Beyond Your Research Degree

Episode 5 - Dr. James Alsop, Secondary School Teacher

June 25, 2020

Welcome to the 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 this episode Kelly Preece, Researcher Development Manager talks to Dr. James Alsop, who works as a secondary school English teacher.


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


Podcast transcript


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

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Hello, it's Kelly Preece and welcome to the latest episode of Beyond Your Research Degree.

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In this episode, I'm talking to Dr James Alsop, a graduate of the University of Exeter who is now working as a secondary school teacher.

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Are you happy to introduce yourself, James. I'm James Allsopp. I graduated from Exeter in 2015 with my PhD in English.

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My thesis was all about the Living Dead in early modern drama.

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It was cunningly titled Playing Dead because it involves dead things in plays.

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I thought I was quite proud of that. I am. It was a four year process.

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It was a hard, hard, hard fought PhD. And at the end of it, I didn't really have any career trajectory.

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For various reasons I'll probably end up talking about in a minute or two.

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Fast forward, you know, five years or so. And I'm here in Exeter again after a short return home to Essex and I'm teaching.

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So I'm teaching English at Torquay Girls Grammar School.

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And yeah, I've been teaching now for seven years in total with a couple of mini breaks here and there as well.

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Yeah, that's been my path. And hopefully I'll fill in the gap between how did I finish the PhD and how did I end up here.

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Yeah. So what? I think thinking about it kind of chronologically,

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what was what was that like to be coming to the end of or getting to the end of the PhD and not knowing what the next step was?

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So first thing's first I think I made the whole thing sound a little bit easier than it was

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even though I did emphasise the chronic difficulty of the entire process.

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I don't if I mean if you're listening to this, I don't necessarily take my example as a model to follow.

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I had a extremely. I want to say strange, this strange feels like an understatement.

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I had a frankly bizarre ending to my PhD, so I did my first year of the doctorate

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And I'm self-funded, by the way. I was very fortunate in that my grandfather was able to pay for my entirePhDprocess.

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He gave me his will before he passed away. He is still with us

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He's got. That's lovely because he's got the kind of fruits of the labour.

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He wanted to say, you know, you'll end up with his money at some point, say I have it now and do something with it.

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And it was strange because that was very cool having this amazing gift.

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But also there was a lot of emotional pressure there. You know, you've got this big pocket of money.

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All of a sudden it's been spent on your education and you better do something with it.

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And even in those early days, it felt like the Holy Grail at the end of the PhD

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was always this academic career. You know, my role models were academics.

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My my my academic heroes were people that I looked up to for so long.

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And just imagine being in their position one day.

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Imagine being in that lecture theatre or imagine sharing these ideas and having these amazing conversations and writing books.

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And, you know, that was the aim that was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

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But I mean, as we all know, and I imagine anyone listening to this knows,

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those pots of gold are far rarer than perhaps you imagine at the start of the journey.

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And being self-funded I had to pay my own way through that first year of the PhD in terms of living expenses and things like that.

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So what I found was I had three Part-Time Jobs on the go one time.

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And of course people think of the PhD. As, you know, you're a student, you're learning, you're in education still.

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But as anyone that started the process knows, the PhD is a full time job.

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Yeah. You know, it's it's an all consuming beasy

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So I was spending my evenings and nights working on this doctorate and my days I was spending so much time,

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you know, furthering between, gosh, what did I do? I was a barman. That was cool.

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I love being a barman. I was a barista in a coffee bar.

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Wow. I worked in what was Coffee Express and I think has now turned into I know there's a salon there at the bottom of Devonshire house.

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It used to be a coffee bar.  I was there in the early morning to do breakfasts for students.

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I was a cleaner as well at the Exeter Corn Exchange.

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I still get a cold shudder whenever I go out there.

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And that's not because it was a bad job or because I saw it as unworthy of me.

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It's because it was ungodly early hours. I was up at half past three in the morning to get there for a half past four shift.

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And I'm not I'm not gonna tell you this because, you know, woe is me or anything like that.

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I just want to make it clear, you know, that that first year was intense. I had this huge emotional pressure,

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but also this workload that meant I was spending so much time earning money to live in Exeter that I wasn't actually doing much studying in Exeter.

