This week I had the pleasure of speaking at Cumberland Lodge, an educational charity and a unique conference centre in the heart of the Great Park, Windsor. Its patron is The Queen, who has granted sole occupancy of a beautiful seventeenth-century house for discussions aimed at the betterment of society.
I was an invited speaker for Life Beyond the PhD, a celebration of postgraduate research and an opportunity for PhD students to reflect on their future careers and develop the skills to get them there. The attendees are able to hear leading public figures recount the life decisions they made after their PhDs, as well as hearing from experts in higher education policy, communication, career development and impact. One of the aims of the conference is prepare students for an increasingly interdisciplinary academic life, as well as showing that PhDs have demonstrable value both inside and outside academia.
I was speaking in a session entitled Working Inside and Outside Academia: Views from the Recent Past, with Alice Bell and Paul Hurst, a consultant with the Boston Consulting Group. We each gave a brief biographical history, our educational background and described our motivations for doing PhDs and why we stayed in academic or not. While each of our stories and career decisions are by definition unique (and hence it might not be possible to abstract anything explicitly transferable from them), it felt useful reflecting on what I had done and describing the processes and motivations. My one overriding message was along the lines of “be ballsy” i.e. go for it and take the opportunities that pop up, especially early on in your career. With the huge changes in academia and academic careers over the past ten years, I would say you have to be more adaptable and diversified: clearly research is of huge importance, but also teaching, policy and public engagement.
While I did not get the opportunity to listen to the attendee’s ten minute presentations on their research at the end of the week, I thoroughly enjoyed interacting with a wide range of researchers from a diverse set of disciplines (not just scientists!). It was also a pleasure to listen to and chat with some of the other speakers, including the Rt Hon the Lord Smith of Finsbury (former Labour minister, Chairman of the Environment Agency), Professor Rosemary Deem (Vice Principal-Education, Royal Holloway) and Professor Julia Buckingham (Pro-Rector-Education and Academic Affairs, Imperial College London). It was also great to finally meet Sophie Duncan, Deputy Director of the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE).
A big thank you to Alastair, Owen, Faye and the rest of the Cumberland Lodge team for their warm welcome, hospitality and wide range of interesting discussions. If you are a PhD student in any discipline, I highly recommend applying for Life Beyond the PhD 2013 next August.