A New Start

In twelve days I start my placement at a sixth form college for my PGCE and I’m really excited. I’m excited for a fresh start which involves learning a new set of skills and applying them in a practical context. I’m excited to be applying the years of study and research which I have just completed, even if it is in a way which I didn’t plan to apply it. And I’m actually excited to be leaving academia, at least for now. 

Furthermore, I feel like now that I am going back into formal education as a student, where I have to go to classes and hand in essays at deadlines, I’m ready to be the swot I always wanted to be. At school I worried about working too hard because I would get picked on and when I was an undergraduate I wanted to make new friends and have fun. But now that I have my friends and my partner and I don’t care what my fellow students think of my geekiness I am going to work so hard this year and get everything I can out of this PGCE. I’ve even volunteered to be a student rep, something my younger self would never have done but I feel now is something I’d be very good at. 

Between now and then, I have a week’s holiday by the sea in order to relax and enjoy myself before the hard work begins in earnest. 

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Moving into teaching

Now that the PhD viva is over and I have done my corrections, my thoughts turn to the year ahead in which I will be training to be a teacher. The day after passing my viva I found out that I had been accepted on the PGCE course I had applied for and that a placement had already been arranged for me at the college where I did my shadowing back in June. 

The interview for the PGCE took place 2 days before my viva, adding to the pressure I was under that week! It involved a brief introductory talk with the other interviewees, a 5 minute micro teach to the panel and other interviewees, the interview itself, and a numeracy and literacy test. The micro teach went very well and I received really positive feedback on it during the interview. 

Fo anyone who has to do this in the future, I thought it would be helpful if I briefly described my lesson. Because my audience were all specialists in different subjects (due to the course being in post-16 education) I tried to pick a subject matter they might know a little about. I chose the concept of toleration, which is on the A-level politics syllabus and is something I feel confident teaching. I gave each person a handout with two provocative images which raise questions about the idea of toleration and how far it should be extended in society (one of Muslim women wearing the veil and protesting, the other of the EDL protesting against the veil and the building of a London mosque). I briefly described the concept, and how it connected to liberal ideology. I then asked a couple of questions to get the audience warmed up. I then asked them to look at the images and asked them questions to make them think about what the image represented and how it might make us question toleration or want to improve laws regarding toleration. Finally I linked back to the syllabus and explained how to discuss the concept in relation to an exam question. My aim was to get the ‘students’ to do most of the talking which I mostly succeeded at.

The interview and tests went well and I was told in the interview that the college where I did my shadowing had asked for me to do my placement there if I wanted to, which was really great news. 

I now feel excited about starting the course and especially about starting my placement. I’ve met some of my classmates and teachers at a course welcome day last week and I’ve also met with the vice-principal for teaching and learning at the college where my placement will be. Both were positive experiences and now I just want to get started! I suppose I should really be enjoying the downtime between now and September before all hell breaks loose and I have no free time any more but I just don’t like being at a loose end!

PhD viva success

Last Wednesday I had my PhD viva voce, or thesis defence as it is sometimes known, and I passed with minor corrections. A week has gone by since in which I have been ecstatically happy, I have celebrated and I have also been very grateful that I have a plan for the coming year. If I didn’t have that I think I would be feeling a little lost right now. It’s over so quickly, after years of hard work, and you think to yourself… is that it?

First of all, the build up to the viva was intense. For me, I only started to think about it the week before. It had been a long time since I had submitted therefore I really needed to re-familiarise myself with my work again, so that I would know what the examiners were talking about. Some might think that the week before is leaving it too late but it’s amazing how quickly it all comes back to you after a couple of read-throughs. Furthermore, I didn’t want to spend weeks obsessing and agonising over it. There was nothing I could change about it at this point so the main goal was to think of how I would defend the main arguments. 

I marked up the thesis with a fair few sticky notes (none of which I used in the viva) and I looked up common viva questions, none of which I was asked. The best advice my supervisor gave me was to be willing to concede minor points to the examiners, which could be amended in minor corrections, as long as that didn’t undermine the main thesis and it’s supporting arguments. 

The night before, sleeping on my friend’s sofa (as I no longer live where I did my PhD), I imagined all of the worst case scenarios. And in a way this was cathartic because I thought that even if they did happen, it still wouldn’t be the end of the world. For instance, I knew I wouldn’t fail because various people, who’s opinions I respected, thought it was a solid piece of work. So the worst case would be major corrections and, while that would be a pain, it wouldn’t be terrible. 

