(This podcast has now ended. Please check out PGR Podcast for the latest content from Doctoral College) A podcast from Researcher Development about topics relating to PhD researchers, including careers for researchers, beyond academia, from the University of Exeter. Music from https://filmmusic.io ’Cheery Monday’ by Kevin MacLeod (https://incompetech.com) License: CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)
Thursday Jun 25, 2020
Thursday Jun 25, 2020
Thursday Jun 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 https://filmmusic.io ’Cheery Monday’ by Kevin MacLeod (https://incompetech.com) License: CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses
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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.
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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.
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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,
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make it stronger or if they want to know how to sell themselves.
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It's strange in an era of social media where everyone talks about themselves constantly.
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I still think being able to talk positively about one's self is a skill a lot of young people struggle to develop.
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And, you know, if you can just teach them to think more of themselves and put that into paper.
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Well, that's progress. And, yeah, that that's I think that's the biggest thing I got from the PhD
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And you'll notice I haven't mentioned anything academic, really. You know, the subject knowledge.
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You know, if you've done it, if you want to be actually you've got some subject knowledge.
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Right, about that. It kind of goes without saying.
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But what perhaps you don't realise you've got is the ability to make connections between different subjects, areas in teaching.
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That's really important. You know, you can be teaching two different modules to the same class at the same time.
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And if you can show them why it's important we do this where the areas connect.
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If you can do creative writing, your writing to persuade, writing to convince in one module as part of the English language component,
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then you can link that to perhaps, you know, your literature studies.
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You can talk about Pride and Prejudice and say, well, okay.
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So when this letter is written to this character, what persuasive techniques are you detecting here?
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So you're combining the creative with the analytical in ways that you know again well, you will find regardless of your specialism.
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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.
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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?
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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.
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You give answers to that kind of question without thinking about it.
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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?
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Here;s the really cool thing, I think about going into teaching.
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It made me a better academic. I can't emphasise that enough.
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I told you at the end of the PhD, I had zero publications. I'd been to one conference.
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I didn't even know conferences were available to people like me. I thought it was just professors that went to them.
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They were daunting, scary things. And I hadn't written anything anybody care to read as a teacher.
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The first thing you learn, I think day one is clarity of expression is everything.
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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.
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If you don't explain something clearly to them, they'll go into an exam with the wrong answer.
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I learnt quickly that being concise and clear were two of the most valuable skills anyone could ever develop, regardless of your job.
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But in teaching, they shine. And that's not something I had ever considered really as a the actually researcher.
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I've been teaching now for seven years and I've published two essays.
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I've published one review. I've been to eight different conferences.
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I've done two podcasts on academic matters.
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I've started an academic blog. I've done all of these things while being a full time teacher.
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Thank you very much, James, for taking the time to talk to me.
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I felt that this was a really important conversation in terms of thinking about careers beyond a research degree,
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because it's a classic case of what's called planned happenstance.
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So where you make decisions based on a number of different contextual factors that lead you into your career path.
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It's not a clear plan to become a teacher. And James's case, but he's ended up in the.
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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.
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And I really valued the way that he articulated the different ways in which his skills
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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.
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James himself, scratch that academic itch. And that's it for this episode.
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Join us next time when we'll be talking to another researcher about that career beyond their research degree.