X Close

UCL Researchers

Home

Find Your Future

Menu

Progressing within academia: tips from a professor

uczjsdd6 September 2021

In the third of our series of interviews with PhDs who graduated during the last recession, we spoke with Professor Shun-Liang Chao, who was awarded a PhD in Comparative Literature from UCL, and is now a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University. He told us about his journey, and offered tips for those graduating in similarly turbulent times.

  • Tell us about your current role and organisation.

I’m currently a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at National Chengchi University, a top research university in Taiwan which just signed a student exchange agreement with UCL in 2020.

  • How did you move from your PhD to your current role?

I’d always wanted to be an academic since I started my PhD because I enjoyed doing research. Therefore, I devoted most of my time as a PhD student to making myself competitive in the future academic job market: I frequently attended public lectures, seminars, and workshops to keep abreast of the recent trends in my field, presented my research findings in international conferences, and, above all, published my research in refereed journals and edited volumes. By the time I entered the job market, I had managed to publish a few journal articles and book chapters, a publication record that was good enough to have myself invited to job interviews for postdoc and tenure-track posts in the UK, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan. In addition to research, I also gained teaching experience by teaching an undergraduate seminar whilst at UCL. As an Asian working on European comparative literature, I found it most challenging to prove that I could be just as competent as, if not better than, PhD students from the West. Therefore, I had to constantly urge myself to work even harder to get my research published. In this aspect, I benefited greatly from the research training (including PhD supervision and examination) I received from UCL and the IAS at the University of London. One year after I completed my PhD, I managed to publish my thesis as a monograph, which was later awarded in Paris the Anna Balakian Prize (Honourable Mention) by the International Comparative Literature Association. This award paved the way for several research grants and collaborative projects.

  • Did graduating into a recession have an impact on your career path?

When I entered the job market, the humanities were already in crisis. I remember I applied for a tenure-track post at a flagship university in the US and later was informed that the advertised post was suspended due to budget cuts. Nevertheless, since I had always wished to stay in academia, such recessions never thwarted my determination. I considered myself very lucky to land a tenure-track post at a top university in Taiwan just a few months after teaching part-time in Taiwan.

  • What does a normal working day look like for you?

Normally, academic life consists of three parts: research, teaching, and service. Service may sound abstract to those outside academia: it involves department admin, serving on department/college/university committees, serving on editorial boards of journals or book series, peer-reviewing articles, books, and grant applications, examining PhD theses and MA dissertations, and so on. During term-time, teaching and service take up most of my time and energy on a daily basis. I can fully concentrate on my research only during summer and winter breaks. Whilst people outside academia may envy that academics don’t have to work a 9 to 5 job, I have to say I find it rather nerve-wracking not to have a clear line between on-duty time and off-duty time in my life because I often have to work at night as well as on weekends and holidays. Fortunately, my wife is also an academic, so we can sympathise with each other.

  • What are the best things about working in your role?

Teaching young minds has helped me constantly to rejuvenate myself psychologically. Also, I find it very rewarding to be able to kindle their passion for literature, particularly when their vision of life has been shaped by neoliberal capitalism.

  • What are the biggest challenges?

Admin-wise, I find cutting through red tape most challenging and frustrating, particularly in the case of intermural/extramural research collaborations. Teaching-wise, under the sway of neoliberalism, university education has become much more conditioned towards a capitalist vision of life, become more about having to look at oneself as an entrepreneur such that students are less willing to ‘invest’ in non-lucrative subjects like literature or, broadly, the humanities. Under such circumstances, the biggest challenge is how to ‘sell’ literature to students. Research-wise, at a research-orientated university, I’m under a lot of pressure to publish or perish whilst also having to satisfy the demands of teaching and service.

  • What skills do you use from your PhD in your current role?

In addition to research skills, the communication skills I learnt from my PhD supervisor have helped me greatly to supervise my students. Also, this is probably not a skill but an attitude that I picked up whilst at UCL and has been motivating me constantly to explore new things (be they academic or not): it wouldn’t hurt to give it a go.

  • What’s the progression usually like in academia?

A PhD is an essential for a tenure-track position. These days many PhDs may have to get a postdoc fellowship before landing a tenure-track post. In Taiwan, getting on the tenure track, a PhD typically starts as an assistant professor and is expected to become promoted to associate professorship within six years in order to get tenure. Whilst the tenure review evaluates one’s contribution to research, teaching, and service, research plays a pivotal role in one’s promotion to associate professorship (and to full professorship) at a research university. Even after having tenure, one still has to go through evaluation every five years at my university. I’m lucky enough to be promoted to full professorship in 2020, eleven years after I completed my PhD. Now I can finally pace myself a bit in life instead of constantly chasing one deadline after another.

