After a year off because of the pandemic, Cumberland Lodge was buzzing again with a new version of Life Beyond the PhD this summer.
The event returned to Windsor Great Park with a five-day programme from 15-20 August, that brought together about 50 doctoral students from across the UK to explore the social value of PhDs, both inside and outside of academia.
As a final-year Cumberland Lodge Fellow, I was invited to take part, and it was great to be back. Our week at the Lodge passed between lectures on career options beyond our PhDs, to advice on using our skills in different contexts and tasks to practice them on.
Much more than just a PhD
First to take stage at the conference was Dr Rowena Bermingham, with her presentation on public engagement and science policy. Her introduction to policy and tips for getting involved with policymakers encouraged us to consider how our research could feed into policy development around pressing societal issues.
Next, Professor Lionel Tarassenko shared his views on interdisciplinary work and talked about the benefits of academic freedom in research. His advice on establishing collaborations with researchers in other disciplines highlighted the importance of teamwork and clear communication.
Then, Karen Walker shared her perspectives on the current job market for PhD graduates. Her insights into the reality of opportunities in academia, and alternative routes in the wider world, encouraged us to reflect on the range of paths available to us. As Karen explained, our career decisions should be made regardless of anyone’s expectations and reflect what makes us happy, at different stages of our lives.
Finally, Professor Linda Yueh gave an uplifting talk about her own experiences of doing a PhD and her experiences since. By drawing on stories of famous economists, Linda reminded us of the importance of practising self-compassion, stepping out of our comfort zone and keeping up with learning after the PhD.
Skills for life
A big part of our week revolved around discussing how skills we are developing during our PhDs could be useful outside of academic contexts. Dr Ed Newell (Chief Executive at Cumberland Lodge) shared tips on how we might prepare for public speaking in different situations. Helen Taylor (Head of Communications at Cumberland Lodge) took us through different exercises to practise writing for non-academic audiences and websites. Finally, Dr Jamie Gallagher (a freelance communications and digital engagement consultant) explained how to get the best out of social media from a public engagement perspective, and gave us technical advice on making our posts more interactive and engaging.
‘Practice makes perfect’, or so the saying goes. Our first group presentation task of the week involved preparing a five-minute presentation on our PhD research, for a non-specialist audience. The variety of projects and research topics we heard presentations on was mind-blowing and it reminded me of the great diversity of research going on around the world.
Our second task involved creating a plan for a new museum of British colonialism. This group challenge helped us to practice teamwork, interdisciplinary collaboration, communication and project management skills. Although it initially felt quite overwhelming, we all got into our stride, as in a role play, and I think we managed to impress the judges with some innovative ideas.
Goodbye for now
Our last night at the Lodge became a moment of celebration as the end of the conference drew near. Drinks and a special dinner offered me and the other outgoing Cumberland Lodge Fellows the opportunity to express our gratitude to all staff for our two-year Fellowship and the experiences we have learnt from, along the way.
Overall, these five days were, for me, a time to challenge my skills and perspectives, but also an opportunity to connect again with people in similar situations. Right when the worst of the pandemic finally seemed to be behind us, this conference felt almost therapeutic in reminding us of how much we missed that bonding and the boost it can give us all.