Working outside academia – some thoughts from the Sociological Review ECR event

A couple of weeks ago I spoke at an event organised by The Sociological Review for early career researchers. I’ve been musing this event and some of the online conversation that accompanied it since. You can still see some of it on twitter on the hashtag #SRecr. The afternoon event felt like it was focused and (I hope/think) useful, I definitely found it interesting hearing from others, those in the audience and also other speakers Carol McNaughton Nichols, Simon Roberts and Nick Fox.

I was asked if I would talk about my experience working outside academia, including the work that I’ve done within the #JusticeforLB campaign and our attempts to change the law via the #LBBill. I was not given a title or any more of a request to work with than that, which to be honest suited me well. Brigit, who approached me, did mention that she’d read my letter to researchers and found it interesting, so that was a good starting point! Once I got past the fact that I’d be talking a lot about myself, or at least about my experience, I actually found reflecting on my working life to date to be quite interesting and revealing (to me at least). It’s also worth noting that I would never self-identify as ‘working outside academia’ even though that is clearly what I do. I spend a lot of time working with researchers and university staff, both in paid and unpaid work, but I can not claim to have been ‘within academia’ for some time (about ten years now). A lot of the twitter conversation came from how speakers labelled academia or referred to it, but I think this was partly as a consequence of how the event was introduced/billed. In all my years of work I’ve never had anyone, except those in academia, refer to alt-ac or working outside academia.

I digress, there was so much I reflected on while preparing the presentation, much of which I’d like to blog about at some point. This included the decisions I took (and avoided) while still at school and the impact they had on my choices; how much I value freedom and autonomy; the pros and cons of having a PhD and people’s assumptions about what that means; how I describe my work, what I consider to be work and why the UK is obsessed with people’s job titles; how little I know about sociology (yes the irony wasn’t lost on me either); how the notion of a career path is somewhat alien to me; how so much of life is only understood in hindsight even though we require people to plan/pretend to have a plan; how much can be achieved when ego and status and qualifications are left at the door; whether developing VivaCards was worth the effort; whether those present or completing PhDs in 2015 are likely to have anything other than a portfolio career; an academic impact world that is obsessed with influencing policy; the potential impact we could have as a result of 18mths campaigning and crowdsourcing skills to try to secure JusticeforLB; the pros, cons and learning of working for myself…. and on and on and on.

The slides I used are as follows, I’ve provided some commentary beneath in case you’re interested:

Context and introduction (Slides 1-4)

These slides explained what I intended covering in my talk, the first slide with lots of information on was an incomplete list of the places I’ve worked, there are others but this seemed enough to illustrate the point. The slide that follows shows the places I’ve worked ‘in academia’ in red.

My academic career (Slides 5-7)
I always think it odd when people talk about academia that it usually starts with university, whereas in reality my life in academia started with Homelands Infant School and St Margarets CP School. I talked briefly about my time at secondary school, hating it and leaving early to goto the local tech for my A-Levels. Which I predictably didn’t do as well in as I should have done. A university place through clearing on a BA in Education course, fascinating but barely preparing you for a practical job after university. I shared an aside about getting my 2:1 and being asked if I was desperately disappointed (definitely a blog post in its own right on another day). Then talked through my PhD, what it was about and the fact only my examiners have ever read it, I’m sure even my Mum didn’t and how it’s my view that early experience of academia teaches independence, and solitary working and resilience, but that having a PhD doesn’t in itself make you super smart but it almost certainly shows your super levels of stamina. Slide 7 related to why I eventually decided academia wasn’t for me, and it was my issues and my decision but I spent four years feeling like I was playing at being a grown up (I still feel like that 10yrs later, so it definitely wasn’t an academic thing) but I definitely struggled with some of the ceremony and gaming and pointlessness of academia. I was not, am not, saying academia is pointless, just that it wasn’t for me, it wasn’t applied enough, I didn’t feel like I was making a difference, and I’m just not very good at playing the game in the way I think you need to do, to get promoted.