  • What top tips would you pass on to researchers interested in progressing within academia?

Here’s my two pennies worth: Above all, enjoy what you do; second, try to get published in refereed journals or volumes in order to make yourself competitive in the future job market; third, stay positive when your submissions or applications get rejected; last but not least, network with other PhD students or colleagues to exchange ideas or research experiences and, furthermore, to pave the way for future collaborations.

From Comparative Literature to the Literature Business

uczjsdd19 August 2021

Want to know what a career in publishing looks like? We spoke to a Comparative Literature PhD grad turned freelance translator and editor to find out, and they offered up some great tips for getting your foot in the door.

This article forms the second in our series spotlighting PhDs who graduated during the turbulent times of the last recession.

Tell us about your current role

I used to be a commissioning editor in a UK publishing house, and am now a freelance translator and editor, working on fiction and non-fiction books for a range of publishers, both large companies and smaller independents.

How did you get from academia to here?

I seriously contemplated a career in academia, but having got to know the university world a bit better during my PhD – when I did some teaching alongside my research – I realised that what I really wanted to do was be directly involved with what’s being published. I decided this about halfway through my PhD, as far as I recall.

I then scoured my circle of friends and uncovered one who had contacts in publishing. That’s how I got my first work experience placement in an editorial department. Then I started cold-emailing people, and eventually got my second placement – someone had just dropped out of a two-week work experience slot, and they needed someone to start right away. I ended up staying on at the company, and getting hired as an editorial assistant. They were a bit wary at first, because they had a preconception about PhD students being more or less locked in an ivory tower. But I managed to convince them otherwise by showing that I was quick to learn the business, and that I wasn’t ‘just a geek’. You have to get into a different mode, which can be a bit difficult if you’ve gone straight from A levels to BA to MA to PhD, but if you’re keen you’ll pick things up pretty quickly.

Did graduating into a recession have an impact on your career path?

I was fortunate enough in that my partner at the time had a safe-ish job, which meant that I was able to pursue a career like publishing without having to worry too much about the bills. Publishing is a very competitive business, and jobs are difficult to come by even when the economy is healthy. Publishers don’t make as much money from books as you might think they do, when you hear about the six- or seven-figure advances some authors are paid. The profit margins are very small. In a way, publishing always feels a bit like an industry in recession! There’s a dark running joke, that no one’s in it to get rich – money, when it comes in, is more or less a happy side-effect. Of course, that’s an exaggeration: some publishers do make a lot of money. But many don’t.

What does a normal working day look like for you?

Normal days are rare when you’re a freelancer, and the nice thing is that you can more or less have the working day you need or want. You may have children to raise or a relative to care for, or have time-consuming extracurricular interests such as sports or music – and freelancing allows you a certain amount of leeway when it comes to working hours. On an average day, though, I rise at a sensible hour, have breakfast, check my emails, deal with anything urgent (you do get the occasional editorial emergency), and then I get on with whatever book I’m working on at the moment, whether it’s translating or editing it. I work on a wide variety of things, so I might be translating a history book one month, proofreading an Argentinian thriller and editing an actor’s memoir the next… It never gets boring, really, unless you’re working on a boring book. Depending on how tough the book is, my working day can be anything between 5 and 15 hours long. I usually work on one project at a time, which means that I can focus properly on each one.

By contrast, a commissioning editor’s day at a publishing house is a bit more bitty, because you’ll be working on lots of books at the same time – it could be as many as twenty or so, all at different stages in the publishing process. You may start the morning off by checking out a few submissions from literary agents, then sit down with an author to finalise their manuscript, have a meeting with publicity and marketing about a book that’s about to come out, check the proofs for a book that’s just returned from the typesetter, interview someone for an assistant role… and in-between there’s all sorts of admin to do. And after work you may have a book launch to go to as well. Days can be very long sometimes, but boredom is one thing you’ll rarely hear people in publishing complain about.

What are the best bits?

In my role as translator, the best thing is knowing that you’re playing a part in conveying a great book to readers who would otherwise not be able to read it. I also love solving problems, and you need to do a lot of that as a translator – and as an editor. The best thing about being an editor is that you can have a tangible impact on what’s being published, and – I know this is a cliché, but it’s true – you do meet a lot of interesting people.

What are the biggest challenges?

The biggest challenge is that the business of books – especially as a freelancer – is an uncertain one. I definitely recommend going freelance only after you’ve had a chance to make contacts in publishing. Most of the work that comes across my desk these days is sent to me by people I got to know when I was working for the publishing house, which is how they became my clients. Even working within a publishing house, though, it isn’t easy to make decent money during the first three or four years. However, things are improving: there are more properly paid internships around these days than there once were, and publishers are increasingly moving to, or opening up new offices in locations outside London.

