Each Friday we post a new v i s t a profile, a career beyond the academy story (use the tags at the bottom of the post to find the entire list). These posts accompany our curated events to support post-PhD career transitions, v i s t a mentoring, and also #sheffvista on Twitter.
Job title and company: Digital Publications Officer at Birkbeck, University of London
Approximate salary range for your type of role: £30k-£40k.
My career has felt too haphazard and bumbling to be described as a path, per se, but looking back, I can see that my choices were instinctively oriented around writing, editing and publishing. After my undergraduate degree (in History), I worked for three years in a bookshop, before securing a sales and marketing job in publishing. I then moved into selling international publishing rights, before returning to study an MA Victorian Studies at Birkbeck, University of London.
I hadn’t been a terribly assiduous undergraduate and I missed formal study. I guess a PhD was in the back of my mind as a vague possibility, but I didn’t feel clever or certain enough when I embarked on my MA and I certainly didn’t imagine I could become an academic.
I did well during my MA and many well-meaning, supportive scholars began to urge me to undertake PhD research and talked about me writing, publishing and presenting. For them, bright Master’s students who performed well should naturally consider academia. I was shy and lacked confidence, so I found these compliments and exhortations both affirming and challenging. I always ‘did’ academia on my own terms, though: I was too nervous to give papers, I delayed teaching until I felt ready, and I edited and published small pieces online and contributed to others’ work before I felt confident enough to pen my own work. During my PhD (in Nineteenth Century Studies), the Head of Department – a very dear friend – was aghast when I suggested I might return to publishing; she said I should write books, not edit them. She meant it kindly, because she appreciated and encouraged my talents, but conversations such as that made leaving academia incredibly wrenching and shaming, even though I never felt entirely comfortable within that world. I never had a permanent post, so leaving was less about giving up any concrete benefits and more about letting go of the idea of becoming an academic, which many good-hearted people that I hugely admired and loved had encouraged me to nurture and pursue.
While at Birkbeck, I was an intern on an online academic journal and I also worked as indexer and bibliographer on two academic books. For my postdoc (which came after a couple of years of in the wilderness non-academic work), I worked as a Senior Editor on Dickens Journals Online, a digital resource that offers free access to annotated scans and textual facsimiles of Dickens’s journals. While undertaking this postdoc, I also co-managed a couple of online reading projects, co-edited a book of essays on Dickens’s journalism, and organised conferences. All of these experiences were to prove incredibly useful in helping me build a new career and I would strongly urge anybody researching a PhD or in early stage academia to develop associated skills – in writing, editing, proofreading, coding, event organising, or whatever you find stimulating.
I now work as Digital Publications Officer at Birkbeck, University of London, and I am currently on secondment as Senior Content Editor on Birkbeck’s Digital Transformation Project, which is an ongoing project to redesign, restructure and generally improve the entire Birkbeck website. When I applied, it was the experience of editing the Dickens Journals Online website that impressed and helped secure my current post, so my academic experience was easily translatable. I did have to reassure the interview panel that I had left academia, though, as they were naturally concerned that I was just filling time until an academic post came along. My main tasks are writing and editing copy for the website, developing new content areas, liaising with our technical developers, and writing and managing the production of our print prospectuses.
I work in External Relations, as part of the Media, Communications and Events Team. Ours is a surprisingly small department, but we punch well above our weight. My colleagues are incredible: principled, creative, hard-working and utterly dedicated to Birkbeck and its mission to bring the transformative possibilities of higher education to as many people as possible. I have seen many brilliant colleagues – both academics and Professional Services staff – worn out by the tight budgets, limited staffing and increasing, shifting demands of higher education, so I greatly respect and admire all who work in the sector. I still feel very connected to academia, working in a university and with many friends who are academics in varying degrees.
University websites are hugely important – and their importance is only increasing – but many have been the victims of benign neglect and under-investment, so lots of universities are overhauling their digital presence. This means there are plenty of roles within universities for people with writing, editing, coding, design, UX and other digital experience. The great thing about the web is that you can teach yourself: start a blog; write reviews; submit your work to other blogs; learn how to use social media; learn some of the basics of HTML; and read about best practice. As a researcher and early career academic, you can also develop many editing and proofreading skills and master the skills of writing well (never assume academics automatically write well).
Leaving academia involves accepting the painful structural inequalities and paucity of opportunities that mar the sector. It can also involve crossing a psychological barrier, enduring feelings of regret, disappointment, shame and failure, and painfully letting go of hopes that may have shaped your life for many years. Although academics are too diverse to speak of a ‘type’, I know many academics who were those bright, overachieving kids at school who went into academia because it feels like ‘being the best’ – leaving can feel like accepting you are second best. Furthermore, academia can be clannish, closed and competitive, so leaving can put you on the receiving end of negative feelings or words from others.
If you want to keep one foot in academia and continue to research, write and present, then the opportunities are there, I think, but, also, there is no shame in leaving and demographically and statistically speaking, it’s just much more likely that you will exit academia. Academics can bring a host of impressive writing, editing and researching skills to a range of professions, but especially to the ever-expanding digital sphere. Nobody can take your academic achievements away from you and you have the abilities and the capabilities to build a successful career elsewhere.
Where can researchers look for jobs like yours? Relevant jobs in HE can be found on Jobs.ac.uk. Nature Jobs carries publishing jobs. Also, publishers will have job adverts on their own websites, and recruitment agencies often carry editorial roles.