Dr Christopher Q Smith reflects on his meandering journey from BA student to CHASM Research Fellow.
I’ve had quite a long, winding path to where I am now. I did a lot of experimenting with jobs in the first ten years of my working life, and it has been quite a slow realisation that academia is the best fit for me.
When I first graduated, I thought I wanted to be a social worker, and even started training to be one. However, I soon realised this was not for me and switched to do a Social Research MA. At the time I toyed with the idea of applying to do a PhD, but I didn’t have any clear ideas about a topic, and in retrospect, I don’t think I was ready to make such a big commitment. Instead, I ended up being accepted on the NHS Management Training Scheme, which was a two-year placement-based programme. During this time, I did a short placement with Macmillan Cancer Support’s policy team, and I liked it so much that after graduating I decided I wanted to work in third sector policy influencing. I went on to spend the next couple of years working in these types of roles.
It was while I was working in the third sector that I started to consider applying for a PhD again. I really liked the work I was doing in these jobs, but I often felt the urge to go deeper into many of the issues I was learning about, and I came to realise that academia is the only place you really get the opportunity to do this. All the NHS and policy work had also given me a much clearer idea of what I could do my PhD research on, as well as a fair bit of knowledge about how the health system works. In early 2016 I started working on a proposal and got in touch with a few prospective supervisors, including Dr Will Leggett (who, alongside Dr Iestyn Williams, supervised my PhD), about the possibility of studying at Birmingham. I was fortunate enough to obtain funding to start in the new academic year, and the rest all fell into place from there.
My PhD was titled ‘Moral Economy and the NHS: The Normative Dimension of Service Reconfiguration.’ The thesis is a mixture of theoretical development and empirical study, wherein I explore how the concept moral economy—a broad term used to describe the way economic relationships interact with shared moral understandings—can be used to understand a case of service change in the NHS. The topic represents a mixture of my academic interest, namely sociological theory, and my practical experience, which is mostly in NHS management and policy. I was initially drawn to the concept of moral economy because I thought it would offer an interesting sociological lens for examining some of the big ethical debates that have been taking place in NHS policy in recent years, particularly around resources and the politics of austerity.
I’m still in the “I’m so glad it’s finally over” post-PhD phase, so I’m very much enjoying being a Research Fellow. The main difference is that I get to work as part of a team in my current role, whereas obviously the PhD was a solo project. I have found this incredibly refreshing and a nice antidote to the PhD write up, which is well known for being an isolating experience, particularly through lockdown. The specific project I am working on also takes place over one year, rather than the four-year PhD, so the time scales are tighter. Again, I’m finding this very refreshing as there are fewer opportunities to get bogged down, which inevitably happens several times during the PhD (or at least it did for me!). As a Research Fellow I also feel I’ve benefited quite a lot from already having completed a research project (i.e. my PhD) at Birmingham, as there is much less that is new to me this time around.
I find working from home much more intense than being in an office. The days lack any natural punctuation, so I realised quite quickly that it’s important to find ways of breaking up the day. I imagine this is particularly an issue for those, such as myself, who have all their time dedicated to one research project. I find scheduling virtual coffee or lunch breaks with colleagues a useful way of countering this, and luckily, I know enough people in the department from my PhD days to be able to do this as a new starter. These often turn out to be really energising as there is so much interesting working going on across the department. It is great to learn more about colleagues' research and gain different perspectives on my own work.
Pre-lockdown, I mostly enjoyed taking long walks while listening to podcasts or audiobooks, and also going to various cafes to read, drink coffee, and eat cake. This would be interspersed with tokenistic visits to the gym and the occasional game of badminton.
During lockdown I have mostly been unwinding by watching the scary number of streaming services I now find myself subscribed to and watching spooky crowdless sporting events on TV (mostly football and cricket). Hopefully I will be able to acquire a few new, more interesting hobbies once lockdown is over, assuming this does end as the government have currently planned.