A roller coaster ride called ‘Life after the PhD’

[For those of you who have stumbled upon this blog – I’m one of those people doing a second PhD]

I recently gate-crashed a training course for PhD students who are funded by the AHRC. I’m not actually funded by the AHRC, but the course seemed quite cool, so I went along to learn about creating collaborations through developing an online profile. No-one seemed to mind that I wasn’t funded by the AHRC, so it all went well and I found the training course very useful and met some new friends (the lunch was also good, and that can always make-or-break any training course).

During the course, one of the speakers spoke openly and eloquently about her post-PhD struggles of working in low-paid, unskilled jobs whilst trying to write up papers, apply for fellowships and scrape together the money needed for conference fees and the travel & accommodation costs associated with that. This got me thinking about my experiences after my PhD and I could relate to what she was saying, especially about the low-paid and unskilled work that for some is an unfortunate reality of life after the PhD. I just sat there, thinking “preach it sister!”

During my first PhD in genetics/molecular cell biology, it was blindingly obvious that a career in academia just wasn’t for me. I had a good project, but if I’m honest, I didn’t really enjoy the lifestyle of working in a university research lab. I knew that after my PhD I would be looking for a career outside of academia. With a clear vision of a life outside the lab, I set out during my PhD to develop my “transferable skills”. “Transferable skills” is a term that is brandished around any postgraduate training course worth its salt. It essentially means skills acquired through any activity (not just research) can be applied in other situations. I did many things to develop and demonstrate these skills. I volunteered in my local community; I got involved in science communication activities in my department; I organised our department’s first postgraduate symposium; I chaired the staff-student liaison committee; I took a 3-month science policy work-placement. Heck, I even completed a Postgraduate Certificate in Transferable Skills (an incredibly useful course), which is designed to encourage PhD students to think critically about their research and how the skills they develop as a researcher is transferable to the real world. I felt prepared for a life outside academia when I finished my PhD, but the reality of that was so far removed from what I had imagined that it hit me like a ton of bricks.

I realised during my PhD that I wanted to pursue a career in either science communication or science policy. When I finished my PhD, it felt natural to apply for jobs in these areas. So that’s what I did. I applied for *all* of the science communication & science policy jobs that came up. I mean, I’ve literally applied for hundreds of jobs since the end of my PhD. My hard drive is brimming full of job application forms, online questionnaires, equality & diversity monitoring forms, pre-interview assignments, interview presentations, countless cover letters and a CV which could win an award for being the most edited Microsoft Word document in history.

Job-searching is a frustrating time, especially when you don’t have a job. After my PhD, I had a series of temporary jobs. I was lucky enough to get some temporary work in various science communication roles, and I’m hugely grateful for the experiences I got from those contracts. But going from one temporary contract to another meant that I had several periods where I had to sign-on at the job centre. If you’ve never signed-on before, it’s exactly as you might imagine. Each fortnight I’d anxiously turn up at the job centre worrying that my JSA (Job Seekers Allowance) might get sanctioned on the basis of a minor technicality if I hadn’t ticked the right box online, even though I’d been looking and applying for jobs.

Whilst signing-on, I found myself applying predominantly for jobs that were based in London (a large proportion of science communication or science policy jobs are London-based). When I was lucky enough to get an interview, the Job Centre, to its credit, did pay my travel expenses. I remember the first time I had an interview for a job in London, I nervously asked my adviser if the Job Centre would pay for my travel. When she obliged, I asked if she could pay it in-advance of the interview, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to afford the train ticket. Luckily, that was possible. She even gave me a voucher to get a suit, a shirt, tie and shoes for the interview (I had no reason to dress formally during my PhD), so I got the train from Glasgow Central to London Euston and turned up at my interview looking and feeling as smart as a carrot.

Although I was pretty good at getting interviews, I never ever got the job. After around 25 unsuccessful interviews, it gets really disheartening. I felt that I had the skills, but just needed someone to see some potential and take a leap of faith in me. Unfortunately that wasn’t happening, so I decided that I had to do some networking. I knew that I had to go to the annual science communication conference in order to network and meet prospective employers (and also suss out who’s who in the world of science communication). Again, the travel finance issue surfaced. The conference was in London (I was in Glasgow), and I didn’t have enough money to get-by on a day-to-day basis, never mind swanning off to the big smoke for a conference. Luckily, I had got some casual work as a tactical activator (i.e. being sneaky in supermarkets and positioning my company’s products in the best places and moving the competitors products to places that customers generally don’t look). So the casual work covered my conference fee, travel & accommodation costs and I was able to attend. The conference was great, and I met lots of great people doing lots of interesting work. I was really inspired by the sessions, and that cemented my determination to continue to try to get a foot in the door of the science communication world.

