Beyond Your Research Degree

Episode 1 - Working in Research Support

December 10, 2019

Welcome to the first Beyond Your Research Degree podcast from the University of Exeter Doctoral College! The podcast about non-academic careers and all the opportunities available to you...beyond your research degree! In our first episode Kelly Preece, Researcher Development Manager talks to Dr. Morgane Colleau and Cameron Hird who work in research support in the University of Exeter Professional Services.


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

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Welcome to Episode one I'm Kelly Preece, research development manager in the doctoral college at the University of Exeter.

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And I'll be your host today.

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I'm delighted to be joined by my colleagues Morgane and Cameron, who both also work in professional services at the University of Exeter.

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Morgane and Cameron, are going to talk to us today about that transition from being researchers to working behind the scenes in higher education and

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particularly in research support and how they bring their skills and experience as a researchers into their current roles.

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So good afternoon, everyone. So my name is Morgane and I'm a research development manager in the EU International Team.

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And my role is set within research services.

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And I thought today what I would do is to give you a little bit of information about my academic background

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and then the professional route or routes that I've taken since completing my PhD in January 2016.

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I've learnt a few things along the way, so I'm hoping that some of the things will be helpful to you.

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So I first came to the University of Exeter as an Erasmus student for the third year of my undergraduate degree,

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which means that I was only meant to be in the country for a year. It's now been eleven years.

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So something went dramatically wrong. So what happened is I did enjoy my Erasmus year and I really enjoyed the research environments

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that the University of Exeter could offer coming from a French higher education institution.

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This is quite different, starting with the facilities and the resources that we have here.

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So say, for example, library access 24/7 and a huge amount of online resources that you have is not something

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that in French higher education institution we wouldn't necessarily be able to access.

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So after my residency, I decided to stay. And I did a part time master's in Middle East politics.

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And I did it part time because at the time my English may have been reasonably good, but I find it really difficult to conceptualise in English.

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So I find essay writing in a secondary language, quite a challenge.

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And I also wanted to spend as much time as possible in the Middle East because that was my areas of fieldwork.

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And then I stayed again for PhD this time,

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which I also completed part time and I completed part time because I combined my PhD studies with a lot of professional opportunities are underway.

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So I got involved with a lot of teaching in both the politics department and the Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies.

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I worked in consultancy and that was through opportunities with academics that I connected with.

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Which was really good first hand experience in a world outside academia, but still informing policymakers directly.

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And I worked in welfare support roles, so I worked a lot with undergraduate students living in halls of residence.

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So as I said, altogether, completing a PhD part time.

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And it took me about six years, I finally defended and completed in January 2016.

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And so I had a slide prepared, which was about my existential crisis throughout.

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my PhD with questions such as why? Why am I doing a PhD

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I may have agreed to complete the beast and also had a bit of the imposter syndrome.

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What do I actually know? And the thing about me is I went to my Viva with it, a bit of that imposter syndrome as well.

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So on the one hand, I was quite confident and I knew quite a bit about my topic.

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I had researched Iranian nuclear policy during the Ahmadinejad presidency for six years.

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I lived in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. I interviewed Iranian officials extensively outside Iran.

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But yet I didn't have that voice of authority or their feeling that I could actually speak and represent the Iranian regime very well as well.

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So that was one thing that I had to juggle with throughout my PhD

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And then the question was, well, what am I going to do now that I've completed?

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Do I want to stay in academia? And deep down, I knew I didn't want to stay in academia, but that didn't really tell me what actually could I do.

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And also, would I be a little bit of a failure if I didn't stay in academia or didn't try to stay in academia?

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And at the time, I think I never really reflected on my range of transferable skills.

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So I really hadn't reflected on what it is that I could actually offer to employers and what it is that I actually enjoy doing as well.

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So there was an existential crisis of questions throughout the PhD and then post PhD

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So I then went into my first role at the University of Exeter.

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More out of curiosity. So I was a programme administrator for two professional.

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Programmes in clinical psychology. So I sat within the doctor college.

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And so this is completely different from my area of work because I left Middle East politics after I left academia

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I went for a road that was probably on a much lower pay scale and spine point that I could have hoped for, having completed my PhD

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But I really went into it out of curiosity. Why not?

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I'm drawn to professional doctoral programmes it's a different route from what I've done.

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I would be working with the NHS. I would be interested in this.

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And I really enjoyed that role. Stayed there for two years.

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And I think that is when I regained confidence and I started to become a lot more aware of my transferable skills.

