Beyond Your Research Degree

Episode 13 - Charlotte Chivers, Research Assistant, University of Gloucestershire

February 22, 2021

Welcome to the Beyond Your Research Degree podcast from the University of Exeter Doctoral College! The podcast about careers and all the opportunities available to you... beyond your research degree!  In this episode Kelly Preece, Researcher Development Manager talks to Charlotte Chivers, who secured a Research Assistant post at the University of Gloucestershire during COVID-19. Charlotte has started her role at the University of Gloucestershire whilst finishing writing up her PhD.


Music from ’Cheery Monday’ by Kevin MacLeod ( License: CC BY (


Podcast transcript


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Hello and welcome to the Beyond Your Research Degree podcast by the University of Exeter, Doctoral College

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Hello and welcome to beyond your research degree. It's Kelly Preece here, and I'm really excited to be bringing you the second in a special series that

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we're doing for Beyond Your Research Degree about securing jobs during Covid 19.

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So last time I talked to Tomir about securing a job with an NGO.

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And today I'm gonna be talking to Charlotte Chivers in a very similar position to Timur,

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writing up herPhD and starting a new job, but this time as a postdoctoral research associate.

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So we normally on Beyond your Research degree, we focus on non-academic careers.

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But given the real challenges our PGRs are facing at the moment,

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it seemed really pertinent to talk about securing academic and research jobs as well.

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Yeah, hi. So I'm Charlotte Chivers and I have been doing my PhD at the University of Exeter since twenty seventeen.

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My research is within the Centre for Rural Policy Research.

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So it's a social science. PhD and I have been exploring the efficacy of agriculture advice surrounding diffused water pollution.

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So I have now finished a draft of my entire thesis and congratulations.

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And I'm making revisions based on my supervisor's comments at this stage.

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However, back in September, I started a research position at the University of Gloucestershire.

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So I now work in the Countryside and Community Research Institute.

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So I've been juggling, working full time and finishing off my PhD.

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And again, I'm working in social science, but mostly looking at environmental stuff.

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So I now work on two big EU projects. One is called Soil Care, which it's soil health in agriculture.

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And the other is called Spint and we are looking at pesticides in agriculture.

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That's brilliant. Thank you. So there's a number of lots of different things to pick up on within that.

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But I think so firstly. So if we can go back to September last year. So was it September you started the job?

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Yes. I started in September. So when when did you when did you apply?

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What were the sort of timescales? So I applied in June last year.

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OK, yeah. So. So I wasn't. Sorry. No i was just going to say so this is so all of the application process, everything, it's all happened during COVID.

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Yes. Yes. OK. So I.

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Let's start at the beginning of that process that I'm thinking about, how it might have been affected by it.

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So how? First of all, how did you how did you find this role?

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So I had sort of had my eye on the centre

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I now work for for the last couple of years and I recognised that it would potentially be a good fit for me.

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So I kept my eye on their website and I attended one of our events.

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So they have a annual winter school, which meant that I had the opportunity to meet some of the academics working there.

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And from then on, then I kind of just kept my eye out for jobs.

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And although it was quite early for me to apply for a job because I still had, you know,

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my PhDi ongoing, I wanted to make sure I didn't miss out on an opportunity.

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As obviously, you know, academia is competitive. So I had to kind of go for it.

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When when a job came along. So, yeah, absolutely.

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And I think, you know, it is that when your when you're targeting particular departments or organisations,

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if you're thinking outside academia that are a really good fit for your passion, but also your kind of knowledge and skills.

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It is sometimes having to kind of make that compromise going okay.

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It's not the ideal time. But is this opportunity likely to come up in six months when it is the ideal time?

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Can you talk a little bit about the. Application process, particularly thinking about what might have been different about it because of the,

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you know, the all of the restrictions that we've had in the UK for the past year or so.

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Yeah. So in terms of actually applying for the job, it was it was the same essentially because,

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you know, I had to submit an application form and a CV online. And so that was quite normal, actually.

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And that the first stage where it was quite different is that my interview had to be held online with a panel of three professors,

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which was quite interesting. You know, I had to get myself into the mindset of an interview even though I was starting my apartment.

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So that day that I just made sure that I got dressed up as if I was going to an interview.

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And I just tried to get myself in that mindset. But it was quite strange having a sort of online interview.

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But luckily for panellists were lovely, really supportive. So, you know, I felt relatively at ease despite it being an online interview.

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Yeah. And I think you've picked up on a couple of really important things.

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They're about actually kind of that sense of mindset of how do you put yourself in the frame of mind of performing,

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because that's essentially what an interview it is, isn't it? You know, it comes down to it.

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You're you're kind of performing for the interview panel. And how do you do that when you're kind of in your in your everyday?

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Environments, so I think that thing you said about, you know,

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getting dressed up and doing all of those things like you would do for an interview normally are really important.