Fortunately, I had a good viva. I naturally felt nervous. And I totally underestimated my performance. While I thought many of my answers were weak and shaky, the examiners told me afterwards that I gave an excellent performance and all of my answers were solid. I wasn’t defensive but I did defend, I was clear and I never once seemed rattled (even though I often felt it!). My external examiner also thought my thesis was one of the best presented he had ever seen (and he’s seen a lot), because it was coherent and well-written in such a way that any slight omissions or mistakes really stood out. 

I suppose I was lucky to have really nice examiners who were sympathetic to my theoretical claims. However, they still asked me tough questions and it was far from an easy ride. When I left the room, despite being calm throughout, I began shaking like crazy and had to have a sugary hot drink. It was like I had experienced a bad shock and all the adrenaline had just been building and building in my body. While I hope never to have to do anything like that again, I can at least look back on it as a positive experience and as the only time two academics will ever be that interested in my work.

Is it too soon to think that things finally appear to be going my way?

Today I had a meeting with my boss in which he offered me some extra paid work over the coming year, assisting him with administration on another, smaller research project he is working on. Currently I am a part-time project manager for a 3-year research project which ends late 2015. However, as the PGCE I have applied for begins this September, I had decided I would probably have to give up my current job because the course is full time. 

So, in the meeting, I was upfront with my boss and told him about my plans, my struggle to find work in academia and my lack of enthusiasm for moving around the country chasing temporary lectureships. I expected him to say, ‘Oh, that’s a shame…’ and move on. But instead he suggested that if I thought I could handle it, I’d be more than welcome to continue my job during my PGCE and just fit it in whenever I could. Even though it would require working some evenings and weekends, it would only be for a year and it would solve all of my financial concerns, which the thought of giving up work and studying full time had created.

Not only that, but our discussion then turned to my interest in the philosophy of education, my passion for teaching and my desire to keep my foot in the door of academia. My boss suggested that in the future, the department hoped to create a post along those lines. Currently, the department runs a volunteer programme whereby students in the department teach philosophy to underprivileged kids in the city, which my boss is heavily involved in. His aim is to make that programme an official part of the syllabus and suggested that I might be ideal for such a role. 

What I realised from our meeting is that I would be silly to cut ties with academia completely and that my boss clearly wants to help me out. While much of our discussion was hypothetical, I still felt an increased sense of optimism about the future and that even though I don’t know exactly what I’ll end up doing in my career, that doesn’t really matter and is half the fun! Most people end up getting into things by chance, by seizing opportunities when they present themselves, by knowing the right people and by stumbling upon their skills and passions. 

 

One more thing. After the placement I did at the 6th form college, the teacher I was shadowing was so impressed by my knowledge and how I communicated with his students that he has offered me the opportunity to come back and teach part of the Philosophy syllabus next academic year, if I can fit it around my teacher training. So it looks like it’s going to be a very busy year and I couldn’t be happier.

Some progress

Since my last post I have applied for a post-16 and further education PGCE (post-graduate certificate in education) course and been offered an interview for the course. I’ve also done some work shadowing at a local 6th form college where I observed classes, talked to the students and got a feel for college life. 

The shadowing was great and I came away from it really enthused about going into teaching. Doing a 1-week placement in a school or college at the level you want to teach at is now a condition of being accepted on a teacher training course in England. And while sometimes newly created conditions and criteria can be annoying or a waste of time to meet, in this case I found it an incredibly valuable experience. 

For one thing, it didn’t put me off teaching and for another it has prepared me for what is ahead, should I get on the course and decide to pursue it. If and when I start my placement for the PGCE, I won’t be going into a school/college environment for the first time since I was a student in one myself; so it hopefully won’t be as scary. I also got to see different teaching styles and find out about current expectations of teachers. And crucially I got to talk to teachers about their job, what the day-to-day stresses are and whether they had job satisfaction. 

My interview, it turns out, is two days before my PhD viva! So I am prepared for lots of stress over the coming weeks and I am keeping my fingers tightly crossed for two positive outcomes.

Ups and downs

I haven’t written on here in a while because I’ve been waiting for the past 2 and a bit weeks to find out about a job I had an interview for.

The interview was for the Sixth Form Politics teaching job at an independent school which I mentioned in a previous post. The interview went very well and the next day they asked for my references and told me that HR would be in touch to get my documents of proof that I can work in the UK. The email was worded in such a way as to sound as though they were offering me the job subject to good references. I was excited and I told my immediate family but I did say that it wasn’t definite as I was yet to receive a formal offer.

I then spent the next two weeks waiting. I found out from my referees that my references had been asked for by the school and still I didn’t hear anything. So I emailed the HR manager to check she had received my references and to find out if she needed my passport and other documents. By the end of the day I had received a generic email response from her:

Thank you, for applying for the post of Politics and History Teacher at Mount St Marys College and attending the recent assessment day. The panel have reviewed the applications for the post and unfortunately on this occasion have chosen not to proceed with your application any further.