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I rarely saw my supervisor. And that wasn't because they weren't available.

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It was just because I wasn't. Yeah.

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So that was a lot. I moved home in the second year of the degree, which was a godsend.

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You know, I was lucky enough to be able to move home and live with my parents while I carried on with this PhD

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And finally, I had time to research. Finally, I had time to start writing.

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Of course, what that means is now in the back of my mind, I've got this ticking clock.

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You're in your second year. The third year is approaching and that first year didn't contain much productivity, did it, in any real sense?

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I also needed money. You know, I couldn't live off my parents.

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So I had to get a job. I ended up working in a pancake restaurant.

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Both things. Oh I know, which is great.

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You know, I make a mean pancake and a mean omlette to this day, you know, there are skills that I carry with me for the rest of my life.

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But, you know, it was a again, it was it was a tough process balancing this.

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I lived in Essex, which isn't a million miles away from the British Library, which was grand.

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So I'm finally starting to find some balance there.

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And then the third year of my PhD started and I realised that actually I didn't know what was at the end.

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Now, thing is, I because of all the other stuff that in.

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Not so much my time. I hadn't got anything published. I've been to one single conference.

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I hadn't helped to put together any conference panels myself.

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I hadn't contributed any reviews to any publications. And when you're studying English, when English is your field, you know,

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the publication is it's a daunting process because there's so much amazing stuff out there.

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But it's also very solitary process. This was in the days before academic Twitter, I think, took off.

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And I found that the whole thing intensely lonely. It was very hard to make any any headway there.

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I didn't even know what an academic conference was until the end of my second year.

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You know, I it feels so strange to say now.

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So I found myself in this strange place at the start of my third year where I didn't know what was actually going to happen at the end of it.

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I had a very supportive supervisor who saw me through that, third year by, you know, scrutinising everything I sent her, no matter how terrible it was.

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You know, come the end of that third year, I found, you know, I.

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I didn't know what was actually going to happen once I completed this enormous essay in my mind.

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I wasn't preparing for a career anymore. I was just surviving I needed to go into a fourth year to complete this PhD.

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So that that's when things started to turn around for me, out of necessity, I needed to look for jobs.

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So I thought academia is not going to happen for me.

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You know, with my lack of publication history, with my lack of any contacts, there's no way I'm getting a university job.

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I don't even know how to apply. And I didn't know it at the time.

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I'm saying this because I think the context is important. I felt as hopeless as hopeless could get.

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And looking back, actually, this period of time was perhaps the best thing that happened to me.

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It was perhaps the most productive, personally and professionally of my career.

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You know, that necessity creates opportunity. I think if you look for it, you find it.

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And I decided it's, you know, I need a job, I need money.

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And to move out of my parents. I went into teaching.

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It wasn't as easy as I thought to begin with because you need to do teacher training.

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And the teacher training programmes on offer, you know, vary between universities.

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There are different schemes you can go on. I needed money now.

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I didn't want any more student debt, really, or I want to minimise that as much as I could.

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So I went on something called a SCITT school centred initial teacher training.

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I went back to my old secondary school and I started doing training there.

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It was so weird. I was on the other side of the staff room door all of a sudden.

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And I'm doing this PhD on the one hand, again, in the evenings during my days, I'm training as a teacher.

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I'm going on teaching courses. I'm learning how to engage with kids harder than I thought.

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Oh, man. And let me make this clear. Subject knowledge does not a good teacher make.

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I mean, I can't emphasise that strongly enough. I thought.

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Yeah, this will be a cinch. I'm just talking to kids. I'm just talking about English.

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I can do English. Oh, I could not teach.

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My training was important. At the same time as I am completing a PhD, doing teacher training,

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I am also in the process of moving house because I'm also in the process of getting married.

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So again, when I say that my experience isn't necessarily one you can generalise,

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I feel that that's a fair thing to say because I would not recommend doing two of those things at the same time,

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let alone all four of them needs must. And I did what I could and every decision I made at the time I made because I felt it needed to happen.

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I wasn't willing. And perhaps it was a foolish thing in hindsight, I don't know, I wasn't willing to compromise on any one area of my life.

