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Interview with PhD award winner Dr John Miles

Justine Reilly

Dr John Miles - founder and CTO of Inkpath Ltd.

All humanities researchers are entrepreneurs, according to Dr John Miles. And he argues that doing a PhD in the arts and humanities equips you with vital skills for work in - or out - of academia.

“Without my PhD there's no way I'd be doing what I do now” says Dr John Miles, founder and CTO of Inkpath Ltd., a corporate spin off from the University of Oxford, which offers help with skills tracking and career planning.

“And that's as much to do with the broader skills I've learned - such as independent learning and discovering my own drive - as the PhD itself.”

John Miles was Caroline Spurgeon Research Fellow in Shakespeare at Royal Holloway before coming to Oxford. He now works full-time for Inkpath having been a Research Associate at Wadham College and a Training Officer in the university's Humanities Division.

“I'm someone who has taken a very winding path through their career,” says Dr Miles. “I've been in the RAF, worked as a research fellow. But I've also worked on the professional services side of a university, and then made the jump from Royal Holloway to Oxford to manage a big training programme.

“I'm definitely someone who always keeps several plates spinning at the same time. I've never really had a single role!”

Dr Miles believes that his experience as a doctoral student was vital in giving him the skills he needs to manage his diverse and demanding career path. 

“Doing a PhD develops your curiosity; it shows you how to manage a project - and think about things like a budget and finance - and these are very applicable to running and developing a business,” he says. “All humanities researchers are entrepreneurs.

“I spent four years at Oxford and longer at Royal Holloway, and most of that time was spent preaching to people there about how their skills would be transferable. And what I can say now is 'look! It's really true.' It really does happen.”

Dr Miles argues that the modern PhD speaks to modern working practices that are increasingly built around flexibility, self-employment and self-reliance.

“I wouldn't say it's been an easy path, and part of the reason I have moved around is to do with the lack of a linear progression in academia,” he says. “But that encourages you to think laterally and be creative, which is a strength in the modern workplace.

“The idea that a PhD is a big monolithic project that is your sole focus, that's all gone now and been broken down in quite a positive way. The average doctoral researcher now has to balance lots of things. This does encourage a mindset that is flexible - I think the word is 'agile' - and knows how to take advantage of opportunities when they emerge.

“You have to have self-discipline. This is something that goes through to who you are as a person and an employee.”

But despite doctoral students emerging from their vivas with a formidable array of skills - many still suffer from a lack of confidence, especially when they approach employment outside of the academy.

“Self-promotion is something that PhD students can struggle with,” says Dr Miles. “They can often be diffident and hide their light into a bushel. They don't always see their value.

“They can think that, because they are specialised and have spent a lot of time in universities talking to university people, they are somehow qualified in a 'bad way' - that they are 'over-qualified' somehow.

“Inkpath was partly created to help empower a highly skilled, self-motivated workforce - who often don't understand their value to employers - to recognise and quantify their skills and succeed in academia, or make the leap from higher education to business and beyond.

“We help them quantify what they do day-to-day and translate it into a form that those outside academia will understand - and also help them see what kind of appropriate opportunities there are out there for them.”

But Inkpath is not just giving academics a language they can use to better understand and express their skills: the company is also actively working with non-academic employers to help them understand the benefits of working with PhD graduates, and how an academic skill set can help firms develop their businesses.

“We also provide universities with really interesting data so that they can create a really good working environment,” says Dr Miles.

“In the world today you really have to put yourself out there. And we are here to help doctoral students do just that.”

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