Career Changers – Vol.1

In 2015, the Association of Accounting Technicians commissioned a study into working lives which showed that almost half of workers (46%) would quit their jobs and occupations in order to 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 this weekly Career Changers series, we look at individual stories of people who have made that switch.


Meet Dr Emma Southon


Dr Southon made the move from academia into bookselling over the past few years after realising that academic work was, in the main, not secure and not great for her mental health. She’s now found a balance that allows her to pursue her interests in her spare time, while still using her face- to-face communication and writing skills to a large extent, and is much happier as a result.


Current position: Expert Bookseller for Fiction/Deputy Regional Commercial Manager NI at Waterstones.


Previous job: Sessional lecturer in Ancient and Medieval History/Academic Writing Tutor and Researcher (technology focus)


When did you make the change?



What prompted you to stop what you were doing?

There were two phases of change. A couple of years after graduating from my PhD and working part- time/short-term contracts as a lecturer in Ancient History, I officially decided not to pursue an academic career in history in 2014 and took a job as an academic writing tutor. In 2015, I was offered a new job in that area in Northern Ireland, which I took and moved to Belfast. I quit that job after four months for various reasons but there is really only one university in NI and that left me out of options for academic jobs. So I took a part time job at Waterstones and did freelance student support for a while and wrote a book. I was promoted to senior bookseller in 2017 and then my current position in 2018. So it was all quite accidental!


Did you know what you wanted to move into?

Nope. I thought I was moving into student support but things didn’t work out that way.


Did you face any obstacles along the way, either expected or not?

I was very under-employed and poor for most of 2016/17 because I was working part time and often thought of getting an office job doing something more stable, but I am glad I didn’t.


Do you feel like you made the right decision?

I do. I could never have stayed in academia and survived because it was unstable and extremely bad for the self-esteem. I also wasn’t suited to the office environment of student support – I cannot BEAR meetings. I make less money now, but my job is low stress and is mostly putting books in nice people’s hands, which is lovely. And I have the time and energy to write books and do a podcast and have fun with history again.


Have you changed as a person since you changed career?

I’m definitely happier! I’m finally coming off the massive dose of SSRIs that I have been on since my PhD days and I don’t cry all the time anymore. I spent a long time associating my career with my identity and I am unlearning that now. I still write history books and articles in my spare time and diversifying my identity has been brilliant for my self-esteem and mental health. I’ve also become more organised, because you have to when you are freelance.


Do you have further career goals?

Not really. I’ve sort of given up trying to plan my career now. I will write more books and keep doing the podcast and see where they take me, and I will do the same at Waterstones. Promotion prospects aren’t amazing in bookselling or public history!


You can say hi to Emma on Twitter @nuclearteeth, and find her extremely entertaining history- based writing and podcasting projects at



Author: Katherine Stephen

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.

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