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I wasn't willing to compromise on my relationship or my PhD or my teacher training.

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I wanted to start living. I couldn't afford mentally or financially to carry on in this strange, nebulous stopgap zone.

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I wanted to start being the person I could be. Outside of the PhD

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And I think that's important. You know, when you're studying for the PhD actually, again, it's a long, long process,

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regardless of your subject, regardless if you're working by yourself or part of a team.

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It's a lot. And you. By the end of it, we'll have a good idea of where you stand academically.

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But professionally is still finding your feet professionally. There's a world out there that you haven't had the chance to explore just yet.

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I. Fast forward to the end of my teacher training.

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It was very, very difficult. It was a hard, hard process. I experienced a lot of good, though, you know.

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There's nothing more therapeutic, I think, than working with young people.

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I think every teacher I've ever spoken to will say the same thing.

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The very best part of teaching is working in that classroom with those kids, regardless of whether they're in secondary to sixth form here.

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So whether you're dealing with an 11 year old who's writing a comic strip about Romeo and Juliet or whether

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you're dealing with a sixth former who's writing a huge assess coursework essay on comparative feminist literature,

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you know, whichever age group you're dealing with.

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Just being able to sit down with kids and talk through their ideas and help them see the best parts of themselves.

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That's what teaching is all about. There's loads of negativity. There's loads of financial pressure.

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I mean, you don't get paid much. Government are constantly moving goalposts.

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The things that you need to teach often feel slightly counterintuitive, you know.

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But the marking. Oh, over marking.

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But all of that is made worthwhile by being able to work with young people.

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That was a lifeline for me. And it's a lifeline during difficult circumstances.

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Like I said, it was strange working with other adults again after after a long period of being by myself.

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It was strange working with with other, you know, young professionals.

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And I got a little bit of blowback. You know, I would tell people, hey, this is my story.

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I've got a PhD after I'm doing my PhD and I'm doing this as well.

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And there was a lot of I don't know how else to describe it.

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But reverse snobbery, you know.

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Oh, so you've spent this long at university. You haven't lived.

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You've come into teaching. What do you think? It was the easy option. And I'm like, well, I did think.

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And now I know it's not you know, you by doing it, actually, you're working on developing a huge,

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huge set of skills that will be useful to you in any form of employment.

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I know that's the sort of thing I tell you when you start your PhD

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It's the sort of thing that you hear whenever you go to any kind of, you know, training session on.

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ok  what do I do once it's done? They'll say that. But I speak from experience.

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This is true. You don't know how good you are.

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If you're listening to this and you're doing your PhD and it feels like you're struggling and scratching and clawing your way through it,

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you've got so much to offer the world. You just don't realise it yet.

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And you will. Your time will come as mine did.

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You know, I finished this teacher training. I moved to a grammar school in Chelmsford, in Essex.

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And I had the best three years, I think, of my life there.

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The reason for that was simple. I found something that works for me.

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I found a job that let me be me. And it scratched that academic itch

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It helps me, you know, I think it helped me grow in any number of ways, teaching.

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But, you know, first and foremost, it allowed me to be academic in a sense, without having all the university pressure on me anymore.

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But also, it gave me something I didn't even realise I was looking for. You know, remember, I was a teacher.

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That sounds cheesy. I don't care. You know, I say at times, you know,

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I entered because I needed the job and I thought it would fit and I didn't realise quite how well I would fit into it.

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Oh, that rhymes see, teaching is fund. I think it be useful to talk about what the what aspects of your PhD you feel that you use.

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In your job. Apart from that kind of academic knowledge and like you say, scratching that kind of academic itch.

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What I discovered was that the PhD had actually given me all these transferable skills and I was in a job where they had the time to shine, I think.

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So first of all, even though if you're doing the PhD, you become pretty good at time management pretty quickly,

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if you don't, you you very quickly learn why time management is useful.

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And you get a diary and you invest in ways to try to learn very quickly how to become good at time management.

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It's I mean, it goes without saying a school is run on a clock. You know, you've got every hour of the day.

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It's designated to a certain period, a certain subject, a certain class. You've got to be in a certain place at a certain time.

