Careers and Employability Service
Services for research staff and PhDs

Catherine Mills

Photo of Catherine Mills

Catherine is currently the Postgraduate Research Student Services Manager/Graduate School Manager at the University of Birmingham and this is the story of her career.

I had entertained the idea of a career in academia and research from my first degree in American studies at the University of Leicester, which included a year abroad at the University of Texas, Austin. I loved the subject and the opportunity it offered to cross over to work in the States, so I took a masters in the Department of American and Canadian Studies at The University of Nottingham. A passion for the subject and for reading literature and analysing poetry, as well as strong working relationships and encouragement from staff in the department, convinced me to undertake a doctorate. In 2007 I completed a comparative PhD looking at concepts of home, belonging and nation in the work of two contemporary women authors and poets from the US and Canada.

By the end of my second year of doctoral study, I had a ‘crisis moment’ where I realised that a lectureship might not be for me after all, although I loved the research and the sector. It wasn’t obvious to me what an arts and humanities PhD student would do, if not academia. Following advice from the Careers and Employability Service at Nottingham I took the time to consider what working environments would suit my values, skills and ambitions. As well as higher education, which I knew I liked and felt comfortable in, I also considered the Civil Service and not-for-profit sectors.

It so happened that my first job after completing my PhD was in higher education, as a postgraduate skills training officer for the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Cambridge, and was a real stepping-stone. My academic and teaching experience well suited the job specification - to set up a training programme for research postgraduates. It was a fantastic first job, particularly because there was flexibility in the role and I wasn’t micro-managed. I was able to build on the job description, and I ended up leading on strategy as well as training and development. My researcher experience was invaluable here, as I had the confidence and skills to define, structure, research and project-manage the role, just as I had done with my PhD. My teaching experience as a PhD, which I loved, also helped with the design and delivery of training courses.

At the end of my two-year contract at Cambridge I decided not to extend it further, since I felt I had pushed the boundaries of the role and I was ready to take certain aspects, particularly strategy, further. I applied for my current role with support and advice from The University of Nottingham whose career support I was still able to call on, and since June 2009 I have been managing the Postgraduate Research Student Services at the University of Birmingham. I lead two teams, since I am responsible for the training programme for PhD researchers as well as administration and quality supervision. For this role, I rely on my previous teaching and training experience although I less frequently deliver training sessions now and I’m able to focus on strategy, development and management. I work closely with the Director of the University Graduate School, a professor in biosciences, and enjoy the duality of working with both academics and management - for which my research background is beneficial since I am able to traverse both camps. Again, the role has a certain flexibility, which is challenging but also satisfying since it offers lots of new challenges to stretch and develop the role and my skills.


Catherine's tips and hints for managing your career after a PhD

For current researchers who are considering moving out of academia I would advise that it’s so important to translate your skills and experience into a language that can be understood by potential employers. Don’t undersell or pigeonhole yourself – think about what your work and roles involve and what you are capable of doing. Be clear on the skills that you are using in your PhD and extra-curricular activities. Stick with it. Being self-aware is half the battle especially if you are changing direction in your career aims. Many researchers begin their posts assuming they will want to enter academia, but re-think this later on, so spend the time to try and figure out what’s important to you in terms of values and motivation.

Also take opportunities to enhance your CV alongside your research (think of outreach programmes – great for demonstrating communication outside of academia, time management, presentation, etc) and they all feed back into your research. And they’re great for keeping your enthusiasm up – remember why you’re doing it and why you love it! It’s also important to have work experience – even if only for a small amount of time and unpaid – it demonstrates a commitment and interest in non-academic environments as well as a breadth of experience which is sometimes assumed to be lacking in research students. Get this any way you can – on advice from the Centre for Career Development I used my personal network (a friend of my mum’s) to gain a week’s registry experience at Warwick University, which allowed me to shadow the Head of Postgraduate Admissions in committee meetings amongst other projects, and to see the other side of university life.

And for any current researchers considering a role in higher education administration in particular I’d suggest that you read the Times Higher. It is the industry magazine, and a great way of keeping a quick check on issues. If you’re preparing for a job interview it should be your first point of call for a précis of current priorities and concerns in higher education. It has job adverts too. Plus it has a website – no need to subscribe. Certain skills are sought after in university administration in addition to project management – committee servicing is one of them. So take opportunities to familiarise yourself with these, for example in staff-student committees – setting an agenda, taking minutes, whatever it is – it’s important to know what it’s like to be involved and to see how things work.

The services at Nottingham for careers advice are fantastic, so make use of them. Having a dedicated person, Clare Jones, who understands and can provide specific advice to researchers is a valuable resource, one that helped me immensely in both my post-PhD career moves. Not all universities have this so you really should make use of it!






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