Beyond the Academy: Breaking out of the university bubble

Being in the third year of a PhD, there are two inevitable questions on everyone’s lips (particularly those not doing PhDs):

So, when do you finish?

AND

What are you going to do next?

These are both frustrating in their own ways. The trouble with the first question is the total lack of an appropriate answer. “Well my funding finishes at the end of this year.” “I should have a full draft by Christmas.” “I really want to have submitted by the time I’m 30.” I’ve opted for all three of these answers recently (actually as recently as half way through writing this post), and I hope that they’re true. But firstly, I know better than to assume that this PhD will fit the timescale I give it, and secondly, even if everything goes swimmingly from here on in (hey, it’s possible), who knows how long it’ll take to get from submission to viva. It’s the latter question, however, that’s had me pondering and occasionally agonising over recent months. I want to work in research. I don’t particularly want to work in academia. These things I have known since before I started the PhD back in 2011. In some ways I’m glad that my goals have remained relatively clear throughout this time, but inevitably the reality of the situation is far more complex. We’ve all read the reams of horror-story articles about the current state of academia, and that there simply aren’t enough jobs going round for the number of PhD places being offered.

“But you said you didn’t want to go into academia?” I (don’t) hear you cry. Well, yes, but this situation not only means that should I change my mind, my options are more limited than they would have been in the past, but also that research roles outside of academia are bound to be seeing greater levels of interest than in the past, with doctoral students fearing the lack of stable jobs in universities, as well as the now widely talked about pressures on mental health associated with such careers. Couple this with the fact that my area of interest lies in culture and the arts, with its own funding pressures, and it’s certainly a scary time.

An apt image, sent to me by a friend shortly after she'd asked me a number of these questions.

An apt image, sent to me by a friend shortly after she’d asked me a number of these questions.

 

Doom and gloom isn’t going to get any of us anywhere though, and I think that breaking out of this university bubble is going to help that. This morning I attended my first What Next? session. Sure, What Next? is mainly associated with those working in positions of some authority within the arts (most of the listed contributors are from theatres, galleries and other arts institutions) rather than doctoral researchers, but the idea behind it is one that I support whole-heartedly, with the founders stating that “We want to engage the public in new and different conversations about how and why the arts are important, and become a catalyst for fresh thinking and new policy ideas”. Today’s session in Cardiff had guest speakers from Creative Exchange Wales Network, and rather appropriately (for me at least!) the discussion was around developing greater connections between higher education institutions and creative industries across Wales. It’ll be interesting to see over the coming weeks and months what kind of conversations are emerging from What Next?, and having the opportunity to be involved – even just by attending meetings – should allow me to focus more clearly on the kinds of opportunities for collaboration between academic research and the arts that do, or could, exist.

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