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Well, all of that came second nature. You know, for a lot of people that have been throughuniversity and going straight into teaching,

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they haven't had a rigid timetable for a couple of years, particularly in the humanities.

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You know, actually, you know,

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waking up early and getting to the place on time and then having every hour of my day organised was I mean, it was amazing.

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I knew exactly where I'd be at any given point of the day. And I found it really easy to sort of immerse myself in that world.

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And the interpersonal skills that a PhD teaches you as well.

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And by that, I mean the importance of asking questions. I think I said, you know, while I was researching, I was very lonely.

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I was very isolated. But even so,

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you're engaging with the text that you study and you learn very quickly the importance of asking the right question to find the answer you need.

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Well, in a school, what you're doing as a teacher is asking questions constantly.

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Kids don't learn because you throw information into their heads.

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Kids don't learn because you stand there with a syringe and inject the information through their eyeballs.

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I mean, the day would be a lot shorter if that was true.

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They learn because you're asking them the right questions and you're getting them to find answers to those questions themselves.

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Give them the tools. Give them the scaffolding they need. But, you know,

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I didn't realise quite how naturally it came to bounce questions from one person to another to encourage students to ask each other questions.

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I mean, that kind of thing became second nature very quickly. But it's a skill that it takes a lot of new teachers a long time to pick up.

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It feels quite. It feels quite logical to go into teaching and give information.

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It feels less intuitive to provide the means to find the information and then assess whether or not that information was being found.

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But as a PhD researcher, graduate student postdoc, wherever you are, that's the skill that you find comes very,

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very naturally because you've been practising it for longer than you realise.

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What else did I come across? Well, my goodness. I find in schools students need help with things that I see, again,

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as a actually student had been doing for some time, writing letters of application.

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So if a student is applying for, you know, a part time job or if a student more permanently is applying for a university.

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If a student wants to apply for a university that has entrance exams, I'm thinking to in particular, you can probably think of where they are.

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That's a lot of pressure on these kids to do enormous research, enormous work on an application that may or may not even be successful.

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And if you're sitting there as a PhD student thinking, yep, I've done a few of those.

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Welcome to the world of UCAS.

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Again, you thought you were long past it, but if you go back to teaching, you'll be working with sixth form kids who need help applying to university.

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It's more competitive now than ever. And the application process is so, so difficult in so many ways.

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When's the last time you wrote a personal statement? Also, I'll ask these kids and they won't know what a personal statement is.

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When's the last time you wrote an essay about how good you are?

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I'll ask my students and they'll say, well, never. As a researcher, you're constantly doing that kind of thing.

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You're writing emails, asking for information, your writing applications for funding, your writing applications for conferences, things like that.

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You are constantly trying to justify, you know, why you deserve a shot or something.

00:22:13,000 --> 00:22:23,000
And for these kids, that experience became valuable. I found in everything I've been to four schools now as a teacher and every school I've gone.

00:22:23,000 --> 00:22:31,000
So I've become. The go to guy for my sixth formers, if they want an application read or if they want a personal statement,

00:22:31,000 --> 00:22:36,000
make it stronger or if they want to know how to sell themselves.

00:22:36,000 --> 00:22:42,000
It's strange in an era of social media where everyone talks about themselves constantly.

00:22:42,000 --> 00:22:51,000
I still think being able to talk positively about one's self is a skill a lot of young people struggle to develop.

00:22:51,000 --> 00:22:57,000
And, you know, if you can just teach them to think more of themselves and put that into paper.

00:22:57,000 --> 00:23:03,000
Well, that's progress. And, yeah, that that's I think that's the biggest thing I got from the  PhD

00:23:03,000 --> 00:23:08,000
And you'll notice I haven't mentioned anything academic, really. You know, the subject knowledge.

00:23:08,000 --> 00:23:12,000
You know, if you've done it, if you want to be actually you've got some subject knowledge.

00:23:12,000 --> 00:23:17,000
Right, about that. It kind of goes without saying.

00:23:17,000 --> 00:23:24,000
But what perhaps you don't realise you've got is the ability to make connections between different subjects, areas in teaching.

00:23:24,000 --> 00:23:30,000
That's really important. You know, you can be teaching two different modules to the same class at the same time.

