Shuxiu Zhang (International Relations, LSE, PhD 2013, now Head of EU Negotiations, HM Treasury, in the UK Civil Service) writes about her experience of leaving academia and moving into and onward for the New Zealand and UK Governments.
It’s now been six years since my PhD graduation ceremony in the Peacock Theatre. What feels like six lifetimes ago. I was in such a hurry to get it done. I wanted to “join the real world”. I had only studied up to that point, you see. I remember I used to (and still do) feel stressed over not knowing quite how to join the “real world”. I knew I had some skills; I knew I had some intelligence. How do I let others know about me? This question used to haunt me around the clock.
Then when I did meet employers, I tended to be a terrible reflection of myself. Awkward. Talked too much. Overwhelmed my audience with prolific descriptive details. I stumbled in interviews, with a terrible compass over what I achieved and how I got there. So, job applications were a struggle for me (and continue to be). With these weaknesses in mind, I decided there was no effective way. My only method was to simply adopt some courage and throw my name in every hat I came across. Very quickly, I learnt to extract myself out of the specialism mindset, and speak to my human skills, developed over the course of leading a PhD life. You need to a visionary, well, let me tell you about the vision I had for my doctoral thesis. You need a relationship person? I built those on my field research across five continents. You want someone resilient? You need to see what a PhD would do to boost resilience. Relating my skills to the organisational needs (combined with luck) would land me eventually in a career in Government.
Walking into this career was not initially satisfactory. The grade was junior, and my PhD alter ego kicked me to move upwards quickly. Pitching merely on my PhD background or human skills outside the profession proved to become inadequate. I realised those that were successful in getting promotions understood the way of the land (very important in Government). My mission suddenly looked very different. I took advantage of my entry position to observe how others work, what works and what doesn’t. I looked for subsequent roles in different parts of the business (albeit reluctantly sometimes), invest 6-12 months in each role, to learn the landscape of priorities and how they are delivered. This also meant a side career of preparing job applications and boy did it teach me how to write good statements. Within two years, I enriched my knowledge of Government, up-skilled to work effectively across different environments, and successfully achieved three promotions in two years.
I do consider myself very lucky. It was also very hard work to keep with my personal grit. I never had more than one job offer at a given time, and every job offer came with too many other rejections. Patience goes a long way. So, I often remind myself to hang on.