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: Dr Shirin Shafaie, Founder and Director – Visual Academics Ltd @visualacademics
I didn’t ‘always want’ to be an academic but I almost always wanted to become a philosopher. Despite unsolicited warnings by a number of acquaintances against studying such a ‘useless topic’, I did my BA in philosophy and my first MA in Philosophy of Art in Tehran, Iran (2000-2006). Fast forward to 2018, my passion for academia, even coupled with many years of higher education, did not guarantee a place of work in academia for me. What happened in reality was much more interesting and indeed challenging than what I had imagined. I became an independent academic in politics and interreligious studies, a professional filmmaker, and a business owner/director all at once! So how did all of this happen?
After finishing my first MA in Iran and doing a summer fellowship at the United Nations University in Tokyo, I came to London to do what I thought to be a more practical (read ‘useful’) Masters degree in Middle East Politics at SOAS. During the research phase for this, I came across an Iranian filmmaker who had worked with veterans from the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) with PTSD. I became very passionate about the subject and wanted to do something to help the large community of marginalised war veterans and their families. Given my deep-rooted interest in academia, I decided to start by doing a PhD on the subject of war-related mental illness. Things did not go exactly according to plan and my research topic had to change drastically even before I had started. But eventually, things fell into place and I started my PhD on Iranian war narratives at SOAS in 2009.
I immersed myself in studying war and memory including the visual culture of remembrance and commemoration, which renewed my interest in visual media especially documentary filmmaking. But at this stage my skills were mostly in research and writing regarding war-related films as opposed to actual filmmaking. In between teaching, research and writing for my PhD, and my involvement in actual politics in relation to Iran’s nuclear programme and sanctions, I found very little time to write for peer-reviewed academic journals – something that I regret now!
Instead, I participated in many conferences, contributed to various anti-war campaigns, provided commentary on current affairs to UK and international radio and TV channels while also writing articles for news and analysis websites. I don’t regret my public engagement during this period. The perspective that I gained through my hands-on political experience provided me with a very valuable understanding of what a career in actual politics (as opposed to political studies) would feel like. This experience reinforced my passion for academia and an intention for pursuing a post-doc after finishing my PhD.
By the end of my PhD, I found myself thinking increasingly more about the theological, existential and philosophical questions that a deep engagement with war and death had stirred in me, for example the classic question of “if there is a just and loving God, then why there is so much suffering and war in this world?” I was also becoming increasingly aware that my position as a teaching fellow at SOAS was not a sustainable route towards a full-time academic career especially given my status as a non-UK and non-EU graduate. I was eager to find a post-doctoral fellowship to pursue my research interest, which by now had evolved, from critical war studies to studying the theological dialectics of Justice, Suffering and Free Will.
I applied for a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship in 2014 to be hosted at the Faculty of Theology at Oxford University. I was accepted by an excellent mentor there but my British Academy application was rejected. The chain of events (some seemingly negative at the time) led to a most positive development in my academic career and personal life. While looking for a mentor in Oxford for my BA application, I came across the Centre for Muslim-Christian Studies.
The Centre’s director, Dr Martin Wittingham, welcomed me to join their various events, which I happily did. I met my new academic director, Dr Ida Glaser, who encouraged me to apply for the postdoc position available at CMCS. This is how I became part of the research project on Reading the Bible in the Context of Islam, working on an intertextual study of the Joseph stories in Biblical and Islamic (especially Shia) traditions. During my time at CMCS, I engaged more with faith-based diplomacy and wrote a book chapter on Muslim and Christian approaches to nuclear (non-)proliferation and disarmament (a podcast of my talk on this is available here). I also became one of the editors of, and contributors to, a volume on Reading the Bible in Islamic Context which launched our book series under the same title by Routledge (the video of the book launch is available here).
Everything was going so well until it became clear that the Centre could not keep me as part of the research project. I needed them to raise my salary to the level that would be eligible for extending my work permit, something that they simply couldn’t afford. I knew then that I could not depend exclusively on my academic skills as I was ineligible for most early-career academic positions due to my non-UK and non-EU nationality and ineligible for more advanced academic positions because I had not yet published my work as a monograph.
At this stage, I decided to gain a set of new skills to help me develop my career in a totally new way. I decided to learn how to make films so that I could build my own bridge between academia and the outside world and also create my own career path.
