This blog post was written for those who are contemplating non-academic work following the completion of their PhD or adjunct teaching post. It is not intended as a critique of different post-PhD pathways, all of which have their own benefits and shortcomings. I also offer a positive perspective to those who may currently feel that this is a “step in the wrong direction”. I’ve identified three rather compelling areas in which non-academic employment actually enhances an academic career in the long-run. And I’m not just talking about how to search for work-related memes.
Non-academic roles greatly enhance skill sets, many of which are complementary and even necessary for future academic positions. Many of these skills are not explicitly taught to doctoral students, and they are certainly enhanced by on-the-job experience in non-academic settings.
Time-management is first on the list, where juggling academic and non-academic work means you learn to compartmentalise different priorities on your time. Having a focus on on workload management is also useful to organise research structure effectively. Professional workplaces give greater weight to the rigid structuring of time (often in a positive way, believe it or not), which gives better ideas about how to manage it.
Time outside non-academic work also equates to hassle-free research time, possibly unlike that of our adjunct buddies. We all know that teaching new courses can equate to as much time as we have to give. Partly out of inexperience and also a desire to give students our best means that “teaching preparation time” cuts dramatically and detrimentally into “research time”. At the end of a non-academic day, I can leave my work in the knowledge that nine-ter-fivers don’t take it home. This frees up leisure and creates more focused research time.
In a professional setting, working with those outside the academy allows you the opportunity to develop better inter-personal skills. While there is no great difference in the types of people within and without universities, working with a more diverse range of people, seeing how they operate and what motivates them, can help in managing future publication negotiation, public engagement and non-academic partners.
Regarding project planning and tender, it is no secret that professional grant-writing and tender processes will improve post-doctoral project proposals. How others conceptualise, plan and write applications for future projects helps everyone up-skill in the long run. It also helps to see how something like the Leverhulme Trust, administered (according to hearsay) by professional business leaders, may choose to award a history fellowship. Thinking and writing for different audiences and with different goals in mind means that writing skills —i.e. the actual bones of structure, tone, grammar and voice in our writing — will improve when applied in an academic setting.
Specific job roles, such as human resources (hiring, contracts and employment standards); procedural and committee work; policy and quality improvement; ALL have a place in the university. At the end of the day we might not like this aspect of academic life, but the reality is that the development of these skills will better familiarise yourself with the decision-making processes which take place in universities.
While I only have 2.5 days research time on campus (in reality, also some nights and often a bit of the weekend at home), not being affiliated to an institution under contractual obligation means that I’ve had the freedom to explore new research avenues and possibilities. Quite often in the past year, I’ve had several projects on the go at once and have managed to devote decent portions of time to projects unrelated to my main research stream.
We can safely acknowledge that it would be much better to be paid for research, and that there is an intrinsic problem with a system which promotes this ad-hoc research model, but I have noticed recently how intoxicating freedom to pursue my interests can be. This is a luxury even academics don’t have! Productivity is up, and stress about reporting to a higher power is, obviously, non-existent.
This period of intellectual freedom has meant that I have regained my interest in academic research and allowed me to effectively incubate possible post-doctoral ideas. Incidentally, NOT having to work for a University on a term-time adjunct basis meant that I asked my affiliated university for paid lecturing to suit my own needs.
Everyone knows that the doctoral experience presents you with many ‘dark nights’ and renders even the hardiest soul into a self-doubting, under-confident wreck (woo!). A profession which takes the very brightest minds in our society and makes them compete for low pay and uncertain tenure is bound to have this effect on the individual mindset.
So where does the non-academic role come in?
More often than not, the positive feedback received in industry and professional non-academic environments is the first upbeat commentary on our abilities that we have received in a very long time. Entry-level to middle management roles seem to be the norm for most of my colleagues outside of the university system, so simply doing a job which we are more than capable of doing, and doing it well, is a huge change from what we are used to, and makes the non-academic setting feel very rewarding.
The post-PhD treadmill of job rejections, publishing wrangles and the fear of imposing too much on your kindly academic sponsors can leave you feeling pretty worn out, so sometimes a little tenderness from “outside” goes a long way. Also, it’s no secret that current institutional discourse isn’t all ice-cream cake and lollipops, so getting away from it all is rather refreshing. DO NOT underestimate the hugely beneficial impact of external positive reinforcement.
Finally, if gaining new skills, recovering your academic impetus, and improving your mental health hasn’t convinced you that paying the bills outside the academy is pretty sweet, just remember that taking a non-academic job gives you a head-start on a career which your university peers won’t have!
I need point out that I am in the fortunate position of being able to survive on a half-time pay, but recognise that the half-time lifestyle will not be available to everyone. If you happen to live in a country with low overheads and higher minimum wages (thanks Australia!), or lack dependents/mortgage re-payments (which is a serious ECR issue in itself), this post-PhD research structure might not be the worst thing that ever happened to you. I don’t really know where the academic side of things is going for me, but I do know that non-academic work has given me new happiness, maturity, and a framework to understand many once-confounding academic issues.