I would like to thank you for the interest you have shown and wish you all the best in your future job searches.

No explanation as to why they had led me to believe they would be offering me the job and then changed their mind. No offer of feedback. I was gutted. I simultaneously felt like I had been messed around and that I was useless. I knew all along that this could happen, as I didn’t have a firm offer, but it was still a blow.

But then I picked myself up and decided I wasn’t going to let this setback drag me down. I hadn’t expected to get as far as I had done and I realised that teaching was something I was pretty keen on doing. The next day I submitted an application for a Student Support Tutor role at a local university and at the weekend I went to a Train to Teach roadshow at the other local university. There I met the course leader for a Post-16 PGCE  (post-graduate certificate in education) and the Head of the Faculty. Having discussed my academic background with them and my interest in teaching, they were very enthusiastic in telling me to apply for the course. They said that with a PGCE, the ability to teach 3 different A Level subjects and a PhD I could afford to be picky about what college I worked at after completing the course. They also felt certain that my academic credentials would lead me to being fast-tracked up the career ladder.

I went away from that event feeling positive and heartened that my PhD could be worth something outside of higher education. In higher education, everyone has a PhD but in further education, PhDs are unusual and therefore make you stand out as a candidate. If I do the PGCE, it will be a hard year, both emotionally and financially, but I will stand a good chance of getting a fulfilling job at the end of it and that’s got to be worth something.

Job applications

So the job hunt begins properly, at last.

At the weekend I completed an application to teach Politics (and possibly History) to 6th formers at an independent school. I felt enthusiastic about writing the application, even though I think my chances of getting an interview are slim. I don’t have a teaching qualification, I just have my four years of experience teaching Politics at university. And my degrees in Politics. I also don’t have a strong background in History. But the HR manager at the school encouraged me to apply anyway and suggested they might consider me to teach Politics part time.

Before making my decision to consider leaving academia and apply for other jobs, I started writing an application for a one-year lectureship in my field of research. In my town. I know, it sounds like the ideal job for someone who has just completed their PhD. Except when I discussed it with other people, in my department, at conferences, I discovered that everyone in my field is applying for it because there are hardly any other entry-level jobs to apply for in this cycle. In fact, there is one other one-year fellowship but it’s in London and I have no desire to go back to London and move away from my partner of 7 years.

So, feeling deflated about the job market and the competition for the one job I was applying for I started to consider my other options. Doing so made me feel excited about looking for a job, a feeling I hadn’t had about my academic job search. It made me wonder if I actually even wanted an academic job or whether I just felt I wasn’t good enough to get an academic job, especially with all of the amazing competition.

Today was the deadline for the one-year lectureship in my town. I had a look at it this morning and realised that I had done most of it and there wasn’t much left to do. So I did it anyway and I tried to make it sound enthusiastic but I don’t think my heart was in it. This was either due to me being excited about what else I could do instead, or due to feeling inadequate and almost certain that I won’t get an interview, let alone the job. I just felt it was silly not to apply when I had already written most of it, and did I mention it wouldn’t involve moving to the other side of the country?

I’ve also found two other jobs to apply for over the next two weeks, both at my local university and this time on the administrative side. What inspired me to look at this aspect of the university job market, having not considered it as a career option before, was reading a couple of the Transition Q&As on the From PhD to Life website. In particular, I looked at two Q&As with Philosophy PhDs who had happily transitioned into research support roles and found their jobs intellectually satisfying. If you are thinking of leaving academia or doing an alt-academic job then I really recommend you read these, and the other interviews in the series:

http://fromphdtolife.com/2013/07/05/transition-q-a-kyla-reid/

http://fromphdtolife.com/2013/02/15/transition-q-a-jamie-pratt/

Moving On…

Moving On: Essays on the Aftermath of Leaving Academia

This book (which you can buy as an Kindle e-book here) was essential to helping me come to terms with my decision. That is, if you can really say I have come to terms with it. I’ve not made it public and don’t intend to do so until I’ve completed my viva or found a job elsewhere – whichever comes first. Not being open about it makes me feel like I haven’t fully accepted it yet because there’s always a chance I can still go back. I’m even halfway through a job application for a one year lectureship, though I don’t know whether I will finish writing it.

Anyway, this book is essential reading (and really cheap, so there’s no excuse!) if you’re thinking about leaving academia. Whether you’re still doing your PhD and having doubts, whether you’re on the job market already, even if you’ve been a tenured professor for years and you’re dissatisfied with your job, and especially if you haven’t started your PhD yet, this book is for you.

