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Beyond the PhD: Public Engagement and Employment

KevinGuyan8 December 2014

Kevin GuyanBy Kevin Guyan

I write this blog post as a break from PhD research and the task of looking for part time employment. My mind is fast becoming foggy from the endless administration loop of locating a job posting, completing the Application Form and tailoring my CV and Cover Letter to match the job specifications. However, this communication with non-academic employers has allowed me to see which experiences feature regularly in my applications, regardless of the job application.

My role as a Student Engager has featured in the majority of submissions and it is apparent that the versatility of the project presents a number of skills that impress potential employers. At the interview stage, employers scroll down my CV and are attracted to the project.   The interviewer invites me to ‘say more’ on the project and elaborate further on what it means ‘to engage with the public’.

Employers are keen to hear more about the following engagement skills:

Customer service.   The majority of employed positions require an ability to deal with other people and my work in UCL museums provides excellent examples.   Although we are not ‘selling’ our research to the public, the ability to spot an interested visitor, strike up conversation and bring discussion to a constructive close are all useful skills that have impressed in interviews.

Dissemination of information. Though it is a stretch to describe our experiences of marketing and communication, the sharing of our research with the public and shaping of events to target audiences that may not normally engage with universities, is a great talking point.

Dealing with diverse audiences. There is no set audience for the people who are brought together for a public engagement event, our previous events have attracted everyone from departmental colleagues to local residents who popped-across the road to see what was happening. This diversity of interactions is well suited to employment in everything from a coffee shop to a library front desk.

Project management. Finally, the ability to develop an idea from inception through to eventual completion is another talking point. Examples cited include our 2013 event Landscape and 2014 event Movement.

By explaining the Student Engagement project to non-academic employers, the many merits of the project and their stretch beyond our university setting become apparent. The project not only allows for the presence of public engagers in UCL museums and the delivery of events, but also provides a training platform for a handful of PhD students who may not acquire these skills elsewhere.

Student Engagers running a session at our May 2014 event Movement.

Frustratingly, the Student Engagement Project has attracted more attention from employers than the skills required to undertake my PhD. Admittedly, the positions under discussion are non-academic and therefore do not call for a knowledge of postwar gender history in Britain. I hope that my PhD will become a greater talking point after its completion.

The typical model of an application form, in which you identify skills and support them with evidence, fits well with the variety of tasks undertaken as a Student Engager.   However, rather than writing a love letter to the Student Engagement project, my thoughts have instead turned to important questions over the training of PhD students and their readiness for an extremely competitive job market after leaving university.

A substantial number of students graduating with PhDs will not go on to pursue careers in academia.   University chiefs therefore need to ask how research students can utilise their time at university to develop their employability above and beyond the research and writing of a thesis, acknowledging the reality that many students will need to jump from an academic path to an equally competitive Plan B.

For those that pursue a PhD that directly follows a postgraduate degree, undergraduate degree and secondary school, as is my situation, there is the risk of emerging from the education system in your mid-to-late twenties lacking the diversity of skills and experiences gained by contemporaries from a decade in the job market. I am conscious of this risk and have proactively worked to expand my experiences. Yet, universities face the difficult task of juggling the provision of ‘extracurricular’ opportunities for students while not prescribing the activities of independent researchers.

As an example, the Student Engagement project has offered me experiences that complement the rigours of academic research and I therefore wonder how universities can adopt and expand aspects of the project to ready other PhD students for employment beyond academia.