Five PhD qualified LSE alumni spoke to current PhD students and staff about their experiences. Speakers working in data science; the UK civil service; and environmental organisations told their stories.
The speakers were:
1 Gokhan Ciflikli, International Relations LSE PhD 2018, Senior Data Scientist at Attest
2 Maria Carvalho, Geography and Environment LSE PhD 2014, Senior Consultant Climate Policy, South Pole
3 Shuxiu Zhang, International Relations LSE PhD 2013, Head of EU Negotiations, HM Treasury, Civil Service
4 Ruth Fortmann, Economics PhD 2018, Nova School, Portugal and LSE Visiting Student, Fellow and now Data Scientist at Faculty
5 Alex Edwards, Environmental Studies KCL PhD 2017, Manager, Experience Team, Bulb (environmental energy consultancy)
We learned lots from them about career development in general and about their specific fields too. Some of the issues they addressed are summarised here.
Increasingly you know more about what you want to do through experience and getting experience during the PhD was a pattern for all the speakers. Examples include: teaching in your own department, the methodology department or Summer Schools, doing external consultancy work, being a visiting researcher in a university in another country. For some speakers this test and learn approach continues in work where adjustments happen to the individual, their organisations and their role.
Thoughts of staying in or leaving academia had exercised all the alumni at some point. They agreed that you work this out towards the end of, or after, the PhD and periods of living with uncertainty were common. Important factors such as stability, personal relationships, visa issues, the political and socio-economic climate had influenced their individual decisions. They also talked about learning where you feel you will make the most effective contribution. Some expressed their wish to maintain good relations with LSE and higher education in general.
The speakers encouraged others to be bold when thinking about leaving. Some low risk options were discussed too. People leave either immediately after the PhD or after a transition period. Examples of fixed term or post doc roles to bridge the gap include teaching for LSE 100, GTA roles, research assistant. The transition to their job outside academia was more straightforward for some than others and “it’s ok to change your mind”. The time line was of interest to the audience and ‘luck’ or chance was used to describe some of the steps people had been able to take.
Career is social. From other people we learn about opportunities and organisations if we are alert and take take time. Our speakers all mentioned people who had, perhaps unknowingly, influenced their career development. But it was acknowledged that few of us like consciously ‘networking’. Instead a process of being open, asking questions, overcoming anxiety and awkwardness was described.
Curiosity and capacity to learn about options often led to unexpected outcomes, including learning about organisations you might not already know. South Pole and the Civil Service were already known to Maria and Shuxiu, they revisited their earlier learning and brought their organisational knowledge up to date before making applications. Faculty, Bulb and Attest are all newer and Ruth, Alex and Gokhan explained how they discovered and researched these organisations before making applications. In some cases LinkedIn can help, vacancies are posted and you can look up organisations you do not already know.
Knowing your skills, values and strengths takes time. The value of strong research methods, the LSE training you receive, and interpersonal skills honed through teaching and presenting were relevant to the worlds in which these people work. Also, the personal strengths developed through the PhD, such as resilience, learning from feedback, adapting to different cultures, juggling multiple projects. This knowledge can help you focus on specific roles which are likely to suit you better than others.
Having clarity about your sense of self in work comes with experiences. For some being able to work on an issue such as social justice, fuel poverty or climate change was a driver. Being able to make an impact was mentioned too. For some using specific research skills was more important than the topic they work on. All said that through the process of making job applications they learnt more about themselves and what they really wanted from work.
Everyone expressed job satisfaction currently and described using skills and intellect in their work. Having new projects, team work, stimulating colleagues were common themes, despite the very different types of organisation they work in.
Having the Dr title gives the speakers and their organisations credibility. It also means career progression has been fast. The LSE training, high standards, working at pace, good quality work and rigor means the work they deliver is well received. In turn, they are often asked to do more interesting tasks, the more complicated projects which lead to promotion.
Career continues to develop after the the first post PhD position. Taking advantage of professional development opportunities, training, saying yes were cited as influencing progression. Continuing to be alert to opportunities, learning from your professional network and listening to yourself about what you really want from work (and other aspects of your life) were processes describe by the speakers who had already made moves.
If you are approaching a turning point, uncertain about what is coming next and/ or want to consider your possible futures please book a one to one, confidential meeting with Catherine Reynolds. All the speakers endorsed the support provided by LSE Careers for their career development.
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