This is a short article I wrote (without the cartoons) for the University of Sheffield Doctoral Times Magazine. The final formatted version has been published and accessible from here https://www.flipsnack.com/Tuostimes/doctoral-times-issue-17.html (Pg. 13)
It was during my undergraduate days in Ghana that I developed the romantic idea of becoming an academic. At that time, I saw being academic as the career par excellence – you get to read and write at leisure, impact knowledge to impressionable undergraduates and weary postgraduates and have generally such great flexibility in terms of lifestyle. It was clear to me back then that completing a PhD was the most basic requirement so it was a dream come true when I was offered a University of Sheffield Faculty Scholarship to begin my PhD in September, 2013. Now when I look back on it, the PhD time was such a great and wonderful time of ‘unfettered’ freedom and flexibility. Sure there was the big thing about the thesis that wouldn’t get out of your head. However, it was also a time when you could decide to put your feet up for a few days or weeks just to relax, go to a conference, write a book chapter or a journal article or just simply read anything you want. I know this does not always apply to all people especially if you a STEM or Arts student with experiments to tend and or lab equipment to queue for. But even then I think there is much more room for some flexibility if one takes the view of enjoying the journey (as well as the destination called thesis).
I am currently a Senior Lecturer in Tourism Management at Sheffield Hallam University and I still consider my PhD days to have been more flexible. As a PhD student, I could technically start my working day at 10am or 1pm but now if there is a class to be taught or a seminar to be led at 9am, I just can’t postpone it. My point is that enjoy life as a PhD student in all its variegated complexities because it could just be one of the best times of your life. If you consider academia as your place, then use the PhD period to build up experience in teaching, publishing, organising conference, working in administration, applying for little grants and funds, networking etc. If the PhD process already leaves you disillusioned about academia then still build up experience that can help you transition to a career outside academia. Increasingly there are a number of resources being made available within the university to cater for those interested in the alt-academic (alternative academic) career paths – seek for these resources. Check out the Think Ahead blog which features a weekly blog from someone who made this alt-academic career move after their PhD.
I must be honest here and add that landing that elusive first academic position does not always come easy or depend entirely on having the experiences I just listed above. In my very short lived experience, I can say that it is a matter of timing and luck. Certainly, your experience in teaching, publishing etc. does count but when that is combined with being in the right place at the right time with the right vacancy open then the stars align. It can be frustrating sometimes because you cannot always force the stars to align. One can only do what is possible with gaining the right experiences. In the end a great deal of determination, perseverance and grit is needed while waiting for luck and time to align.
Irrespective of which stage of the PhD you find yourself, I would recommend the following books for you. I found them incredibly useful for my journey and I hope you do to:
- Phillips, E., & Pugh, D. (2010). How to get a PhD: A handbook for students and their supervisors. McGraw-Hill Education (UK).
- Petre, M., & Rugg, G. (2010). The unwritten rules of PhD research. McGraw-Hill Education (UK).
- Dunleavy, P. (2003). Authoring a PhD: How to plan, draft, write and finish a doctoral thesis or dissertation. Palgrave Macmillan.
- Kamler, B., & Thomson, P. (2014). Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervision. Routledge.
So is my romantic idea of an academic life holding up to scrutiny? Well, not quite yet – especially within the super time-stressed pressed higher education sector in the UK. I am building up the reality bit by bit and so there is still hope of dreams coming true. These things do take time so I am not giving up on the dream.