Today has been an unusual day: I went to help out the PTFA of my children’s primary school with the refreshments for the Key Stage 1 sports day. (Bear with me – I promise this post really is work-related). It proved to be an interesting social experience, because although these were people I meet regularly at school and at church, I’ve rarely had the time to stop and talk to them. So much so that one of the ladies that I’d been saying hello to for 3 years actually asked me what I do – after all, I’m usually the one on the school run morning and evening so it’s reasonable to assume that I don’t work. Generally speaking, my response to questions about what I do for a living is “I work from home” – it’s simpler and avoids the ‘glazed eye’ issue that Shari Walsh mentions in her blog post. But as there was plenty of time, tea, cake and sunshine, today I responded with “I’ve just finished my PhD”. The conversation that followed was eye-opening:
“How long did that take?” [3 years]
“And did you do it by distance learning if you were at home?” [well, no, I was full time but it just happens that the project I was researching I could do mostly from home, without an hour and a half’s commute in each direction and I could still be the main carer for the children]
“So was it towards a career you wanted?” [erm, no, I just wanted to do it. It was only after I started that I had the misfortune to discover that I loved it and there was no way I could give it up after three years! Now I’m trying to find a job, but my scope is rather limited by where we live!]
“So you’re not really working now, are you?”

At which point my eyes widened in horror…. Not working? Not working? Of course I’m working – I just haven’t found anyone to pay me for it! I’m doing what I suspect many of us are doing post-phd: I’m working at home for nothing (or doing something unrelated to bring in the cash and researching when we can fit it in) in the hope that in the long run, it will pay off somehow. Shari Walsh recommends getting as much experience as possible while doing your PhD in order to maximise your chances of employment, in whatever field, upon completion. I’d agree. Except that in my case, I couldn’t. I chose to put my family first. If you’d like to know why I have, as yet, no journal or book publications to my name, read on.

Last Sunday afternoon, I sat down. I didn’t do anything, I just sat down. It’s incredibly rare. And I did it because even I could tell that I was exhausted. A normal day runs something like this:
Up at 6.30. By 7am I’m already doing housework, and by the time we leave for school it’s safe to assume that I’ve already been on the go for an hour and a half, not just doing the housework but simultaneously supervising 3 children getting ready for school, practising instruments, reading their reading books, feeding the pets and learning their spellings. I get back from the school run by 9, at which point I start the academic work that I continue non-stop until I have to pick the children up from school, make the evening meal and then run people to their various after-school activities, before putting them to bed and reading bedtime stories. I started writing this blog post at 9.40pm. I had JUST sat down. But I never manage to switch off. Part of my brain is constantly turning over the things that I’ve read; the ideas that I want to develop; the papers I’m in the process of writing.

I’m not suggesting that this is necessarily any different for working mums and dads the world over, whatever they do. But academe isn’t conducive to a high quality family life, and the life of an early career academic even less so. I can think of one acquaintance who has decided she can’t have children if she wants an academic career; another has left the university system despite wanting an academic job, because the short term contracts of an early career academic don’t provide the stability that you need to start a family. For me, it was more a case of not wanting to cause the family I’d already got any more upset than necessary. They are settled in their schools, and I wouldn’t be doing them any favours applying for jobs that meant we had to move every year. During my PhD I couldn’t maximise my experience because I had to be there to collect my children from school. I didn’t have the extra hours it would have needed to complete a really high quality article for a journal if I wanted to get my thesis finished on time. Actually, I didn’t want to get my thesis finished on time, it was IMPERATIVE that I got my thesis finished on time. We couldn’t afford it to be any other way. The fact that I didn’t teach was down to a conscious decision on my part, from the start of the PhD, that I wouldn’t risk teaching in my final year, not just because it was crucial that I finished the thesis but also because of the distance I would have had to travel to do so for a comparatively low rate of pay. Having been offered teaching in my second year, it was withdrawn because the department was overstaffed. So I finished up with none. Unless, of course, you count the fact that I’m a qualified teacher.

Life can be tough as an early career academic. Life is, I think, especially tough if you are an early career academic who has caring responsibilities. I am reconciled to the fact that in order to get an academic job, I need to find an employer who is prepared to support someone whose career route hasn’t been exactly ‘normal’ (whatever normal might be!). And the chances are slim, because I’m not prepared to move house and I’m up against people who, on paper, look far more promising than I do. I can understand that. One way or another I will have to find a way to make ends meet, and I hope that somehow I’ll be able to carry on doing the research that I love. In the meantime, I’m working just as hard as ever on another couple of chapters for the book that I’m confident that someone somewhere will want to publish; writing papers for upcoming conferences and reading, always reading. So yes, I really do work. Honestly. I might be at home and I might not be writing all the time, but I’m always thinking. And my goodness, it’s exhausting.

The Thesis Whisperer

Have you thought about running your own business after finishing your PhD?

Shari Walsh worked as an expert PhD career counsellor when I first met her, around 5 years ago. Now she runs her own business called ‘Growth Psychology’ and specialises in helping PhD students develop a successful post-PhD career both inside and outside of academia, amongst other things. In this post Shari shares her own transition story and offers you the benefit of her expert advice – for free 🙂

Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 4.28.34 pmIt’s been over five years since I graduated from my PhD – wow, how time flies. I remember often thinking I would never make it and then, suddenly, it’s all done and there are lots of questions to face…

How do I get used to the empty space in my head where my research used to be? What am I going to do with my time…? Do I want…

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