Some people find it hard to reconcile their love of good books with the business side of things. Publishing is in many ways a business like any other, and the idea that a book is a product which needs to be sold and marketed just like, say, hosepipes, can be a bit of a shock. But you’ll very quickly get over it, because there is so much pleasure to be had from working in publishing. Who cares if a wonderful book by a brilliant new author is a ‘product’? It’s a wonderful book. By a wonderful author. And it will make someone, somewhere, happy.

Is a PhD essential for your role?

A PhD can be essential for certain jobs in academic publishing, but in trade publishing (i.e. fiction and non-fiction books for the so-called ‘general reader’) it can be something of an obstacle, because some people assume that you will have a brilliant mind, but also an unpractical one. The way to get over this is to show them that you know what’s going on in publishing, and that you’re aware it’s a living, breathing business. For example, when you apply for an editorial assistant role or similar at a press that does modern fiction, by all means tell them that you have read the whole of the Enlightenment canon and can quote Macbeth by heart, but also show that you know a few contemporary authors and have an idea of what’s in the bestseller list.

The most useful skills I acquired in the course of my PhD are:

  • Research skills – for us postgrads it’s second nature, so it’s easy to forget that research is an Actual Transferable Skill. In my very first job, my colleagues were amazed (and I’m not exaggerating) that I was able to find things out quite quickly, such as who owned the rights to an image, who the top 50 social media cookery influencers are, information on an author they were thinking of publishing… things that can take ages when you haven’t been spending half your life for the past three or four years researching.
  • Self-discipline and initiative: if you’ve written a 100,000-word PhD thesis, you evidently have stamina, you know how to manage your time and how to work hard. You will also have learnt how to be creative and innovative, and how to get down to work without someone having to hold your hand every step of the way.
  • Office skills: Word, Excel and PowerPoint – these are essential, and I found out about a lot of the tools and features as part of my PhD (writing my thesis, preparing presentations). A knowledge of InDesign and/or Photoshop also comes in handy.

What’s the progression like?

It depends very much on the publishing house. In some it’s very easy to get promoted, and you can go from editorial assistant to commissioning editor in two or three years, in others it’s much harder. If you work for a small indie publisher, you may find that even at entry-level, the person in front of you in the career queue is literally the owner of the company, so you have no choice but to move out to move up. Then again, it’s easier to make your mark and get noticed in a small company. You also have to be willing to put yourself forward. If you’re enthusiastic (and show it) and are good at what you do, though, you can move up very quickly.

As for my own future – I’m very happy doing what I’m doing, but if the right job at the right place were to come along (I have a very short shortlist of publishers I’d like to work for), I might go back to being a commissioning editor.

What are your top tips for researchers interested in this type of work?

In no particular order:

  • Sign up to the Bookseller magazine’s morning email (go to their website and click on sign up/register). This is the trade magazine for people in publishing, and the morning newsletter has all the key news – career moves, big book deals, prizes, etc.
  • Read the book reviews in the Guardian and the Sunday Times – no matter what you think of them as newspapers, their books pages are the most influential ones in the country. Some titles become bestsellers off the back of a single rave review in one or the other.
  • Work experience: this is the big one. Even if your PhD is about books, you still need to prove that you’re committed to publishing as a job/business. Work experience slots can be difficult to get, but don’t lose hope: check out publishers’ websites, join the Society of Young Publishers, cold-email people in publishing (their email addresses are rarely online, but you can sometimes find out with some judicious googling), and ask around. Perhaps you’ll discover that your aunt’s neighbour’s grandson works at Hachette, or that your supervisor’s best friend has just set up a small indie press. Also, even if you think that you really want to become an editor, consider doing work experience in other departments, such as sales or marketing. You may find out that you actually prefer one of those other areas. Or try getting work experience with a literary agent. And when you’ve got your placement, work hard, be friendly, and make sure you talk to as many people as possible – once you have your foot in the door, networking is key. Finally, when your placement is nearing its end, ask if you can do another one elsewhere in the company, either right away or at a later date.
  • Create your own experience: start a journal – online or print – with your fellow students, organise a book festival…
  • Online research/take a punt: watch interviews / read Q&As with people working in publishing (check out publisher websites and YouTube), to find out more about the different jobs you can do in publishing. Get in touch with someone in the industry and ask them if they can spare half an hour to talk to you, or would be willing to answer some questions via email. If you can, invite them for a cup of tea or something at a café close to their office. They may say no, but no harm in trying!
  • Do other book-related things: blog/vlog about books, work in a bookshop, help out at literary events/festivals, start a book club, ask the Book Trust or Reading Agency if they need volunteers, ask your old school if you can run a reading group or help out in the library, offer to copy-edit or proofread books for UCL staff for free… basically, show them that you’re more than an avid and intelligent reader, that you’re aware that publishing is an actual business, and that you’re not choosing it merely because you can’t think of anything better to do.
  • Learn how to make a good cup of tea or coffee. I’m not having you on: as a rule, people in publishing love hot drinks, and it’s a brilliant way to break the ice when you’re doing work experience, and get to know that intimidating-looking-but-genius editorial director sitting across from you in the office.

