Guest post by Ruth Garland, LSE PhD alumna:

A late career change is exciting and energising but it throws up many contradictions. Last week, for example, I was honoured to be asked to chair a conference session on behalf of the youth section of the European media and communications research association, ECREA. I was one of the oldest people in the room.

Next week, I start teaching as part of my first staff job as a lecturer in Media Cultures at the University of Hertfordshire, about a year after I handed in my PhD thesis at the LSE. I’m earning significantly less than I did nine years ago when I left my communications job at BBC Worldwide. Now I’m at the bottom of the departmental pecking order. From the university’s point of view, it makes sense to employ a former media and communications professional to lecture on a mass communications programme, but getting to this point wasn’t straightforward, and I feel that although practical experience is seen as valuable for students, it is rarely considered to be an academic asset in itself, which I firmly believe it is.

I was working at Hackney Council as communications manager for the borough’s 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games project when, in 2011, I decided to improve my skills by going on a part-time diploma course in Public Affairs and Political Communications run by the PR Academy[i]. Immediately, I felt at home.

The course was more academic than practical, and involved original empirical research as part of a final dissertation. For the first time I was able to think and talk about the theory and practice of political communication with fellow enthusiasts. I realised that I’d been fascinated with the topic for years, at least since the rise of Margaret Thatcher. I loved doing and writing up the research – a content analysis of government press releases – and very quickly decided that if I achieved a distinction, I would turn the project into a research proposal and apply to do a PhD.

That’s what led me to the postgraduate open evening at the LSE in October 2011. I liked the LSE because of its reputation, its location and the fact that it had an established media and communications department. Straightaway, I met Bart Cammaerts, who referred me to Nick Anstead, the department’s political communications specialist who was also at the desk.  Nick liked the research idea – a critical analysis of the concept of ‘political spin’ in government after 1997. He asked me to send through a draft proposal and commented on the draft before wishing me good luck with the application.

A few months later, I was holding three offers – from the LSE, Queen Mary and the University of Sussex, my old university. I chose the LSE, with Nick Anstead as my supervisor. Financially, it was possible because the fees were low (just over £3,000 a year), I was offered a small LSE research grant for the first year, and my parents helped with the fees.  I also had an income from two redundancies and could earn money working part-time. My children were no longer dependent, my partner was earning, and we had no rent or mortgage.

Doing a PhD is a life-changing experience, especially as a mature student.   The freedom to follow your own interpretations of the world and find your voice was incredibly liberating after so many years being a mouthpiece for my employer. As I got into the reading, started to attend conferences and present papers, and joined academic networks, I felt myself morphing into an academic.

From 2014-15 I took part in a 15- month LSE seed fund research project led by Nick Couldry and my co-supervisor, Damian Tambini, in the media and communications department. We co-wrote a research article based on the project and despite being incredibly busy as head of department, Nick sat with me as we submitted it to a journal. Neither had any hesitation about nominating me as first author.  Eventually, the article was accepted and published earlier this year[ii].

By the time I’d completed the first draft of my thesis, I’d decided to apply for academic jobs. Nick Anstead referred me to an advert for an hourly-paid lecturer at Brunel University and I applied and got the job. It was my first teaching job and was extremely challenging because I had to pull a lecture and seminar programme together really quickly but the experience was rewarding and led directly to my being offered my current job. The day before the interview, I met with Catherine Reynolds, the LSE’s PhD careers consultant, who managed my expectations about what academic panels are looking for.

In retrospect, this all sounds smooth but that’s with hindsight. There were family traumas, disappointments, rejections, embarrassments, moments of emotional crisis and misunderstandings on the way. Academia seems harsher and less rationally organised than other organisations I’ve worked for. New academics are not sufficiently valued, while established academics are often not properly listened to by their institutions. Yet despite the difficulties in the sector, at a personal level, people value teaching and learning, and want to pass on their own passions. Thank you to all of you.

[i] The courses run by the PR Academy are accredited by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), and taught by experienced practitioner/academics. My tutor, Sarah Roberts-Bowman was a lecturer and course convenor at the London College of Communications.

[ii] Garland, R, Tambini, D, Couldry, N. (2017). Has government been mediatized?  A UK perspective. Media, Culture and Society.  First published: June 13 2017.

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