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So things that I could handle that maybe some of my counterparts find it a bit more difficult.

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I had a huge workload capacity compared to others. I was able to engage really well with academics.

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I had an understanding of the PGR environment because I had just completed my thesis.

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I was able to organise and project manage a wide range of targets and projects and so forth.

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So I stay in this role for two years. I then I decided it is time for a change.

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I am still going to be staying at the University of Exeter.

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And I moved sideways and I did an unusual thing where I went from one interview after the other

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and at the end of them decided to combine three part time roles amounting to 1 FTE

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So I had one 0.6 role, 60 percent F.T. in the doctoral college where I was the P.A. to the dean and the associate dean of the doctoral college.

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I also worked for the quality development team. So that was a 60 percent FTE role, but actually with two types of responsibilities.

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And then I had two 20 percent FTE roles on very large scale research projects.

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So one was an EU grant and the other one was a Wellcome Trust.

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So I work really closely with two senior academics on their project teams and that was fun.

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But it is really unusual for someone I think at the University of Exeter to combine a variety of roles, not less.

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Three amounting to 1 FTE And that's something I think served me well because that was noticed at interview stage.

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And to this day, that is something I sell as evidence of my capacity to work in a variety of structures and team and services and systems.

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But at that point, I thought, I need to wake up because this is actually not this very challenging enough.

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So it is time now to stop moving sideways and try to move up.

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It a bit more. And so that's what I've done. And this is how I ended up in my third role at the

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The university, we could say where I was an impact and partnership development officer in a degree apprenticeship team in IIB.

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So IIB stands for Innovation, Impact and Business, and that's the commercial team of the University of Exeter.

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So what was great there is, again, I learnt new skills. So commercial engagement for me was really new

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I had never been a relationship manager for an external company.

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I was this time around the sole point of contact for engineering companies at the University of Exeter.

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So, again, really far away from my field of study in Middle East politics.

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But there I discover that is really not for me because I'm not in a university because of my interest in commercial engagement.

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Actually, I like working at a university because of the research focus.

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So after six months, I left that role and I went for another higher grade role, which I got.

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And this is how I am currently a research development manager. So over seven months, I managed to move twice and two grades up.

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And I think now I'm probably operating at the right level, which is quite nice.

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It will be another few years before I can aspire to a higher grade role.

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So what is great about research of manager role? And a lot of us are PhD

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holders in research services or a lot of us have left academia.

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It's an area of work that seems to be attracting a lot of people with PhDs

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I provide I work one to one with very senior academics, but also more junior academics.

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And I support them with a research grant proposals that want to secure a new grant or an international grant.

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I provide them with post awards support. So I discuss the research project ideas with them.

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I advise them on ideas, few of ideal funding opportunities for them.

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I do a lot of their budget. I do all the legal work that is involved negotiating with the EU European Commission, dealing with collaborators.

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I then also induct them once they are successful to the terms and conditions of their grounds.

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And what is nice for me is that this is as close to academia as I ever wish to be again.

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So I still have a foot in my field because actually I support social sciences quite a bit now.

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I have a fit, but then I'm not carrying the weight of research myself, so I'm quite enjoying that.

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I think I've become more aware as well of the skills that I develop throughout my PhD and

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Definitely using those on a day to day basis.

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So things like analysis and problem solving, interpersonal and leadership skills and being able to network and collaborate with others.

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project management, being able to peer review an application, that's not always easy.

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Provide feedback to a higher up academic. And then this is a road that brings great professional development opportunities.

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So I'm able to manage now. I'm able sometimes to support younger academics with self leadership skills.

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So in terms of how to supervise students sometimes as well, we have conversations and then I also do I additional qualifications.

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So I'm also able to pursue professional development opportunities and recognition.

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So sorry, I have to change page. So this is not good for the recording.

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If we could. So then I just wanted to reflect on what's happened along the way because I have moved around quite a lot.

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I think what has been helpful for me is working with a mentor.

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So I identified a mentor that had also transitioned outside academia that is about 20 years older than me and was very comfortable with.

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I'm a PhD holder. I left academia and here are the skills that I can offer.

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That's a really safe space to have confidential conversations with.

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And it's a good opportunity as well to explore things. And then you can reflect back on with your mentor.

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So that helps. I also enrolled on the Aurora programme. So the Aurora, our programme is run by the Leadership Foundation.

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And this is a women only focus programme. And it's really about focussing on our leadership skills.

