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: Facilitator/Writer, at NKR Ventures, creator of www.viva-survivors.com
I often struggle with how I describe what I do.
I’m a facilitator, a presenter and a writer. I work to help PGRs have better PhD and viva experiences. I work from home and in seminar rooms in universities all around the UK. I deliver around seventy sessions per year and publish a blog post about the viva every day.
It’s taken me the best part of ten years to build what feels like my dream job.
I did a Doctorate in Pure Maths at Liverpool from 2004 to 2008. During my PhD I was asked to help out at some residential career skills workshops. When I saw how they were organised and what facilitators did, I wondered: ‘Could I do that?’ After my PhD I had a little money saved and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I had an idea I might want to be my own boss and do something to help researchers. I gave myself a year to explore skills training and see how things worked out.
I shadowed facilitators at Liverpool. I watched how they planned, delivered and thought about sessions. Then I got the chance to try it myself. I started by imitating what looked like good practice. Over time I found my own voice and style when it came to presenting, designing and making things. I was very fortunate early on to be supported by colleague-patrons who helped me find opportunities.
Over the first few years I started to focus on things I found interesting, things I thought I could help others with: planning the PhD, working with supervisors, and then the viva. While developing these interests and sessions, I spent several years where a big part of my work was guesting as a facilitator on GRADschools and induction programmes. This was quite lucrative! But when priorities at universities changed large chunks of income disappeared almost overnight. Still it was valuable in other ways as it gave me opportunities to develop myself.
I decided it was better to focus on what I wanted to deliver and do that well, rather than keep looking for opportunities to be a guest tutor. If I could do something well I hoped it would get good feedback, people would hire me again, and they’d tell other people. In particular, I found a passion with my Viva Survivor session and other viva-related projects. In the last two years I have focussed all of my development time and project work on doing more and better in that area.
Business over the last decade has grown through word of mouth. It is a long-term strategy, but has worked for me, and growth has accelerated hard in the last eighteen months. I think there are two factors. First, in April 2017 I started a daily blog on the viva and people can see that I’m always trying to help in that area; second, there’s now a critical mass of people who have heard of me.
Parenthood is another big factor in how my job has developed. As a result of becoming a dad I actively reduced my working hours. I try to keep a balance of how often I’m away for work. I’m really conscious of how I spend my time. I don’t deliver workshops at all during school holidays. I am more productive than ever even though I am less busy.
In the first few years I went to any and every training course on researcher development I could find and afford. I looked for anything that could help me develop. Now I improve myself by setting my own projects in motion, figuring out what I need as I do things and trying to learn and develop as I go. Every blog post, publication or resource I’ve put together has helped me to get better at making useful things – but has also given me the confidence to share things, rather than worry ‘What will people think of this?’
If someone was considering a career in this sort of area – being someone who helps others with workshops, seminars, sessions, books – I think it would be good to start by asking questions to get at the heart of what you could offer. For starters:
Who is your audience?
What do they need?
What can you offer to meet those needs?
What can you do well that other people struggle with?
‘Well’ is relative – if you can do something better than someone else, then you have something they might want. Of course, different people value things differently. I’ve had people come to sessions and say “you could get all of this from blog posts or books” – and that’s sometimes true, in terms of pure information. But some people get a lot of help from attending a session where someone is not just lecturing or passing them a ten step bullet point list. They want – or need – someone who has put thought into things, who has structured a session and who is there to listen to them.
I don’t know how much people generally earn in this sort of business. It will depend on how much they deliver, how much they charge and so on. I have known people who charge £250 per day and heard of people who charge £1000+ for a morning. Several years ago I charged £1000 for a two-hour keynote talk – but that involved hours of preparation, making slides, four hours of travel each way and an overnight stay. Remember if you decide to explore this area that the fee you charge has to balance up against all of the time you’re not delivering a workshop too.
I don’t think I could do this ‘job’ if I didn’t have my PhD. I don’t use the knowledge from my research and discipline any more, but it laid the foundations for what I’ve done since. It didn’t quite take a decade to create a job I love, but it took time to figure out a vision for what I wanted my life to be like.
That’s the key for me: my job supports the life that I want for me and my family.