Erica Harrison – Using a PhD in 'challenging environments'


Niall Geraghty

Dr Erica Harrison

In 2015, Dr Erica Harrison completed her Collaborative Doctoral Award (CDA) at the University of Bristol, partnering with Czech Radio to study the Czechoslovak Government-in-Exile during the Second World War and their relationship with broadcasting.

After completing her Doctorate, Erica was keen to secure a job where she could use her language skills. She knew she didn’t want a role which would mean she would be working remotely, by herself, and wanted something office based where she was part of a team.

She joined a market research company as part of the social research team, which specialised in political polling. Her work involved large online surveys, crunching data and conducting interviews with stakeholders. Erica worked there for two years, gaining multiple internal promotions.

She now works for a different research company that carries out social and political research project in “challenging environments,” specialising in Africa and the Middle-East:

“The mentality of doing a PhD is that it always feels like Sunday night and you haven’t done your homework!”

“Our basic quality is that there is nowhere we don’t work. We’ve done a lot of work in Iraq and Syria and Yemen. Whenever possible we travel to them because we work with a wide network of local partners in country.

“We have to build up those relationships which means being there in person and we train the interviewers as, culturally, it needs to be local people asking the questions. We train them on how we want the questions to be asked and the different methodologies that need to be used. We collect all the data physically and we analyse it back in London”.

“It involves lots of travel, getting out in front of pretty senior clients and presenting back our findings,” she adds.

After finishing her undergraduate degree in Russian and Czech, she looked at various Master’s programmes, but wasn’t sure what to do. It was her undergraduate professor that first alerted her to the possibility of completing a CDA at Bristol.

“My professor at Sheffield suggested I take a look at it,” Erica explains. “It sounded amazing to me and I had no idea that anyone was funding research like that. To qualify for all the funding you had to be UK-based, but to be able to work with all the material you had to be fluent in Czech, which meant they were flexible about whether you had a Master’s, which I didn’t.

“I skipped straight through the Master’s and started the PhD. I was attracted to being paid to bury myself in something I found absolutely fascinating, and to go and live in Prague and get down into the archives. I applied for it like a job, and went through the interview process. I lived it like a job once I got it. It was a bit of a bolt from the blue.”

For Erica, working with non-academic partners was a must. After attending a CDA event and listening to the people working with a broad range of partners, she noted a common trend: “One of the things that attracted everybody to it was this idea that you weren’t all in one academic institution. You kept a foot somewhere else.

A coloured print of Queen Victoria from 1837
Conducting interviews in Amman, Jordan

“There was something about keeping that balance that was very appealing. Managing multiple funders and multiple different partners with contradictory priorities is a skill you get from something like a CDA that perhaps you don’t from a straight PhD. The actual amount of money the partner invested is very small, but the access they gave me is massive. The people were great too. Keeping in touch with the world outside academia was important to me”.

Erica mentions how important it was that she was supported, especially in the early part of the course, considering that she had not completed a Master’s beforehand. Colleagues encouraged her to go along to the history Master’s core modules and attend workshops during her first year in Bristol. From there, Erica met a number of other first year PhD historians. “That personal network was probably more valuable than the core modules for research. I could go to those people for the relevant queries I had”.

For Erica, her doctoral study has made a major contribution to her career:

“It’s valued in my current job as people know that I can write. I can take a lot of information and compress it down into something comprehensible. I can take quite technical issues and present them to a generalist, but highly invested audience.”

“You can’t assume that people have any previous knowledge,” she explains. “I’m able to start from the basics and get people to buy into it. Those are skills that my employer values.”

But the award has made a big difference to Erica personally as well.

”It’s brought confidence in myself, what I can produce and when an obstacle arises, that I’ll find ways of getting around it. I was living abroad periodically and moving around. I know that if I just take the time to learn and digest, I can do that at an accelerated pace. I went into it for intellectual reward”.

Finally, Erica offers some advice to students looking for a career outside academia.

“The mentality of doing a PhD is that it always feels like Sunday night and you haven’t done your homework! Until it is handed in, it never goes away and you feel there is always more you should be doing. It’s not like clocking out of the office for the day – wrap up all loose ends of the PhD before you start another job.”

“Really keep an open mind on what is out there. It might not tally up with your original plans. I had no idea what I was looking for, I just kept finding things that I didn’t want to do! Cast a wide net and keep an open mind. Just because you get a job doesn’t mean you have to stay there. Be adaptable.”

 

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