Beyond Your Research Degree

Episode 20 - Holly Prescott (Careers Advisor of Postgraduate Researchers at the University of Birmingham)

January 31, 2022

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 we talk to Dr. Holly Prescott, Careers Advisor of Postgraduate Researchers at the University of Birmingham!

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





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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 the latest episode of Beyond Your Research Degree.



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I'm your host, Kelly Preece, and in this episode, I'm going to be talking to one of my colleagues from the University of Birmingham.



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Dr. Holly Prescott, about her career beyond her research degree.



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Holly, are you happy to introduce yourself? Yeah, sure. So I'm Holly Prescott, and I did my Ph.D. at the University of Birmingham.



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I did it between 2008 and 2011. It's tough to get my head around.



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The fact that it's nearly 10 years since I finished my Ph.D. was a crossover between literature and cultural geography.



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So I was looking at the effective, and narrative agency of abandoned spaces in contemporary British fiction.



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And once I'd completed that.



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I felt like I'd taken research as far as I wanted to take it.



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And so from then, I forged a career in what we might call higher education professional services,



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and I'm currently the careers advisor for postgraduate researchers at the University of Birmingham.



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Amazing. I just want to pick up on a phrase that you use, though, which I thought was really interesting,



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which is that you came to the end of the PhD and you'd taken research as far as you wanted to take it.



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Can I ask you more about what you mean by that? Absolutely, yes.



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And I think what I mean by that would be in comparison to how I felt after I finished my master's degree.



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So I did, a taught MA and in literature and culture at the University of Lancaster.



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And I just got really into it, got really into my dissertation.



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And one of the main reasons I progressed to the Ph.D. was because after I've done that MA dissertation, I thought I'm not done yet.



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I felt like there was more mileage in the ideas and the research I was doing.



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So just to give you some context.



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My master's dissertation was looking at uh urban exploration photography and say where people go into abandoned buildings, take photographs,



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display them online and especially of maternity hospitals,



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and crossover between the online display of these images of these abandoned maternity hospitals and birth narratives.



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And and yeah, I felt like and the more I was reading, the more I was seeing abandoned hospitals,



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especially cropping up in and in novels that I was looking at.



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And so I think there's more I can get out of this.



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And and that was one of the main reasons I went on to do something I think kind of served



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me relatively well throughout the process was that I was treated like a fixed term job,



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if you like. I was very lucky and privileged to have funding from Research Council.



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But I, yeah, I treated. It really is kind of a fixed term job.



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And and when I was coming towards the end of it, where after my master's, I saw.



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I still feel like there's some mileage in these ideas, I want to keep going with the research.



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That sort of came to a natural end for me.



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And as I was going to say, it was actually in my second year, I really started to think I will probably do something different after this.



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And I started to, on a small scale, explore what that something different might be.



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Yeah, I think that's really interesting and just that kind of concept of the research



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coming to sort of this or your your motivation coming to the natural conclusion.



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And so when you kind of when your second year when you were starting to investigate what that might be, how how did you go about that?



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How did you go about the process of going? What else is there and what might what might be suitable for me?



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Hmm. I think it's important to point out that I don't think I did this completely consciously, right?



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I don't think this was a conscious, purposeful career planning process.



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I don't think my line is so difficult, isn't it, to put yourself back in the past situation, actually think what your line of thought was?



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But I don't think it was. Oh, I have to start career planning now, so I'm going to try some things and see what's right for me.



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It was much more and it was much more.



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I don't think I'm going to be continuing with research after this.



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So feeling like that gave me the freedom to dip my toe into a couple of other things and try some things out.



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And I think another big part of it was what I was naturally drawn to.



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I think what I ended up doing from second year onwards was following my interests a lot more.



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And so just to put that into some context, my interests ended up being things like teaching anything where I was in an advisory work,



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in an advisory capacity and anything where I was doing things like training or mentoring other people.



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And those were things that I was naturally drawn to.



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So that meant I picked up quite a bit of undergraduate teaching, some master's level teaching as well.



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And it meant that I worked as postgraduate student ambassador in the Post Graduate Recruitment Office.



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So helping organise post-grad open days, doing campus tours, things like that.