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And that was an opportunity for me at the time to really focus on myself and my sense of agency as opposed to what I wasn't.

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I'm not an academic, but actually what else can I offer? Now was quite nice to switch from negative to positive.

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It is at the time I decided, no, I'm going to move up and I'm going to do everything I can to try to get a higher grade job.

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And I also met other women or other very different various stages. And it was nice and comforting to hear about her experiences.

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I attended as many training courses as possible with the university.

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And we have great I mean, I think our people development team do put on a great range of training courses.

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So, again, good way of developing yourself skills, but becoming more aware as well of yourself, your working style.

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What do you have to offer?

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And as I say, I also pursuing professional qualifications through the ILM programme, which is a focus on leadership and management.

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So that has helped me along the way in gaining that confidence over the last four years.

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And so if I had two key takeaways for me, the PhD was a difficult journey.

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And everyone I completed my PhD with was also in the same boat and also struggled, I think.

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And and academia is not an easy choice. And it can be challenging, particularly people around.

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You don't understand. Why would you not want to stay in academia? I think finding an aspiring career path can also be testing.

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And for me, was definitely a need to review process of I'll go a bit everywhere until I find what resonates.

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What I've learnt is that it's worth taking risks.

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So I did jump in my career and role that, I mean, was only a six month opportunity to start with.

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But I decided that I wanted to explore and see if it worked for me.

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So I think that is sometimes worth doing for me, was worth trying different paths to find myself.

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I think what worked for me as well was to identify role models. So I've been really inspired by women that I work with.

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And when I would see them at meetings, I would be like, this is what I want to be like in a few years time.

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That is an inspiring career path. I think it was also what some people along the way to become a bit more reflective of, actually.

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What did I achieve during my PhD? What skills did I develop?

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What am I quite good at? And also trying to sell a bit more and better what I did alongside my studies.

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So not every PhD student who would have had a consulting experience.

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Not every PhD student would have lived in a war zone and so forth.

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So, you know, what else can I sell to me for?

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To this day, my PhD still holds value. So not much in terms of actual academic advancements,

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but I think it is it adds to my credibility when working with academics on reviewing their proposals, for example.

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I think it does give me a bit more credibility. I think it served me well.

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I think it's helped me in terms of scientific thinking and or my leadership skills and to this day.

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So three, four years after completing my PhD. Finally, the sense of failure or the fear of failure has completely disappeared.

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So there are no regrets. And it's quite a nice place to be in because I wasn't in that position two years ago.

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So there's been a nice journey in that sense. Good afternoon, everyone.

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My name is Cameron Hurd, and I actually currently manage animal cultures in our aquarium here at the University of Exeter.

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So I work on the technical services.

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So I'm in a bit of a weird situation because I've been in this role full time now for a year, but I'm still finishing off looking at my PhD.

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So that will be submitted in about three months time.

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So that just shows that there is the opportunity to be able to go off and start doing jobs while you're continuing the PhD.

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So my PhD was in marine biology subject here. I was looking at the impacts of pharmaceuticals release from wastewater on marine animals.

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And during my PhD, I was really enjoying it and things like that.

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But more and more questioning, what do I want to do after my PhD?

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Right. From the age of six, I decided that I wanted to be a marine biologist.

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What a six year old thinks and marine biologist is a very different reality.

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So you think you'll be swimming with whales and dolphins when you're that age? Actually, the reality is, is a very different sort of role

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So I knew I wanted to stick with that. But the purely academic route, I just wasn't sure that was what is working for me.

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So I moved away from this.

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traditional PhD, head to academiatype route for many reasons.

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Some of them with things like job security say things like postdocs were limited to six months a year, two years at most sort of thing.

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I was looking at sort of more of work life balance and things like that throughout my career.

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Today, I often found that I was working all the time, even in my spare time.

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I was working and I wanted to sort of break away from that a little bit.

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Both I wanted to have some flexibility. in where i was working.

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So my personal situation is that my partner is based in Exeter,

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so I can't necessarily move for job because I have to think of her role as well and as her being the chief income earner,

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her job has to some extent take priority over mine. So I needed more flexibility and things like that.

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Standard academic career is a bit more flexible. You often expected to move for the new position that you might be taking.

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So what my current role actually involves is day to day I'm managing an entire area of the aquarium.

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So I support a research group. I support eight members of that research group.

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I help out with the experimental work. I look after the animals.

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So that ranges from so low ranking jobs, like cleaning, feeding, transferring animals up to a higher rung,

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jobs like creating new genetic crosses to producing brand new protocols for the culture of these animals.