Reflections on the Museums and Cultural Heritage Panel

s.duran4 June 2021

This week, UCL Careers was joined by four speakers from the museums and cultural heritage sector:

  • Claire Pascolini-Campbell – Research Manager, National Trust
  • Christy Henshaw – Digital Production Manager, Wellcome Collection
  • Simon Kocher – Geoscientist, Natural History Museum
  • Ted McDonald-Toone – International Engagement Manager, British Museum

The panel members reflected on their own career journeys and gave advice to those looking to enter the sector. Speakers agreed – entering into and maintaining a career in museums and cultural heritage can be rewarding, but challenging. Covid has shifted government funding priorities, and the full impact on sector is yet to be determined. With that in mind, speakers shared their advice and guidance in securing and maintaining a career in this field.

Flexibility is key

Flexibility was a theme weaving through each of the panellists’ reflections and advice. When looking for a role in the museum and cultural heritage sector, this can take many different forms. For example, some people may avoid maternity cover positions due to their nature as fixed-term contracts.  However, it was shared that undertaking one, or multiple, maternity cover roles within this sector is often the best way to build the skills and experience needed for a permanent position. In addition, flexibility in the type of role you are looking for can help you start your career.

Look to the future

Technology has been transformational across the museums and cultural heritage sector. For some of our panellists, their roles have significantly changed over the past twenty years. With that in mind, you may want to research the emerging skills that will be needed for the roles you want in the future. Your additional experience, training, and ability to anticipate the needs of the sector can give you a distinct advantage against other applicants. This also ties in with the third point raised below – showing initiative.

Show initiative

The realities of securing a role in the museums and cultural heritage sector were acknowledged by each of our speakers. To stand out, you will need to show initiative. This can be done through volunteering, securing work experience, and building your network. When looking for volunteer roles, it is key that you identify the right person to reach out to and can demonstrate you have valuable skills to contribute to a specific area. It is understood that not every person is able to volunteer, and speakers shared their experiences in using Step Ahead to secure temporary paid roles within the sector to gain experience. If you are working or volunteering and have the opportunity to meet with external stakeholders, make sure you get involved and communicate your contributions to them – never miss an opportunity to build your network.

The future of the museums and cultural heritage sector is yet to be determined – but being able to adapt your skills to the current and future needs of the field is key. It is never too early to start building your CV and skillset for the role you want.

With many thanks to our speakers. 

Additional resources:

View our full summer term of researcher careers events here.

Enhancing university teaching for a living

uczjsdd19 August 2019

Dr Alex Standen has a PhD in Italian Studies, and now works at UCL as Associate Director, Early Career Academic and Research Supervisor Development, in the Arena Centre. Alex helps researchers every day as part of her job, and she kindly agreed to help you even further by telling us her career story.

Tell us about your current role and organisation.  

I work here at UCL in the Arena Centre for Research-Based Education. We work across UCL to support colleagues to enhance their teaching and improve the student experience in their departments. I am one of three Associate Directors and have oversight of all our training and development of PhD students who teach, new Lecturers and Teaching Fellows, Personal Tutors and Research Supervisors.

How did you move from academia to your current role?

During my writing up year I was also employed as a Teaching Fellow in my department, a role that I continued for a year post-PhD. I loved teaching and working closely with students in departmental roles such as Admissions Tutor, Year Abroad/Erasmus Coordinator and Personal Tutor, but it left no time for research. By chance, my partner was offered the opportunity to spend a year in New Zealand and we leapt at the chance: I had been at the same institution since I was an undergraduate and, while I loved my department and role, I needed a change of scenery and to give myself some time and space to focus on my research. Only that wasn’t what happened! I found I had little enthusiasm to re-visit my PhD research and no new projects I wanted to pursue; instead I was gravitating back to roles involving students. Back in the UK I got a job here at UCL as Education Officer in the Faculty of Brain Sciences which gave me so many valuable insights into HE administration, student support and wellbeing, quality assurance and enhancement, and the wider HE landscape. It was also in a Faculty whose research was so far removed from my own that I got an amazing insight into disciplines I had previously known nothing about. Working in the Faculty offered me a chance to get to know lots of the central teams at UCL and as soon as I got to know and understand about the work the Arena Centre was doing I knew that was where I wanted to be!

