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Presentation: Reflecting on Portfolio Careers for Early Career Researchers

Introduction

I was invited by the Oxford University Careers Service to give a presentation on a panel about portfolio careers and academia. I was asked because of the work I have been doing during my PhD and how I have been managing the process as an early careers researcher.

The slides are below, but I’ve also included some of the notes I used during the presentation.

I’ve tend to write quite personally and publicly about my experiences in the past but not so much now as I use my blog for professional context, but I was going through a hard time and gave myself a bit of an emotional battering when I moved to Leicester back in 2007 and I feel that the last few years have been a real turning point in terms of allowing myself to be myself. I say this as it is always in my focus to look after myself and keep myself in a position that keeps myself safe, a major motivation behind how and what I work on.

Context/History

When I began my PhD journey, although there were mumurings, I was not in the position to qualify for a funded place. Due to a number of factors out with my control, and feeling a little coerced into signing up to a PhD at the institution that I studied for my Masters, I started a PhD program part time, without funding and with a teaching assistant job (that I fought for post-MA to keep myself connected to the university) that barely paid for my rent, let alone my fees. I was partly in awe of being considered ‘smart’ enough to be considered for a PhD program, and partly in fear of being flung back into a world that I working hard to leave (at the time I was working in a bar and finding myself slip back into old habits and old expectations.)

I don’t regret it. The position of having to fend for yourself and find solutions to circumstances, quickly, along with watching funded PhD students bask in, what seems like a ‘luxury’ position of knowing where your next pay check was coming in for the next 3 years, only forced me into working harder and to be more creative in how I saw an academic career unfolding.

Through connections that I had made online, I was offered my first research assistant short term contract – alongside a full time 3 month post in new media development within the alumni department of the university – that provided me the funds to pay for my PhD, but not the time to actually do it part time.

When I was offered funding to transfer my PhD to UWS and to undertake it full time, I didn’t think twice about moving but the need to work flexibly alongside my PhD was very important to me. It still is, for a different reason, looking at the way that universities and academic jobs have been threatened by government policy and how phd labour is used to plug the gaps is also another reason to consider a portfolio career. Autonomy is something to be appreciated and to be valued – much like developing a voice through having academic courage to not only develop your thesis, but to challenge the dominant ideas of what an academic career should be. Understanding the value of yourself and how you can play to your strengths is as equally important, although I feel that in the same way that others inspired me to feel as if I can belong in academia, I have a responsibility to be there to encourage others. You take, you give – and there are real rewards in teaching in all sorts of contexts.

What does it entail?

The jobs that I have found myself doing have ranged from the “traditional” phd student roles such as a teaching and/or research assistantship -to more freelance research projects or consultancy. I have built several websites for larger academic research projects and my skills in this area has been one of the reasons that I’ve managed to find myself on larger projects. Recently I’ve been undertaking professional live blogging and capturing services at events, something that I was doing *anyway* through my attendance of things I was interested in, and finding my own way to articulate my own feelings about *ideas* and *stuff* without necessarily putting my hand up and saying it.

My research background is media studies, with a academic focus on new media and the Internet (only when I found out that I could bring my skills in web development into my education, rather than a hobby, during my final year of my undergraduate). When I moved my PhD to UWS, I began working on case studies around the Olympic Games (which has been timely also in terms of finding work) and after completing a PGCert in Higher Education through my part time teaching role, I’ve collaborated on several learning and teaching projects in this area. I tend to keep all the work that I decide to take on linked to one or two of these themes to keep the work that I do relevant to my larger aims of completing my PhD and establishing my self as a researcher beyond that. I am keen to balance between research (preparing publications for the REF), teaching (both research and establishing new methods of teaching), public engagement and practice and development through my interest in the web.

I’ve found myself often working multiple contracts within the same university, at different universities, freelance, consultancy and project based contributions. It is definitely reliant on a change of mindset, but I’ve worked a part time job since I left school at 16 so I’ve kind of conditioned myself to rebel against doing things that feel exploitative (I’ve done all sorts!) and/or treat me as nothing more that a number of a salaried manager’s HR spreadsheet. Worst employee ever.

Managing:

Due to the nature of the work that I do and having a PhD registered in Scotland and living in England, I have found myself travelling quite extensively in the last 3 years. I work a lot on trains and between places, rather than in a static place like a PhD office. It’s a lifestyle that I’ve became accustomed to and I often to prefer to do that instead of being trapped in one place.

I work almost entirely online, trying to avoid paper work and buying stamps (doesn’t always work with universities however) I use the web and social media to stay in touch with people, information, topics and news. I live out of my laptop and my mobile phone – and work abnormal hours and ‘shift’ patterns, rather than trying to pretend that it is a 9-5, Monday -Friday lifestyle. Sounds scary, but it does mean I can take the days off that I want, not the days that everyone else has. I can answer most emails quickly because I don’t have an office to be out of.

