I was a late academic starter. Or perhaps I should say that my academic path was interrupted by well over two decades of professional work, and a life. I’m not the only one. I find lots of people with similar lengthy, and apparently non-academic, backgrounds in university meetings and workshops – and many of them are doctoral researchers. These are people who have given up a well-paid job, security, a sense of achievement and often considerable professional authority and autonomy, in order to return to study to get the ultimate qualification, the PhD. Some are still working, juggling the demands of a full-time job and various life obligations with part-time enrolment. Quite often, but not always – and it doesn’t matter whether they are full or part time “students” – they hope that the doctorate will allow them to move into a job in higher education.
Those who hope to transfer from their current work setting into HE often feel that they are starting all over again. They are behind, they fear, those who haven’t diverged from a straightforward academic path. Well, this post is for these people. I’m here to say it’s important to remember what your other job does for university work.
Now I don’t want to spend time in this post talking about how lousy the job situation is for doctoral researchers. It is. Nor how hard it is for people juggling a job and work. It is. Neither do I want to focus on how much is now crammed into the full-time doctoral experience – courses, public engagement, work experience, publishing in all manner of media, even achieving impact – it’s true, it’s a pretty big ask. And I don’t want to defend higher education institutions that often don’t have part-time doctoral researchers at the forefront of their mind when they plan events, courses and audit requirements. Yes, yes, to all of this. What I do want to say, here and now, is that the “mature” doctoral researcher does actually have some advantages in the higher education job market, if they think about how to put them forward in their cv.
If I think of someone who has worked in a professional capacity – as an administrator, social worker, teacher, nurse, lawyer, public servant, or in industry for example – then they probably already know how to do a lot of things. A lot. These may include some – or indeed all – of:
• multi-tasking as a way of life
• documenting everything
• meeting deadlines
• organising themselves
• organising other people – often inducting, supervising and training them
• organising information and having good information retrieval systems
• communicating in a range of ways to a range of people in a range of circumstances about a range of issues
• managing projects
• managing budgets
• planning strategically
• working to targets
• working in teams often as team leaders
• negotiating, exercising initiative, being flexible
• developing networks
These are all handy competencies in doing research but they are also extremely useful for working in HE. Unlike new doctoral researchers, those with previous work histories don’t have to acquire these habits and skills through work experience or internships, the “mature” doctoral researcher has them already, often in spades. In addition, different occupations also produce particular sets of competencies – so teachers are often good at presentations, training and of course teaching, social workers at supervision and group work – and so on. These occupation specific competencies are important in universities too and can certainly be highlighted in academic applications for work – and evidenced.
Wait, that’s not all. When people come into HE from life-work they also bring with them networks and work-related knowledge which can be crucial in achieving current public engagement and impact focused agendas. This is not to be sneezed at.
Take me as an example. I finished my PhD in pretty rapid time because it was closely related to my professional work. I had unprecedented access to people, and I had over two decades of professional, policy and academic reading in the area. Doing the lit review and the field-work were a breeze and I saved a lot of time because I already knew how to write and argue, it was in my job “skill-set”. And when I started work in HE I knew lots of people already in the field so developing practice focused courses wasn’t difficult. None of this was because I was particularly clever, it was simply a case of knowing how to transfer my knowledge and know-how from one sector to another.
Why am I saying all this at such length? It’s obvious isn’t it? Well no. I often see people who devalue what it is they bring with them from their other lives. They compare themselves with doctoral researchers who have gone straight through from school to university, who are up to date with the literatures and current debates, who are in the swing of academic writing, and who seem to be less burdened by mortgages, aging parents, putting kids through university and the like…. And they don’t need to. I really want to shout out very loudly that this sense of inadequacy isn’t necessary.
It’s simply a shift of mind… focusing on what the “mature” doctoral researcher brings, rather than what they/you don’t have. It’s about being able to talk about what they/you already know how to do, who they/you know and what they/you know, and seeing the continuity between work in one setting and another. You are already streets ahead in areas that are important to the actual work in HE. And that’s something to be quite pleased about.
(This post was prompted by a particular doctoral researcher. You know who you are. You also know what you can do. Flaunt it.)