Post-PhD Life: When I Grow Up...

Once you leave the cozy womb of PhD-dom (and no matter the levels of research- and writing-up stress, it is cozy insofar as it is your status quo!), you have to figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life. This usually involves picking up the pieces of your long-neglected personal life, and also job applications. Somehow, decisions on both fronts seem significantly more important and life-altering than they did while you were making "temporary" arrangements as you were writing the thesis.

Full disclosure: I am in my early thirties, and staring down the barrel of my diminishing fertility at the same time as my partner and I decide where and how to live our much-delayed "future", although we are both chronically under-employed. Ours is a generational quandary: the promises of full-time predictable employment haven't materialised as the baby boomers can't afford to retire, and we can't afford to start our lives. Especially for people like me, whose income depends on the whims of government funding, any planning seems foolhardy in the face of overwhelming uncertainty. Sure, I could try to get work stacking shelves at a grocery store, but that wouldn't really solve the problem: I would still be under-employed for my qualifications. Plus, there's always just enough contract work in my field to keep the spark of hope alive!

And yet choices do come up. About a month ago, I was encouraged to apply for a job developing a new museum. Lots of things were right: the geographical area, the potential colleagues, the optimism... And yet, I wondered whether even applying was the right decision. I have cobbled together part time lecturing gigs and have started to enjoy myself; there are glimmers of hope for future prospects in this area. I found myself at the classic Museum Studies PhD crossroads: "industry" or academia? My main concern was that although my degree won't go anywhere, academia tends to be rather unforgiving of gaps, even if they are for good reasons like "real-world experience". In museum studies, professionals can move fluidly from museums to universities, but I was worried that to zig-zag like this so early in my career might not put me ahead in either area; people might wonder where my loyalties really lay.

In the end, my quandary was resolved by the simple fact that I was not available to start when necessary - they hired someone else. So I will continue doing the sessional dance (splitting my time between institutions, no benefits, no job security, but lots of flexibility) for the time being, and hope that  something more permanent comes up before my ovaries expire. (Let's not kid ourselves - underemployment, even in the developed world, is a Marxist and a feminist issue!)

16th century Italian drawing of a niche:
So don't let late-stage industrial capitalism get you down! After all, heritage is a constantly growing field - every minute, there is more of the past to study. It may require some tough choices, and lots of compromises, but everyone has their niche, and occasionally, we are lucky enough to find it. Hopefully, it's empty when we get there!

P.S.: when I was tagging this post and typing "work", auto-correct tried to change it to "woe." Hmm...


Hannah Chalk said…
Trawling - mainly in vain - through a growing number of blogs / discussion forums / job lists in search of a post-PhD career (with what, to the untrained eye, may look like a rather schizophrenic CV), I came across your post and I couldn't stop myself from hitting the 'comment' button. I wholeheartedly agree with everything that you say (you really do hit the nail on the head!) and I think it is really important that we acknowledge and discuss such matters. While I was initially just going for a simple 'here here!' comment, I decided that it would probably be more useful to expand on this with some of my own post-PhD experiences and concerns...

Having recently (January) completed my PhD, I am left feeling like one arm has been cut off and the other is punching the air with joy! I know that it is still early days, but I also find myself in a strange 'no-man's land' - somewhere between the museum sector and the world of academia.

I too am in my thirties (although mid rather than early) and embarked on a PhD having spent a good 7 years working in the museum sector. I undertook my PhD as a part-time self-funded student, and as much as this seemed like a sensible idea at the time ( 2007 which, for those who can remember, was an altogether more optimistic time!), with hindsight, I get the impression that maybe it wasn't!

As far as the museum sector is concerned, I don't feel particularly confident about my future prospects since my most recent museum experience (i.e. over the last 6 years) consists of various part time positions, freelance work and involvement in short term projects. Now don't get me wrong, I appreciate that I am very lucky to have found work in the museum sector at all, but given the choice, I expect that an employer will chose someone with a recent track-record of full time work in the sector over someone like myself who may well have plenty of experience (covering curatorial, educational, research and exhibition-related work), but who, on paper, comes across as being rather erratic and lacking direction.

Likewise, a career in the academic world seems equally unlikely: During my PhD, work commitments made it difficult (impossible?) to fully engage as a member of the 'academic community' (i.e. attending conferences, presenting papers, working as a graduate teaching assistant, and participating in departmental activities in general, all require time and money (or at least have financial implications), and as a part-time self funded student, paid work always had to come first), so compared to someone who has spent the last three years immersed in the academy, I don't fancy my chances of pursuing a career in academia.

Having finished my PhD, I can talk about the experience rather fondly: I am in no doubt that I have gained a lot from it. I do, however, find myself wondering whether I am really any better off with this qualification. In the museum sector, while a subject-specific PhD may be viewed favourably (particularly for curatorial positions), the value of a PhD in museology is perhaps less clear - I know that this is rather a negative thing to say, but based on personal experience, I get the impression that a PhD in museology (particularly a part-time one) may hinder rather than help my quest for work. This is not going to stop me from searching for an opportunity to use both my academic and professional experience, but (again, this is purely based on my limited experience of searching and applying for jobs) I don't hold much hope of finding it in the UK right now.
Being part of the PhD world isn’t that easy indeed. I have known a lot of people with same experience as you and they turn out very successful in life. They also have late realization of having academic career, but they persevere and become optimistic in their endeavor to get a diploma in PhD.

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