Do you want to work for a university, but you don’t want to be a professor?
To answer this question I spoke with Dr. Miranda Melcher. Dr. Melcher was awarded a PhD in Defense Studies at King’s College in London in November 2021. Instead of pursuing a career as a professor, she helps professors with their own technology for teaching.
FYI – Dr. Miranda Melcher just launched a new podcast called “Just Access” where she interviews peoples that work in Human Rights Law and International Law.
Background about UK PhD programs
Most of my readers are probably familiar with the US academic system. PhD programs are fairly different than PhDs programs in the US. According to Dr. Miranda Melcher:
- PhD programs are 3 years long – maybe 4.
- There’s always a book at the end.
- There’s no coursework.
- You come into the program with a research question and your book title, and that’s your application.
- No dissertation committee.
- 18 months in you show your methods and lit review, and that’s it. It’s pass or fail.
Note: This interview transcript was edited for readability and brevity.
What are your current roles and activities and what do you do?
Dr. Miranda Melcher: I am an educational technologist at City University of London.
What that actually means is that I work with our academic/teaching staff at the university to help them successfully use technology in their teaching. So I mainly look after part of our university, the School of Science and Technology. So that’s math, computer science, every possible kind of engineering, all of those academics. And my job is to help them with any sort of tech in the classroom. So whether that’s teaching online, how do you use Zoom? Literally which buttons do you press?
But also how do you design an online session? Is it just gonna be exactly the same as what you did in the lecture hall? Probably not. How do you take the class that you’ve prepared for and adapt it?
Pretty much anything that an academic member of staff needs to do that has anything to do with technology in the classroom, around the classroom related to assessment.
According to LinkedIn, you started that position in May, 2021. So that must have been like the height of Covid?
Dr. Miranda Melcher: That was May 2020ish, but it was still pretty intense. Techs actually existed before covid, but there was definitely more demand for it. All of the departments are expanding and kind of the scale and scope of what we might need to work on have gone up a lot. So it’s no longer just a question of being able to explain and use like one or two technologies. It’s a long list.
Did you plan to be a technologist from the start? I read that you have a PhD in Defense (War) Studies
Dr. Miranda Melcher: My PhD was in War Studies. I researched how to write better peace treaties to be more effectively end civil wars. My PhD was how to write a peace treaty 101. It wasn’t a PhD in ed tech.
I was doing my PhD when Covid hit, I was in the sort of final year and I was teaching a lot and suddenly all of my teaching had to go online. Everyone’s teaching had to go online.
Everyone’s an instructor and none of us knew how to do it. None of us had been teaching online before. I had done a little bit of online teaching before, which was really unusual. We had like three days to change, six days to change, like just not very long. I am very young for a PhD in my field. Therefore was one of the people the most comfortable with learning the new technologies and figuring out how to use them and adapting teaching. Not just figuring out which button to press, how do I get all of my students to actually engage? And so I accidentally became the educational technologist in the department. Because everyone else needed help figuring out how to do it.
I was teaching my actual students and I was going around helping senior professor this figure out how to do it. Eventually after the panic subsided I linked up with like my university’s actual educational technologist, I was like, oh my God, wait, they’re a real, they know what they’re doing. Amazing. And started working with them as I was coming to the end of my PhD and realized, wait a second, I actually am good at this and it’s interesting and I know how to do it. I had no idea this was a real job until that moment.
Do you apply for any faculty positions?
Dr. Miranda Melcher: No.
I knew that academia was not what I wanted. Whatever it was going to be post PhD, it was not going to be academia.
How did know academia wasn’t for you? Who did you talk to beforehand?
Dr. Miranda Melcher: I came to it initially on my own and then talked to a whole bunch of people to make sure that my thinking actually tracked with the real world . I did a PhD because I had a question I really wanted to answer and I really like doing research. And then I also really like teaching, I had an inkling going into a PhD that I didn’t actually like a bunch of parts of an academic job And as I got further in, I realized that yes, that is in fact the case.
I don’t like writing, I don’t like publishing, I don’t like conferences. I like answering interesting questions by talking and or researching.
Maybe PhDs pursue academia out of lack of information?
Dr. Miranda Melcher: Two things. One, most PhDs don’t know what else is out there because to get into a PhD program to be successful within a PhD program, there’s a lot of incentive and pressure to sort of conform to what your professors want. And for sure the system has worked for them. That’s how they got there. So that kind of creates an incentive system.
The other problem is that there isn’t always a lot of openness and clarity about what it actually is like to be an academic. Because in a lot of ways being a PhD student is not the same thing as being an academic. You don’t get in for the same reasons that you get an academic job. So being good at doing a PhD is actually may or may not track with actually being good as an academic. They’re just not super correlated skills.
There’s probably a lot of PhDs on the fence about staying in academia, do you have advice for them?
Dr. Miranda Melcher: The one thing that I would say is consistent across all the fields is get the PhD. If you’re already most of the way through your PhD, there is a point where it feels like it’s not worth continuing and it’s not worth finishing. I think a lot of us feel that if you’re in that place, it’s worth pushing through. They can’t take it away once they give it to you. You’ve already gotten this far, just finish the degree.
I would say once you have the degree and you’ve submitted and the decision is whether you should stay or not, then it comes down to what your other options are. That depends a lot on your subject and your skills and your interests. But I do really think it’s a conversation every PhD student should look into. No one should pick academia without at least considering the other options.
I read that you’re involved in a blog and podcast?
Dr. Miranda Melcher: I am one of the hosts on the New Books Network. A massive series that has loads of different hosts that cover a ton of different topics. The idea is that we do in-depth interviews with authors about their books. In the last year, I’ve done 151 interviews. So you pick the book, you read it, and then you get to ask them whatever questions you want for about an hour.
I listened to the podcast a lot as a PhD student because it was a really good way to keep up to date with new books in my area of study to find out whether my library needed to go track them down for me. So I’ve listened to these episodes for years and then I finished my PhD and had a real job and needed to have a hobby and I didn’t know what a hobby was. I had never had a hobby. My PhD was just my hobby. So I didn’t really know what to do with a nine to five job. And my partner said, well you need to do this thing called a hobby. And I was like, oh, well it looks like I could be a host on this podcast that I already listened to. Why not?
In addition, I have a new podcast launching tomorrow with an NGO that’s called “Just Access” where I interview people that work in Human Rights Law and International Law.