What does a normal working day look like for you?

It is a complete mix! I am rarely at my desk, and more often to be found delivering sessions, talking to colleagues and departments about their teaching, supporting them to gain professional recognition for their education-related roles, or  liaising with other teams like the Doctoral School and Student Support and Wellbeing. Since becoming Associate Director, I also now manage a small team and am involved in finance and strategic planning conversations which has been a big learning curve!

What are the best things about working in your role?

Meeting so many inspiring colleagues from across the institution and feeling like the work we are doing is actually having an impact on students.

What are the biggest challenges you face in your work?

Not everyone is keen to hear from us! Lots of colleagues, understandably, have so many competing pressures that they just don’t have time to think about their teaching role on top of everything else. But when we do manage to convince them to make even a small change it makes it all worthwhile!

Is a PhD essential for your role?

No, but lots of experience of teaching in HE is essential, and so is a broad understanding of the HE environment. My PhD gave me the confidence to present in front of a range of audiences, to consume large amounts of information quickly and critically, to be persuasive, and to manage my time effectively – all of which are absolutely key to my role.

What’s the progression like?

There is an absolute wealth of roles in HE beyond teaching and research and I have been able to progress quickly. Centres like ours exist in all universities so there are also opportunities to move between institutions. But I have no intention of going anywhere anytime soon!

What top tips would you pass on to researchers interested in this type of work?

Treat every job with the seriousness and commitment that you give to your research role, and carry it out to the best of your abilities as you never know where it will lead. When I first came back to the UK after New Zealand I wasn’t getting shortlisted for professional services roles in HE, which I now see is because I was still presenting myself as a teacher-researcher. But at the time my main concern was financial, so I joined a temping agency which specialised in HE roles and the first role I was placed in was here at UCL as an admin assistant in the Faculty of Brain Sciences…

 

Don’t miss our Arts and Cultural Heritage event for researchers!

uczjsdd7 May 2019

Here are the details of a not-to-be-missed event just for PhDs and Research Staff:

Title: UCL Careers Employer-led Forum: Careers in Arts & Cultural Heritage

Date: Thursday 23rd May 2019

Time:  6pm–7.30pm

Location: Seminar Room, UCL Careers, 4th Floor, Student Central, Malet Street, London

Overview:

The aim of this event is to help PhD students and other researchers with their career planning by providing an opportunity to hear from, and network with, employers from the Arts & Cultural Heritage sectors who are PhD holders themselves.

Our guest speakers, from Historic Royal PalacesBritish Museum and Battersea Arts Centre, will offer tips on how researchers can use their qualifications and experiences to enter this field, as well as giving information about their sector.

Participating in this event will enable you to:

  • Gain awareness of career options for researchers in the Arts and Cultural Heritage sectors
  • Engage with professionals from within these sectors with Q&A and informal networking
  • Understand how to use your qualifications and experience to your advantage in this field

This event is open to all research students and research staff with an interest in this area.

Speaker information:

 

Dr Meg Peterson: Project Manager for Research & Partnerships at Battersea Arts Centre

Meg Peterson, Ph.D. is the Founder of 21 Artists, a company focused on fostering, documenting and evaluating art and social change through artist development, social impact evaluation and consultancy. Meg is also the Project Manager for Research & Partnerships at Battersea Arts Centre, working to foster learning and collaboration through exchange programmes, research projects, courses, workshops and seminars with universities and other institutions along with designing and managing the social impact evaluation for various social change programmes. She has just completed her degree at the University of Exeter’s Business School researching cultural entrepreneurship, combining business model innovation with social entrepreneurship and cultural policy to develop a new model for innovative value creation in the creative industries. Meg also works as a practising illustrator, painter and photographer to augment the work she does as a curator, evaluator and academic.

 

Dr Helen Anderson: Project Curator, British Museum

Helen Anderson has a background in Archaeology, Anthropology and Art History from the University of East Anglia, gaining her doctorate in art and neuroscience in 2010. Following her PhD she worked as a Research Officer at the Rock Art Research Institute at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg before taking up a post at the British Museum working on a four year digital humanities project in African Rock Art. She is currently working as a Project Curator in the Africa department at the British Museum with a focus on the early photographic archives from West Africa.

 

Dr Constantina Vlachou-Mogire: ACR Conservation Science Manager for Historic Royal Palaces

Constantina worked for 10 years in Greece in object conservation before moving to the UK to do a PhD at University of Bradford, focusing on the production of late Roman coins using analytical and experimental archaeology techniques. In her current role as Conservation Science Manager for Historic Royal Palaces Constantina is responsible for the planning and execution of research projects informing the preservation of the diverse objects and interiors of the Palaces. This is primarily a cross disciplinary work involving bringing arts and science together and collaborating with colleagues from different departments within the organisation or external partners such as UCL. Constantina is also a Trustee of the National Heritage Science Forum and since 2010 has been member of the BSI Committee B/560 Conservation of Tangible Cultural Heritage.

