Monday, March 30, 2015


This post is coming from a place of frustration, so forgive me if it comes across as a little bit of a rant. I have been wondering over the past few days whether university departments give much consideration to the welfare of students after the viva, especially for those who received major corrections or referral and resubmit.

For regular readers of this blog, you will be aware of my belief in a frank and open discussion of the outcome of the viva, especially when that outcome is not the expected one. You can read more about this here:

Initially, the idea of being open and honest was meant to be for the benefit of other students, to allow current PhD students to know that corrections or referral is not the end of the world, and to be proud of the work already achieved (knowing that the doctorate will come, just a little later than intended, but probably as a better, more publishable thesis). 

However, I think those running departments and examiners also need to take a hard look at the implications of their decisions, both mentally, emotionally, practically, and financially. Anything which delays the awarding of the doctorate will come at the expense of some aspect of student welfare.

Now, I wholeheartedly understand that examiners and departments have a duty to ensure that a thesis meets the standard of a doctorate, and I would in no way advocate for cutting corners or rushing results. What I advocate is for more transparency in the whole process, especially relating to timeframes. By the time a PhD student goes through the viva/defense process, we are likely in our late 20s or early 30s, with relationships, families, financial obligations, and sundry which are the lot of adulthood. Students need to make plans: to return home, to move to begin a job, or even just to be able to apply for jobs! How can we do this when universities keep us in limbo?

As an example, my university has changed its PhD regulations:

  1. Minor corrections = 1 month
  2. Major corrections = 6 months
  3. Referral = 1 year
Now, my university has a rule that when you submit your PhD thesis formally (for the first time!), the examiners must respond to you within 4 weeks to acknowledge receipt of the thesis and to try to arrange the future viva date. However, when you resubmit for major corrections, that rule does not apply and the process takes as long as it takes. Furthermore, there is the potential for a second viva which further leaves students in limbo - stuck waiting for an email. If we move anywhere, we have to pay to return for a second viva, or we live in fear of leaving the university just in case the viva happens!

But more than the practicalities of living, transport, jobs, and money, there is the emotional and mental wellbeing of students to consider. I submitted my corrections over 1 month ago, and the department has told me that there is no timeframe, they cannot chase the examiners, and it is the vacation so it will take as long as it takes. All the while, my heart skips a bit every time I get an email, I am constantly anxious and even having the dreaded viva nightmares! 

The natural sort of pressure, anxiety, and fear of failure attendant to the PhD process is exacerbated by universities failure to support students post-viva. More and more students will be given major corrections in the future, and they need a timeframe in the same way that current PhD students have. We become forgotten, ignored parts of the department when we actually need the most support. For that, transparency in the process is key: a strict timeframe of response and clearer guidelines.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Market Saturation

I saw this Tweet and it made me think about realism and naivety when students think about life beyond the doctorate:

For many students beginning a PhD, and this is especially true for the humanities, the end goal is a research position or lecturer. When we begin to think about the job hunt, we bemoan the paucity of academic positions, and I imagine that many of us are guilty of saying or thinking: 'Why can't older professors just retire already?'

This can cause issues. Firstly, we are putting the blame on established academics and the onus on them to be the drivers of new opportunities through their vacancy. Secondly, a newly minted PhD is likely not going to waltz straight into the dream lecturership or immediately become a professor, so it is naive to assume that retiring professors would benefit at all. And the trickle-down effect of academics being bumped up the line to replace that professor would barely register on the lower rungs of the academic job market.

More importantly, by blaming others for the saturation of the job market, we place the blame on others, on institutions, and on the system at large. We fail to look at ourselves and prepare for other outcomes and alternatives.

80% of humanities PhD's are in non-academic jobs, and retiring professors is not going to radically alter that figure. For those who want to stay in academia, by all means go for and do all the requisite criteria to maximise your chances:

  • Research
  • Teaching
  • Publications
  • Conferencing
  • Networking

However, don't be naive in assuming that ticking all the boxes equates to an academic job. It doesn't, because there are other PhD students who have equally ticked the same boxes. We need to prepare for alternative jobs which may fill the gap before that academic job comes along, or prepare for an alternative career as it may turn out that while you love your PhD, academia may not the right fit. Too few of these issues are raised early enough in PhD programs, and in fact, I believe that prospectus PhD students need to be aware of the realities before choosing to embark on this journey. 

The intention here is not to dampen anyone's dreams of an academic jobs! Rather, it is about being forewarned and forearmed, and prepared for that awkward period of time post-PhD. Be open to exploring different opportunities that come up and most importantly be flexible in your thinking! Don't be this guy:

*You can find the link to the article quoted in the tweet, here:

Monday, March 16, 2015

Advice for Non-Academic Jobs

Earlier, I posted some of the comments left on the survey for those thinking about a non-academic or alt-academic job. I think the number one piece of advice for which there was a general consensus was that it is important to cultivate skills early in your doctorate beyond mere academic or research specific skills.

Here, I will provide some snippets of the responses you have all been so kind to share. I, and I hope other current PhDs, have and will benefit immensely from it. So, thank you!!