00:23:30,000 --> 00:23:34,000
And if you can show them why it's important we do this where the areas connect.

00:23:34,000 --> 00:23:43,000
If you can do creative writing, your writing to persuade, writing to convince in one module as part of the English language component,

00:23:43,000 --> 00:23:47,000
then you can link that to perhaps, you know, your literature studies.

00:23:47,000 --> 00:23:50,000
You can talk about Pride and Prejudice and say, well, okay.

00:23:50,000 --> 00:23:55,000
So when this letter is written to this character, what persuasive techniques are you detecting here?

00:23:55,000 --> 00:24:04,000
So you're combining the creative with the analytical in ways that you know again well, you will find regardless of your specialism.

00:24:04,000 --> 00:24:13,000
I know I'm using English examples, but regardless of your specialism, you'll find it so much easier to make Connections that engage the students.

00:24:13,000 --> 00:24:22,000
One of the big questions every teacher fears is, is the loud kid at the back of the class saying, yeah, but why is this important?

00:24:22,000 --> 00:24:31,000
Do we really need to learn this? And my friend, if you're listening to this, you will have an answer ready, because that's what you do.

00:24:31,000 --> 00:24:35,000
You give answers to that kind of question without thinking about it.

00:24:35,000 --> 00:24:43,000
That's what you've been doing all the time you've been researching. You know what else I found, though, that I wasn't expecting?

00:24:43,000 --> 00:24:49,000
Here;s the really cool thing, I think about going into teaching.

00:24:49,000 --> 00:24:55,000
It made me a better academic. I can't emphasise that enough.

00:24:55,000 --> 00:25:01,000
I told you at the end of the PhD, I had zero publications. I'd been to one conference.

00:25:01,000 --> 00:25:08,000
I didn't even know conferences were available to people like me. I thought it was just professors that went to them.

00:25:08,000 --> 00:25:15,000
They were daunting, scary things. And I hadn't written anything anybody care to read as a teacher.

00:25:15,000 --> 00:25:23,000
The first thing you learn, I think day one is clarity of expression is everything.

00:25:23,000 --> 00:25:27,000
If you don't express yourself clearly to class.

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They won't know what they're doing. And then you've wasted an hour of their time on yours.

00:25:32,000 --> 00:25:36,000
If you don't explain something clearly to them, they'll go into an exam with the wrong answer.

00:25:36,000 --> 00:25:47,000
I learnt quickly that being concise and clear were two of the most valuable skills anyone could ever develop, regardless of your job.

00:25:47,000 --> 00:25:55,000
But in teaching, they shine. And that's not something I had ever considered really as a the actually researcher.

00:25:55,000 --> 00:26:02,000
I've been teaching now for seven years and I've published two essays.

00:26:02,000 --> 00:26:07,000
I've published one review. I've been to eight different conferences.

00:26:07,000 --> 00:26:11,000
I've done two podcasts on academic matters.

00:26:11,000 --> 00:26:19,000
I've started an academic blog. I've done all of these things while being a full time teacher.

00:26:19,000 --> 00:26:24,000
Thank you very much, James, for taking the time to talk to me.

00:26:24,000 --> 00:26:30,000
I felt that this was a really important conversation in terms of thinking about careers beyond a research degree,

00:26:30,000 --> 00:26:35,000
because it's a classic case of what's called planned happenstance.

00:26:35,000 --> 00:26:42,000
So where you make decisions based on a number of different contextual factors that lead you into your career path.

00:26:42,000 --> 00:26:48,000
It's not a clear plan to become a teacher. And James's case, but he's ended up in the.

00:26:48,000 --> 00:26:58,000
Exactly the right career and the right environment for him. And I felt his passion for teaching was so palpable and evident in the conversation.

00:26:58,000 --> 00:27:04,000
And I really valued the way that he articulated the different ways in which his skills

00:27:04,000 --> 00:27:10,000
and experiences of doing the research degree are part of his job as a teacher.

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And also the ways in which teaching in a second school environment helps him to quote him.

00:27:16,000 --> 00:27:23,000
James himself, scratch that academic itch. And that's it for this episode.

00:27:23,000 --> 00:27:37,716
Join us next time when we'll be talking to another researcher about that career beyond their research degree.


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