Challenging my own views: Working in academia as a ‘non-lecturer’

Making the transition from PhD student to academic staff member isn’t as straightforward. There’s this tendency that once you finish your PhD you know what to do next.
Such as get a job.
The thing is, it is assumed that getting a job = lecturer. If you don’t become a lecturer then you don’t have a proper job. You’re not really working in academia.
For a long time I bought into this mindset and found myself desperately throwing my CV at any lecturing post that remotely seemed to be in my field. Trouble was that a lot of the posts I was applying for were fixed-term (e.g. 1 year / 3 year, non-renewable etc.).  The academic job market is not great and is fiercely competitive with permanent contracts few and far between. I’m not adverse to working on fixed term contracts because frankly that is what I’ve been doing as an English language teacher. Working from contract to contract for 5 years was doable, 10 years was a little tiring, but the thought of working yet another 5 years with no job security was disheartening.
I suppose I’ve had enough.
By Jorge Cham of PhDComics
By Jorge Cham of PhDComics
I think what was more troubling was the fact that the only future I envisioned for myself was “be a lecturer” because “that’s what PhDs do”. When I wasn’t getting hired as a lecturer I became increasingly anxious and disillusioned. Intellectually I understood that having a PhD guarantees nothing, but experiencing the reality of it was worse.
I wasn’t ready to leave academia (yet) and I began to look for other opportunities within the academy. One of those opportunities came in the form of student support. As a PhD student I was given the opportunity to work in different areas of the university which gave me new insights into the different roles available to PhD students that aren’t lectureships yet still very much part of academic life. From these experiences I began to wonder what else is there to academia, which lead to looking for non-academic roles in academia, which eventually led me to my current post!
I now work as the Researcher Development Officer for the Faculty of Humanities at The University of Manchester. I work in academia but not as an academic. It’s an interesting position to be in and one that I’m still getting used to. In a way, I’m battling my own insecurities of being perceived as “less than” because I’m not a lecturer. This is when I start to get angry at the fact that I’m justifying my job to myself, let alone other people. It’s made me realise just how PhD career paths narrowly defined and actually, there is so much more to the academic life than research and teaching. I wouldn’t say that I’ve settled into my new role, but I’ve been learning a lot about myself and my own prejudices along the way.

Marathon running and writing a thesis: Same kinda hell

As you might of noticed on the right-hand side of my website, there are a few pictures of me and my running adventures. I completed the Greater Manchester Marathon (#runasicsmcr) last April 2015. I decided to sign up to this race last summer, around the time I was finishing my thesis. I suppose making decisions in a state of quiet desperation isn’t exactly wise, but I remember thinking that if I could submit this thesis then surely I had it in me to deal with a running a marathon.

Several months (and miles) later, I believe there is something to this thesis-marathon-mentality. It’s been said that running a marathon is as much a physical endeavour as it is a mental game (e.g. Runner’s World has written some interesting articles on this topic). In my weird and twisted logic, I figured that the mental discipline it takes to finish writing a thesis is similar to focusing one’s energy on finishing the race. The main difference between the two would be the physical demands a marathon event would place on the body (e.g. sore legs, tired feet, constant need for food), versus the physical reaction to the stress caused by writing a thesis (e.g. high blood pressure, hair loss, constant need for coffee).

So while I was running the marathon I found myself comparing my thesis experiences with what I was feeling during the race.

Here’s what I found:

Experiencing a new kind of hell

Writing a thesis and running a marathon is a new kind of experience, or rather, it’s an experience that challenges your limits: physical, mental and emotional. It’s one thing to talk about writing a thesis/running a marathon, it’s another thing to actually do it. Then, and only then, can you really ask yourself “WTF was I thinking?!”

Wanting to quit when the finish line is just…a little…further

In both cases I wanted to quit just as I was coming to the end. I think it was two months to my submission date when I started to draft an “I quit” email. It was around mile 21 when I felt it I must stop running, because those 5 more miles was just too much.

“Just a little further” felt like a lie

It was during those serious moments of self-doubt that I had the most support, but I didn’t always realise (or appreciate) the encouragement. During the last few miles there were crowds of people cheering me on, telling me that there’s “not long to go”. I remember thinking “Not long to go?! YOU’RE LYING! LYING!” when someone told me, at mile 24, that the finish line was just a little further. Yes, at mile 24 there wasn’t long to go but at that point the phrase “mind over body” was a very real reality.

Thesis wise I remember feeling completely overwhelmed with what I had left to do. However, it was also around this time that I received the most messages of encouragement from the people around me, who believed that I could finish this thesis. Despite my misgivings, I developed a kind of “mind over emotion”, a kind of last push to the end. It’s a little difficult to put into words, but I suppose I took a very task-orientated approach to what was left to do with my thesis. Some might call it that point beyond stress where sometimes writing becomes more mechanical. A kind of “get it finished, get it done” kind of mentality.

Everything hurts

For anyone who has run a marathon this is the truth. Like my eyeballs hurt. Ok maybe my feet hurt more than my eyes but at the time, every cell in my body was like “Nope, we’re done here” while I was like “C’MON!”. Thesis wise I remember being in this weird cyclical haze made of physical and mental exhaustion, feeling hyper-alert and simultaneously wanting to nap, but feeling guilty when I wasn’t working. That kind of haze.

That “I have to finish this” kind of feeling

Throughout all of this (race and thesis writing) there was this feeling of “I have to finish this” despite my misgivings. A deep-seated kind of determination that no matter what, I was going to see this through. I remember becoming even more focused the closer my submission date approached, feeling less “OMFG WHY” and more “GO GO GO”. During the race there was this point where I decided that I was going to finish this marathon, that I was going cross that finish line, and that I was going to get my medal dammit! I can’t explain when that happened, only that the feeling was always there, somewhere.

Those endorphins during the last 200 yards…

Physically seeing the finish line gave me this incredible mad rush of joy. I don’t think I have ever been that happy to see the end of a race. EVER. Thesis-wise, I remember this incredible feeling of relief when I held the final hard copy of my thesis. The product of several years of work in my hands. It was a very good moment.

The immediate aftermath

I felt similar emotions just after I submitted my thesis, and in the immediate moments after I crossed the finish line. I remember feeling a wave of “Whew” – relief, gratitude, sadness, joy – it was all there. Very raw and very real.

Celebratory drinks and naps

Post-thesis submission and post-marathon was more of a quiet affair. I had a drink, which was then closely followed by the best nap ever.

Has any event or experience felt “like” finishing your thesis? Please share your experiences in the comments below!

Thesis = D.O.N.E

I took a hiatus from blogging this summer to survive focus on writing and editing the final draft of my thesis. It was not a happy time and suffice to say, was hell. I’ll write more on my experiences during the final few weeks to the day of reckoning submission date but for now, I just wanted to share this photo:

Thesis. Submitted. Yeah.

The beast in all its glory.
The beast in all its glory.









Still got the viva to do, but for now, I’m glad this ^^ is finally done.  Two weeks later and the reality is just beginning to sink in. That or I’ve catching up with my sleep.

(Image my own, totally. Licensed CC BY-NC-ND)