In the second edition to this ‘Beyond’ series, I settled down in front of Zoom to chat with Dr Jo Twist OBE from UK Interactive Entertainment (UKIE) – a trade association which represents UK based game businesses. Often as postgraduates, our conversation about life after the PhD centre around postdocs, grant applications and publications. Information and stories about non-academic life can be slim, especially in a UK context. I hope dear reader that you can see another path that geography can take you down and remind yourself that the PhD is not the end, only the beginning.
Dr Jo Twist has had a fascinating career after finishing her PhD. As a graduate of the University of Newcastle, she studied with some of the forerunners of digital geographies. Jo used her interest in the internet, power distribution and feminist methodologies to develop her thesis examining articulations of an online/offline community using a place-based computer club in Newham and their associated online social activity around the turn of the millennium. Her interest in technology and the internet is what pushed her post-PhD into becoming a researcher on Newsround and later as a tech reporter for the BBC. With a brief stint at a think tank and Channel 4, Jo has now been CEO at UKIE for 9 years. It is safe to say that her career has been varied, but has still retained elements of research, curiosity and technology. I asked Jo if she planned this style of career whilst finishing off her PhD and this brought up an interesting discussion on isolation. Which during 2020 has become elevated to unprecedented levels for postgraduates:
“Nope! When I finished my PhD in 2000, I think it quite a common question you ask yourself because you spend 3 years immersed in this thing that no-one understands but you. It is really isolating, and I think, I don’t know. It is kind of personal, but I lost a lot of confidence because I was studying something really new. It was the internet; virtual communities and I didn’t really know what to do with it. Because I think unless you are going into a specific field, or more or less know you want to go into academia, it can be an issue for social scientists. You are like, what now? My PhD was part funded as a BT case award and it was really interesting because BT had done a similar study at the time that said that most people give up their PhD because they feel so isolated – they feel so ‘what the hell am I doing’ and the thing is that is the whole point of the PhD. You are adding something original to the field.”
When explaining why she didn’t feel as though academia was the right career path for her, Jo explained how a multitude of experiences led her to making that decision:
“I was very frustrated with the slowness of academic publishing and when I was an undergrad, my supervisor was, a wonderful, feminist, cultural geographer called Liz Bondi. She said, you are doing something really interesting and I don’t understand it, because my undergrad dissertation was about internet cafes and comparing them to 19th Century coffee houses in Paris. These liminal spaces and she said it [my dissertation] was amazing but didn’t know how!
I worked with her as an editorial assistant and saw how the publishing process worked. And I thought, when you are studying something like the internet which is instant and really, you feel once you have been studying it for a number of years, you feel like you are trying to keep up. I was disillusioned with academia. When I saw that teaching was at the bottom of the pile and at the top was all about publishing and getting funding in and I thought – that isn’t me, I really enjoy teaching and lectures and I thought my subject matter just doesn’t fit this framework at all. So, I should have blogged at the time really, but these were the days before BlogSpot, we didn’t have blogging software! I could have just done it, but I didn’t, and I was determined that I was determined to do this. My supervisor told me that the PhD was your driver’s licence not your life’s work and that really helped me because you can get into this spiral that it is the most important piece of work when in fact it is the drivers licence. So, I knew I didn’t want to be in academia but didn’t know where I wanted to be!”
During the Zoom call, I smiled and nodded to the comment that the PhD is only a driver’s licence not your life’s work. It is something I know my peers and I have really struggled with in the past. Sometimes, it is hard to see past the PhD and what comes next and I relate Jo’s comment to the other sayings such those suggesting how the PhD will be your worst piece of academic work. Because, during a PhD a postgraduate is a researcher in training, and it is okay to muddle around and feel lost. It’s very much like doubting which lane to enter on a roundabout!
After achieving a PhD, I wanted to know what the transition was like. How does someone go from being a fulltime student to becoming an employee?:
“I was 8 years a student, so by the time I finished I was 27 and I didn’t know what to do with it. Because we just had the dotcom bubble bursting, and really, what I should have done was go out to Silicon Valley and be like, hey I’ve just done a doctorate about online communities. Give me a job. But I didn’t have confidence and I just found a job in the newspaper and it happened to be for the BBC. You know, it was in the days when you could find a job like that and I applied for it knowing I wasn’t qualified, but because it was for Newsround and they wanted to build their online community and I was like, I’ve done a PhD on this!