Each chapter is a different personal story written by people who have started but not finished PhDs, have finished but cannot find work, and people who are fed up with the whole system and its treatment of both early career academics and those who’ve dedicated many years to that system. There’s not a lot in the way of practical advice (though there’s a great resource list at the end of the book) but reading it is cathartic and will help you to either commit to academia or decide to leave. The editors of the book also run a great website on How to Leave Academia which has lots of blog posts and resources for if you’re thinking of making the move and changing your life.

It has made me realise that you’re not a failure if you leave academia after your PhD. You’re not giving up or letting yourself down, you are making a positive choice to do something else with your life that can be equally or more fulfilling. Because you’re not prepared to move across country chasing jobs, to sacrifice relationships or to compromise the other things in life which make you fulfilled.

Welcome…

The break-up hasn’t happened yet. I’m still trying to find a way to tell my partner of the last five years that I don’t want to be with him anymore. That he’s too possessive, all-consuming, elitist and that he offers me no future.

Academia, the ivory tower, is the former-beloved to whom I refer. Ever since I finished my undergraduate degree and my former teachers persuaded me back into the hallowed halls of the university to take up postgraduate study, because I achieved a an unexpected First in my degree and ‘I would be an ideal candidate for the MA in Political Philosophy’, I have had a love-hate relationship with the academy.

A year of disappointment in the real world, after achieving a first class honours degree in Politics and Sociology, left me craving the life of the mind. I wanted to be back in the seminar room discussing theories of the state, equality, wellbeing, the individual, the family and society. I missed writing essays and reading canonical texts. I had been unemployed when I graduated, worked in a call centre, was put on anti-depressants and eventually got a job as a university admin assistant when I finally decided to apply for that MA. I got on the course and I received some funding. I had an amazing boyfriend and I came off the anti-depressants. The anxiety that I was really suffering with would be with me for many years to come, however, and would only grow in strength.

After receiving an MA with distinction I moved to London to start a fully-funded PhD working on my favourite philosopher. I loved the research seminars and conferences, discussing my ideas with other academics. I met the philosopher, on whom my work was based, several times throughout the PhD process and he generously gave me feedback and support for my work. I taught students from a range of backgrounds, despite being initially terrified of the prospect, and I loved it. But it wasn’t all plain sailing. I often lacked motivation, I had many lows alongside the highs, I doubted my abilities constantly and I became increasingly agoraphobic to point where going to the corner shop was an ordeal. Academia became my life and my partner had to learn to cope with my erratic behaviour acting as a crutch and safety net on whom I became far too dependent.

When he decided to change careers and retrain, he had to return to university and the best university course for him was back up north. I went with him. I hated London and I knew I couldn’t survive there on my own, either emotionally or financially. I assured my supervisors I would continue with the PhD and visit regularly. By the end of the third year, when my funding ran out and I hadn’t finished my thesis I knew I had to get a job. Luckily for me I found a part time administrative job in a local university where I would have my own office, access to research facilities and was invited to participate in the research activities of the department.

And this is where I currently reside. My thesis has been submitted and I await my viva. I have one paper published in a decent edited volume. I have organised two conferences and 2 workshops. And I have teaching experience at three different universities. But it’s not good enough. The academic job cycle has offered up two jobs that I could reasonably apply for, one of which is back in London. Both are temporary one year posts. I knew things would be bad, but I never thought it would be this bad. The competition is fierce and I feel that I don’t stand a chance. So my options are to wait for the next cycle, spend the next year applying for postdoc funding, or cut my losses and get out of this destructive relationship now. I’m leaning to towards the latter choice.

This blog aims to chart my progress as a post/alt academic. It will provide some of the structural and some of the personal reasons for my decision to leave. The analogy of a relationship and a break-up is one you will see time and again in post-academic blogs, and it is the analogy I can relate to most. Only a romantic relationship with another person has brought me as many highs and lows, heartbreaks and disappointments.

The blog is mainly a cathartic endeavour and a way for me to force myself to keep persevering in the post-academic world. However, I have made it public (albeit anonymous) in the hope that it will help someone else who is in a similar position and feels like they are alone. I have come across lots of American blogs from heartbroken grad students and adjuncts who have also broken up with academia, and they have been immensely helpful in reaching this decision. But it seemed to me that there was space for another voice to add to the burgeoning conversation around leaving academia. I’m not in mourning yet because I’m not out yet. Instead I’m still trying to work out what I’m going to tell my former-beloved. For me, in my head, it’s already over, the relationship is doomed. But as far as most people can see, at least on the surface, we’re still happily married and we have a future. I’m not really sure how to break the news to them.