Who is influencing your career ideas?

What I wish I’d known: Jan Wilkens (MSc Middle East Politics 2012)

Who is influencing your career ideas?  For Jan Wilkens, currently working and studying for a PhD at the University of Hamburg, the support and encouragement of academic staff plus insights from work experience has had a great impact.

As an undergraduate, Jan really enjoyed his classes on International Relations and was able to get a part time job as a Student Assistant in a research team working for the Professor in this subject.  He supported the team through assisting with research but also taught first year students as a seminar assistant.  This experience, combined with the encouragement from his Professor, began to make him think about an academic career. Whilst studying for an MSc in Middle East Politics at SOAS his dissertation supervisor encouraged him to apply for a PhD as the next step towards working in academia.  Jan chose to go back to Germany to do this for a number of reasons including availability of funding. He was able to secure a job which also enables him to study for a PhD, back at the University of Hamburg with the research group headed by his former Professor.

Jan feels that his current role provides him with very valuable work experience for the future. In addition to teaching, researching and writing applications for grants, he is a project manager for a large scale research project which involves coordinating the research of 8 academics. This significant insight into the ‘business’ of research, how systems work, the politics and funding have helped to confirm his interest in  an academic career as well as providing some solid evidence to include in Post-Doctoral applications. And just in case you wondered if he could fit anything else, he is working on a book project and, oh yes, his PhD as well!

Jan is realistic about his future and acknowledges that sometimes no matter how well prepared PhDs are for moving into a Post-Doc position, funding may not be available so the practical project management skills which he is acquiring now along with his other work experience can be transferred to other roles outside of research.

Work experience can also help you decide what you don’t want to do.  Jan interned on a project with refugees for part of the UNHCR in Syria during his undergraduate degree. Whilst he gained a very useful insight into how an international organisation works and developed further valuable skills including project management, it also helped him realise that this wasn’t the sector in which he wished to work.

So what are Jan’s tips for current students thinking about a PhD and beyond?

  • You don’t necessarily need to go straight onto a Masters after completing your Bachelor’s degree and could use the intervening time to get some valuable of experience related to your future career or area of study. Jan felt that it might be more difficult for students to go onto work after their Masters course then return to study for a PhD.  From his perspective, the intensity of the Masters level study really creates a momentum that can carry through into the Phd and having a break from this along with, perhaps a good salary, from employment, might make the return to being a student more of a challenge.
  • Think carefully about why you want to do a PhD. You may have a real passion and interest in your subject but how will the qualification fit with your long term plans? Don’t use it simply as a way of postponing decisions about your future.
  • Competition is tough for academic and Post-Doctoral positions so start building your portfolio of experience during your PhD, for example, working as a Graduate Teaching Assistant.

Claire Rees


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