Friday, 13 June 2014

Guest Post (by Katherine Trebeck): Making the leap – from ivory tower to practitioner. Well, kind of...

This is a guest post by Katherine Trebeck of Oxfam GB on alternative and post-academic academic (#altac & #postac) careers. It comes from a talk she gave at York University, Canada, to graduate students, after she had delivered the Business & Society Program Annual Lecture in December 2013. Katherine is a Research and Policy Advisor whose work focuses on transforming the economy and how we understand the economy, in order to promote more just and sustainable communities around the world. She received a PhD in Political Science from Australian National University (ANU) in 2005 and worked at the University of Glasgow, where we met, before moving into the third sector.

If I had a quid for every bright young Gen Y-er who has asked for advice on how to ‘get into the development sector’ I’d be able to make a hefty donation to a development charity. It is heartening (and pretty humbling) how many intelligent, articulate, highly qualified graduates want to do something positive with all that their families and society have invested in them. And so much better they seek out a career in ‘development’ (leaving aside the debate about what ‘development’ is) than punting to make loads of money for themselves and the already rich in certain finance jobs. 

So it is with huge regret that my response is often ‘it’s mighty tough’. And this is from someone who doesn’t see themselves as even working in ‘development’. I’ve never run a project in a fragile state or managed a sanitation programme. Closest I’ve come to the picture I think they have of working in development is several months volunteering at a hospital in Cameroon.

What I do have is a pretty lovely job exploring the sort of economy we require to end the need for such old fashioned charity endeavours.

And my experience of moving from the academy to civil society might just have some pointers for a growing number of young academics either disillusioned with job prospects in the university sector or, perhaps better, keen to use their knowledge and skills in a way that feels a little more impactful than simply writing for journals.

(In fact, if you are interested in a job in civil society just because you can’t get a job in the academy, then I’m afraid we could do without being your second best option).

But, for those like me who pursued a raging curiosity into PhD-land, but always wanted to be part of a movement, part of a values-led organisation, then here are my ideas. Of course they won’t apply to everyone, but they seem to have worked for me. Well, after a bit of a reality check and forced recalibration along the way....

You see, with a PhD in politics in one pocket and a few years as a Research Fellow in the other, I felt I had a darn good level of knowledge about how change happens and how poverty and the economy can be fixed. I punted off applications to big name charities, aiming embarrassingly high for advertised posts like ‘Head of Policy’ or ‘Director of Influencing’. I guess I thought – ‘I’m a Doctor; they’ll be impressed’.

But, it seems, they weren’t.

What happened instead is that when I saw a job advertised in ‘development’ I applied – it was with a smaller social enterprise that was expanding after gaining a few hefty government contracts. Despite a pretty tragic few interviews with them (including accidentally throwing water in my face) I was asked if I would be interested in a new post combining research and policy. I was told I didn’t have the skills for their development team (obvious to me now), but the interviewer listened to my enthusiasm and read my CV and, thankfully, made the connection with her colleague leading the organisation’s research and policy. So I was lucky.

And my next move also entailed a bit of serendipity – through attendance at various workshops, seminars and conferences, I’d built up a little network. I let it slip in more than a few conversations that I was keen for a move and when a post became available at an amazing organisation, a few people pointed me to the vacancy.

And in this interview I didn’t throw water on my face. 

Always a good start. 

Plus I was able to tell my future employer that I’d actually published on the application of some of the development frameworks they use to structure their work.

But, on reflection, most of the answers I gave to questions drew on projects I’d initiated at university or during my short time in the social enterprise. Yes they had my CV and its list of degrees and publications in front of them, but it was examples of where I’d pulled together perspectives, or been involved in third sector coalitions, or had examples of writing for policy makers or the general public that seemed to tick more boxes.

So, lessons from this for people wanting to move from the academy to the third sector?
  • Get known. Attend events. Meet people. Blog. Tweet. Engage. Develop a reputation as being interested in new perspective and being able to see a bigger picture (not always easy for academics who like to ‘drill down deep’)
  •  Face up to the fact that your list of publications is not going to get you over the line. Do something practical – volunteer, get on a charity board, initiate a project for an organisation or kick off a new one. Then reflect on the lessons from that and the skills you learnt. Highly likely these will be more interesting to a potential civil society employer than your 37 articles for The Journal of Esoteric Narrow Interests.... 
  • Be ready to go in at the lower or middle rungs (and don’t fret about staying there as the higher you move up an organisation, the less time you’ll have to spend on reflection, reading, writing, analysis as budgets and strategies and management take over)
  • Take up as many opportunities to do external facing work as possible – guest blogs, speak at non-academic conferences, write for newsletters and so on
  • Have I said to get known? Go for coffee with people who work in roles you’re interested in. Build a professional network
  • Broaden your knowledge – you’d be incredibly lucky to find a job precisely related to your thesis topic and while yes you’ll have ‘transferable skills’, so will loads of other people applying for a post
  • Don’t underestimate how many impressive, qualified, bright, wise, professional and expert people already work in civil society
  • Be ready for the reality that your academic qualifications might mean you don’t think expansively enough or that you write in a jargon-istic, inaccessible style. You might need to change and develop new skills. A lot of them actually....
  • Get known.

So moving from the academy to civil society is time consuming. It is competitive. It is often a matter of being at the right place at the right time. It can dent your intellectual ego.

But it is so very worth it. Getting paid to explore interesting topics; to be part of a team comprising passionate, energetic people focused on making change; and to hope that in some small way your work just might, one day, make the world a better place is probably the greatest job you can imagine.

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