In the third edition of this ‘Beyond’ series, we welcome Dr Katy R Mahoney VRDF RGSF, an accredited executive coach at Researcher Coaching. Katy provides specialist professional development and coaching for researchers and academics. Katy has a PhD in Geography from Coventry University. Here she writes for the Postgraduate Forum about the series of pivots that have shaped her geography journey to PhD and beyond. These pivots highlight that every person’s route to a PhD is individual and is based on a series of choices around persevering or pivoting. Katy’s PhD experience then informs and supports her career choices outside of academia, again through a series of pivots, noting the bravery in pivoting towards choices that fit where you are going rather than where you have been.
A geographer in the making
I want to take you back in time. It was 1980-something and Apple put their first ‘Macintosh’ computer on sale for $2500. The Thames Barrier was completed. The Terminator was in cinemas and you didn’t need to wear seat belts in the back seat of a car. I lived in a small market town near Silverstone Motor Racing Circuit. On weekends, we would park up in the bluebell woods, and walk through to the racetrack, and listen through the fence. Peering through we’d see all kinds of motorsport, truck racing, touring cars, and single seater.
I grew up surrounded by cars – playing with them, in them, on them.
It was little surprise then that, with little career advice, I proclaimed I would be an ‘engineer’, completing GCSEs in Maths, Science and DT. I refined my career dream in my teens announcing I wouldn’t just be any old engineer. I was going to be an aerodynamist designing Formula one racing cars – the excitement and noise, the glamour! I duly continued with A-Levels in Physics and Maths (with Geography thrown in for good measure – I’d need to know where I was going if I was to be part of the racing circus). Exciting work placements soon followed, culminating in a sponsorship offer from a motor racing team to go to university.
But here is the rub, a year into A-levels I realised that maths and physics were not my forte. To be brutally honest, I was rubbish! But surely with hard work it would all just click – and I wasn’t afraid of hard work. I had spent a decade telling my friends, family, teachers, anyone who would listen, I was going to working F1. It was all I had ever talked of.
If I changed my career goal now what would everyone think? That I was a failure? Decision time – admit defeat or plough on in hope?
Was it time to ‘pivot or persevere’?
I was in too deep to change course now. So, despite feeling like a square peg in a round hole, I kept going. Engineering WOULD fit. I had extra tutoring with maths, stayed up all night to get to grips with Physics and even retook the Maths course at night school. All the while Geography came so easily to me. I loved the subject, I loved the fieldwork, the coursework was a joy – but for whatever reason I pushed the subject I loved to the side and ploughed on with a subject I was growing to hate.
When results day came, I failed maths with flare. “If only we could award grades for effort”, my Maths teacher said. My Geography results were unsurprising – top marks. I called the university “we could enrol you on our engineering foundation year?”. It was decision time again.
Pivot or persevere
I took a deep breath “pivot”
I took a year out and re-applied to study Geography. I loved it; it just felt so right, I understood concepts and theories, could contribute to discussion with ease. I found my passion and began to wonder why I had fought it for so long. Geography was home, a comfy warm jumper that gave me confidence. After graduating, I was offered a fully funded PhD researching organic vegetable production in England.
Decision time “pivot or persevere”?
I took a deep breath, “persevere”, but this time with excitement and knowledge that I was working in a subject I actually loved and was good at. My new adventure was, as my supervisor called it, “training to be an academic researcher – in geography”.
My PhD looked at the impact of organic vegetable production, its impact on local food supply, and investigated consumer perceptions of organic vs local. I loved being my own boss during my PhD, deciding where, when and what to do. Some days I would be in the office writing. Other days, traveling around the English countryside talking to farmers or serving at farmer markets. And the next day, conducting ethnographic research whilst lifting potatoes in a muddy field.
I took on some sessional teaching and enjoyed supporting others to find their passion for my subject, and learned the benefits of having and being a mentor. I chaired the Royal Geographical Society Rural Geography PGR Research Group, went to conferences looking at the importance of eating local and seasonal, and ate a lot of organic vegetables. It couldn’t have been further from the career I had in mind back in those early days of the bluebell woods. I was even growing my own carrots and courgettes in the garden.
It was a perfect fit. I promoted geography as a department ambassador and helped organise open days. If this was what being an academic was like I was in – where did I sign? I progressed through my PhD though that square peg feeling began to re-emerge. I talked more with the post-docs in my department who spoke about the push for funding, to publish papers, how they were taking holiday to ‘catch-up’ on work or mark essays. The hours they kept were long, the pressure immense and with little guarantee of stability. Was that what I was heading towards?
Beyond the PhD
Pivot or persevere
I took a deep breath. “Pivot”?
At the end of 3 years of PhD I submitted my thesis and left my department to cries of “but what will you do?” and “but you have a PhD, you can’t leave!”.
I took a job as a Vitae regional hub manager. The job, hosted at a university, involved writing reports, speaking at conferences, organising events, delivering training, traveling around the UK supporting universities to develop their researchers to reach their full potential. It turned out it was my dream job!
My PhD experience put me in a great position to build rapport with researchers who were thinking about their next career steps and all the project, organisation and research skills from my PhD perfectly translated to this new role! After nine years, the Vitae hubs were closed. Over the next few months, I took on a variety of short, fixed-term roles. I applied for a selection of project management-type roles but often that square peg feeling was lingering. Decision time – if you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always got.
Time to pivot!
