Welcome to the April 2019 edition of the Career Inspo Blog!
This is a monthly interview with someone who has followed their passion, dreamed big and now has a successful and exciting career. Whether you are searching for your passion or looking for guidance and insight from those in your chosen industry, the Career Inspo blog will have something for everyone. After the success of the 2018 blog, I am so excited to be continuing the interviews through 2019 and I am sure this year’s line up will provide plenty of motivation and inspiration!
This month it was really great to catch up with long term friend (we met when we were four!) and PhD candidate Ruth Flaherty. Ruth is working towards PhD status at Law school. She is working on completing her thesis, whilst also teaching at the University of East Anglia and sitting on the Student Union Trustee Board. She is certainly a very busy and inspiring woman!
Sarah Ellis: Thank you for taking the time to be interviewed for the Career Inspo blog! Please can you share an overview of your career so far and what you do:
Ruth Flaherty: As a PhD candidate in the Law School, I wear many different hats. I am writing a thesis on copyright law and fanfiction (The Rise of Self-Publication Platforms and the Implications for the Publication of Fanfiction in Relation to UK Copyright Law), looking at how the law treats literary elements such as characters and locations, in order to justify whether certain types of fanfiction should be a permitted type of reuse of the work without requiring the purchase of a license. When I’m not writing my thesis, I teach students at the University of East Anglia, leading seminars and marking coursework as well as invigilating exams. I sit on the Student Union Trustee Board, the group that manages the UEA Student Union. I also write journal articles and attend conferences to engage with international researchers in my academic area.
RF: I left university at 21 positive that I knew what my life would be like – I was going to be Elle Woods or Ally McBeal – wearing amazing suits and killer heels and blinding everyone in court with my legal arguments. However, I recognised through my twenties that the parts of my degree that I loved (such as learning new things and applying knowledge to arguments) and my personality lent themselves more to an academic career than a corporate law career. I spent some time in higher education administration while deciding what to do, and was fortunate to meet some wonderful people who supported me on my new path. I even still wear amazing suits and shoes sometimes!
RF: I have always been interested in learning, reading and researching. As a primary school child I was booted out of the school library more than once at playtime to go outside to play! I did well in my GCSEs and A Levels, and did a law degree from 2004-2008. I was passionate about helping students, working for my University for several years in several different departments. I returned for a Masters in Information Technology and Intellectual Property Law from 2014-2016 while working in executive administration off campus – splitting my time between Norwich and London every week. Hectic! I started my PhD in 2016, at which point I undertook a lot of research training through the University, as well as training in teaching skills. I have been amazingly fortunate to have met and learned from a variety of inspirational people along the way.
SE: What makes you jump out of bed in the morning to work and study?What are your favourite things about what you do?
RF: While it can be hard to juggle all the competing priorities that cross my desk, I can genuinely say that I love what I do. I love the opportunity to teach students, helping them understand topics that I remember struggling with myself at their age, and seeing them progress. Being able to lead a seminar on a difficult topic, and watch the students engage and learn is a wonderful thing, I love the opportunities my career gives me to apply my knowledge and reasoning and debate real-world issues that face society, both on the page and in person. The variety of my life means I can be spending days in my office working on a chapter or an article, and the next day I can be in a seminar with international experts, grilling them on European copyright policy.
SE: What have been your biggest challenges/learning curves? And what reignites your passion on the tough days?
RF: Without a doubt the biggest challenge is that the PhD itself is a passion project, meaning that I am driving my own progress. There can be times when it can be easy to be distracted by other opportunities, or to feel like the finish line is so far away, or is unachievable. You are surrounded by the most intelligent people you will likely ever meet, and it can be hard not to judge yourself by comparison. When these dark times strike, I find that a long run or a long chat with a colleague helps. I also keep a folder on my computer of all the compliments I have received about my work – it helps to read them when I really feel like an imposter. Bliss! Finally, an old saying my Mum taught me – “How do you eat an elephant?”. The answer is “A little bit at a time!”. Sounds ridiculous, but it makes me smile, and reminds me that anything is achievable if you break it down into small tasks.
SE: What are the most memorable experiences in your career so far?