So, they created an entry-level researcher level role for me, and it was difficult because I was 27 and they said I was a new graduate. But I’m 27, I’ve done lecturing, I’ve done different jobs and I’ve spent 8 years as a student. I’m not like an undergrad fresh out of university in that sense. But they were like, sorry that’s how it is. So, I was on a very difficult salary and from there I fell into different roles. But I kept hold of that passion about the internet and the social science of the internet. I just pitched myself and it worked. I think it is much harder now. On the flipside I think academia has changed somewhat in that we need experts who can take a step back and I think it is all about how you can communicate.”
I picked up during this conversation how Jo kept her research interests central. Although what a job entailed may change, her core reason to push forward remained purposeful to her passions:
“I definitely wanted to stay with the tech industry with the social side. All my theoretical training was around a lot of feminist theory and identity theory and cultural theory, but also a great deal on technological determinism and staying away from technical determinism. I was really passionate with what the internet was doing with humans and what humans were doing on the internet and what I was seeing.”
Nevertheless, I know that research context doesn’t always align with job opportunities out in the wider world. I asked Jo, which specific skills does a PhD deliver that other degrees may not?:
“I think it is having that critical, analytical skills and critical thinking skills more generally. It always gave me a context to work with and a framework to look at events and things in the context they happen. Whether that be economically, politically or culturally within a critical framework. As a journalist it really helped me, I was obsessed with research methodologies and perspectives and subjectivity. We’d constantly be pitched stupid stories based on a survey of 50 people. You know, a pharmaceutical company and the PR had sent it. I was really rigorous … ‘what are the research questions here?’ and how you framed the questions in your survey. I use that to this day because we get stupid stories, because a lot of our job at UKIE is to be the industry’s human shield in the press. You get stupid stories being reported on by the mainstream press, and when we get asked for a comment on it, we look what the story is here, so it is this report by so and so saying that games are bad. You know, have you read the report? Can we have a copy of the report before we make a comment. No, we haven’t got a copy of the report – so you have only read the press release. I think it is important for us to pick up on this and say this report isn’t methodologically sound. This is not a valid report and I expect more from your editorial team. Often then they’ll come back and say, yeah, you’re right. It is maintaining that robustness of research and methodology. That robustness that you need to defend in your viva.”
One of the things I have noticed while studying for my PhD is that often, those outside of academia don’t understand what a PhD is. When thinking about life post-PhD I imagined this could be an issue during industry interviews and I asked Jo how her interviewers understood her PhD and the questions they asked:
“Not really. [Laughs]. I can’t really remember now. People didn’t really care about the PhD, but I cared about it. It was my driving licence and I still refer to it even now. Even now, it is so relevant because of what we have seen happen to the internet, the fact that we haven’t taken the internet seriously in the 2000s and really instil digital literacy at a young age in school. People don’t always understand things like internet safety, protecting your identity online and we are seeing the fallout of that. People haven’t really asked me about [the PhD], but I use Dr all the time because I think one of the driving factors that kept me going was, I do not ever want to be referred to as Ms or Miss. I just want to be known as Dr! My mother always wanted a Dr in the family and I’m not quite sure this was what she meant!”
Using the title of Dr is such a topical discussion at the time of my chat with Jo. Only a few days before this chat, Dr Jill Biden – educator and wife of the US President Joe Biden – was unfairly excoriated by the Wall Street Journal for using the title ‘Dr’ with her non-medical doctorate. On Twitter, hundreds of female academics rose up to rebuke the notion that academics should drop their hard-earned titles in social and work settings. Jo reflected this opinion when I asked if she tended to use her Dr title:
“Absolutely. I worked bloody hard for it. Never be ashamed to use it and always get it on your bank cards!”