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And it was actually that part time role that led to my first full time job after the PhD as well.



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And then some of the things I did was I did a stand up comedy course, random, I know.



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And but that has been so useful and in my work now because I felt like if I could stand up in front of the lamp tavern in Dudley and tell jokes,



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I could probably cope with any audience and whatever was thrown at me in any job.



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So. And yeah, that that was what I did.



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I think it was that I became very aware quite quickly about what and what I was drawn towards what I wanted to do more of.



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So when I spotted opportunities like those,



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I took them and as much as I could and and it was doing that and especially the post-grad ambassador work, It ended up really showing me.



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How broad the range of. University based careers is and it started to spark thought in me as well,



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if I do still want to be student facing, I want to be teaching or advising students in some way.



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I still want to be in a university environment and I want to keep that feeling of being an expert in something



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some someone people come to and for for expertise in a certain area.



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That was when I started to realise there were other avenues that could give me that that weren't traditional academic research or teaching.



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Yeah. I think the things I'm really picking up on there is follow it following your interests and continuing to do the things that interests you,



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because they will they will lead you to kind of something that's more perhaps more fitting to interests and values,



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but also kind of getting involved with stuff.



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It raises your awareness, it raises your awareness of what other opportunities and what other options are available to you career wise.



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Because I think, you know, I I was an academic for seven years, six years, six years and,



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you know, until I decided I didn't want to do that anymore and start signing up for job alerts.



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Even working as an academic, I didn't really have a concept of the breadth of professional services and all of that you



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could do within a university that weren't being an academic and so important to do that.



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And can I can I give you another example Kelly just wanted to while pick that you've picked up?



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What I think was important there about, say, about following your interests.



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I think two points here. Number one, I was a bit naughty really, my PhD,



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because I would find myself regularly shirking my research to prepare teaching and and to see how I might do more open days and things like that.



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And at the time, I felt bad for that.



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But really, it was a very important message I was giving myself.



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I was sort of telling myself whre I drew My energy, but also another example of what you say about following your interests.



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So and a couple of years ago, and I think it's going on for about three years ago now,



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I was working with a PGR and she had a physics physical sciences background and and had done a really interdisciplinary PhD.



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And um, she had done a similar thing.



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So she knew very early on she was very interested in communication just in general,



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whether it was communication, science, communication, research, communication of ideas, whatever it was.



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So she decided to wherever there was a communication theme and she had time and the ability to explore that.



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She ended up doing some media training. She ended up getting involved in a podcast.



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She ended up making some videos about her research, and she just purely did that because that was where that was, where interest lay.



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She just really enjoyed those things. When she came to graduate through talking to a friend,



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she learnt about a role that was being advertised and it was in a microscope company and the job pretty much involved



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interviewing scientists to find out how they used this equipment and how they use the applications that this company created.



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And that's not even a job she would have known was a job. But by taking those opportunities doing those training she made,



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she accidentally made herself an ideal candidate for a job that suited her really well.



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But she didn't know it was a job, and I just love that as a career planning model, if you like the fact that it's not a plan.



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She didn't identify a type of job in eighth grade.



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She just developed herself in the ways that she was most interested, and it accidentally made her a great candidate for the job that suited her.



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And so I thought, Yeah, I really rate that as a strategy.



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Yeah, I think I think Kate Foster at Exeter has said that's called planned happenstance or something like it.



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It's a theory,



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and I think it is so important because I've I had a very similar experience in that I was involved in my national kind of subject area network dance



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HE and through that set up and a network for early career researchers because I was one of two early career researchers heavily involved in it.



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And and we didn't really know anyone at other institutions on each other, and we wanted to have that support system.



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And actually,



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that was a huge thing when I applied for the role that I'm in now as a researcher development manager that worked in my favour because actually,



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that's the kind of stuff that my role now is doing. And it was a really cool experience and the fit directly into the work that I'm doing now.



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But it was kind of a a a side hustle kind of.



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I just want to do this and like you, something I was taking taking time out with my quote unquote day job to do.



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And I think lots of us do that. And I really like how you're talking about the importance of acknowledging and



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reflecting on those instincts and those pathways and those things that you're drawn to.