Pros and Cons

The biggest attraction of a ‘portfolio career’ is the autonomy that it allows from existing within the cracks of the system. At some stages, I have had a contract at four different universities at the same time – being able to see and compare how different systems operated is an interesting and unique position to be in.

There also can more flexibility than a permanent role. You work with different people on a regular basis and customise your approach as a researcher, rather than an employee of an institution. The flexibility to experiment will always be stronger during the time of the PhD, it is even more so if you are contributing to research as short-term contractual help. Over time, you can build on those relationships and work with the people that you want to, rather than those who happen to share an office with you. It’s a more natural process of collaboration. You can also recommend others if you don’t fit the bill, and I try and find opportunities for people that I know who might fit it better than I could.

This can lead on to collaboration on quite radical and unpredictable projects, which can be much more exciting than data entry or stacking books. Being able to bring your research skills and interests into other people’s projects, often from a different discipline or research area, can transform a piece of work and attempt to break down silos and week as transforming and changing your perceptions in the process.

The downside of a portfolio career is definitely the administration processes. The more institutions and the more work contexts that you take on, the more and differing paperwork appears in your to-do list. If you are working for less than 30 days on a project, contracts are often very different from part time/project specific ones. If you are a crack in the system, it can be often difficult for that system to find you, and more importantly pay you. It is hard for them to understand when they are working in the 9-5 space, including lunch breaks, rather than something that is more ad hoc or on demand. My pet peeve is only being considered to be working when I am physically in a space like a classroom or an office. The association with power, control and physical space is very strong. You need to be ‘seen’ to be working rather than showing and delivering a project over a period of time.

Another potential problem of a portfolio career within an academic context is the seemingly lack of progression. A permanent role have markers and expectations to progress through the system, through research publications, teaching and administrative roles. The portfolio worker have to manage their own expectations of progression in a sense, in order to recognise their own value on projects and tasks. Without knowing what the measurements are, it isn’t always straight forward to tell if you are heading in the right direction. Especially as an early careers researcher, it is difficult to apply for funding, or to publish, without a home institution, so being able to keep a foot in a few doors does help.

Conclusions

Being proactive, seeing opportunities and not waiting for opportunities to appear. I would have a much harder time to to apply for a short term or part time contract coldly through jobs.ac.uk, against others on paper or by interview. I wonder if it is worth the effort, considering it is a fixed term post that may or may not result in more work beyond it.

For me, having heard the way that part time labour is spoken in terms ‘buying in’ support, I find it much more useful, and ‘right’ for me in terms of how I work, to step forward and make myself indispensable and not being scared to present ideas as an equal and get to grips with understanding my own value to a project, and to act as somebody who can have further input on further research, that also needs to be there for the project to work.

If I could imagine myself writing about myself in this way, even 18 months ago, I would be laughing. Having the courage, especially after making mistakes along the way in terms of trust and agreeing boundaries of contract, have had a big influence in this. I can’t say if I would always want to be in this position, but for now, it’s working for me in a range of different ways – ways that I couldn’t have achieved if I had just stayed at my desk throughout the PhD process.

Academic, not public engagement.

2 thoughts on “Presentation: Reflecting on Portfolio Careers for Early Career Researchers

  1. Thanks for this – it is a very interesting post. I remember having a very similar portfolio career when I was doing my PhD.

    For me one of the big questions with portfolio career is whether they are a choice or a coping strategy. Barry Hopson gave an interesting lecture at iCeGS where he talked about the people who are choosing Portfolio Careers http://www.derby.ac.uk/files/icegs_from_vocational_guidance_to_portfolio_careers.pdf

    I wasn’t so sure. I think that flexibility is something that is used by the rich to make the world fit with them and something that is largely used against the poor to make them fit with the world.

    This is not to say that there isn’t a lot of fun to be had in a portfolio career – but I remain to be convinced that it is the best option for early career researchers in most circumstances. What do you think?

    1. I think it has been the best option for me right now, but it is indeed a coping strategy and there are things that I cant do as a person that others take for granted. Like being at home when I need to be at home, and seeing my family and friends when I would like to, or finding time to finish my PhD write up when money can be an issues. I don’t see it as the best option, or the only option, but if you take it on with gusto and make sure you work towards not getting ripped off and knowing your value, it’s good holistic skills when I hear some of the language and stories about other phd students who have been threatened or silenced because they think there is only one (mainly positivist) approach to completing the phd and existing in academia. This is also going to be apparent when the fee regime changes and postgraduate education is even more debt. Who can afford to be an early career researcher?

      It was such a contrast to some careers advice I heard at Oxford that included calling up alumni who already who had offered placements to graduates. No chance that happening outside of that space.

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