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Were there any kind of any markedly different things for having the interview online from when you've had interviews face to face?

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Was there anything kind of. I don't know. Different or challenging?

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About doing that way. Yeah, definitely so.

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And the thing is, it's because there were four of us on the call.

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And you have a lag often when you're online It was incredibly difficult to not interrupt each other.

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And and being in an interview, you obviously don't want to interrupt people.

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You want to make sure that you, you know, wait your turn and speak when you can ask the question.

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But there were a couple of times. So it's quite difficult to know when to talk and when to get a word in.

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So that's something that was a bit challenging. But again, I think everyone is aware of this.

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So I didn't I didn't see it as a major issue because I assume everyone is facing the same sort of challenge.

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So it was kind of it was kind of okay. Yeah.

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And were there any kind of any positives, any things that you felt were kind of easier or or or nicer or more relaxed because of the online format?

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Yeah, I mean, I personally do prefer in-person meetings because you can build rapport a bit easier.

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You can make proper eye contact, but not having to travel was quite nice.

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I didn't have to worry about being late, unless the Internet had died.

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But, you know, in general, our Internet is really strong.

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So I could just kind of get up in the morning and not think, oh, my gosh, I need to make sure the train isn't late or.

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Yeah. So it was quite nice, actually, not having to worry about about that.

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So, yeah, I'd say that was a benefit. But other than that I'd say I didn't find it dramatically different.

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You know, it was interviews are Always scary. You know, I think I think either way, it's not it's not the easiest of things to go through.

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But, you know, I think having a nice panel really helped.

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And, you know, I think just making sure your Internet is working and stuff is really important to you.

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But, yeah, I wouldn't say there were any massive positives or necessarily any massive negatives either.

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It was kind of. Yeah, it was it was different. But it was but it was fine.

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So can we talk a little bit more about what was involved as part of the application process?

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So you said that you did an online application form and a CV were that particular things like.

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Required as part of the application form. Did you have to do like a personal statement against the job specification or questions?

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Upload documents, anything like that? Yeah.

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So I believe I had to fill in in the application form, I had to refer to how I met the sort of essential and desirable criteria.

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And as a rule of thumb, what I always do is I actually copy across all of the headings from the job description.

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And I specifically answer each one.

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So, you know, and that's always worked quite well for me because it means that the person reading the application can literally see straightaway.

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Okay. They've actually tried to answer every single one of these essential and desirable criteria.

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So I remember specifically doing that, but I don't think it had off the top of my head.

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I can't remember having any really sort of specific things that were out of the ordinary.

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It was kind of just an application form. And yeah, your CV, which I obviously tailored for four jobs,

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I made sure that I prioritise certain things and put things at the top that were really important.

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So, you know, my publication record and my previous work experience were important for this particular position.

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So, you know, I just made sure that it was really I make it as easy as possible for us to do application to see,

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you know, the key things that they need to know about you rather than having it hidden or or further down the page.

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Yeah. Yeah, I think that's a couple of things that you said and that just really useful kind

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of simple tools like copy and cross the headings of the person specification.

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I do that and I don't necessarily use them as headings, but I make sure that,

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like with the example I'm giving the examples I have the exact language from the person.

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specification. Just say it like you're having all the signals or making it really, really clear.

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And so with the interview, was there any preparation you have to do for the interview?

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Did you have to do task or anything like that? No, I didn't.

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I don't think. But I did send across some material in advance. Just off my own bat.

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OK. So I, I basically just really wanted this job.

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So I probably came across as extremely keen. I think that's fine.

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So I essentially sent across some examples of my work just to help bolster my application.

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So part of the role was and so I work on dissemination work package for one of for projects.

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So, you know, I don't just do research. I have to help with dissemination and communication.

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So I sent across a couple of examples of infographics, ive made,

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and I think I sent them a podcast and things like that just to show that even though I'm mostly trained in research,

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I am capable of doing with dissemination side as well, because, you know, it was quite hard to articulate that without providing evidence.

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So I made sure to send that. But it wasn't a prerequisite.

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They didn't ask for it, but I just felt that it would help them to see that, you know, I'm not just saying I can do it.

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I have shown them. Yeah, absolutely. And I think, you know, as part of the whole job application process, that's to be being proactive.

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It is so crucial to the whole process. And do your remember what kind of questions they asked you an interview.

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Oh, my gosh. One of one of the questions I asked was actually where I'd like my career to go.

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Which one? Yeah. So and I was quite sort of.

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And I was like, well, I could just say, oh, I just desperately want.

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this job forever to try and persuade them to give it to me. But I decided to be honest and actually that really paid off.

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So I said, you know, within a few years I'd like to be a research fellow.

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And when I got offered the job, they said that actually really helped me get the job because they want people to progress and they like ambition, so.

