In 2015, the Association of Accounting Technicians commissioned a study into working lives which showed that 46% of their sample (around 2000 workers) would quit their jobs and occupations and retrain completely. There is no shortage of reasons a person might do this: more job satisfaction, financial opportunity, the fear of being made redundant to automation, a better work-life-health balance, exciting new sectors being created. In our Career Changers series, we look at individual stories of people who have made that switch.
Meet Katherine Stephen
Kat looks after our content at Stay Nimble and is a recently qualified careers advisor studying towards a PhD in meta-skills, which she hopes will help workforces of the future to become stronger and more nimble. Here she discusses why she got into academia, and what happened along the way.
Name: Katherine Stephen
Current position: PhD student in meta-skill development
Previous job: Freelance proofreader
When did you make the change? 2016–2018
What prompted you to stop what you were doing?
A few things. I had already changed job direction a few times – my background includes a degree in pop music, a stint on canal boats, and a short time in the merchant navy – and was working as an office manager for an analytics agency in London. Alongside many of my previous roles, I had worked as a freelance proofreader in the evenings and on weekends; when I left the merchant navy a publisher friend had suggested I might enjoy it, as I’m a bit of a pedant. In early 2016 my flatmate left and I didn’t really get on with the new one, and at the same time a friend in Manchester had a spare room going for a very low rate. I decided pretty spontaneously to move up there, where I could afford to live on just my editing work.
Then the Brexit vote happened. I felt alienated by the politics in England, and wanted to return to Scotland, where I’d grown up. I’d been hundreds of miles away from my family for years and being able to spend more time with them was a really nice idea. So while I considered my plan, I started looking around for things to do – if I was going to move for political reasons, maybe I should be a part of making society better.
Did you know what you wanted to move into?
I didn’t have a grand plan at all. I had a broad idea that I wanted to help people, and found a postgraduate course in Career Guidance in Paisley – the town I lived in when I first moved away from home in 2003 – that sounded perfect. I absolutely loved it, and I surprised myself at how good I was at the academic side, as my undergraduate degree had been a decade beforehand. When it came to the end of the course, my fellow students and I were starting to look at what jobs were available (there is one main agency in Scotland that offers careers guidance in schools and on high streets, but there are various other opportunities in the private sector, universities, etc). Through following various careers people on Twitter, I spotted that there was a funded PhD studentship available in a really interesting topic. So I asked my lecturers whether they thought I’d be able to study at that level, applied, got an interview, and was eventually accepted. I was sitting on the sofa, a little bit dejected from a job rejection, when the email came in, so naturally I was thrilled.
Did you face any obstacles along the way?
Because my postgraduate diploma didn’t have enough research credits for the funding body to approve me, I have had to start with a research masters year (which is also funded, luckily), which for various reasons is at a different university to the PhD. There was a possibility I would do this at Glasgow, but eventually I was enrolled at the University of Edinburgh for a year, before moving across to Napier for the following three years. That’s not an obstacle in itself, but it did mean I would have to move to the east of Scotland a lot sooner than I expected, so the money and time that has taken has been a bit of a burden – the move is still not 100% complete a month into the academic year.
The psychological impact of beginning a research study year has also been interesting. I emailed my supervisor the other week to tell her that I felt a bit overwhelmed and was balancing extreme dips in confidence with huge boosts, and she replied saying “me too”, which I was reassured by. The very fact of working around people who are all incredibly clever and accomplished will do that to a person, but it’s so worth it. The fact that I’m working on metacognition – that I can recognise how I’m feeling, and look at it from a sort of detached viewpoint – is immensely helpful.
Do you feel like you made the right decision?
Absolutely. Although I really enjoyed working at the analytics agency and I think I would have been doing some interesting things had I stayed, this type of studying is something I very much enjoy and I’m privileged to be able to do it for free (and indeed get paid, although a PhD stipend is by no means riches). I also hope that what I’ll have at the end of it is good, solid research data which might help people in their working lives, and I don’t want to lose sight of that end goal.
Have you changed as a person since you changed career?
Hmm, possibly. I might be a bit less confident at the moment, because I’m at the start of a new chapter with a million things to learn. But the Careers Guidance course taught me to be more patient, more kind, and more aware of the world, which I hope I won’t lose. I’ve always been a curious person, and now I know better how to satisfy that curiosity.
Are you using any of the same abilities for both careers?
I suppose that every job I’ve had has been a continuation of utilising and building on my skills, to some degree. So this particular direction I’ve gone in may not make use of my ability to play a bass guitar or steer a canal boat, but it does allow me to develop my ability to assess my own brain and how it learned those things, which is what I’m studying! The interview skills I learned as a careers advisor are going to be extremely helpful when it comes to collecting data for my studies.
I’m also using a lot of Outlook, Twitter and Excel, which I’ve used in most jobs for the past decade; these basic digital skills are key for anyone in today’s workforce, and they’ve been the one continuous helpful strand through every role I’ve had. Other than Twitter, I learned these things young: I practised my typing using WordPerfect to write my Christmas thank-you letters as a child, and when I dropped out of school at sixteen, I took an invaluable six-month course in admin while I waited for music college to start.
Do you have further career goals?
For the first time, I’ve known what I’m going to be doing for the next four years. Getting to the end of that stretch feels like it will be a huge achievement, and I’m excited about it. Beyond that, who knows!
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Katherine is a qualified careers advisor and a member of the Career Development Institute. She has just begun a PhD programme to research meta-skill development in the workplace, and is a fiction editor and publisher in her spare time. You can find her on Twitter at @katobell.