November 21, 2022, by Postgraduate Placements Nottingham

Life Beyond the PhD 

Taran Young shares his experience of attending the Cumberland Lodge ‘Life beyond the PhD Conference’ with funding from the Researcher Academy.

After a quick turnaround from application to outcome, I was thrilled to find out I’d secured a fully funded spot from the Researcher Academy to attend the unforgettable Life Beyond the PhD conference. Run by the royal-affiliated charity Cumberland Lodge, this event was hosted at a former royal residence located in Windsor Great Park, just 3.5 kilometres from Windsor Castle. With around 40 PhD students in attendance from a huge range of disciplines, lectures from fascinating speakers, and many invaluable training skills sessions, it was to be an amazing experience and one that I will treasure.

Monday: Introduction and Talks

The week was to push me out of my comfort zone again and again, with the first test of nerves being the long wait to formally introduce myself as a microphone was slowly passed around the 40 different delegates.

Team PhspeeD members left to right – Tom Taylor, Taran Young, Dan Parkes, and Tim Crow.

After introductions, we had a wonderful talk from Kurt Barling, Professor of Journalism at Middlesex University and former BBC special correspondent, who kindly interrupted his holiday in Canada to speak to us about his career after his PhD. For me though, the highlight of the day was a talk by Patricia O’Lynn, the first woman representative of North Antrim in the Northern Ireland Assembly. This fascinating talk about her unusual PhD path and time working in Washington for senator John McCain, really helped fuel my nascent passion for politics. It was hard not to be infected by Patricia’s strong work ethic, and months later the motivation she instilled is still there.

Following Monday’s delicious three-course dinner (a staple of every evening that week), we had a brilliantly engaging team-building exercise hosted by Dr Jan Peters. We were given the entertaining task of building air-powered cars out of K’NEX. Although our team, prematurely named PhspeeD, didn’t win, the task highlighted team members’ various aptitudes, and we learnt a lot about ourselves and each other by discussing what each person did particularly well in or could have improved.

Tuesday-Wednesday: Skill Sessions and the Big Presentation

My alter ego, Arthur Durum. (Yes, that is straw in my mouth.)

The second day was dedicated to building up different skills. We had sessions on written, verbal, and digital communications, including the opportunity to record podcasts with a fellow delegate. We took turns hosting and guesting, asking questions about ourselves and our PhDs. The experience was great fun, and it was interesting to play back my own responses to questions I hadn’t asked myself in years.

Later, following short two-minute presentations on hobbies we enjoyed (that we had just as long to prepare for), we were tasked with creating a five-minute presentation on our PhD research for the next day. We were told to be as creative as possible and to not rely on PowerPoint – something I took to the extreme when I dragged everyone outside to talk to them about fungal pathogens of crops while pretending to be a southern American farmer named Arthur Durum…

While I didn’t win the prize for best presentation, I had a blast taking myself out my comfort zone, and everyone else seemed to be entertained (and informed!) by the novelty.

Thursday-Friday: The Main Event

Team Refuweegee answering questions on our refugee camp.

On Wednesday night we were briefed on our final activity of the week – designing and maintaining a refugee camp to deal with an imaginary humanitarian crisis. As a Scotsman, I felt I had the most skin in the game when the brief mentioned that the MacLean and Campbelli ethnic groups were fleeing a civil war from “Hebredia, Gaellica” to “Saxonia”… After assigning jobs and doing research, our team was ready.

At the beginning, it was straightforward. We put in requests to speak to any person we could think of (portrayed by Cumberland Lodge fellows), and we could negotiate and plea with, for example, charity representatives or members of the Saxonian government. We were plodding along nicely, designing our camp and ensuring sufficient food and water supplies when the crises started emerging. Actors sat down at our table and started shouting at us that children were dying, criminal gangs were emerging, the security was corrupt. We even had a Saxonian security official try and extort us out of millions for permission to use ‘his’ land (Windsor Great Park) for our refugee camp (aptly named by me as Refuweegee).

Formal dress, casual vibes. A picture before our final dinner together.

I had no experience in crisis management, but I was really impressed with myself and my team’s efforts during this activity. We compassionately and competently dealt with every issue thrown at us and, in my opinion, had the soundest plan for a camp out of all the teams (although unfortunately there were no prizes to test this theory!). In addition, the opportunity to listen to Dr Stuart Gordon talk about his experiences organising refugee camps around the world was incredibly humbling and insightful.

On the final evening we had another magnificent feast, this time accompanied by tearful farewell speeches (and of course followed by lots of drinks – did I mention the entire Cumberland Lodge basement was a party every night?). The full week of the Life Beyond a PhD conference at Cumberland Lodge was a truly amazing experience. I met so many wonderful people and learned so much, both about myself and of the true value of a PhD and the opportunities it opens up for you. I absolutely recommend this conference to any PhD student, and I only regret I didn’t attend it sooner.

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