Take a peek through the window of my office, and if I’m not making the tea or in a meeting, you’ll see a PhD hard at work. Maybe you’ll catch me leaning back on my chair in a reflective mood, or concentrating on a document or spreadsheet. Or perhaps I’ll be silently rehearsing a presentation or talking through an options paper. However you find me, I’ll be putting to good use the awesome set of transferable skills that I acquired during my PhD.
Now in my fifth job after leaving academia, today I work as a project manager for a fantastic sustainable bank, which in turn is part of a global network of values-based banks. It’s great to have the chance to reflect upon what’s changed, a year after I wrote about my working week for PhDs At Work: thank you Michelle! One of the highlights of the past year has definitely been the personal development training that I’ve completed. As part of an ambassador programme, I’ve attended workshops on strengthening my personal presence and impact, and also on storytelling. This training has further improved my confidence in speaking to audiences and getting my ideas across – although it hasn’t all been plain sailing!
So as part of the personal presence training day, we had to complete an exercise which involved standing up in front of the whole group, without saying anything and maintaining eye contact for sixty seconds! I went into the exercise feeling quite confident – after all, I’ve given talks and lectures in front of people loads of times – what could possibly go wrong? However after a few seconds of standing silent and still, all I could hear was my heart pounding away in my chest … I started to get self-conscious and fidget and found it really hard to maintain eye contact with the group!
I guess I was surprised at how difficult it was to be the centre of attention. The exercise helped me realise that I need to go ‘beyond the words’ when presenting, and work on managing the pauses and the silences too. Now I’m making a more conscious effort to project my presence into the room and ‘cast my net’ around those listening, and I dare myself to pause as long as possible! The feedback I’ve had about my improved presentation style since the training has been really positive.
Continuing with the theme of training, last year I wrote about my project to develop and deliver project management training within the bank. Back then I was pulling together the course materials with the help of an external consultant, including an exercise where two teams had to race against time to build a wall out of plastic blocks in ten minutes. The twist is that new requirements for the wall are introduced every minute during the exercise, so it’s fascinating to see how each project team deals with the changes of scope – by working faster, missing parts out, or just by asking for more time – which the smart ones do.
The training programme aims to building a strong change culture, so that all co-workers can play an active role in delivering efficiency improvements and new products – whereas other organisations tend to focus only on ‘top-down change’. I’m pleased to say that the wall building exercise has since entered into corporate legend as ‘Chris’s infuriating wall-building game’!
Panning out to the world of banking and finance as a whole, the sector continues to be rocked by scandals, foreign exchange collusion, price-fixing, sanctions-busting, on top of IT failures and wrangles over the size of bonuses. I’m glad to be working for a sustainable bank which only lends our customers’ money to organisations which make a positive difference in the world. The opening of four new wind turbines down the road at Avonmouth by Triodos Renewables was one of the highlights of this year, as was the £1m funding of a new market for Brighton, selling organic and local food. With such a sharp contrast between the behaviour of the big banks in the UK and the actions of the smaller challenger banks, it’s no wonder that we’ve seen the big banks promising a return to old-fashioned values in their advertising!
Outside of work, I’ve continued to publish articles through my blog Jobs on Toast, which aims to help researchers learn to market themselves for careers outside academia. The blog’s readership has grown massively this year, so that in July I had nearly one thousand page views in a single day! I love being a part of the worldwide online post-PhD community and doing my bit to help others who are making the journey out of higher education. Not only is there lots of great content and advice now freely available: a number of entrepreneurial PhDs have started to offer consulting and coaching services for researchers as well in the past year.
So, while we would expect a company to achieve a lot in one year, to me it’s been amazing to see how much has happened in the PhD careers space over the past twelve to eighteen months. Momentum is really building around improving training and support for researchers who want to pursue careers outside academia, with many universities now actively developing training programmes and placement opportunities. It just goes to show that social media and blogging are hugely powerful ways to connect and inform people, and drive change for the better. It’s crucial that we continue to build these bridges between academia and the wider world of employment, where the kinds of exciting and fulfilling careers showcased here on PhDs At Work can be found.