Gabriela Martinez Sainz holds a PhD in Education from the University of Cambridge and is the co-funder and director of the Centre for Human Rights Studies CEDH Mx. In this blog post, she reflects upon how she has build an “alt-ac” (alternative-academic) career and offers helpful advice for those interested in prospective career options outside academia.
I spent most of my PhD worrying about what I was going to do once I finished it. I had an idea of what I wanted to do but I just could not find the place to do it. My research focuses on the intersection of human rights and education and I wanted to keep on working on both aspects of it. This was a nightmare in terms of job hunting. Human Rights Education is quite a new field so there were not many positions available – only one since 2014, to be precise – and positions in education faculties had little or no connections with human rights at all. On the other hand, academic positions related to human rights required someone with a background in law, criminology or sociology. The prospects outside academia were no better. Organisations conducting research projects on human rights looked mostly for journalists and those developing projects in education with a focus on research and human rights had no vacancies at all.
For me, the lack of opportunities and interest of many organizations in developing research on education and human rights was incomprehensible, especially in countries such as Mexico, with an alarming crisis of abuses, violence, and human rights violations. Thus, in 2015, months before submitting my thesis, three other academics and I co-founded an independent and not-for-profit think-tank based in Mexico. Currently, I am the Director of the Centre, but I also work as an independent consultant (not only in Mexico and Latin America). I love my job(s) as it allows me to work on amazing projects that I would never have considered possible. Just last week I conducted a workshop for 50 educators of the Amazonia on children’s rights and participation, I developed an instrument for UNICEF Mexico to assess educational materials from a human rights perspective, and I hosted a research webinar on advocacy and resilience in an Anti-Immigration Era. In addition, I presented my own research project on digital activism among young people in Mexico and Brazil at one of the top 35 think-tanks in the world. Granted, it was a particularly busy week, however the wide scope of activities and variety of projects are definitely a constant for me. It is how my alt-ac (alternative-academic) career looks like most of the time.
I do not believe there is a single way to build an “alt-ac” career but I think there are certain things you can do during your PhD that make it easier, so I wanted to share a couple of things with those interested in prospective career options outside academia.
- Always remember your why
In June, I was in Johannesburg for the Summit of the VVLead Fellowship by Vital Voices along with other fifty women leaders working to tackle social, human rights and environmental challenges in the world. One of the first questions raised to the fellows during the workshops asked, “Why, as leaders of organisations, we were doing what we were doing? What was our driving force?“ The reason is quite simple, once you know your why it is easier to figure out the how.
In his book, Starting With Why, Simon Sinek mentions that most people and organisations are well aware of what they do and how they do it, however, they spend little time thinking about their why. He argues that having a clear idea of the purpose you are pursuing is what makes the difference. He talks about how an awareness of your why is essential for leaders, but I do believe it applies to researchers too. If you know exactly why you are doing a specific project or why you are researching a particular topic, it is not only easier to overcome the challenges you’ll find on the way, but it is also easier to think about new ways to do it (if you don’t have time to read the book you can also listen to Sinek’s TED Talk).
With more stories, research and data about the precarious conditions of academic jobs and a shortage of tenure-track/permanent positions, it is not a bad time to be strategic and innovative about your career. By thinking about your why you might realise that you don’t necessarily need to be in academia to still conduct the research you want or that you might feel more comfortable in a job that is not exclusively about research but a mix between research and practice. There are countless of combinations and alternatives, but it all depends on your why.
- Build your know-how
During my time in Cambridge I had the opportunity to coordinate the student group at the Centre for Governance and Human Rights (CGHR); one of the most amazing initiatives we launched is the Practitioner Seminar Series, which still runs today. In this series, experts and recognised professionals in humanitarian aid, international development or human rights share their experiences and professional journeys to inspire students interested in working in these fields. If you are in Cambridge and have interests related to these fields, do not miss out the opportunity to attend. One of the most important things I learned from listening to all the presenters over the years was that the experience you gain in each project or activity you do is an asset to develop your career. Every single bit matters when you are building your know-how.
I learned a lot about outreach while I was working as student coordinator at CGHR and gained experiences at organising academic events and conferences while serving as chair for FERSA. If you have the chance to do other things alongside your PhD, take them, even the ones that seem less related to your topic or area of expertise as those might help you to develop other skills or gain a different experience. Think about volunteering (you can find a lot of opportunities with Cambridge Hub and the Cambridge Student Community Action or perhaps starting your own social enterprise or business through Cambridge University Entrepreneurs). All those things will definitely enrich your experience at Cambridge and make your time doing your PhD more satisfying, but they will also provide valuable opportunities to gain experience that will benefit your career in the future. If you have any doubts about which ones to choose or how to be more strategic about your time so you can do it all, you can always talk to people in the Cambridge Personal and Professional Development Centre.
- Grow your network and focus on who
Last but not least, grow the relationships you develop during your PhD. During my time in Cambridge, I met some of the most fascinating people, from outstanding lecturers to inspiring supervisors, mentors, and colleagues. Without a doubt, I met some of my dearest friends in those years. Building a network matters during your PhD and beyond. Sharing your research can be a determinant factor to overcome the obstacles you will inevitably face, and having people to talk about it will keep you motivated to actually finish and get your degree. After I finished my PhD, I have collaborated with many of the people I met in Cambridge; some of them have either direct me to consultancy jobs or research projects I might be interested in while others have directly recommended me for specific projects. Interact as much as possible and meet as many people as you can.
However, if there is something I have learned from listening to Dr Moira Faul – the first time was actually in the first FERSA Research Seminar I attended – and reading her research is that networks work better when they are reciprocal. Not only do you gain so much by listening to others’ projects, but you might actually be of great help to them them. Reach out to those that might be struggling with their projects or life in general, offer some help if you feel you can be useful, or just share lunch and a cup of tea in the social area (You can watch the webinar Moira gave in our organisation here).
I believe that having a purpose, gaining experience along the way and building a strong network during your PhD are determinant factors to develop an “alt-ac” career. It is not easy and you might face criticisms but there are now several resources and networks of people that can help you in the process. If you decide there might be a fulfilling career outside academia after your PhD, I would encourage you to consider some options and alternatives that suit you, your why, your circumstances.
Gabriela Martinez Sainz is the Co-founder and Director of the Centre for Human Rights Studies CEDH Mx, an independent and not-for-profit think tank that develops research-led and evidence-based projects to eradicate violence and discrimination, advance social justice and strengthen respect for human rights across Latin America. She holds a PhD in Education and a Master’s Degree in Educational Research from the Faculty of Education and Fitzwilliam College at the University of Cambridge where she conducted research on the implementation of human rights education and training programs in Mexico. She is also a Vital Voices VVLead Fellow , a postdoctoral fellow of the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning , and an educational consultant and author of textbooks on issues of citizenship, democracy and human rights. To learn more about Gabriela, you can follow her on Twitter and visit her profile on Academica.edu or LinkedIn . She would be happy to answer any questions from students who are interested in her work: firstname.lastname@example.org .