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I think it's like any aspect of life, whether it's, you know, whether it's academic,



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professional relationship, family links, if you keep doing something,



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if you keep being drawn to a pattern of behaviour,



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you're being drawn to that pattern of behaviour for a reason and uncovering those reasons can unlock a lot of nuggets for you.



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I think. Yeah, it can. You know, it really ties into all of that stuff that we talk about in our respective roles,



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about kind of self-awareness and reflecting on your values and all of that.



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I like you. I've always done that kind of unconsciously, I guess, and through my career.



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But actually, you put yourself ahead of the game if you actually engage with all of those processes and all of those



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resources because you learn about yourself and what you're drawn to and what interests and excites you.



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And that can kind of step ahead to thinking about, Okay, so where where does this fit, you know, career wise, sector wise?



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And I think that reflection can also perhaps save you some stress in the long run,



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because especially when we're talking about postgraduate researchers,



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you know, I really appreciate that not everybody has the time, exactly space to just say yes to these extra things.



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So I think it's a balance.



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And if you are someone who is juggling your postgraduate research with a hefty pile of other responsibilities and challenges,



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and the more you can do to to to be very strategic and in the few opportunities that you do take.



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The better, so you don't feel the pressure to have to say yes to all of these things,



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but you're just investing in the few things that are going to develop you in the line of how you think you want to develop.



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This is why I, you know, I I do think career planning is very outdated in terms of deciding you want to



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be something and then planning in a very linear way to actualise that plan.



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I think jobs, if jobs are being born and dying, a rate that is too fast for that to be an effective strategy anymore.



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And what I do think is that if you just have some idea about how you want your doctoral



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experience to develop and to use that to be strategic in the things you say yes and no to,



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that can save you. I think some conflict and some stress to to grant yourself the permission to say no to things that don't fall within that.



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Yeah. Absolutely, absolutely. And yeah,



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I'm really interested about what you said about this kind of career management career planning thing being being outdated because



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I my experience is that kind of I came to this knowledge area kind of after I'd made some quite dramatic decisions in my career.



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It's going to stop being an academic and actually looking at it helped me contextualise the decisions that I've made,



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but I'm not sure if I'd have someone to put the career management cycle in front of me.



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I'd necessarily have still made those decisions.



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But on reflection, help me understand that I was actually following my, my values and my interests and my mind.



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And so can you tell us a bit more about what you're doing now and how that kind of fits in



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with kind of you following those interests and those passions during your research degree?



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Yeah, definitely so.



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And so as well as my day job being the careers advisor post graduate research, going to University of Birmingham, I keep a Ph.D. careers blog.



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It's called Post Gradual and its to give a shameless plug.



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And and in our own blog.



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And I. Talk quite a bit about a thought experiment that I'm quite a fan of.



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And it really is a it is me putting into words something that I was doing unconsciously through this process of what led me to what I do now.



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So. Obviously, what I do now is I support postgraduate researchers with that and career development who will take their next steps.



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But it's taken me a while to come around to this and it's taken me a while to realise that this was.



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And this role was dealing with the problems in the world that I wanted to solve.



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But what I feel like I have done and this is something I encourage other people to do is say from coming out of the PhD into the first role I was in



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which was working in postgraduate student recruitment. There were things about that I really enjoyed.



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So the first thing to say was. And having done part time work with them during my PhD, gave me an easy in right.



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That was an easy step sideways into doing some work because it was academic.



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adjacent if you like. I knew the team I'd worked with before.



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And so that gave me a nice Segway into my first proper job after the Ph.D. as I was going through that job.



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I started to more consciously think about what were the bits of it that motivated me the most, and it was anything where I was advising people.



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It was anything where prospective students were coming to me as an expert,



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as somebody who could be a postgraduate and wanting to ask questions about the experience,



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the application process, being hungry for information, and I was the one that could give it to them.



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I really liked being in that situation,



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and I really enjoyed being the person who made people feel more confident and more reassured with taking the next steps.



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Those were things that really lit me up, but the bits of it I wasn't so enamoured with were only being able to promote one opportunity to them,



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which was postgraduate study and and and the kind of salesy aspect of the role.



