In August 2022, the ‘Life Beyond the PhD’ conference took place at Cumberland Lodge in Windsor Great Park. Two PhD researchers and one ECR were funded by Sussex to attend, offering them the opportunity to share their experiences with other researchers from around the UK and to take part in invaluable training in communication, public engagement, and interdisciplinary working.
The programme is designed to help researchers develop useful transferable skills to maximise the impact of their academic work in the wider world, both within and outside of academia.
Jorge Adrian Ortiz Moreno,
PhD researcher – Institute of Development Studies
The transition to the final year of my PhD programme has made me pay attention to opportunities to start building the next steps of my academic career. I think that the final year is not only for writing up the thesis but also for networking and paving the way for what is coming next. Therefore, when I saw the opportunity of participating in the ‘Life Beyond the PhD’ conference I didn’t think twice about submitting an application.
Every year Cumberland Lodge, a charity based in Windsor Great Park that works on tackling social division through the empowerment of people, hosts PhDs from across the UK to develop skills that are relevant to succeed beyond the traditional post-PhD trajectories. Having Patricia O’Lynn, a member of the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly, as a speaker discussing ‘From PhD to Politics’ during the first day of the conference should give an idea of how thought-provoking the event can be.
During the five days that we stayed in a stunning historic country house – a singular former royal residence that has been transformed into an educational building – we covered an intense programme packed with talks, discussions, training and teamwork activities. We had the opportunity to present our research and also to work together on a humanitarian planning task. I learnt much from these days, personal and professional, but if I had to synthesise them, I would elaborate on the following two:
A) Communication skills are indispensable. Independently of our discipline, doing research expects results and those results are expected to be shared as our contribution to knowledge. Therefore, we should know how to communicate our research. And this goes beyond specialised papers. During the conference, we focused on three types of communication for wider audiences: written communication (e.g. blogs, media articles), verbal communication (e.g. interviews, talks) and digital communication (e.g. social media, podcasts). I found that we cannot avoid learning communication skills as an integral element of our PhD journey.
B) Diversity is the future. This has been the most diverse meeting I have ever attended. As attendees, we were diverse in discipline, gender, ethnicity, age, and nationality, and we got the opportunity to work together in a friendly, constructive and respectful environment. I definitely think that we got a glimpse of the future of academia, a future that embraces diversity and is socially committed, a future that is possible and that we are meant to build.
I am deeply thankful to the Doctoral School for funding my application and making it happen. And I truly encourage PhD researchers to participate in this conference in the coming years. For me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
PhD researcher – Psychology:
After settling into my luxury suite and taking a moment to adjust to the magnificence of my surroundings, I ventured down to meet my fellow attendees. From the offset, it was clear that we were all going to get on – individuals were listened to as they summarised their PhD research in an atmosphere full of positivity, openness and interest. Despite the fact that no two people were researching the same topic, there was an incredible level of understanding and appreciation for the PhD journeys we were all on and the foundations of friendships very quickly began to form. In his welcoming speech, Chief Executive Ed Newell told us we were here to exchange ideas and enjoy ourselves – with our every need catered for by a team of amazing staff and our phones eagerly put away in favour of conversation, the retreat began.
Opening talks by Professor Kurt Barling and Dr Patricia O’Lynn MLA instantly began to inspire and open up discussion regarding the opportunities and future prospects that awaited us. Whether it be a career in academia, working as a journalist for the BBC, or sitting on a bench in Westminster, we were assured that our PhDs would forever equip us with a whole host of unique strengths and transferable skills, attractive to any future employer. After a drinks reception and dinner in a Hogwarts-style great hall, we enjoyed a team-building session that required us to make an air-powered car out of K’nex – sadly, our team didn’t win, but considering the amount of laughter we shared in trying, I can’t complain!
Day 2 saw us divided into smaller groups as we attended a series of sessions on communication skills, covering written, verbal and digital bases. I particularly enjoyed the session on verbal communication in which we all had 2-minutes to pitch our unique hobbies (lucid dreaming in case you’re wondering!) to the group and convince them to try them out – although no amount of money could convince me to take-up marathon running! Later in the day we re-grouped for a CV workshop where we received tips on best practices from Dr Sophie Carney, swapped our CVs with each other, and had the opportunity to get additional tailored feedback and advice from the experts. A history tour of the building rounded off the afternoon and gave our impressive home-away-from-home some important context. Finally, after raiding the bar and taking an investigative trip down to the basement, the discovery of a games room (complete with pool, foosball, table-tennis, dance floor, and board games) kept us entertained until bedtime.
Days 3 and 4 revolved around the development of presentation skills – both individual and group-based. On Day 3, we had 5-minutes to present our PhD research to each other in smaller groups and receive feedback and questioning in an amazingly supportive environment. Due to the interdisciplinary nature of the conference, the variety of topics on display was absolutely fascinating, everyone was beyond engaged and interested to hear more about the latest research, which made for some great questions and further discussion. The group task on Day 4 then introduced us to the charismatic Dr Stuart Gordon from the Department of International Development at LSE, who led us through a simulation exercise where we worked in groups to explore the challenges of establishing a large camp for a forcibly displaced population. Initially an overwhelming challenge (complete with role-players acting the part of refugees, CEOs of charitable groups and questionable security providers), our group worked exceptionally well as a team, drawing on creative problem solving to continually adapt and find solutions to the short and long-term difficulties of establishing our camp, complete with map and financial plans.
Those doing a PhD know that it can be a very isolating experience, with the level of independent work often leaving us with little time for our peers. However, my take-home message from the conference is: you are not alone – your people are out there, your work is valuable, you can do it. There is life beyond the PhD!