"These students were having dedicated time to learn how to be confident... I wish I had had classes that taught me how to look someone in the eye and speak with assurance when I was their age."
Charlie Pullen, former student of Varndean Senior School in Brighton
I was recently invited by Future First to return to my old secondary school – Varndean Senior School in Brighton – to talk with current students about what I’m doing with my life now.
Future First is a charity that specialises in reconnecting schools with previous students, and their aim for this day was to encourage current students in Year 10 to think about how they can make ‘informed decisions’ about their education, careers, and lives beyond school. A group of alumni from different eras and in various lines of work would speak about their own school days; what they did while they were at school, the things they did next, and how they got to be where they are today.
The Future First session would be just one in a whole day of activities geared towards improving the students’ soft skills – those abilities that help us get on well with other people in social and professional situations. This Learning Enhancement Day, as my schools calls it, is exactly that: a chance for the pupils to get better at the stuff that will make them good learners, like being confident, thoughtful, and reflective.
My task was to speak about doing a PhD in a way that students from different ability groups and backgrounds would understand. By doing so, it would encourage the students to think about what they would like to do and how they might go about doing it.
One of the challenges involved in talking about a PhD, though, is the fact that it’s a very multifaceted role. It takes time to explain. When I left school in 2010, I’m fairly sure I didn’t know what a PhD was, certainly not in any detail. Many of the students were in a similar position, so I set about listing the things I do from day to day.
I told them I spend a lot of time working independently in libraries and archives, reading books and sorting through old bits of paper; that I was writing my own ‘book’, as I called it, a thesis that would be about 100,000 words; and that I would be teaching younger students.
Explaining your work is obviously valuable for the person listening to you – hopefully they will go away newly intrigued by an opportunity that they might not have known about before – but it can also be a chance for you to reflect on your own life. You might be surprised by (and proud of) the range of tasks you juggle, or shocked by how unappealing a particular aspect of your work sounds when you see the look of confusion on someone else’s face.
One of the great things about talking to young people about your life, especially those who aren’t very familiar with the sort of work you do, is that they are excellent at encouraging you to think about yourself and what you do in new and surprising ways.
Having explained that I want one day to teach in universities, a boy from one of the lower ability groups asked me what I would do if after all those years studying I found I either couldn’t get a job lecturing or didn’t want to anymore. Some took this to be rude. I myself, however, thought it was one of the best questions of the day, and I’ve continued thinking about it since then.
I told him that I’d like to train as a psychotherapist. It may not seem obvious, but many English graduates go on to become therapists – I think it’s because our discipline teaches us to be highly attentive and careful interpreters of other people’s words. As a big believer in arts education, though, I can also see myself being a high school drama teacher. Either way, I’m trying to do what we all told the students to do: keep my options open.
The students were also thrilled to hear about all the freedom I had: to choose where I worked, what time I got up, what I did with my day. As someone who likes structure and guidance, I’m usually quite down on this aspect of the PhD. Their enthusiasm, however, encouraged me to appreciate this autonomy a little more. I was getting something out of this day too.
Another objective was to help the students get better at meeting and greeting people in a confident and professional way: shaking hands, making eye contact, and asking polite questions about their interlocutor’s day.
When I heard we had to do this, my heart sank. A shy and an awkward child, I have always been prone to mumbling and often avoid looking people in the eye. This was as much of a challenge for me as it was for the teenagers.
The only difference is that these students were having dedicated time to learn how to be confident. After struggling with interviews and networking at conferences with hundreds of people, I wish I had had classes that taught me how to look someone in the eye and speak with assurance when I was their age.
As the bell marked the end of our session, one girl mentioned that they were off to ‘stress management’ class before having a ‘public speaking’ workshop. Stress management classes? Now, there’s something a child needs if they’re going to grow up to be a PhD student, I thought.
I came away from my day back at school feeling buoyed up by how keen the students were to hear about the lives of other people, how inquisitive they were when encountering people not much like themselves, and the ways in which they talk about their futures, even when they’re not sure what they want to do. I was pleased to see that they were being offered opportunities to learn and hone skills that will make their futures much easier to navigate. And if any of them go on to do PhDs, I’m sure they’ll be better for it.