I asked, what advice could she provide for PhD students who are looking to move into industry and her answer centred around the need to make your skills accessible to whichever industry you are aiming for – particularly with writing skills:
“I think there is a certain way of writing that you need do in the PhD but try to break down your work in plain English is very, very useful. It is all about how you can communicate those ideas and how you use your theoretical framework and apply it to other potential job roles. But the plain English stuff is really important. And I think not being afraid to say, my subject matter of the PhD is this, it may or may not be relevant to this role outside of academia. But what I’ve got is this analytical mind and critical thinking skills. which are crucial for the fourth industrial revolution which we are entering now. Being able to collaborate, communicate, critical thinking, creativity – those are the key skills employers are looking for.”
I thought back to Jo’s previous comment about blogging and how she wished she had blogged during her PhD. In 2021, there are multiple opportunities to turn research interests into more digestible pieces of content for audiences outside of academia. While traditional blogging is certainly one way to go – blogging can now mean a series of articles on Medium, longform posts on LinkedIn or visual essays on Instagram. Likewise, YouTube is also a fantastic platform for video essays and TikTok has recently become a great place for entertainment learning. Depending on the industry you are aiming for, you may have another hurdle of explaining what it is you do online! However, it is well worth investing a little bit of time to hone collaboration, communication and creativity to a non-academic audience. I’m speaking from experience here too in that, I wish I had the confidence to do it earlier in my PhD!
As night drew in and the conversation came towards an end; I moved the topic to what choosing to research in geography can provide to the modern world. Reflecting on the recent Geography Awareness Week between RGS-IBG and AAG:
“I think it is the best degree I could have chosen. I really do. For me, geography is everything. It is everything. I say to people, I did cultural geography, and they didn’t know it existed. Like yeah, it might not exist everywhere, but it is about people, relationships, power, or at least mine was anyway. And certainly, in human geography you have these crossovers with sociology and psychology even. You are looking at motivations, networks of power, systems thinking. You are looking at all of this connectedness in humans and society and I think it is one of the best undergraduate degrees you could wish to do.”
Although I didn’t specifically ask about any regrets, Jo mentioned how she was eager to leave academia and had no interest in publishing her work, although now she wished she had at least given it a go:
“I was so paranoid about my writing, it was this whole, munching stuff together. Theoretical concepts that weren’t talking about the internet, weren’t talking about stuff I was talking about. I was taking that a lens to understand what my view and my case study was. So, I felt it was just really badly written and I was embarrassed and blah. Even though resident scholars at Newcastle believed in me. I had no interest in publishing or academia, I just wanted to finish the PhD. I wish I had now. I knew I’d regret it. But there you go.”
Despite the publication regret, Jo explains how leaving academia doesn’t mean that you are inevitably locked out as she now guest lectures which taps into her interest of teaching despite it not being tied her research:
“I do guest lecturing, not about my subject matter though. I lectured when I was doing the PhD, I took a couple of the first-year lectures and I think they had no idea what the hell I was going on about. I showed them Bladerunner and discussed dystopian visions of urban landscapes. I’m a visiting professor at Ravensbourne University now and I do an MBA lecture at Glasgow every year. But it isn’t my stuff, it is about the games industry. But I do enjoy that, I’d love to go back into academia at some point.”
The final question relates to my, perhaps strange fascination about thesis storage (and I know I’m not the only one who is drawn to a shelf with a bound tome of research to it!). So, I had to ask Jo where and how she now stores her thesis:
“Oh gosh. Well now it is a special place. I have it on my email in different folders [laughs] I still can’t knit it together and have it in one complete document. I do actually want to publish it online at some point, but I just haven’t got around to it. I remember lugging around all those copies you need to pay to get bound and lugging them to the post office. But I keep mine in a special cupboard alongside my MSc copy and photo albums. It is that kind of thing, where are my photo albums, OH LOOK IT’S MY PHD! [Laughs] Does anyone want to read it? No. [Laughs].”
For those reading, I hope that you enjoyed this example of a career away from academia and how sometimes it goes right, sometimes it goes wrong. Yet you are still moving forward. I would like to pick up specifically on being confident on what you can do – the PhD provides a wealth of skills both in terms of context, social skills and knowledge. Be confident in these skills and don’t be apologetic about your PhD.
On behalf of RGS-PGF, I would like to thank Dr Jo Twist OBE for taking the time out before Christmas to have this Zoom chat.
To see more of what Jo discusses, follow her on Twitter.
RGS-PGF Blog Coordinator