After the conference, my job hunt continued without much success. It was back to the reality of frantically applying for career jobs whilst doing unskilled work. My temporary contract as a tactical activator came to an end and I had another stint on the dole. After some time, I started working as a bouncer in order to make ends-meet. I had applied for lots of other low-paid and unskilled jobs, but apparently I was too “overqualified” to graft. Now, obviously I hadn’t set out to be a bouncer after my PhD, but it just turned out that I needed money, and they needed people willing to accept a zero-hour contract.

Being a bouncer with a PhD is unusual in the murky world that is the security industry. I worked with a fantastic bunch of colleagues (who are now amongst my closest friends) who were either students, recent graduates, or just doing it to earn some extra money. I did enjoy my time on the doors, and I was quite good at it too – after some time they even made me Head Doorman (those transferable communication skills came in useful)! Working on the doors is a real eye-opener to humanity, but I don’t want to say too much about this here – I’ve always said I could write a book about the reality of being a bouncer.

It was three years after completing my PhD that I was still working on the doors, still applying for jobs and still heading off to the big smoke every couple of weeks for an interview. I had picked up some more temporary contracts in science communication doing various roles, but nothing permanent was coming in my direction. I’d even taken out a bank loan to complete an MSc in ‘Science & Technology in Society’ to make myself more employable, but the reality was that I had literally spent three years receiving “Dear Gary, thanks for your recent application…Best of luck in the future” emails from prospective employers. To add to my woes, I spent 9 months living in a 6-bed dorm in a youth hostel with all my worldly belongings stored in the boot of my car. I couldn’t afford to pay a deposit to rent a flat as I was struggling to make ends-meet and the bank was aggressively wanting me to start paying back my loan. Even for a bed-sit or spare room where a deposit wasn’t required, no-one wanted a tenant who was on temporary work contracts with an uncertain future (apart from one lovely person who put up with me for a month).

I knew I had to do something to get some sense of normality back in my life, so I decided to apply to go back to university to do another PhD on a totally different subject. I got funding to do a PhD on science festivals (which was right up my street, given my practical experience of working at them on my various temporary contracts). However, at the very same time as I was awarded my PhD funding, I also got offered a fantastic job working in public engagement at a great university in a world-leading public engagement team. After over three years of trying to get a permanent job, two people had actually seen some potential in me and offered me amazing positions. I was so shocked when I read the emails offering me the positions that safe to say, I was a bit emotional. Totes emosh!

I know it’s a cliché, but they say you wait ages for a bus and then two come at once. But this was three years of signing-on at the dole, bouncing, unskilled work, endless temporary contracts, and then two fantastic opportunities presenting themselves at the same time. I had an incredibly tough decision to make. I could either take a great job with a great salary, or earn peanuts and do another PhD and take on all the stress and pressures that come with that.

Well, I’ve never really been one to take people’s advice telling me what to do or what not to do. I just tend to make up my own mind and do things that I think I’d enjoy. It would be fairly safe to say that I’m a risk taker. So here I am, doing my second PhD. And I absolutely love it! I do recognise that this blog post might not seem overly positive, especially for any readers who are finishing up their PhD. But I do think there is a positive message. I’m now in a fantastic place doing something that I love, and learning new skills and research methods and meeting inspirational people along the way. I’m constantly thinking about my research and talking to anyone who will listen to me about it. I never knew I would be so passionate about my subject area and for me that’s a world apart from my first PhD.

Perhaps it was my fate to do a second PhD. A saying we have in Scotland is “Whit’s Fur Ye’ll No Go By Ye” which literally means “What’s for you will not go by you”. This is something people say to you when you don’t get a job you’ve applied for. My interpretation of this is that you’ve got to keep calm and try not to dwell too much on knock-backs if you know you’ve done your best. If fate intends you to have something, you will have it. In other words, if things are meant to happen they will, and if they aren’t then they won’t. I have no idea if I will have an academic career or a career outside academia, but what I do know is that I’m the driver of a crazy rollercoaster that simply goes by the name of ‘life’.