 

Booking information for Research Staff

Bookings for this event must be made using the myUCLCareers booking system – you will not be able to book via DocSkills.

Book via myUCLCareers

 

Booking information for Research Students

You can book through the DocSkills Employer-led careers events page

Book via DocSkill

From academic research to translating in the arts

uczjsdd2 August 2018

Ingrid Chen has an MA in Comparative Literature from UCL, and she studied for a PhD in Humanities and Cultural Studies at the University of London. She left the PhD behind for a role in Sotheby’s, and is now Deputy Director, Head of Translation Department at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong. We managed to coordinate ourselves across time zones and have a chat bout Ingrid’s career journey. Here is what she told us:

What are you up to now?

I’m currently Head of the Translation Department at Sotheby’s. When Sotheby’s wants to promote Western art to a Chinese audience, the catalogue, the essays, and the condition report need to be translated into Chinese, and that’s what my team deals with.

I joined Sotheby’s in 2010, starting in London with customer service, because there was a lot of interest from Chinese collectors wanting to buy non-Chinese art. Then an opportunity arose to join the Hong Kong marketing department, working on copywriting and translation. I moved to Hong Kong, and since then the job has grown into a department with a seven-person team responsible for translating over 60 catalogues per year, as well as all the corporate materials to show our Chinese clients.

I don’t actually translate anymore in my current role. I oversee the team’s work, making sure it’s all consistent and there’s a Sotheby’s style to it.

How did you move from academia to your current role?

I did a Masters in comparative literature at UCL. I went on to Birkbeck’s London Consortium with the Tate Museum for a Masters of Research, and continued there with a PhD. During my early years of study I assumed I would stay in academia and become a lecturer and then eventually a professor. But in the second year of my PhD I started having doubts, wondering where else I might possibly end up. Because the London Consortium had lots of curators it sparked my interest in art, and I started attending gallery openings and auction previews. Through these events I met people in the art industry who said you don’t have to be an art historian to work in the sector. So I started to do part-time work in galleries.

I didn’t finish my PhD in the end. I became lost in my thesis and wasn’t sure if it was something I really wanted to do. It’s like a relationship, after a while I was kind of tired of it. And then towards the end of my PhD, when I was already in two minds about finishing it, the Sotheby’s translation job came to me. I took it as a sign from God saying this is your chance to decide whether you want to stay in academia or not. And I chose to come to Hong Kong.

What does a normal working day look like?

My day is divided into three different time zones. I start by picking up emails from New York. Then I’ll move on to what’s happening in Hong Kong, then later in the afternoon or evening I’ll deal with what’s happening in London.

On any given work day I might look at the seasonal auction calendar at what’s coming up and what needs to be translated. The material I receive will often be full of new terms I’ve never seen before, and that requires a lot of research, and we have an archive of technical terms involved in conservation and the painting techniques etc. which we maintain to ensure we use consistent Chinese terms.

My work also involves people management. It’s a seven-person team and the translators are at very different phases in their career, so they may come to me for advice, either translation or career-related, and I’m a head of department who always listens, so I will try to be a good listener and help them with their problems.

We have to follow tight deadlines and there’s a lot of communication with the Specialists, who are writing the descriptions and documents in English that we will translate into Chinese. The Specialists are experts and perfectionists, they are honing their craft, which is great, but if they’re late that will delay our schedule, so we all have to compromise in order to achieve the goal assigned to us. So there’s a lot of management, communication, and research in the role every day.

What are the best bits?

I have intimate access to incredible masterpieces. For example we’re selling a Modigliani in New York and it travelled to Hong Kong, so before anybody else sees it I got to examine it up close. That’s something you cannot do as a visitor in a museum. Also, when you go to a museum show you usually don’t see the back of the painting. But the back of the painting holds information; the provenance, the condition, the artist’s signature, maybe a dedication. Because we have to describe items in a condition report I get to see all of this. It’s like there’s a separate exhibition for us, we get to see other angles. So if you’re an art lover it’s a great job for you to look at a variety of different things, not just paintings: we have a very strong Chinese ceramics department here so they’re usually very kind and they’ll let us touch these amazing pieces in pristine condition. There’s a lot of hands on experience. And sometimes there are the weirdest things for sale, like dinosaur egg fossils or a skull of a mammoth.