A senior manager who received their PhD in pathology wrote a comprehensive list of things students can do to succeed in the future:

1. Build your network with every engagement you make.2. As a PhD student, you have permission to play the 'student' card. Use it to help you shadow professionals, etc. Very few people say 'no' to students. Seriously. 3. Find mentors. It has helped tremendously in my transition out of the academic environment. 4. You don't need to stick to your field or training. A PhD teaches you how to think, and that is applicable to any field - not just your area of focus. 5. Learn to build your brand, and learn to engage with recruiters and hiring managers with confident humility.
I can't really add more to this!

Another response with a background in science wrote:

Get involved with anything that tells you about what opportunities are out there; I think the hardest thing is actually finding out what jobs exist! Go to careers fairs and chat to people there. Talk to friends, acquaintances, family friends, anyone who can tell you about what they do. Use the Uni career department. Research online. And anything you find interesting research more and find some work experience in, even if only for a day or two; it's the only true way to find out what a job actually entails (and will also look good if you choose to apply for that type of job!).
Again, from a science background:
Be open to everything, and take as many courses etc that are on offer at your institute even if you think you'll never need it. Do a business course (even if just just so you know how it works). Don't underestimate what you've learnt during your PhD and try looking at it your skills from a non-science perspective
A nice response which bridges the gap between science and history, comes from a graduate in the history of science:
Start looking at non-academic jobs, volunteer opportunities, internships as soon as you start the PhD. You don't need to tell anyone at your program that you are doing this. Learn the difference between a resume and a cv and devote equal effort to building both.
An archaeologist wrote that you should:
Be adaptable, practical and show leadership - your PhD is proof you have the ability to complete a large project, regardless of specialization.
And finally, from a history graduate who now works in university administration:
Gain some practical 'fallback' skills if possible during the doctorate, remain hopeful of and work toward an academic job (if that's a path of interest) but recognise and be aware of the reality that this outcome of becoming an academic is in probability terms unlikely - and accept that this situation applies to you no matter how special you might think or be convinced you are. Be prepared with alternative options.
One final thing that many respondents mentioned, was the value of career services. This was mentioned in the blog post about advice from academics, but its worth reiterating! Those in career services are there to help you - exploit their knowledge, resources, and guidance!

A nice way to end this post comes from an English PhD who now works in educational development:

Do not get stuck inside a box of your own expectations, creations, or experience.
So, know that there is plenty out there beyond the doctorate, but it is important to start thinking realistically and pragmatically early on. Even you are 100% certain that you want to remain in academia, sometimes life will force you in an unexpected route and you should be prepared for change!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Survey Results

Many thanks to everyone who completed the survey on life beyond the doctorate. I had such amazing responses and there is a massive breadth of careers that people have gone on to that is wonderfully inspiring.

I will compile the advice from those who moved into non-academic careers in a future blog post, but for now I want to share the break down of the survey results.

I think the most important thing that current PhD's can get from this is that there is such an immense scope for employment beyond academia. And even more than that, it should help to negate the concept that to leave academia is to 'sell-out'. The survey shows that loads of people leave academia for a number of reasons, and financial motivation is not the top reason! The majority of people leave because of the competitive and saturated market for jobs and also because academia just wasn't right for them - and there is absolutely no shame in that!

Take solace in the paths that others have taken before you, and don't think about what others may say when you choose your career path after the doctorate!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Maintaining an Academic Profile

In a follow-up to my previous post about my move into an alternative academic job and my desire to maintain an academic profile in case I wanted to come back to it, I thought a little harder about what I was going to do in order to achieve that.

My job will be contracted for 15-months, and I have identified three areas I want to focus on before I start in September and beyond when I have time away from my job. These are [ranked by priority and practicality:

  1. Keep writing! I want to turn my thesis into a book and will focus on writing and sending out book proposals. I am also working on a collaborative translation of the medieval text which I have been working on for the past 4 years. I also want to try to publish 1-2 articles which don't stem directly from my thesis.
  2. Conferencing! I'm going to try to continue attending seminars around Oxford, but will also try to attend a couple of academic conferences, and hopefully present for at least one of them.
  3. Teaching! Admittedly, this may be the toughest one to achieve as it relies on flexibility within my day job. However, to take on even one tutorial student a term would be enough to maintain a scholarly presence within my university.
That's the plan! Wish me luck!
Even if I achieve just 50% of what I would like to, I would be very pleased!

[and now for the obligatory infogram! I'm sure they are not in vogue anymore and I'm well behind the curve on new design fads, but forgive me - I've been bunkered in a library for the past 4 years!!]

Monday, March 9, 2015

One Foot In...

Exciting news!

I am pleased to announce that I will be moving into an alternative academic job, training to lead and manage universities. This is what is commonly called an alt-ac job rather than a pure non-ac job.