Instead of searching for the perfect job, I would create the job myself. I re-trained as a corporate and executive coach and began actively promoting ‘Communication & Me’ the small ‘side hustle’ training company I had set up with a friend and mentor at the end of my PhD. A few opportunities arose – I was enjoying what I did, but I was still on the lookout for something more permanent.
Then the directors at Rodetal Ltd approached me. They were looking for someone to buy out one of their directors who was looking to retire. There was one problem, they were a company inventing plumbing fittings. I knew nothing about plumbing and didn’t want to become the ‘lady who did the invoices’. My offer: if you give me freedom to do what I am good at and I will support you to do what you do best – innovate. They said yes! I pivoted from looking for a job to creating my own role with a completely blank canvas. I launched the Researcher Coaching programme, bringing all of my skills and abilities from my PhD and work experience with me.
I began traveling around the UK and soon across Europe delivering coaching, training and development to academic researchers. I had multiple purses with different currencies and my kids joked I must really be a spy or international criminal. I couldn’t wait for the next flight, I loved my job.
And then Covid hit. My business was based on face to face delivery – being there in person, if couldn’t do that, now what??
I had to pivot – and do it big and fast.
My front room changed from general dumping ground to delivery central.
My pivot came with a very steep learning curve. Overnight my international travel stopped but my clients were coming from much further afield than before. I had clients calling me from Oman, US and even Japan. Suddenly researchers were looking for help to keep going with their projects, to overcome isolation, support maintaining momentum and stability when everything around them was changing. Just as I thought my business was over, the forced pivot sent me global without ever setting foot in an airport. Closer to home I was asked if I could work with medics returning from the ‘front line’ back to their normal roles as clinicians, medics and medical researchers. Another offer to pivot or persevere. I pivoted and now work with five Health Education Authorities coaching trainees overcome impostor syndrome and to become more productive.
My role is a culmination of all of my previous experiences. It is still incredibly hard work but I am using all of my skills and abilities learnt directly from completing my PhD. I still need to maintain my own personal motivation, seek funding and write proposals and reports. I go to conferences to keep my knowledge up to date and attend training and development courses for my own.
It is very similar to being a researcher, and because I work with researchers it is important that I can relate to their experiences. Having a PhD and having been through the experience means I can speak with authority. The research techniques I learnt as a researcher are vital when I am working with clients.
Being a lifelong geographer
When people ask if I miss being a geographer I can, hand on heart, say I never stopped being a geographer. Being a geographer means constantly looking at projects and opportunities from multiple perspectives. I have to evaluate what I do and ensure that what I offer meets the needs of the researchers I serve and also aligns with the values of the company I have a stake in. I am geographer first and a company director second. I never lose sight of the knowledge and intellectual abilities my geography PhD taught me.
One important lesson though is to never be scared to pivot, who knows what might be round the corner. So, if you are thinking that the only career for you is as an academic I challenge you to ask yourself – what if you were to pivot?
And what of those bluebell woods near Silverstone you might ask? Well they are still there. That little girl is now a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society who reminds her own children that a geography degree is brilliant bridging subject that can propel you in many different directions.
My advice to researchers
1) Take the opportunity to develop yourself – and reflect on these opportunities.
For example, public speaking skills are really useful in lots of different careers. Aim to be comfortable in front of large audiences. Sessional teaching experience would be a great first step.
2) If someone offers you an opportunity, ask what they see in you that makes you a good fit.
When I was asked to get involved in the RGS-IBG RGRG I didn’t really know why I was given the chance. I spent a year with real impostor syndrome thinking they had mistaken me for someone else. Looking back now the person saw the potential in me and thought it was a great thing for a junior researcher to be part of. The organisational and diplomacy skills I learnt that year stood me in great stead when organising conferences in my first role post PhD.
3) Recognise the progress you are making in your research.
Think about the ‘you’ 12 months ago. In our race to finish the PhD we often forget to take a moment to enjoy the view and take stock of the great things we have achieved.
4) Be brave.
As my geography teacher wrote in my year book “…have confidence in yourself and you will go further than you thought possible”. 25 years later, this has never rung truer. Never worry that changing your mind will make you look weak or indecisive, you are pivoting to a new opportunity.
My HE career began in 2003 whilst completing my PhD at Coventry University. Since then, I have managed a regional career development programme supporting academics across 22 UK institutions; developed Times Higher Award-nominated professional development for part-time researchers; and even collaborated with an Antarctic explorer, creating online training for gifted and talented children. My career activities follow the common theme of personal and professional development, whether developing the teams I managed; the colleagues I mentored; or the clients I coach. As an accredited executive coach I now blend the various skills I have honed over two decades in HE to empower others to take action and move forward on their goals.
My qualifications and experience:
- Personal Performance Coach (Distinction) – The Coaching Academy (ACSTH 121hrs)
- Corporate and Executive Coach (Distinction) – The Coaching Academy
- PhD (Human Geography) Coventry University
- CPD Standard Office Accredited Coach
- Accredited MBTI Step 1 & 2 Practitioner
- DISC Accredited Coach – The Coaching Academy
- Accredited Belbin Team Development Trainer
- Accredited Realise Strengths Consultant
- Coach Supervisor (IAFPD Certificate)
- ICF Member
- Vitae Researcher Developer Fellow
- Royal Geographical Society Fellow (RGS-IBG)
- Founder of Researcher Coaching (Rodetal Ltd) and Co-founder of Communication and Me
You can contact Dr Katy R Mahoney on twitter @researchercoach.