Interview series ‘life after the PhD’: James Griffiths
Authors: Charlotte Weatherill & Political Perspectives Editing Team
This interview is the second in a series that Political Perspectives are running on the subject of life after the PhD. This conversation is between University of Manchester’s Charlotte Weatherhill and James Griffiths and focuses on James’ transition to a Research Associate position at the Welsh Election Study towards the end of his PhD, and how he juggled his thesis submission and starting a new job.
Firstly, please could you introduce yourself and explain where you are in your (post) PhD journey?
My name is James Griffiths, I submitted my PhD in August 2022, and I completed my viva in November 2022. My PhD investigates the nature of popular nationalism across sub-state territories like Scotland, Wales, Catalonia, Flanders, and Quebec (among others). Currently, I am nine months in to a 30-month post as a Research Associate for the Welsh Election Study at Cardiff University.
What approach have you taken to the job hunt: when did you start, and where are you looking?
When I entered the last year of my PhD, I had a conversation with my supervisors about the job market. I did not really know anything about academia before starting the PhD, so I wanted to get their advice. I had casual research posts and teaching, but I was worried about what I would do once my funding ended. Their advice was to focus on finishing the PhD until the final six months of my funding, and to then start looking, so that is what I did. Initially, I looked for positions on jobs.ac.uk, and I was worried that I lacked the experience for many of the roles that came up. However, in early December 2021, an advert for a Research Associate role with the Welsh Election Study (WES) at Cardiff University was posted on Twitter. I felt really lucky that this post came up when it did. I had done some casual RA work for the WES team earlier in the year and, as someone with an avid personal and professional interest in Welsh politics, I really wanted this post. I went through the job specification and, while I felt really inexperienced, I thought I met the criteria for the role. Fortunately, my application was successful after interview, and I got the post for 30 months. It is probably important to mention that taking on this role delayed the submission of my PhD. I intended to submit in May 2022, but that became impossible when I was also doing a full-time job alongside it. The WES team were very understanding and were keen for me to take time to finish the PhD where possible, but submission was ultimately delayed until August 2022. It was difficult juggling both, but I needed to do it. Currently, I am not actively hunting for a more permanent role, but that is something I will need to think about soon. I would love a career in academia but the potential precarity is off-putting. I have started thinking about the possibility of non-academic roles, but I don’t know much about the options available to me. My plan is to learn more about that over the next 18 months.
Do you think that a PhD is primarily training for an academic role?
Primarily, I think the act of completing the PhD is partial training for an academic role. In theory, the PhD trains someone to conduct good academic research. The feedback that I received from my supervisors was invaluable in improving my researching and writing skills. Other components of the PhD journey then helped improve my research abilities. Presenting at conferences gave me experience communicating my research to an academic audience, while doing the PhD gave me access to quantitative methods software and training that I would otherwise have been unable to complete. I have learnt more about some features of academic roles since finishing the PhD (such as communicating my research to a non-academic audience), but most of the training came during the PhD itself.
There is pressure to teach and publish during your PhD. Do you agree with this approach, or do you think there are other things we could be doing that would be more useful for approaching the job market?
In response to the previous question, I said that a PhD was ‘partial’ training for an academic role. The reason for that is that many academic roles require experience teaching, evidence of research, publications, and other relevant experience beyond the PhD itself. In my case, my research assistant work was very important for obtaining my current role. It gave me experience handling datasets and doing admin tasks, which I drew on in my job application and interview. It is important to strike a balance when you are writing the PhD. I know this sounds obvious, but it is so easy to overload yourself. There were times when I got the balance wrong, which had a negative effect on my research output and my mental health. I know some people reading this won’t have a choice when it comes to taking on extra roles, especially in the current economic climate. I was really fortunate that I had funding during my PhD, so my advice should be taken with that in mind. Speak to your supervisors, as each person’s specific circumstances will be different and you and them will be best placed to know what will work for you.
Finally, any other tips or reflections that you think would be useful for current PhD students?
Try and make as many connections as possible. People might roll their eyes at the term “networking,” but it is super important as you progress through your PhD. Professionally, connecting with other scholars can open avenues for collaboration, or open opportunities like institutional visits or research assistant work. For example, I am now working on papers that were a direct result of talking to people at conferences. It can be a bit daunting to approach people (I still get really anxious), but it can be really helpful in making yourself known. Personally, making connections with my fellow PhD students helped make the process manageable. I loved doing my PhD, but it was also frustrating and isolating at times. Talking with the friends that I made during the process helped make me feel like I was not alone, as they were often going through the same things.
James Griffiths is a former PhD student at the University of Manchester, who submitted his PhD in August and completed his viva in November. He also completed his undergraduate and Master’s degrees at Manchester. He is now a Research Associate in the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University
Charlotte Weatherill is a PhD student in the Politics department at the University of Manchester. She researches environmental and climate change politics, and her thesis is on the subject of climate change vulnerability and Pacific Islands.