We were privileged to welcome back to Manchester three of our own: as part of its annual postgraduate research conference, the School of Environment, Education and Development, home to the Global Development Institute (GDI) and the Rory and Elizabeth Brooks Doctoral College, invited back three alumni to share thoughts and experiences on doing a PhD, but also managing the transition into post-PhD life.
Dr Beth Chitekwe-Biti, Founding Executive Director of Dialogue on Shelter, an NGO working in Zimbabwe and a contributor to the Slum/Shack Dwellers International network, and Dr Gemma Sou, a lecturer at GDI’s Manchester sister institute, the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, both completed their theses at the Institute for Development Policy and Management (now GDI). They were joined by Dr Lazaros Karaliotas, an alumnus of Human Geography at Manchester, who now works as a post-doctoral researcher in Geography at the University of Glasgow. All three alumni of the University of Manchester had a multitude of experiences to share with our current generation of PhD researchers, both from their PhD journeys and from life and work beyond the PhD.
Although all three stressed that they could not share any universal words of wisdom given the specificity of each PhD researcher’s own experience, a common theme was the importance of holding on to the idea that ‘the PhD will get done’. Taking time off from the PhD was thus a key recommendation to recharge batteries, maintain a balance and get a fresh perspective. Equally, especially in the most trying times, crucial advice was to get all the help necessary from diverse sources, and to get help early.
The progression towards completing a thesis is likely to come with some difficulties, be they isolation on fieldwork, challenges in transforming fieldwork data into PhD chapters, or managing one’s own ambitions and expectations in relation to what a PhD is. According to all three alumni, a crucial step is therefore realising that panicking is very unlikely to be productive: after all, the final objective is ‘only’ a PhD, which will not be perfect. Reading a full PhD thesis early on to understand the limits, and manageability, of a doctorate, and recognising that a PhD is unlikely to be the author’s masterpiece, is likely to help with that realisation. Once this insight had set in, the journey became much easier for all three panellists, with one key recommendation being not to fear, but to embrace the path, and trust in the knowledge that the PhD will get done.
In this optimistic spirit, all three alumni also encouraged a ‘try your luck’ attitude to applying for jobs and grants. As any ‘failure’ in those circumstances can be regarded as really an opportunity to progress and evolve further, they encouraged applying for research council and other grants which may include what one may consider unlikely prospects. These applications can facilitate engagement to build a life post-PhD, as pots of money will be available to organise seminars or conferences and grow through fellowships and public engagement activities. Equally, they offer an opportunity to stretch beyond the comfort zone of one’s own research and continue building on the work already completed in transitioning into the post-PhD world, having found one’s own voice and argument often towards the very end of the PhD journey.
A recurring thread was also the importance of relating PhD work to audiences outside of academia. Beth continues to be passionate about co-creating knowledge between urban communities and academia especially in the field of urban planning, a topic on which she works continually in collaboration with local universities in Zimbabwe and the Global Development Institute at Manchester. Gemma founded viva voce podcasts, an award-winning platform for social-science researchers to present their work in five-minute podcasts to the interested public, and also went back to her research site in Bolivia to feed back some of her findings to the communities she had collaborated with during her research.
The thirty attendees appreciated the opportunity to exchange with three individuals kindly sharing their own, very diverse journeys, whose multi-faceted insights nevertheless boiled down to four key points: embrace the journey, get help, try your luck, and the PhD will get done!