Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Alternative Academia 4.0 - Presentation Skills

Much of my work in university administration currently revolves around committee work. For the past few weeks I have enjoyed the experience of observing some pretty high level committee meetings, and I have immensely enjoyed developing a deeper understanding of university governance and decision-making. 

However, today I got the opportunity to give a brief presentation to a committee with very senior academics and managers. In the past, the mere thought of having to speak (on an unfamiliar subject) to such senior and well-respected people would have filled me with dread and led to sleepless nights!

Now, I am a very shy person. Before my PhD presentations were very difficult for me, and I tended to shun activities which put too much attention on me. I am an introvert to my core (and as an aside, I am currently reading Susan Cain's Quiet on the value of introverts in today's extrovert-ideal-driven focus - I do plan a blog post on being an introvert in the workplace). 

The pressures put on PhD students to teach and present and network forced me into those uncomfortable situations. If I wanted to succeed and get that academic job, these were things I had to do in addition to my thesis. Now, the fact of the matter is that I didn't pursue an academic career immediately. But I have put those presentation and teaching skills to use. Over the course of my PhD I taught university tutorials, international summer schools, and language students. I presented at international and graduate conferences, and informal seminars and groups. 

The result: confidence in my belief that I can stand up and deliver information to anybody! The only thing that can scupper my success is me. So, last night I slept like a baby even though I knew I was waking up knowing that I wouold be talking to a rather daunting group of people. My PhD has instilled that belief in myself that I didn't have 4 years ago! Rather than obsessing over my perceived inadequacies, I now trust that, so long as I have prepared, my doctoral experience will get me through the task!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Guest Post from the Corporate World

*Today is the first of what I hope will be a series of guest posts on life beyond the doctorate (it can't all be about me!!). Today's post is written by Jed, a consultant in London who received his doctorate in History from the University of Oxford. 

I'm a historian who has gone corporate. 

No, it's not as bad as it seems. I don't plunder the coffers of the peasantry. I don't raze Amazonian rainforests. I do not work for the Evil Empire and I have not now, nor ever, designed a Death Star. I work for a corporation. Simple as that. 

A corporation is not as dissimilar as we conceive it to be from the academic world. Instead of faculties, we have sectors, instead of Department Chairs we have Partners, and instead of going to academic conferences we go corporate conferences (the only difference is the number of canapes). 

I finished my doctorate over a year ago. Like most newly-minted historians, I did very little academic research after earning the PhD. Instead, I spent the next months trying to figure out how to repay my extraordinary loan debt. The quickest solution was to throw myself into the search for a post-doc. I wanted it all: I wanted to teach, I wanted to research, I wanted visa sponsorship and I wanted a nice funding package to pay those loan officers. After 30 or 40 applications, I started wondering if my standards were a little too high. 

So I became a consultant and moved to the financial district, which meant no more dreaming spires of academia and instead a lot more suits and overpriced frappe-latte-cappuccinos while discussing Moody's latest credit rating of Kyrgyzstan, or so I thought. 

In reality, the corporate world is so vast that you cannot pidgeonhole it's roles. As a consultant, I have far more freedom and flexibility (and funding) to alter my career path than I had when I started out as a grad student. However, what truly astonished me was that I could teach and research. That's right, consultants are primarily researchers. These days, I spend most of my time teaching new trainees how to do corporate and financial research. Just like a professor, I get to hold training sessions and provide private tutorials. The firm has even sent me abroad to train up its affiliates. The corporate world has a shortage of people who actually know how to research and mine data. That's what attracted me to my firm: it wanted researchers, especially ones who could conduct research in foreign languages. 

So I had a good experience going corporate. I found a role that actually used historical skills: data-mining, report writing, and foreign-language research. Not only that, I am rewarded for using these skills. No, I do not to use words like epistemology any more or worry what Foucault would think about my assessment of investment opportunities, but the work is still research-based. 

If there is only one thing I would caution about moving from being a historian into a corporate role: historians don't learn much about is these little things called "Excel spreadsheets" which run THE ENTIRE WORLD. If you're unfamiliar with them, don't break them. 

*If you would like to write a guest post about your experiences of life beyond the doctorate (or experiences you are having during your PhD), whether positive or negative, or whether you stayed in or left academia, etc., I would love to hear from you. You can contact me at whelanfi@gmail.com or tweet me @FionaEWhelan.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Alternative Academia 3.0 - One Foot In

Well before I actually started my current role in university administration/management (whatever you want to call it - although there is a debate over the two terms - stay tuned for a post on that!), I blogged about how I was going to try to keep one foot in the door of academia in case I wanted to try to return to a more academic role in the future. You can read my (eager but naive) post here.

