Dr Sherran Clarence

Higher Education Studies
Rhodes University, South Africa, 2013
Tell us a bit about yourself – what was your PhD about and where did you study?

I have a PhD in Higher Education Studies from Rhodes University in Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown) in South Africa. I chose my supervisor, rather than the university, but I’m really glad I ended up with both because they have fantastic campus-wide support for PG students. I have an MA in Women’s and Gender Studies and my first degrees were in Political Science. But I chose HE studies because after my MA I started working as an academic writing lecturer/developer and my field kind of found me. I realised I had questions about learning and teaching and its role in enabling or creating more socially just higher education that could be explored in a PhD project. This was the jumping off point for a decade of research in this area, which is culminating in a book that is coming out next year. I am now moving into a new, long-term project in doctoral education which I am really excited about.

What do you do now? What did you decide to do next after gaining your PhD?

I work in the department in which I did my PhD, as an honorary research associate. I wanted to work as an academic staff development practitioner, having worked mainly with students for many years. But, if you are only working with students and making it all about them as the ones who need to change, you are missing a huge part of the problem with higher education: the universities themselves and the people who work in them (especially the lecturers and professors). I did a postdoc with them for 2 years, mainly working on my research and running a few short courses to earn some extra money. When that came to an end, they offered me an honorary post, postgraduate supervision opportunities, and chances to design and run my own short courses and be part of the work the department does. This is not full-time; I get paid per contract or course, so it is precarious in terms of conditions of employment and income. I have thought about looking for work outside of academia, but I can’t really imagine not working in academic in some way. I am actively looking for a more secure position, but there’s not a lot out there for people in my field right now.

Has having a PhD helped in developing your career? If yes, what has been the biggest impact? If no, why do you think that is?

Yes, definitely. I think the impact that has been greatest is on my self-confidence and knowledge of my field. I used to have terrible Imposter Syndrome, but I am better as more positive self-talk since I have earned my PhD. I don’t feel like I earn too much money now for my workshops or contracts: I know my work is good and I am good at what I do. It has also opened so many doors to new research, conferences, PhD and MA supervision (which I really enjoy), and new collegial relationships and networks internationally. Having a PhD has changed me, and that has changed my career trajectory.

Check out Sherran’s blog!
What’s one piece of advice that you’d offer prospective students considering a PhD?

You’re going to have to take things off your plate to make room for a PhD, rather than seeing yourself just adding one more thing. It’s a BIG project, not just intellectually, but also emotionally and physically. You need to actively make time for it, and get your friends and family on board in supporting you and helping you make that time and headspace. Make sure you create a circle of critical friends and fellow-travellers so that you are not lonely. There’s a big world of PhD students out there and many of them are just like you: trying to work out how to do life and work and the PhD. Follow people on Twitter, read good blogs about aspects of PhD life, talk to people about your work: all of this will help you to feel like the tough parts are going to pass and also have people celebrate the good parts with.

And what one thing would you suggest that new PhD graduates should do next?
Take all the opportunities to learn about how to write papers, how to apply for funding for further research, connect with colleagues who share your research interests and can help you push your work into the next phase; be bold. Don’t wait for opportunities and work to find you. And keep your CV current! Create an online presence – ORCID, Researchgate – and keep it current, too.

Lastly, what’s your favourite memory from your time as a PhD student?
My favourite memory of my PhD is the meeting with my supervisor where we looked at my first full draft and she told me I had written ‘a flipping good thesis’.

Thanks Sherran! How can our readers find out more about you and get in touch?

I have a blog about doing a PhD (also MA) and working as a researcher/parent in academia. I also tweet as @PhDgirlSA

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