My working life (Slide 8)
I talked through the jobs I’ve had since leaving academia. First as a Senior Research Officer at the Office for National Statistics! I survived 15mths in the civil service, great job, great team, loved clocking in and clocking out each day which curtailed my obsessional work ethic, but ultimately couldn’t cope with the constraint and hierarchies. Next up was Research in Practice for Adults, where I started as a Research and Development Officer, then Assistant Director and ultimately Director. I spoke about what it was like to work in a small knowledge brokerage organisation and shared my experience of applying for that job in a field I knew nothing about at that stage, but focusing on the transferable skills I had from my PhD and research methods diploma. Then I touched on my brief spell (10wks) at Mencap as Head of Research and Impact; a maternity cover post that I left early once asked to manage the research team through redundancies and restructure. A step too far for me at that stage, a flawed decision (in my opinion) and a learning curve of how the challenges in a large charity are similar to small, and how you should never, ever believe the hype or take at face value that people/organisations/charities do what they say they do!

Freelance work and setting up my own business (Slides 9-17) 
Here I talked about my decision to set up as a freelancer and work for myself and shared some of the personal reasons behind making that choice. I talked about some of the work I’ve done in the last three years and some of the brilliant customers and clients I’ve worked with. I definitely need to write a separate blog post about my experience so far at another time. I spoke about VivaCards, what they are (preparation tool for your PhD viva), where they came from and of course the all important, where you can buy them. I wasn’t paid for my time at this event so I did a deal that if I came and spoke I could promote VivaCards to those present – obviously I could have done that anyway but I’m not keen on people who use presentations to sell themselves or their products, so at least doing this trade explicitly left me feeling more comfortable about being blatant! After VivaCards I mentioned some of the work I’ve really enjoyed doing with the School for Social Care Research and LSE focused on supporting early career researchers, I spoke about the residential we ran last July 2014 and the website that came about to share some of the learning in that course handbook, Social Care Research Impact website. I also mentioned how being a Visiting Fellow at LSE had been great for me personally as it gave me access to colleagues and academic life, albeit very much from the sidelines, but it also affords me some benefits the most noteable of which is connections in with sector knowledge and activity, and library access – one of the biggest challenges when no longer associated with an institution.

JusticeforLB and the LBBill (Slides 18-24)
Once I’d covered off how I earn a living, when I’m working, I also took the opportunity to tell those present about the JusticeforLB campaign and our collective, crowdsourced work to change the law to improve the rights that disabled people have access to through the LBBill. I showed the Channel 4 coverage from LB’s inquest to set the scene:

I talked about how the campaign has worked, gathering all skills and offers of help as they were presented, treating everyone as equal, working with the media as far as we can. I talked about why it’s important to me, what I’ve done and also about live tweeting LB’s inquest, see @LBinquest for the detail. I also spoke about the process we went through to try and crowdsource the LBBill, about working with disabled people, their carers, family members, professionals, academics and comrades. I also pointed out that we’ve managed to work alongside policy makers in the Department of Health, including the last Minister for Social Care Norman Lamb, all with no budget and no resources. Again probably needs a blog post in its own right because I think there is a lot of learning for academics and academia in how we’ve approached and formed this movement for justice. It was super heartening to talk about the campaign and have some people in the audience already know about it, gives you some reassurance that there is a point and we’re not just shouting into the online wind!

Remaining slides
What was left all speaks for itself, I may blog about each slide in due course, but for now hopefully they make sense as stand alone points:

Screenshot 2015-11-08 19.08.39 Screenshot 2015-11-08 19.08.56 Screenshot 2015-11-08 19.09.15



I really enjoyed the event and left feeling positive about a number of my own life choices. I tried to be honest and candid when I spoke and I hope that honesty reassured others. I think the most important thing is to do what is right for yourself, if you’d like a job in academia seek one out, if you want to work outside of academia find a job outside. Whatever your choice now, you can change your mind later.

Just about the only thing I think that matters is to find something that is important to you, and works for you. I’ve been amazed at how little money you can earn and still consider your contributing in life and I’ve said several times that I consider the JusticeforLB campaign to have had the most impact, and probably to be the most significant ‘project’ I’ve ever worked on – despite it not really being a campaign, or a project, or work.

I’ll end this post with the reflection that our lives must be lived forwards but can only be understood backwards, so just tread gently and treat others as you’d like to be treated yourself. Can’t go too far wrong then, wherever or however you choose to earn a living.

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