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I quickly realised that the conversations I wanted to be having with these people were more



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impartial and conversations about what would really be right for them in the next steps.



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So what I was doing here semiconsciously, I was asking myself if I was going to turn my current job into my ideal job.



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What bits of it, what I want to keep? What aspects of it would I want to lose?



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And what kinds of activities or things might I want to add to it that I'm not doing at the moment



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And I think I was doing that throughout the PhD as well. I just didn't realise it.



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I think when I was going through the PhD, I was thinking,



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I want to keep working in a university environment to keep this advisory, teaching and authority kind of figure.



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But I wanted to lose working on my own a lot, and I wanted to add more contact with a broader range of people in my work,



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and I wanted to add a bit more kind of work life separation.



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And so I guess what led me from the Ph.D. to where I am now is this iterative process of each role I took.



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Keep asking myself, What do I want to keep, what I want to lose, what I want to add?



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And it says that that actually led me to undertake a professional qualification in career



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guidance and take a sideways move to do a secondment and into the careers service,



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which is how I got it originally. And that was originally a six month secondment, and I ended up establishing a permanent role.



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And then once I was in that again asking myself those questions, what do I want to add, specifically working with researchers?



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So so far, I feel like my career has been this iterative process of keep asking myself these three questions Why don't you keep what I want to lose?



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What do I want to add? And I think I will always be doing that. And throughout my career, and it's something I would really encourage people,



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especially post-grad researchers, to to think about and to bring into their consciousness,



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because I think too often we can fixate on the idea that we have to solve our entire lives with our first post job, right?



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Especially if we're going to be jumping out of academia into something else, we can think, Well,



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what if I don't like it or if the job is terrible, etc. You're not trying to solve your whole life with your next job.



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You're just trying to take the next step in this iterative process. You're just trying to think, What do I want to add next?



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What do I want to lose next? And I'm making very small incremental changes towards something that ticks more boxes



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I hope that answered the question, that's my best way of describing the process that I've gone.



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through from PhD to where I am now, it has and I think it's hit on a really, really and insightful bit of advice,



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which is the thing about not, you know, you're not solving your whole life, you're not kind of committing to something forever



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I think that's that's such an important point to make because actually, you know,



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careers evolve over time and you know, you discover you discover interests that you didn't necessarily know you had.



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I mean, through doing some of the kind of community based work with PGRs I have become really interested in equality and diversity,



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and I'm actually going on secondment shortly to do a role looking at inclusive research and research ultures, you know?



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That's when I was an academic. I would never have imagined that I would taken,



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but it's something that's evolved throughout the process of doing different roles and engaging with different PGR communities.



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And so I think what you're saying is really crucial because. We discover new things our interests change over time.



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Now, you know that none of these things are static, so thinking about that first,



00:25:26,840 --> 00:25:34,790

your post is a kind of deciding what you will be doing forever is deciding kind of what what the next step is.



00:25:34,790 --> 00:25:39,320

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I know I didn't.



00:25:39,320 --> 00:25:50,960

I didn't think straight out of my PhD dying to be a careers advisor, and I'd only mean that kind of partially, irreverently.



00:25:50,960 --> 00:26:00,140

Yeah, but it's it's like it's as if I was going through in my first couple post jobs capturing these breadcrumbs that



00:26:00,140 --> 00:26:09,730

were giving me clues as to that was what was going to to help me make people feel the way I wanted them to feel,



00:26:09,730 --> 00:26:16,700

the way I wanted to support people and to working with the groups of people that I wanted to make a difference to.



00:26:16,700 --> 00:26:24,350

Thanks so much to Holly for taking the time to speak to me and for giving us some really fantastic insight about following your interests,



00:26:24,350 --> 00:26:27,290

your values, using your intuition,



00:26:27,290 --> 00:26:36,800

but also fundamentally not seeing that first job post research degree as it as the culmination or the the end point of your career.



00:26:36,800 --> 00:26:47,210

Actually, it's about finding something that's interesting and gathering those breadcrumbs, as Holly said, to find the right thing for you.



00:26:47,210 --> 00:27:03,066

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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