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Day of reflection on professional and personal challenges for LPS doctoral researchers

Photo: twitter.com/RitaGriguolaite

On Wednesday 1 July, 30 PhD students took part in the second School of Law, Politics and Sociology (LPS) away day for postgraduate doctoral researchers. 

The away day - sponsored by the Sussex ESRC Doctoral Training Centre (DTC) Citizenship, Justice and Security pathway cluster - focused particularly on three themes selected by the students themselves: meeting the challenges of inter-disciplinarity, non-academic careers for doctoral researchers, and maintaining a work-life balance. 

The first session was led off by Professor Dan Hough from the Department of Politics. Professor Hough is Director of the Sussex Centre for Corruption Studies, which – along with the Sussex European Institute (SEI) and the Sussex Centre for Gender Studies – is one of three inter-disciplinary research centres located within LPS. 

One of the main themes to emerge from the discussion was that there is both intrinsic value in taking an inter-disciplinary approach to tackling certain intellectual puzzles - and this is very much in line with the Sussex University’s original, founding ethos - as well as there being instrumental reasons for demonstrating a commitment to inter-disciplinarity; it is often an important ‘tie breaker’ when determining research funding or in academic job appointments. However, this has to be balanced against the importance of being rooted firmly within an academic discipline, given that much of academia - in the sense of University organisational structures, the evaluation of research, academic publications and professional networks - is organised around subject disciplines. 

This was followed by a session on non-academic careers for doctoral researchers introduced by Helen Gorman and Tim Bradshaw from the Sussex Careers and Employability Centre and Dr Amy Busby, who obtained her PhD in Politics in 2013 (and was also a Sussex Politics BA) and now works as a Senior Research Executive for BMRB Market Research. 

In this session, discussion focused on the kind of skills that doctoral researchers possess and that non-academic employers find valuable - notably oral communication and research project management - as well as some of the stereotypes and misconceptions that they have of PhDs. Dr Busby drew on her own experience to show how doctoral researchers can play to their strengths and take steps to overcome lack of expertise in areas that non-academic employers consider crucial. 

The final session was led off by Julia Winstone, a part-time Law PhD and (non-practicing) solicitor currently, and Dr Erica Consterdine who recently completed her PhD in Politics and is currently working as a research fellow in the Sussex Centre for Migration Studies. 

They shared their personal insights into the challenges of trying to balance doctoral research and other work commitments while keeping on top of their family and social lives, and the strategies that they have developed to meet these challenges. One theme that emerged in this discussion was the open-endedness of the doctoral research process and the importance of setting clear boundaries, particularly carving out work-free spaces for holidays, leisure and sporting activities, as well as for spending time with family and (non-PhD!) friends. 

Summing up the day, LPS Director of Doctoral Studies Professor Aleks Szczerbiak commented: “The three areas that we focused on today involve some of the key professional and personal challenges faced doctoral researchers. 

“They are encouraged to adopt inter-disciplinary approaches to their research but many of those who genuinely try to do this find it hard to negotiate academic structures and institutions that are organised around disciplinary identities. 

“Most PhD students begin their research with the aim of becoming academics but many end up pursuing non-academic careers, either for practical reasons or because they simply decide that academia is not for them. 

“All PhDs face work-life balance issues. This is particularly true for part-time and self-funded students, especially those with caring responsibilities, but even those who are fully-funded and have no such additional commitments have to balance working on their thesis with other professional development activities such as: getting published, teaching and academic networking. 

“Today’s sessions will have given our doctoral researchers plenty of tips and good ideas about how to get to grips with these challenges.”

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By: Eleanor Griggs
Last updated: Monday, 6 July 2015

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