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So I work predominantly with marine worms, but I also work with things like jelly fish and other species like that.

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So this was quite a nice role because it allowed me to have that crossover between I'm still doing some research type activities.

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I'm still actually producing data that I can publish papers with.

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But it's just not quite the same pressures as sort of a full time academic to.

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So one thing that I took away from this was actually I felt like I was going in at a lower level, a lower rung, but I felt like I should be.

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I know I took a lot of people off during the PhD and they say, ah, after I finished my PhD

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I wanted to be earning as much money and I won't be getting below that.

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And oh, I feel like my PhD should give me a much more professional job afterwards.

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But what I found with this was that actually sometimes you got to start yourself a bit lower off, a bit lower down.

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So I didn't mind the fact that I was going into some of the more menial tasks like cleaning out animals and things like that, because actually,

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once you're in those positions, you've got a foothold and then you've really got a chance to advertise yourself, show that you can do things.

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You can do so much more than that. So that was quite important thing to notice.

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And actually, there were many transferable skills from my first day, as well as a PhF student.

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You were essentially your project manager, that you're managing your own project.

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You're coming up with ideas, you're putting them into practise and things like that.

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Say, actually, there are many skills you can take away from that and you can take into any profession,

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whether it's academic, whether it's non-academic. What I actually found was quite difficult as I was nearing the end of my PhD in

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terms of looking for employment was a lot of people will look at you and they'll view,

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especially if you've been through a career such as mine,

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where I went straight from school straight into my degree and then straight from my undergraduate degree straight to PhD.

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So I didn't have any breaks in between any working between people then viewing

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my applications for things as though I was overqualified but under experienced

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And although I did various part time jobs throughout my PhD. Things like teaching, outreach work, all sorts of things like that.

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I found that actually for the types of jobs that I was applying for, whether they were technical jobs,

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whether they were working in things like ecology, conservation, anything like that, they were looking for more experience.

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So actually, if someone wants to tell me one piece of advice, what would I think?

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What would I give to someone else in a similar situation?

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I'd say if you've got an idea in mind, try and get some experience in it before you're getting to that point that you're looking for jobs,

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because although you may feel like actually you could do that job brilliantly to appeal to an employer,

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you need to have both the experience and the qualifications and not just one not the other.

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So what I found was that there were many transferable skills.

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So as I would to say, you're asking for this, but I can do this. And that's how it relates.

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So things like project management skills, things at managing projects,

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which you do with your employer budgets and things like using the initiative, you might be coming up with you new experiments, things like that,

00:21:13,000 --> 00:21:19,000
during a PhD that showing that you're using initiative to communicate to people throughout your PhD where they're on a small scale,

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whether you're talking to professionals, whether you're talking to the lay person,

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there are all different transferable skills that you can pass on to your post academic life.

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So unusually, the way my job panned out.

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Although I am sort of balancing PhD, finishing off and full time employment,

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it's allowed me to keep my foot in both camps because I'm still involved in the research.

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But I'm still little, say, able to do other things slightly, I guess less taxing on my mind type jobs,

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things that just allow you a bit of a break after your PhD. And actually, in the year that I've been doing this sort of role,

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I've now had a complete change in job role and having an assistant coming in

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to help me out within the next few months and lined up for a new job role,

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a 50 percent pay increase. And then I'll be earning what I might have hoped to earn straight after payday anyway.

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So there really are all these progression routes and they're really, really helpful.

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So I would just say it's been a really enjoyable process, actually.

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Just moving slightly away off one side from academia, but equally giving myself the option to come back.

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And in a way, I'm sort of coming full circle, but just able to test the waters with what I think is best for me.

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Thank you to Morgane and Cameron for sharing their experience with us.

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There's some really useful tips in there about taking some time to reflect both during and after you've completed

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your research degree to really think about what's important to you in terms of your work and your work life balance,

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but also the kinds of skills you developed and the kinds of roles you might want to go into.

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I was really interested to hear both Cameron and Morgane talking about going in at

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slightly lower level jobs than they perhaps would have wanted after a PhD

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but progressing through those into more senior roles really very quickly due

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to the experiences and skills they gained throughout their research degree.

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You can find links to information about both Morgane and Cameron, their research, their current roles,

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and the various different training and development opportunities they mentioned in the show notes.

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And that's it for this episode. Join us next time when we'll be talking to another researcher about their career beyond their research degree.



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