RF: Being part of an involved conversation on European media law policy with the Director of the European Commission leading the Media and Data Directorate at DG for Communications Networks, Content and Technology was without a doubt a highlight of this year, given his role in creating and driving policy at the highest European level. Generally, the first time you are invited to speak at an international conference or submit an article to a journal is a heady experience – knowing that people are interested in hearing your thoughts is great for the self-esteem. Especially if you end up in a room with experts whose work you have read and enjoyed – it can be hard not to fangirl in those moments. The first time you see yourself cited in someone else’s article is key to recognising that your work is making an impact. An equally key moment is the first time you get positive feedback from students you teach – either by email or through the feedback system. Knowing you have personally affected someone so much that they have gone out of their way to mention it is very life-affirming.
RF: The most important part of my personality that gets me through my PhD is tenacity (my friends would probably use the word stubborn). When there is a problem, whether it is in my research or in my teaching, I know that I will eventually solve the issue. I don’t quit very easily! In a long term project like the PhD, which is 3-4 years and 100,000 words, that is vital.
I am a people person and I love the performance aspect of teaching – both in designing activities to attract students attention and make them think about things in a different way, and in how I deliver the class. I can remember how important it was as a student to have high-energy seminars which helped me learn and progress, and I aim to replicate that in my pedagogy. I am approachable and friendly, and try to bring my somewhat zany personality to my classes – if they’re laughing, they’re listening and learning (I hope)!
Finally, I am a skilled and experienced writer. I have been writing fiction since I was a small child, developing plots and characters in my head and on the page. This led to fanfiction posts on websites as a teen, which eventually led to my PhD project. I am fascinated by language and how people interpret stories and characters.
SE: Do you have a role model/mentor? If so, what have you learnt from them that has helped you in your career?
RF: There are so many people who have helped me along the way. I am fortunate that the Law School is made up of international experts including many early-career researchers who inspire me, lighting the way and happy to help those coming after them. My PhD supervisors Dr Nick Scharf and Prof Morten Hviid are brilliant at focusing on my research and keeping me writing. Maddie Colledge, along with Michael Kyriacou and Lewis Martin, showed me how to be a strong woman and speak up persuasively and persistently for important issues in challenging environments.Finally, I would not be where I am without the wonderful students and friends I’ve made (too numerous to list here!) who inspire me, keep me (mostly) sane and on track, and are always on hand for advice (and Thesis Bootcamps!). Special mention to my office mate Holly Hancock who demonstrates exactly how much can be fit into one 24 hour period while still smiling…
SE: What advice would you give someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
RF: A PhD (and an academic career in general) can be wonderful – it is flexible enough that you can work when it best suits you, and allows for amazing experiences. It is never too late to start an academic career – the average age at the start of the PhD is 30 but many start later, and having a previous career can be very helpful. Find a department with a wide variety of extra-curricular activities, both relating to your research and completely external to it – many connections I have made have been on the back of other events I have been involved in. Find something external to your research that builds up your self-belief. I am a middle distance runner (5-and 10-kms) and this helps not only burn off the stress, but also gives me belief that if I keep at it, I will eventually see the finish line.
SE: What are the top 3 things to consider when choosing and pursuing a meaningful and exciting career?
- Be honest with yourself! Many of us are driven to choose careers at a very young age, when we haven’t yet finished growing and have little knowledge about what a career actually entails. We get so caught up in trying to get a job and focusing on how we can convince a recruiter that we are perfect for their job, that we forget to ask whether their job is perfect for us. Related to that, do not be afraid to try new things and new careers, and do not worry if your first choice does not work out. I am settling into this job at the age of 33, but have done many other jobs in the last 15 years, and I can honestly say that the knowledge and skills gained from the previous jobs have really helped me now.
- This seems to be a theme among other participants in this blog – but definitely find something you are passionate about – in any job there are long days and hard times and you need that joy to keep going!
- Be open minded – you never know what will come off the back of an opportunity. Not only does this open up your network and give you the opportunity to meet new people, but it also develops your skills. I am a big fan of the Richard Branson quote – “If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later!”. Give everything a good try at least once, then if it doesn’t work, you know you tried, and many times you discover how amazingly capable you really are! Equally, if someone tells you not to try something, take it with a pinch of salt. If you think you can do it, go ahead and give it a try anyway – this advice has served me well!