By Hazel Booth, DRNS
In May 2022 I attended a careers session run by the British Sociological Association (BSA). The session took as its starting point the question, “having completed your PhD and possibly gained some post-doctoral experience, what comes next?” My attendance was inspired by the DRNS session for Early Career Researchers which ran in March 2022. Attendees at the DRNS event had spoken about how much they loved working in the field but were concerned about the challenges they faced at the early career stage. When I signed up for the BSA session I wondered whether I might learn something that would be useful to share with my ECR peers.
Certainly, it was a session which provided much food for thought. From the off, Graham Crow ensured our engagement with an unexpected exercise based his 2020 paper and Isiah Berlin’s animal-based classification system . The quiz helped us to identify whether we were hedgehogs or foxes, i.e., were we consistent academics focused on one big idea (hedgehogs), or did we have many academic interests which are inclined to change (foxes).
With an audience of foxes, myself included, I had a growing sense that a path through the contemporary academy is one which produces foxes but values hedgehogs. This is, perhaps, the result of early career precarity which privileges those who are adaptable, versatile, pragmatic, and mobile, but who are navigating a career path which ultimately values and rewards those with applied, consistent, and coherent career histories. I recognised this situation; it was something we had spoken about as a challenge in the DRNS ECR session. In this BSA session we were encouraged to consider how best to straddle this apparent divide.
It was useful to hear from several speakers who shared with the audience how they had met this challenge, and ultimately, my takeaway message was clear. As an early/mid-career academic, people may have to make a lot of pragmatic choices. This can be the result of financial or caring responsibilities which require that one role or opportunity must be prioritised over another. Serendipity, networking and engaging with speculative opportunities (a presentation here, a peer review or a paper there) become the starting blocks of the academic career. During this period, collaborations are formed, mental and interpersonal connections are made, sometimes across interdisciplinary boundaries, and mentors are found.
It is possible to view this time as a fox with concern, especially as we look towards an academy which wants us to be hedgehogs. Instead, in this session I was encouraged to frame this period of versatility, interdisciplinarity, and intellectual growth as a clear value-add, personally and professionally. I can use this part of my working life to construct a clear narrative arc about the coherence of my career choices to date, for myself and others. I can articulate why I did what I did and show how it aligned with my values and ambitions. I can demonstrate the benefits I gained through doing it, and describe how those benefits will be useful for future employers. It is possible to position myself not as a puppet of fickle fate, but as creative beneficiary and creator of opportunity towards a goal which has always been in sight. I will learn to share my truth that all along, I have been a fox with an inner hedgehog.
Over to you
The myriad skills we pick up as we navigate this early stage of career can be viewed as a positive for ourselves and for employers, but it can be hard to make them shine in a conventional CV. In April 2022 I wrote about a different kind of CV which encourages you to describe your career path in a broader way. Do you think that this “Resume for Research and Innovation” might be a better tool to present the skills you bring? Have you tried to write this kind of CV? I’m interested to hear what you think, so please feel free to sign up as a member so you can pop into the DRNS online forums and share your views.