In some ways I’m not following the ‘traditional’ career model: I am currently in the second year of a history PhD and spend most of my time studying. However, I constantly have an eye towards what I might do afterwards (academia, publishing and social research all appeal to me) and preparing myself for it. In doing so, this year I’ve faced up to a few of my career ‘demons’.
The first of these: I had two interviews.
I’m not as experienced as most people with interviews; I took two years out between finishing my BA in 2010 (i.e. bang in the middle of the recession) and starting my MA in 2012. I spent this time either unemployed or underemployed and applying for jobs with so many applicants that I only reached the interview stage on a couple of occasions, so you can forgive me for being a little apprehensive. I was determined to get it right, so I looked online for interview tips and asked advice from someone who had been in the same position (one of the jobs was a Graduate Teaching Assistant position in my department, so I could ask a former incumbent), and came out of both interviews feeling satisfied with my performance. I got the GTA job and although I didn’t get the other job, an internship with a youth film club, it was due to a lack of experience working with young people rather than interviewing badly – and I got interview experience from it.
Of course, once I had the GTA job, I actually had to teach – another thing I was rather worried about. Teaching experience is pretty important if you want to go into academia, not just because it looks good on your CV but because more likely than not you’ll be teaching as part of any academic job. Even if you choose another path, though, it doesn’t hurt to have that experience at all – you develop communication and information delivery skills and could get a job that involves training people, for instance. It helped that my module was ‘team taught’, so there was another person teaching alongside me, but I had the opportunity to teach a couple of classes on my own when she was away. Teaching on your own for the first time can be very intimidating, especially if the class aren’t a particularly responsive bunch, but now I know I can do it.
I’ve also pushed myself to do two twenty-minute talks at conferences. This is another thing that will make my CV stand out whether I go into academia or not – again, communication skills. I’ve always thought of myself as awful as public speaking, stemming from not being great at it at school, and have consequently baulked at the prospect. Thing is, though, when you think you’re rubbish at something, you end up putting more work into it – and then, like magic, you become good at it! Because of my shaky beginnings, I always plan my conference papers meticulously and practice them a heck of a lot. As a result, they run pretty smoothly and I’ve already submitted a couple of abstracts for conferences in the new year.
Another development opportunity I took was a course called ‘GRADschool’, which aims to kit PhD students out for the world of work, making them think about their interests and strengths. This was scary because of that career buzzword – ‘teamwork’. This was another thing I thought I was bad at, based on experiences from a time when I was more gawky and socially awkward than I am now. Nonetheless, I went ahead with the course and found that yes, I can work in a team, there is a place for me, I can honestly put on my CV that I’m a good team-worker. The highlight of the three-day course was when I stood up and did a presentation at just a few minutes’ notice because the job was going begging – unthinkable! My experiences on the course did confirm that I take a back seat in a pressured environment – there was a roleplay exercise with way too much going on and I shrunk back from it – but now I know the kind of jobs I won’t want to waste valuable time applying for.
So, even though I’m still studying, in 2014 I took a lot of opportunities to improve my skills, boost my CV and get to know myself better. Here’s to many more challenges in 2015!
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Alice is currently in her second year of a history PhD about the public perceptions and personal experiences of only children, c. 1850-1950. She blogs at http://aliceinacademia.tumblr.com.