I felt that a lot of what was studied and written in academic literature in my field (politics and interreligious studies) was not read or discussed by the general public. Young people especially, seemed to be uninterested in participating in political debate. My theory was that this is largely due to the complex and inaccessible nature of academic literature on politics, and lack of real choice in actual politics (I have partly discussed this in a video essay that you can view here).
I enrolled in Masters programme in Film and TV at the University of Hertfordshire in 2014 with the aim of developing a TV programme that would popularise politics amongst young Britons. This would also mean that I could continue my post-doctoral research at CMCS even if in a part-time capacity.
My studies in Film and TV at UH culminated into a Political Gameshow called Demockracy Live UK. Think of this as Britain’s Got Talent meets Live Prime Ministerial Debates! I developed a whole series consisting of 8 episodes on issues ranging from Immigration, Foreign Policy, to Health and Environment, and produced the pilot episode, which was about the Budget. The show’s ambition was to engage young Britons in politics and give non-mainstream political parties a platform on TV to present their ideas. I still believe that this would make a fantastic show for UK TV but unfortunately I haven’t been able to pitch it to any major broadcaster yet as they are not open to ideas from anyone who is not a major media production company with existing record of making programmes for major TV channels. A Catch 22 situation that has been part of my life journey both in academia and outside!
At the University of Hertfordshire, I discovered some fantastic and free business training programmes offered by the university’s Enterprise Team. I took part in these programmes and started to develop my own business idea, which was inspired by my life journey as an aspiring philosopher turned academic filmmaker (you can read a bit more about my UH experience here).
So, in 2016, I established Visual Academics Ltd, a media production company that helps academics to visualise their research, whether through 1-minute videos of recent publications, or making documentary films based on academic research. We also provide a range of impact video training programmes for PhD candidates and early-career researchers. For example, we ran a workshop series in collaboration with the LSE PhD Academy in the second term of 2018 where we covered a range of topics from Video as Method, Video Ethnography, Visual Anthropology, Shooting in Practice, Visual Storytelling, Video Editing, Crowd-funding, Becoming an Academic Youtuber, and more.
I also give motivational talks to university students about establishing their own business, especially at the UH where I received life-changing business training for free. I also teach my academic colleagues how to engage more with the public via video and social media for example I recently gave a workshop on Social Media for Academics at CMCS in Oxford.
Research and writing-wise, I am working on two books at the moment: one is my monograph on reading the Joseph Story in the Context of Shia Islam, and the other is my monograph on Contemporary Iranian War Narratives which is based on my doctoral research. Even though I don’t have as much time anymore to regularly attend academic conferences, I still contribute to a select few academic events that relate to my work on interreligious studies and faith-based diplomacy. For example in June I participated in Building Bridges Seminar in Sarajevo where I gave a paper on Equalities and Inequalities from a Qur’anic perspective. In July I gave a paper on the role of religion in the public square at the Newbigin Summer Institute, University of Cambridge which was very well received. But I spend most of my time filming and video editing. Not everything that I do generates income so I’m always busy with a mix of tasks, those that are neither very enjoyable nor profitable but help me establish the grounds for future work that is either particularly profitable or very enjoyable or both!
What are the top 3 experiences/skills do you recommend our researchers develop in order to be competitive in your type of role?
I’d recommend learning to engage with social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Youtube, etc.) in a professional capacity to start building an audience for your work outside academia. I would also recommend gaining some practical skills that would help you to disseminate your research and findings to a broader audience; for me this meant learning to make videos.
Is it important to have a PhD to do your job, is it recognised?
Having a Unique Selling Point (USP) is very important for becoming successful in business. My combined credentials as an academic and a professional filmmaker have provided me a unique set of expertise and experiences that make up the core of what I do at Visual Academics Ltd. Otherwise, a university degree, let alone a PhD, is not at all necessary for becoming either a filmmaker or an entrepreneur.
What’s your career tip or word of wisdom to researchers leaving academia?
Would I recommend that researchers learn how to use video to advance their career inside or outside academia? Absolutely yes! Would I recommend that people establish their own business after finishing their PhD? Anyone can be an entrepreneur and you don’t have to own a registered company to start your own business. You can always start testing your idea as a sole trader to avoid having to spend lots of time and potentially money on accounting and filling up company tax returns and things like that.
It is not always a case of either/or when considering a career beyond academia. You don’t have to be employed by a university to be an academic. In other words, you don’t have to really ‘leave academia’ in order to establish a career beyond academia. You can stay connected and work with academia, as an independent expert in your field.