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Yeah. So I remember they asked me that was. Oh, they asked.

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They asked questions about my research interests. So, again, you know, I don't want to end up doing research I'm not passionate about.

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So I was completely honest. You know, I explained that I'm very interested in farm advice and soil health and the environment.

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And again, you know, it was just lucky that the job I was applying for, you know, happened to be really aligned in my research interests.

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They also asked me to talk about. So this is a really common in question.

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I think I've had it in every interview I've ever done. They ask what your sort of weakness is.

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And I always. Yeah, and I always tackle that by giving an example of a weakness.

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I may be used to have.

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And then I explain how I resolved it or how I managed to kind of overcome it or how I'm working to do so so that I don't just say,

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oh, I'm really bad at this. And then that's it. I make sure to say, you know, I used to really struggle with time management, for example.

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But since then, I've decided to have to make more lists and to use my calendar more just as an example.

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So that's something that I think I've been asked in every interview I've ever had

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Yeah. I wondered, so you said that you're working on you've completed a full thesis draft and you're working on feedback from your supervisors.

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Is that right? Yes, that's correct. So you started this job in September and to those listening we are currently in February.

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So with a period of five months you've been working full time and finishing writing up your thesis.

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So are you technically still registered full time for you for your PhD

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No. No. So, I mean, continuation status. Yeah.

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Yeah. So my my funding finished in September.

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And then I started my job in September, which was quite nice because, you know,

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I couldn't afford to have a gap in and, you know, financially, it's very difficult to to have a gap.

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So I kind of did need to start. But equally, you know, due to various reasons, due to the pandemic and things, I hadn't quite finished my PhD.

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So, yeah, I just I just had to go for it really and sort of just make sure I work on the thesis as much as I can.

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So what I did once I'd settled into this ECRI, which is where I work now,

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I took a week of annual leave and just sort of really worked on a thesis because

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I find it hard to I can do some work in the evenings on the on the thesis,

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but I think it's hard to get into that headspace when you've been working on other research all day.

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So I decided to use my annual leave up to sort of get the bits of my thesis just finished.

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I needed to. And then it's been quite nice because I actually handed in my draft to my supervisors

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in November and then it took three months to get my supervisor comments back in full.

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So I essentially just had three months to just work on my job and and other bits,

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too, because I seemed to just always have several other bits going on with work.

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But yeah, so I've only just got it back a couple of weeks ago.

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So I now now hatched a plan.

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I have now had my full draft back with supervisors comments throughout and I've hatched a very strict plan to make sure that I do submit and that I,

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you know, have time to sort of make sure I answer all of that comments and proofread and do any final bits.

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So, you know, my goal now is to submit at the end of March.

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And again, I've had to take another week of annual leave.

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So next week, I I've completely taken myself away from ECRI work so that I can just focus on the thesis because,

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you know, I do need to be able to get into that headspace again. And, you know, I am working a lot of evenings and I worked yesterday on it,

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but I think it's much easier to do it when you have a proper chunk of time to just focus on your PhD

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Yeah, that's what I was going to ask is how what's your plan and kind of managing your time.

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And I know I'm speaking to quite a few people who not necessarily you've kind of started a job early, you know, before they finish their PhD

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but people who've been working full time throughout and they've said that, you know, particularly in the write up stage,

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that's been the way that they've managed it the best is to kind of take a big chunk of time.

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And work exclusively on it rather than try and just do it all in evenings and weekends.

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Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, working full time, I simply don't have the time or energy and I really don't want to burn out.

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So overall, I work a lot of evenings. I can't work every evening.

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It's just not sustainable. And and, you know, my new job, I love it.

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But it does require me to work quite long hours.

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So I often actually work in the evenings on my CCRI work. So by the time I can get there, you stay.

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So, look, well, you know, it's quite late at night. So I do think for blocking out time is the best way forward.

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Really? Yeah. What was it like starting a job in a new academic department during COVID

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So it was bizarre, to say the least, because I couldn't meet anyone in person for ages.

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I have now met a few people in person.

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So we had a couple of months where I don't know if they had all these weird tiers and people were starting to go in again.

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And so I went into the office a couple of times and met people.

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But aside from that, I've I've essentially done the job for almost six months just working from home, which has been odd.

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But luckily the centre I work with a really, really lovely.

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So they have made a real effort with me. So they have like a morning coffee break.

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Twice a week just. And you can just join as you'd like.

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And it means you get to just have a chat with people. And I've had them send lots of emails.

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We even had to what sub-group where we all sort of sat running goals and things.

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So, you know, it's really helped me build some rapport. And I'm also incredibly lucky.

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I had already met a few of them, you know, in the past. So I sort of had a little bit of a rapport with them already.

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But, you know, I have other friends who started in jobs. So my friend Beth.