So, back in March this year I set three key areas to target:
  1. Writing, researching, and publishing
  2. Conferencing 
  3. Maintain academic relationships
So, how have I got on? I am lucky in that my current role is a relatively fixed working day with some flexibility so I can do things in the evening to keep that foot in the academic door. The following is a list of academic activities which I have done/am doing/will be doing over the course of my full-time job:
  • I have submitted my thesis as a monograph to a publisher who has sent it out for review. All things going well, I will have edits/revisions to work on to get it out a published piece. Also, I am working on a collaborative translation with two other scholars which we also hope to have published within the next year or so. Articles I have been less proactive about I must admit, but I'm going to wait to hear from the book publishers before working on articles. I want to ensure that I don't bite off more than I chew and have too much pile up at the same time.
  • I have conferences lined up for next summer. I will (hopefully) be presenting as part of a panel group on food and famine in the Middle Ages at the International Medieval Congress 2016. In addition, I will be presenting at the Harlaxton Symposium (2016) which is a smaller, more intimate medieval conference set in the impressive surroundings of Harlaxton Manor in Lincolnshire (I cannot wait!)
(seriously, look at it!)
  • One thing I didn't factor on was an offer to continue tutoring. I have taken on one tutorial student this term and am teaching a series of tutorials on Anglo-Saxon England which I do mid-week after work.

One thing I haven't been so proactive with is maintaining academic relationships through attending events and seminars around Oxford. That is something I am very conscious of, and I am going to try to attend more events/seminars which take place after 5pm. 

I might be insane trying to do all of this on top of my job. And believe me, this post is not written to garner pats on the back from readers. Rather it is to show how tough it is, and to try to find fellow people trying to keep one foot in! How do you do it and keep your sanity?!

Friday, October 9, 2015

Alternative Academia 2.0

Just a short post, but I've meaning to write about this for a while now!

A few weeks ago I attended a conference for administrators/support staff at the University of Oxford and was treated to a fascinating Plenary Lecture by Sir Jonathan Phillips, Warden of Keble College. 

What resonated with me was his perspective on the value of being a historian while working outside of academia. He talked about his time as a civil servant, and the transient nature of government. Governments seek only to look towards the next election, and so invariably think in a short term.

But that is anathema to the historian. We think in the long term, and while we mostly look backwards, we also have the foresight to think further into the future. We think about the long-term in both directions.

Thinking about my own role in university administration, I have realised that this idea of short-term and long-term thinkers is equally applicable. Vice-Chancellors and Pro-Vice-Chancellors are frequently elected to their positions for fixed terms. As support staff, we effectively act as the civil servants to the university governance. Yet, with the Higher Education landscape looking more and more uncertain with government funding cuts and student visa issues etc., the value of the historian is to think of the university in the long-term. Not only should we appreciate the long history of the institution (although I do have almost 900 years of history to contend with!!), we also need to think beyond the next 5-10 years. 

What will universities look like in 100 years? What will be the courses taught? What will the student demographic look like? What will the future of libraries be in the digitised age? When a new building gets built I walk by and think how will that hold up to the architecture of 200, 300, even 500 years ago?

Divinity School, Oxford, 1488

Radcliffe Camera, 1749

Investcorp Building, St Anthony's College, Oxford 2015

Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford, 2016

For the historian, the word sustainability means more than environmental sustainability. It is thinking about the long-term impact of short-term decisions, and ensuring that those around you see the future in a picture that is bigger than increments of 5 years.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Possessive Academic

At a recent celebration of two friend's viva success, the conversation inevitably turned to things we wish we had done differently in the lead up the viva itself. We often think of these in terms of short-term preparations, completed post-submission. See my previous blog post on Preparing for the Viva.

However, should you be preparing further in advance than that?

The viva is a daunting challenge specifically because you and your thesis are being scrutinised by the best minds in your field. You have to be able to calmly answer their questions, proof your worth, and defend your thesis. Yet, academic possessiveness may well be inhibiting PhD students from gaining enough exposure of presenting research to and responding to feedback from senior academics.

Let me explain...

For a long time during my PhD I was terrified that if I presented too much on my topic, especially to those more senior and with more expertise than I, then my research would get scuppered or stolen by someone else. That thinking was ludicrous on my part, and sharing my research later in my degree brought me into contact with a network of academics which has helped with further conferences and publications. I really wish that was something I had done earlier in my PhD in order to fully prepare myself for the intense viva experience. It is also useful as exposing your work to those more senior (as opposed to presenting only at graduate conferences/seminars) can highlight or flag potential issues that may well come out in the viva anyway. Better to know beforehand, I say!!

And guess what, no one else was doing my topic, nobody else stole it! However, I did find people working on similar topics yet distinct from my research, which fostered interesting new perspectives. 

So, go forth and share, the benefits shall be great!

  1. Exposure to senior academics
  2. Feedback on your material
  3. Preparation for the level of scrutiny you can expect in the viva
  4. Developing a network
...and much much more!!