Cumberland Lodge conference: Life Beyond the PhD

I am writing this blog post with a delightful view overlooking the expanse of Windsor Great Park, from the comfort of Cumberland Lodge. I am here for a 4 day annual conference for PhD students, entitled ‘Life Beyond the PhD’ and am honoured to have been invited to speak here about my personal experience of the PhD process and what comes afterwards.

I attended this conference a few years ago whilst in the midst of my PhD and it had a profound impact on me. At the time I was struggling with my thesis, unsure quite where it was heading and, on a somewhat more existential level, wondering if I had the capability to complete this gargantuan task I had set myself. The conference enabled me to openly discuss these concerns and experiences with other students, all at different stages of their research, and to discover that similar issues were widespread. It also gave me the opportunity to reinvigorate my passion for my subject, which had been waning as I had lost a sense of perspective, grappling with the minutiae of the arguments I was constructing. I was able to take a step back for a few days and reflect on where I was, where I might be going, and also to appreciate how far I’d come, which is not always easy to remember when you’re wrapped up in deadlines and pressure to progress.

Having passed my viva last summer, and securing a fantastic post-doc position, I was in no doubt that returning to Cumberland Lodge to share my experiences would go some way towards returning the favour. As it happens, I am the speaker with the PhD experience most fresh in my mind and it has been fascinating to hear how others who are several years out of their PhDs view the process in retrospect with warmth and nostalgia. I spoke mainly of the challenges I had faced and the importance of what another speaker referred to as “planned happenstance”: being available and able to take advantage of the kinds of serendipitous opportunities that often characterise changes and progression in one’s career path.

We have had speakers talking about, among other things, careers advice, portfolio careers, transitioning into the corporate world, life as a postdoc, what PhD graduates do and how they feel about their career choices and options, and the future of higher education in the UK.

Higher education is in flux at the moment, and there is understandably a great deal of anxiety about the impact of teaching funding cuts and increases in undergraduate tuition fees on the academy as a whole. The situation for postgraduates has, however, been largely overlooked politically and in the media. The future for PhDs in terms of available funding, career prospects both within and without academia is murky to say the least. However, one thing that has emerged very clearly from this conference has been the incredible value undergoing the PhD process and attaining a doctorate has. As more than one speaker commented, the output of the PhD is not your thesis, but yourself as a skilled researcher. I cannot endorse that statement strongly enough. As the academy increasingly needs to justify the public money spent on it, through public engagement, highlighting ‘impact’ (whatever that means…) and so forth, I believe the skills and experience of PhDs will become more obviously marketable to sectors outside of academia. It’s just a question of knowing the language to use in demonstrating the employability and value of a PhD graduate. It was thoroughly heartening to see and experience the groundswell of positive assurance that the PhD process is a valuable one and a unique, occasionally magical experience, which will stand you in good stead wherever your future career may take you.

I’d like to thank the staff at Cumberland Lodge, specifically Dr. Owen Gower and Dr. Alistair Niven, for the invitation to speak at this event. I do hope it continues in future years.

Links: www.cumberlandlodge.ac.uk

www.vitae.ac.uk  – great resources for researchers and PhD students

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