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She's in the same situation as me. And she hasn't been able to meet anyone.

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And I think I think it is difficult.

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But you have to just almost make that effort to just have a bit of, you know, like talk that you'd have over coffee when you're in the office.

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You always have to try and do that in meetings a little bit. People obviously really fatigued from Zoom and that

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We often have a little bit small talk before we get into the nitty gritty of it research just to help us to feel connected.

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So, yeah. But I'd say my experience has been amazing. Like, I'm incredibly lucky with that, with a sense of I've I've ended up in.

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It's really nice. Yeah. And I think the things that you're saying, I mean, because we've been I mean,

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apart from all of the different things that the difficulty is we've generally

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been in this situation for so long that actually organisations and ah and,

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you know, employees within it getting much better at kind of creating those opportunities for that more informal.

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But community building, I think.

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So, I mean, those kind of opportunities for people to talk and chat in a way that's not about work to sort of finish up.

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What advice would you give to someone who's looking at applying for kind of postdocs sort of research jobs at the moment during the pandemic?

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Is there anything that you kind of wish somebody had told you or anything you've learnt from the process that you think,

00:21:00,000 --> 00:21:07,000
yeah, people need to know this? Yeah, so I'd say just when you're applying.

00:21:07,000 --> 00:21:17,000
Just try to stay optimistic. I know it can be really difficult, especially if you have, you know, some unsuccessful applications go through it.

00:21:17,000 --> 00:21:20,000
It can't be quite demeaning. But just keep your chin up.

00:21:20,000 --> 00:21:27,000
Just keep going. And always just have confidence in yourself and your skills that you've developed in your PhD

00:21:27,000 --> 00:21:32,000
And I'd say also make sure that you show other people your applications and CVs

00:21:32,000 --> 00:21:39,000
So even if it's, you know, peers or anyone who could maybe take a look at it, you know, through a different lens and say,

00:21:39,000 --> 00:21:46,000
oh, actually this skill here is really useful for this criteria for looking for why haven't you suggested that?

00:21:46,000 --> 00:21:49,000
So, you know, I think it's really important to keep talking.

00:21:49,000 --> 00:21:54,000
And equally, if you're starting to feel, you know, down that you haven't got a position yet.

00:21:54,000 --> 00:22:01,000
Just just keep talking to people. And in the meantime, just keep developing developing yourself.

00:22:01,000 --> 00:22:05,000
So if there's things you could do that would both to application, for example, you know,

00:22:05,000 --> 00:22:14,000
completing your HEZ application or, you know, making a podcast or whatever it is that might help you to get that job.

00:22:14,000 --> 00:22:18,000
I would I would just, you know, keep keep trying to do that.

00:22:18,000 --> 00:22:29,000
And okay, so if you if you get to interview stage and I would say just be prepared, you know, have notes by the side of you, maybe have a mock interview.

00:22:29,000 --> 00:22:35,000
So I always ask my partner to go through some potential questions.

00:22:35,000 --> 00:22:41,000
And he he's not in academia. He's got you know, he wouldn't really have a clue what I'm going to be asked,

00:22:41,000 --> 00:22:44,000
but he knows that I'll be asked about my weaknesses and other things like that.

00:22:44,000 --> 00:22:49,000
So whoever it is you're living with, if you're living with anyone or have a Zoom call

00:22:49,000 --> 00:22:52,000
Just get people to help you, you know, practise for an interview,

00:22:52,000 --> 00:22:59,000
because it may be that if you've done a PhD, you may not have been interviewed in free for years.

00:22:59,000 --> 00:23:03,000
So it's almost like a completely new thing to go through again.

00:23:03,000 --> 00:23:06,000
So I think just making sure that you're really prepared for that.

00:23:06,000 --> 00:23:14,000
I always find reading blogs useful on how to respond to certain questions and just, you know, make sure, you know,

00:23:14,000 --> 00:23:22,000
the job description as well as you possibly can have your CV and stuff open during your interview so that you can have a look.

00:23:22,000 --> 00:23:29,000
I'd recommend printouts, though, because you don't want to be seen to be clicking about when you're in your Zoom call because it looks unprofessional.

00:23:29,000 --> 00:23:33,000
I'd say like taking about I wouldn't do it personally.

00:23:33,000 --> 00:23:38,000
I just have notes by the side of me so I can refer to those if needed.

00:23:38,000 --> 00:23:47,000
And aside from that, I mean, yeah, my main task is just to stay as optimistic as you can and to look after yourself while you're applying for jobs.

00:23:47,000 --> 00:23:53,000
Thanks so much to Charlotte for sharing her experience with me. I think it's really helpful to know.

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Actually, all of these processes are still the same and these opportunities are still out there.

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Even during COVID 19. And that's it for this episode.

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Join us next time when we'll be talking to another researcher about their career beyond their research degree.


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