By Dr. Sara Clarke-Habibi, who received her PhD in 2017 at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge
(This is Part 1 of a two-part series)
Thinking about your post-PhD career? Wondering whether you would have better opportunities in academia or in an international development/humanitarian organisation? Not sure what the right steps are for establishing a research career outside of academia? I am sharing my own post-PhD experiences weighing academia vs consulting for you to think about as you make your own choices.
First, a little background: I graduated from the Faculty of Education in 2017. I loved my time in Cambridge and invested a lot of effort during my PhD into building a strong academic network. My intention was to continue building my academic career in the UK and there seemed to be some promising options open to me. However, when my husband’s work required me and the children to move to Switzerland, I suddenly found myself having to “start from scratch” in a country where I had no academic network. As my PhD research and previous experience focussed on education in contexts of conflict and peacebuilding, I began thinking about career options in both academic and policy/practice organisations.
The good news is that I am now busy with meaningful work that I enjoy. My time is currently split 30:70 between academic research and international consulting in education. On the academic side, I work as a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland on questions of migration and education. I design and conduct research, present my work at academic conferences, teach undergraduates and advise colleagues’ and students’ academic projects. I’m also gradually getting out my own publications and writing funding applications, both of which are vital to consolidating next steps in my academic career.
On the consulting side, I have been working on a series of mandates with the United Nations (UNICEF and UNDP) as an international consultant for the Western Balkans 6 (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia) on issues of youth, peacebuilding and education. Consulting can be a stepping-stone to a permanent position in an international organisation, or it can be a career unto itself. The work of an international consultant is to provide specialised/expert input into the design and delivery of programmes. Rather than being a full-time member of staff, consultants work on an assignment-specific basis. In my case, the work involves research, curriculum development, teacher training and institutional capacity-building. In addition to my work with the UN, I train field officers of the German Civil Peace Service (ForumZFD) who are working in conflict zones in the basics of Peace Psychology. I am also the educational lead for a London-based organization that is running an EU-funded anti-xenophobia youth street art project in the UK, Serbia and Greece. As needed (and pre-coronavirus cancellations), I travel to field sites for work-related meetings and, in my spare time, I make a point of being present at relevant intergovernmental policy and coordination conferences as well, even if I am not presenting. These offer great opportunities for further networking and keeping abreast of priorities in the rapidly paced world of international development work.
Amidst all of this, other things call upon my time too: my husband and two daughters, the volunteer work I offer in my community, and… my own physical, emotional, social, and spiritual needs. Whew! It’s a juggle sometimes.
Practical questions for self-reflection
When trying to decide whether to invest more in an academic or consulting career, I have been weighing up a number of factors, including what these two paths offer and do not offer, and what I feel are my own strengths, weaknesses and aspirations. My circumstances may be different from your own, but in case you too are trying to choose between these options, here are a couple of practical questions I asked myself that you too might consider:
- Do you need to get paid (regularly or occasionally / moderately or well)?
You might find this question funny, but it is a real one. An academic position can offer stability, while consulting is irregular work. It is often intense over a short or medium duration and tends to be compensated based on completed deliverables, rather than paid on a regular and reliable basis like a salary. On the other hand, consulting – especially with international organisations – can pay more generously. Depending upon your personal situation, you may need regular income more than good income, or vice versa. Likewise, you may need longer-term financial visibility, or you may not.
2. Do you prefer working with ideas or with practices?
It is an exaggeration perhaps, but social science research tends to focus more on generating, critiquing and elaborating ideas and theories than does development work. There, the focus is more on applying, adapting and scaling-up practices in real-world settings. True, we are seeing more attempts to link these two worlds and thereby bridge the theory-practice gap. It is, for example, increasingly common to encounter self-identified “researcher-practitioners”. However, the difference in institutional focus remains and it does impact the kind of work one is likely to do. If you had to choose between ideas and practices, which would you prefer?
3. Do you prefer working alone and in small teams or with larger groups and communities?
In social sciences, much of the work one does is conducted independently – one may work either completely alone or with small groups. In international development consulting, it is common to work with larger teams of partners and stakeholders across organisations and communities. Do you find yourself more effective when working independently or when working with larger groups?
4. Can you be mobile for shorter and/or longer periods? Do you like travelling?
Mobility is important in a research career but indispensable for international consultants. Many assignments require some form of international travel – whether for a few days or for a few months or longer. Your personal situation (health, family, nationality, etc.) and your personal preferences may make travelling desirable or difficult.
5. How comfortable do you feel with the maxim “publish or perish”?
To build a successful career in academia, you must publish regularly and continuously in top peer-reviewed venues. Some people enjoy and are comfortable with academic writing and publishing, and some are not. Which are you? Writing is also an important part of international consulting and much of the work that international consults will do is research-based. Technical reports and guidance notes based on field research are vital currency circulated within and between international organisations. Reports are used to (hopefully) improve strategies and interventions, and they can have an impact on wider discourses and academic work as well. But they are not tied to career progression in the same way that academic articles and books are.
6. Do you feel more excited about developing new ideas/approaches or about helping people understand and apply existing ones?
Arguably, the main work of a scholar is to extend the outer limits of current understandings. We do this by interrogating and debating existing ideas and practices to generate new theories that better capture or potentially transform what we see in the world. The hope of many aspiring career academics is to come up with an ‘original’ idea(s) that will make some significant shift in the field. If you thrive in this effort, then scholarship is probably for you. By contrast, international development work is often more about helping specific populations to understand and apply ideas which have gained a degree of consensus and priority (rightly or wrongly). Conceptual evaluation and development continue among policy and practice organisations, often through the input of consultants, but ‘originality’ is not primary. Some will find this boring even frustrating, others will find it a relief.
7. Who do you know in the academic and practitioner worlds?
It would be nice if careers were built on merit alone, but experience suggests otherwise. Networks are especially important. When prospecting for career opportunities, who you know can be decisive in whether you are shortlisted for a position. It is important that throughout your studies and early career phase you seek out strategic spaces to build your network. For example, attending both academic and policy conferences (whether you are presenting or not) is important for meeting people who are influential thinkers and actors in these spheres.
In my next blog I’ll share my top tips for securing early-career opportunities. In the meantime, I hope my questions help you in your career reflections and planning!
Dr. Sara Clarke-Habibi has 20 years’ experience in the field of peacebuilding through education. She earned a PhD in Education from the University of Cambridge. Her work focusses on educational intersections with violent conflict, displacement, transitional justice, social healing and intergroup reconciliation. She is currently researching educational provision for migrant and refugee populations at the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland. She is also a consultant for UNICEF, UNDP and UNFPA in the Western Balkans, engaged in developing educational practices that strengthen youth competences for intercultural dialogue, dealing with the past and peacebuilding across the region.