Life after academia…

I took early retirement in January 2021, in the middle of the pandemic, after spending more than 40 continuous years at UCL, first as PhD student then as academic. It just felt like the time was right and that there were still opportunities to explore new avenues, but how do you move on when all you have ever known is academic work? Well, I’ve somehow managed to carve out two new ‘careers’ which share almost no similarity to my life as a university professor.

First, inspired by my hobby as woodcarver and a long dormant love of antiques, I’ve developed a small but fairly successful business as an ‘antiques’ seller on etsy, specialising in industrial vintage such as letterpress cases and blocks, and engineers cabinets. An exciting aspect of this venture is the work I do in restoring shabby old objects to their former  glory (see further examples on our  instagram feed). It turns out that some skills and experience acquired in academic life do actually come in useful in starting a small business from scratch (financial management, researching the ‘provenance’ of old objects, waxing lyrical when describing items for sale).


restoration of engineer cabinet
A 1940s engineer cabinet in aged oak: ‘before’ and ‘after’ restoration

My second new career is perhaps more surprising, at least for those of you (a large majority!) who do not know of my past history performing in the chorus of staged operas during my student days. I am now a registered ‘supporting artiste’, i.e. a film extra to you and me. Perhaps the only aspect that this career shares with academia (e.g., grant funding) is the ‘application to success rate’ as it is such a competitive field, despite fairly low pay rates and long hours in sometimes poor conditions. I’m loving it though: each production is a new experience and gives the opportunity to meet new people. It is fascinating to see the attention put into every aspect of film productions. If you don’t blink, you may spot me in various TV series, in a number of feature films, TV commercials, fashion stills (yes!), or in the music video of hot indie band Wet Leg getting over 6 million views on Youtube.

Valerie in ‘supporting artiste’ mode…
Scene from ‘One Life’ feature film (2023) with Anthony Hopkins
Scene from The Crown (S5, ep 6)…Women’s Institute conference sneering at Tony Blair’s speech in 2000

In short, there is definitely life after academia! It is wonderful to realise that even after 40 years in the same profession and no other training or experience, it is possible to discover new skills and abilities, and to start a new relatively stress-free life doing things you enjoy.