Anything that interests our Chinese clients we need to become sort of an expert it in, and that’s fascinating and unpredictable. So I get to be a semi-expert in many different fields, which I think is why I chose to work for Sotheby’s in the first place, because in academia you have to focus and specialise, but I almost want to be a renaissance woman rather than specialising in any one thing.

It’s also great to be producing something tangible – I’m not just building a castle in the clouds, churning out something that doesn’t mean anything to anyone other than me, which I sometimes felt I was doing in academia. Every time I see a catalogue I feel like they are my babies, I have something to show for my work, I can say I made this.

And what are the challenges?

The communication. There are so many different parties involved in producing one catalogue or brochure and time difference can be a big issue. One of the disadvantages of being in Hong Kong is that if we want to communicate with our global colleagues either we have to come in really really early or stay really really late. There have been times, especially in my first year or two of working here where I was leaving the office at 1am in the morning because we were waiting for something from New York and we had to finish it before going to bed. The good thing is that these days with cloud technology you can do a lot of the work from home, but for me personally I still prefer to come to the office for my work, and I prefer to work early than stay very late.

Has your research experience been useful?

When I left my PhD my parents were saying that if I only did another year or two I could finish it, why was I leaving it behind? Part of the reason was at that point I feared all of the things I’d learned through the PhD would not be very useful in my future, so why had I spent so many years before that acquiring these skills?

But funnily enough, the further I’ve got into this job, the more I’ve realised that the research skills I acquired have been really useful for my current role. A lot of the phrases and terms I’m working with have never been translated into Chinese before, so I have to do a lot of research. For example, I didn’t know anything about African art, but today I’m working on an African sculpture and I have to research what it’s about and how I can best describe it and its historic context. So research skills can be transferred into many different jobs, and they’re invaluable to me here.

Also some of the theories I learned in my Masters are useful for understanding contemporary art. Now I’m in the workplace, theories are not just theories. When I’m reading something from an art critic or an art historian, it all comes together and makes sense. I’ve received compliments from my supervisors who’ve felt that my translation brings more depth than outsourcing to an experienced translator because I understand the style required – so it becomes more persuasive, it becomes more intellectual in a way, and I do try to make sure that everything that we translate into Chinese reads as elegantly and as knowledgably as possible. So I think having my PhD degree experience, though I didn’t finish it, in the end was very helpful to me.

What does the future hold?

That’s a question I’m asking myself at the moment. Sotheby’s have never had a translation department before, so I don’t have a mentor to tell me where this type of role could lead me. And there are not many similar roles in the art world or auction industry, so in a way I’m in a unique position, but I don’t know whether that uniqueness is a good thing or not! I’m hoping I’ll progress to more of a creative role because we do publish some magazines at Sotheby’s, so there may be opportunities to write things or become an editor, and decide the direction of the magazine for the Chinese audience. I’m also taking courses exploring digital marketing, content creation and management. So this or next year may be a turning point for me where I decide the next step.

Would I consider going back to academia? Maybe, after all of these years and the distance they’ve given me, maybe I can go back and finish my PhD.

What are your top tips for getting into this industry?

Think broadly when exploring options. Humanities grads often limit themselves to working in ‘traditional’ humanities graduate roles. But these days there are a lot more opportunities. For example content creation is a big deal right now. And people with a humanities background can often create great content.

Something I lacked when I was studying was business acumen, which has to be acquired by getting experience outside academia. You have to know what’s going on in the marketing world or in a certain industry. Reading the Financial Times or other relevant industry publications is helpful.

Build a portfolio of writing examples, so employers can see what kind of employee you will become. Don’t just say you will be a great translator or a great writer, provide evidence. Create a blog, show you are consistently building something that has become your personal brand.

Networking is crucial. I approached Sotheby’s about the work I started doing for them part-time. If you just blindly contact an organisation there’s a high chance they won’t get back to you. So networking is quite important. I met some people from Sotheby’s who recommended me. Large organisations will receive many CVs and applications, so if someone from inside the organisation whom the recruiters trust recommends you, it makes a big difference.

Getting paid to drink wine: from academic to wine buyer

uczjsdd10 May 2018

 

Dr Nicholas Jackson has a PhD in Theology and Literature from Cambridge and is now a Wine Buyer for Sotheby’s Wine in New York. Nicholas kindly took time out from wine tastings (!) to share his career journey.

Tell us about your current role and organisation.

I am a buyer for a retail business. Specifically, I buy all the wine for Sotheby’s Wine retail store in New York. Sotheby’s is most famous for selling high value items at auction (including wine). But we also have a wine retail store, and that’s what I focus on. I select, source and ship the world’s finest and rarest wines for sale in our shop.

How did you move from academia to your current role?

