What Have I Done with My PhD?

There is of course a very short answer to the question posed in the title of this post; I put the bound copy on the shelf and have watched it gather dust ever since. There is one somewhere in the British Library system as well, but I have no idea whether anyone has ever opened it. That answer however rather dates me. These days the e-thesis would be in the institutional repository and I would have online access to download stats, comment pages, twitter cites and so on.

Reflecting on my PhD was what I was asked to do at a presentation at the Scottish Graduate School for Social Sciences‘ summer school this week. If anyone is interested (and you really should not be) then the overheads I talked around are available here. I was one of half a dozen people from government and academia asked to reflect, for an audience of current PhD students, on the value they had gained from their PhD in the subsequent career. This proved to be interesting, at least for me.

My PhD was on Employment in British Superstores and I completed it essentially part-time at the University of Wales. I am that old that superstores were a new phenomenon and changing the face of retailing, and were thus worth studying. I got into doing a PhD as a way of saving myself from becoming a practicing accountant. I ended up in the University of Wales as I saw an advert for some initial funding for a PhD with John Dawson, and I had come across his work when I was on a Scholarship in Australia as part of my undergraduate degree.

The scholarship involved me working for three months in the Town Planning Department of Townsville City Council in Northern Queensland. They said I could study the usage of the local swimming pool or the local new regional shopping centre. However the swimming pool was shut and that’s how I ended up getting interested in retailing and retail change.

I completed one year full-time on my thesis and then got a job in the University automating a weather station using a brand new micro-computer (ITT 2020 for any geeks), so continued my PhD part-time. Indeed I had a lecturing job at Stirling (having moved here on an ESRC project) before I completed the PhD. The rest as they say is history.

So what did I learn doing my PhD?

I continued to research in the area of retailing and retail change, so in that sense the topic has stayed with me. But I stopped doing human resources things in retailing a long time ago, just after we were involved in research for the debates on Sunday Trading. My research has thus broadened rather than deepened.

The main benefits though lie not in the topic itself but in the organisational, networking, research and analysis and communication and writing skills I acquired along the way. Working part-time meant I had to prioritise and to serve various taskmasters. Working on a new phenomenon meant that people were keen to hear what we had found out and what we had to say; both in academic terms and in practical terms. Speaking and writing for different audiences and having an “impact” (in the modern jargon) were thus built in from the start.

I was also lucky in that that period was probably more relaxed than that facing PhD students now. I could try things, spend time finding my “voice” and confidence and when I made mistakes they were not fundamental. I did burn all my writing at the end of my first year as I felt it was pretty rubbish; something I doubt I could get away with now. Going to a first year upgrade panel and saying I’d just set fire to all my work might not have the response now that I got then, but it did allow me to rethink my approach and my standards and cleared away a lot of dead ends.

I also think that these days I would opt to do my PhD by publication. If such things existed in those days I would have been tempted, as writing papers always was a focus. Nowadays it may be the fastest way to an academic career.

My PhD Upgrade Panel c1980

My PhD Upgrade Panel c1980

About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues.
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One Response to What Have I Done with My PhD?

  1. Pingback: Lampeter Food Festival | Stirlingretail

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