, creating ‘Ignite your Mind’, giving a TedX talk and working with the Widening Participation Unit delivering two summer programmes to 15-year olds.
I was always putting my hand up to volunteer for doing groundwork on other research projects, and I searched aggressively for teaching opportunities too, getting experience in the Departments of Psychology and Social and Policy Sciences.
Yes, the money was a motivator – I had no PhD stipend to rely on – but what drove me was whether I would learn something and get the chance to do different things that were fun. It was also a great way to meet people.
Everything I did gave me a new way of looking at things and a new way of approaching my work. If I had to single out one thing, it was without question achieving clarity of thought – something that was instrumental in helping me secure my job. I was told that my 15-minute presentation, as part of the interview process, was excellent. I chalk that down entirely to getting involved in public engagement and widening participation activities where I had to boil an academic idea down to its core. This skill also helped me improve as a teacher in terms of becoming a better communicator and figuring out my ‘teaching style’ (the foundations of which were forged during my PhD).
Another important benefit of meeting such a wide range of people was I began to learn about who I wanted to work with and learn from. I came across some wonderful role models that I could look up to and who inspired me, and from whom I learned an extraordinary amount. These role models taught me that it is possible to be a respected academic whilst simultaneously being both relaxed and ‘human’!
It was my supervisor on my Masters who inspired me to do my PhD. We’d developed such a great relationship and I wanted to keep working with him. He was incredibly supportive and I learnt so much from him. We’d sit and chat out of the office about ideas for hours – I learnt so much just talking. We often joked that my PhD was forged on the benches around campus. He was always really encouraging about the things I got involved with and we’d reflect on learnings together.
Achieving so many different short-term goals alongside my ongoing doctoral study was hugely important. It was great doing something else and having another focus. I was able to work it around my study – I just found the time. Devoting 6-7 solid hours a day to a PhD is more than sufficient; taking an 8-hour working day template, that leaves 1-2 hours a day for other academia-related activities. I kept a track of what I did on SAMIS but mainly kept a ‘live’ CV on the go where I just kept adding stuff to, knowing that I’d need it at some point and I didn’t want to spend ages digging around for it.
An essential part of a PhD is learning to become ‘comfortable with discomfort’, and there is no better way to do this than getting out of your comfort zone. Inevitably, this leads to moments of embarrassment and failure. I still recall, with harrowing pain, cracking what could have been thought of as a borderline inappropriate joke in front of 100 academics and members of the public. Right after telling the joke, my mind went blank and I froze on stage. It took me about a minute to recover, all the while a 100-strong silent audience stared at me. In hindsight, and despite the time it took me to recover after bombing on stage, that was probably one of the best learning experiences of my PhD.
My advice to doctoral students would be do what you are interested in and things will happen. My widening participation work took me to a school in Frome who needed a speaker which led to the TedX talk which helped me develop clarity of thought which helped me secure my lectureship! None of that route was planned, in the same way that at the start of my PhD I had no aspiration to become a lecturer. I simply bumbled along and responded to events as they arose, getting involved in as much as I possibly could.
To quote comedian Tim Minchin, I engaged in the “passionate pursuit of short-term goals”. As a result of all these activities, I developed a love for academia and a strong desire to pursue a lectureship… so I felt (and still feel!) incredibly lucky to have secured one."