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: I think my job title is ‘freelance training consultant’ or it could be ‘company director’. Either way, I am self-employed as someone who goes around running training workshops for clients, and my company is called Cambridge Training Associates.
Approximate salary range for your type of role: The salary for someone who does what I do and is self-employed is hard to predict but to give you a ballpark number, let’s say £35 – £55k.
I do have a company webpage and a Twitter account: And because I’m self-employed, I created and run them all myself – I hope you like them! Website for my company. Twitter – @camtrainingassoc And LinkedIn.
As you can probably tell from this blog already, my work is unconventional, varied and quite unpredictable, and I love it. And it suits me for where I am in my life now. I’ll try and explain how I got there and what’s it’s like.
You may have been to lots of careers advice sessions about planning, and knowing where you’re going and what you’re doing, but my story is the opposite of that. It’s one that starts with following conventional career paths but eventually finding that where I got to didn’t really suit me, so seeing other opportunities, taking chances and changing directions.
I did my Undergraduate and Master’s degrees in Biology in Manchester before doing my PhD in Cambridge in the Department of Plant Sciences. All this time, I had assumed that you get a career in what you have studied in university – maybe this was a little naïve but I had no family history of people going to University or anyone getting anything other than a conventional job so the idea that I would get a job as a scientist somewhere seemed to make sense. So I did. I joined a multinational company and was quickly promoted to manage a group of scientists in biotechnology.
However, all the time I had been doing research, I was neither very good at it nor very passionate about it. I was competent – I got a PhD! – but I usually felt I was giving about 50%. And all the way through my PhD and my first job I was getting involved with anything and everything except what I was supposed to be doing. During my PhD I was on the student committee in my department, social secretary and then president of the postgraduate society in my college, captain of the football team, and anything else that was going. And then when I was working at the multinational company, I was the staff representative, I was the person who supervised the visiting students, and organised the staff away-days and anniversary celebrations.
It was then that I saw a job advertised to coordinate transferrable skills training back in the University of Cambridge. And this was probably the biggest turning point in my career. I got the job and loved it. For six years, I was part of a team that coordinated and delivered the majority of all the training available to PhD students and postdocs. The provision ranged from the very functional ‘welcome events’ and ‘how to write your thesis and prepare for your viva’ workshops, through to the practical topics like ‘presentation skills’ and ‘time management’. The programme also included directing multiday courses for up to one hundred students with a team of tutors at an off-site venue, with the objective of helping students think about their future, recognise their skills and re-motivate them to get on with finishing their PhD. It was those off-site courses that I loved the most. They were action packed and I felt we were making a real difference to students, and I felt part of a team with some of the best colleagues I could hope for.
But the job had its downsides as well. An awful lot of my time was spent at my desk, writing emails, writing reports, and attending committee meetings in a highly politicised environment with many academics and administrative staff who seemed to miss the point. After six years everything seemed cyclical, and I recognsied myself as being the cynic in the room – the person who’d seen it before, remembered the good old days and was convinced that everything was deteriorating. Maybe I’d finally taken on so many things that nothing could progress or be delivered as I wanted it. I wanted to grow in my role and expand our impact but with a small team and ever-decreasing funds and support, that wasn’t possible.
During that period, I had taken on a few pieces of freelance work from people who knew me, and I enjoyed it and realised I could do it. It seemed I could play to my strengths of delivering training and contain my weaknesses of writing reports, and the committees, politics and strategy. I wondered if I could be self-employed, but how on Earth would I start? It was a very hard decision to leave my stable job, with a prestigious institution and a final salary pension, but I eventually I did it. And what made it possible was that I found a part-time job with a one-year contract doing similar work in another university. That was the stepping-stone I needed. If I got no other work, at least I had half a salary coming in to pay the bills.
I had underestimated how successful I would be. I had effectively spent six years building up my reputation and network, not deliberately, but by just being myself, loving what I do, and doing it to the best of my ability. And I’m proud that in the two and half years since I went freelance, I have never had to look for any work. I do no marketing or promotion. The work finds me through the people I know. But that first year was frantically busy. The part-time work was a 4-hour commute by coach each day, and in the other days of the week I was finding my feet in a totally new way of working and learning the self-discipline needed for working from home. And what made it bearable was the knowledge that it was just for one year and that I was beginning to see my independent work taking off.
The last two and half years have been fabulous and have no regrets about becoming freelance (and this year becoming a director of my own limited company). It is uncertain, I can’t guarantee that next year I’ll be able to pay the bills, or what new things I’ll be asked to do, or even what days (and evenings) I’ll find myself working next week, but that’s what I like. I know that some people would hate that but I love it. It’s stimulating, exciting, and I can quickly respond to what people want.
I’ve found a couple of clients that provide big pieces of regular work that take some of the worry out of the business. I run frequent accreditation training for a company that provides team-work training, and twice a year I deliver six weeks of workshops to international undergraduates students. These two things stabilise my work and mean that I can take on other more risky and adventurous projects. Last autumn I worked in Chile for three weeks teaching academic communication for the British Council, and this year I am involved in a similar bid to teach a similar programme in Brazil.
One of the things that I’ve noticed about the way I work now is that I am much more aware of the connection between effort put in and reward received. In the regular salaried jobs that I’ve had before, I think I’ve worked really hard and sometimes really struggled against things, made some things happen against the odds, but more often than not there has very little thanks and certainly no more money! With my own business, I do earn more money if I put in more work, and making good things happen usually leads to better relationships and more work. But what I like it that I can choose that.
The downsides are that I have to earn everything. There is no holiday pay, sick pay, or company pension. And for someone who does need to be with other people for stimulation, working at home a lot can be a bit lonely at times. There’s also the administrative side of the business with sorting income tax, corporation tax, self-assessment, and invoices. Those things are certainly not my strengths, but there’s plenty of free advice on the internet, and do pay an accountant to help me with much of that.
I consider myself to be very lucky that I’ve had the opportunities to do what I do. But you make your own luck, and opportunities come along for everyone – you just need to recognise them and take them. Studying a PhD creates an environment where those opportunities are around you all the time, and having a PhD will mean that people will take you seriously, when maybe they wouldn’t take you seriously if you didn’t have a PhD!