I enjoyed academia very much but ultimately found it frustrating. I wanted to be an intellectual but academia forced me to be an academic. That’s the difference between being a thinker and a writer of footnotes (I’m exaggerating! But I always felt there was some truth in that kind of formulation!).

I attended the wine society at Cambridge when in the second year of my PhD and was quickly taken with the whole world of wine. I was lucky insofar as just as my commitment to academia was wavering, this new interest came along. I started gaining professional qualifications even while still a student, and during the last year of my PhD I worked at a wine shop in Cambridge (I actually asked to work for free just to get the experience, but they insisted on paying me).

I was really committed to wine when I finished my PhD; so much so that I would have been willing to work for a tiny salary if it meant working in wine. I didn’t apply for any academic positions. That refusal to equivocate made me really focus and become committed. That was invaluable. You don’t want to have any doubts when making this kind of change otherwise you’ll never do it. And I manufactured some self-confidence: I always thought someone would give me a job because I was intelligent and hard working. I wouldn’t starve. I got my job by writing to my now boss and asking for it. It took a while to work out all the details, but I think he appreciated the initiative. My previous wine shop experience was vital, my new boss said he would not have considered me without it.

What does a normal working day look like for you?

A lot of my job involves working out whether wines represent good enough value to purchase. So I look at a lot of spreadsheets of wine prices! But I am also responsible for writing content about the new wines – for our retail emails, for the website or for special offers. And then the tasting: I taste wine virtually every day. Either in the office (from samples sent by suppliers/producers), in person with those same people visiting me, or I go out to large portfolio tastings, where I taste 100-200 wines at a time, all with the aim of trying to find the best to stock in the shop. Reasonably often I have evening events where I present wines at tastings or at dinners.

I also sell wine to some of our more important clients. Working in the buying role helps me know exactly what is coming in and what I can sell to those clients.

What are the best things about working in your role?

Combining aesthetic appreciation with a commercial perspective. That means: tasting wines well and identifying quality, then being able to sell those wines to our clients, and then have them come back and tell you how much they love the wine. It’s very rewarding to have people appreciate your judgement in matters of taste! Otherwise: travel to wine regions; opportunity to taste the world’s greatest wines on a regular basis.

What are the biggest challenges?

The hardest part of coming from a PhD background is moving into a corporate environment. It can feel impersonal compared to the very individual work you can do as a PhD student (particularly in the humanities). But of course there are also many benefits to working for a large, well-financed company such as job security and benefits.

Is a PhD essential for your role?

It’s totally unnecessary! But I do think it has helped me. For instance, I have recently taken (and passed) the Master of Wine exams, which is the highest qualification in the wine world (there are about 380 MWs worldwide). The discipline and self-motivation required to work for two years on that definitely came in part from doing a PhD for three years, where every day could be construed as monotonous: going to the library, reading some pretty abstract stuff and writing a little bit. But it certainly gave me the discipline and study methods to succeed.

The other aspect of it is the creative one: I write a lot for the job and after my PhD experience, it’s second nature. The ability to write well in today’s business world is increasingly rare and valued.

Also, I think anything requiring appreciation (in my case of wine) borrows from the same skill set used in humanities PhDs – the ability to recognize the distinctiveness and worth of one specific thing within a sea of very similar items.

Where do you see yourself going from here?

Hopefully I will receive the Master of Wine qualification soon which (rightly or wrongly) brings with it a reputation for knowledge and expertise. So I have to remain committed to learning and gaining experience. Ultimately, the whole field is about serving the consumers who drive the whole industry. An interesting way of posing the question is: how can I best serve people? How can I add value to their (wine) experiences? And that’s where I think we can be creative: using social media, video etc. to inform and engage people. So I’d be interested in exploring those possibilities.

What top tips would you pass on to a researcher interested in this type of work?

Never apply for a job! If it’s advertised, you don’t want it and in any case, there will be too much competition. Your unique skill set should be matched to a unique job – so create it! Figure out who you want to work for and get in contact with them, explaining your particular interest and skills and how you can add value for them. Of particular interest are companies which are expanding/launching new ventures. They will need new staff.

Be commercial. There’re very few jobs out there which don’t involve the requirement to make money for your employer in some way. PhDs generally don’t teach that. Employers think that PhDs (especially in the humanities) are ‘dons’ in ivory towers. It’s up to you to prove them wrong. Read everything in the media about the companies you’re interested in; everything about the field you’re interested in. If you do that for a month, you’ll end up learning more about the work than 90% of people who have worked at the company for ten years.

Get work experience. It makes employers realise you are serious about their industry. Offer to work for free. If the job involves writing, write for publications for free in order to build your CV. Ask significant people in the field to meet for coffee and talk to them about their experience. Do whatever it takes!