There are a number of reasons why I have questioned trying to stay in academia with all its attendant difficulties. I could cite a number of pragmatic reasons such as salary, clear career path, and job security; however, I take an idealist view! Over a number of conversations with a good friend of mine and a number of glasses of wine (Sam Blickhan - blog shout out to you!), I realised that I wanted to make a difference, affect change, and have a real impact in higher education. Now, you could easily argue that teaching achieves all of that, but I would argue that it achieves it on a small scale. I'm aiming much bigger than that!

However, some may say that I am selling-out of academia, or that I will never return to it. This blog will likely take a direction in the future where I wrestle with a full-time job and trying to keep one foot in academia. I'm (possibly naively) going to try to maintain my academic profile by publishing and attending conferences. This may utterly crash and burn, but until I try I won't know!

Anyway, I was bored today, so created this infogram about my process of thinking about finding the right job after the doctorate and my plans to wear both an alt-academic and academic hat at the same time!

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Preparing for the Viva

Although this blog is ostensibly about life after the doctorate, I had such an immense response to my post on honesty and openness about viva results and corrections that I thought it might be worthwhile sharing my viva preparations. 

I submitted my thesis in July and had my viva in September - approximately 10 weeks wait. So what did I do during those weeks? Here is my checklist of things to do and not to do!

  1. Take a break. After I submitted my hard copies of the thesis, I took about 4-5 weeks as a break. I was doing some summer school teaching, chaperoning a trip to Paris, and I returned home to Ireland for about 2 weeks. This is so essential. If you start re-reading your thesis too soon, you will find mistakes (and trust me, you will!), and you will stress about those mistakes for two months or more. This is not conducive to sanity!!
  2. Re-read your thesis. This is important for three reasons: first, you want to familiarize yourself with your thesis; secondly, you want to identify any mistakes; thirdly, you want to identify potential areas which the examiners will raise. I knew going in that my second and final chapters were going to be the most problematic so I anticipated as many of the questions as I could.
  3. When you identify mistakes, keep a list of corrigenda, print it out, and bring it with you to the viva. That way, when your examiners raise the point about minor mistakes, you can show them that you already have a list of items to be fixed.
  4. Divide your thesis. You will likely bring your own copy of the thesis for reference, and its a great idea to use sticky tabs to sub-divide the chapters, and post-its to highlights areas where you think you might have to defend or clarify a point.
  5. Read some of your examiners works - books and articles. If they have written explicitly on your topic and your differ from them slightly in argument, be prepared to defend that. Also, it is good practice to know their style and train of thought. Be aware, if you are reading their works in a foreign language (which was my case because my examiner was from France), to allow extra time to extract the important information from their works. However, don't feel you have to read their entire oeuvre! Just enough to prepare yourself!
  6. If you had friends read it over, it may be worth having a mini-mock viva ( I didn't do this, but it could be useful if you are very nervous and want to prepare answers)
  7. If you have a specific outfit to wear, have it ready to go the night before (I had to wear subfusc so needed to iron my blouse, skirt, gown, and have cap and ribbon - you don't want to be running around the day of the viva looking for a pair of tights or socks that don't have holes in them!)
  8. Relax the night before, and don't read the thesis again. You know it back to front! Watch a movie, go out to the cinema, anything to get your mind away from it for a few hours.
  9. Be prepared to begin with general questions like: why did you choose this topic; why did you choose the approach you did; etc.
  10. Don't be confrontational when you disagree with an examiners question or opinion; on the other hand, don't be too deferential! Remember, you are the expert on your topic, having lived it for over 3-4 years. Be respectful and appreciative of the examiners standpoint, but stand up for yourself as well.
  11. When the examiners, at the end, started to talk about the changes I should make, I asked outright was this a pass with major corrections. I had a feeling that was the way the viva was going, and wanted to be sure in my mind that I had at least still passed. Now, the examiners may not actually be allowed to tell you, but they will likely give some indication. 
  12. Organise to meet friends afterwards. I came out of my viva a little disheartened with major corrections, but it was a pass, which friends and family will reinforce and celebrate with you. This is so important. Whether a straight pass, minor or major corrections, you have successfully defended your thesis, passed, and deserve to recognize that achievement.
  13. If any major problems arose during your viva, contact your supervisor/s immediately. My supervisor was not allowed in the viva, and talking it through with her was immensely helpful and comforting. Furthermore, your supervisor/s can liaise with the internal examiner to find out what happened and why, and to help formulate a plan of action (this is vital since technically you are not allowed to directly contact your examiners).
I think the number 1 thing to remember going into your viva is that you are not defending a perfect piece of work. If you aim for perfection, your thesis will never get done! At some point you have to say that this is the best that I can do. I remember in John Banville's The Sea, the main character quotes Paul Valery saying:

"There is no finishing a work, only the abandoning of it".

Now, I'm not suggesting you abandon your thesis in the face of attaining perfection. Perhaps it is better to say:

"There is no perfecting the thesis, only the abandoning of it at the submissions desk".

Be aware of the little mistakes, acknowledge and admit to them, but rather show off your broad knowledge, the strength and position of your argument, and your passion and enthusiasm for your subject!