TV PhD – Bridging the gap between Academia and Industry

As the next cohort of the TV PhD talent scheme gears up for the digital Edinburgh Television Festival (ETF) next week (24-27 August), we hear from Ayesha Taylor-Camara, University of Nottingham, who was one of the successful candidates to join the scheme in 2018. Now in its third year, TV PhD provides AHRC-funded PhD students with a unique opportunity to attend one of the TV industry’s most important events, participate in a programme of exclusive sessions, receive training and make valuable contacts.

From a young age, I’ve always had a keen interest in the media industries – from participating in journalism competitions to producing and presenting radio shows for community radio stations in London – so working in media has always been a dream of mine. Throughout my academic journey, however, I became more and more aware of the gaps that exist between academia and the media industries.

There are so many interesting topics, ideas and themes being explored within academia, of which aren’t limited to being translated into factual visual or audio content, but have the ability to transcend multiple genres and mediums. On the other side, within film, TV, radio and other creative industries there are equally many interesting ideas being explored, some of which have been, or are currently being, looked at by scholars and have great potential to be involved in the creative process. However, the two don’t necessarily flow together as easily as they should. The fast-paced nature of the creative industries when it comes to developing content and the slower paced nature of academic research doesn’t always allow for cooperation. In addition, academic culture and the nature of storytelling within academia is often structured in a way that doesn’t always allow for wider audience engagement.

As soon as I heard about the TV PhD scheme I jumped at the chance of being able to develop and merge ideas formed within academia with gaining industry experience. It was a chance for me to think about how I could aide bridging the gap. Attending the Edinburgh TV Festival was something I’d always wanted to do, but due to the costs I was unable to make this a reality. The festival has a wealth of history in its own right but also in the ways in which it shapes televisual content by providing a space for practitioners to share content ideas, ways of working and hear directly from those at the top of the pyramid. Not to mention the famous MacTaggart Lectures. If you work within the TV industry, it’s a key date in your calendar.

As I was in the first year of my PhD at the time of applying, I was unsure whether or not this would be more beneficial for me towards the end of my PhD rather than at the start, however, with my research being firmly grounded within the media industries, particularly Public Service Media, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity as I thought that it may very well prove beneficial for my research, which it has.

Being a part of the TV PhD scheme opened doors to new opportunities, ideas and friendships. The PhD journey can be quite lonely at times and being able to meet and connect with other PhD students with similar interests in the media was really valuable. I was able to hear directly from commissioners, screenwriters, and producers about their experiences working within the industry and what they look for in content ideas. I was particularly grateful for the chance to attend a special seminar with Aysha Rafaele, whose storytelling through powerful documentaries and factual dramas is something I love.

The biggest highlight for me was being able to see Michaela Coel’s MacTaggart Lecture. As soon as the doors opened to the lecture theatre, I made sure I was in the front row. When she took off her shoes and got comfortable, I knew that we were about to witness something special. Her speech was so raw, unique, vulnerable and powerful. It resonated with me a lot and although it is two years since she spoke, her bravery to speak out, criticise and call out some of the practices within the media industry that often get buried is highly commendable.

Participating in the scheme enabled me to open new doors, specifically in gaining an 18-month placement (with permission from the AHRC) with the BBC Audience research department, by using what I had learnt about current industry trends and challenges gained by attending the festival during my interview and assessment day. This opportunity has significantly aided my career development and likewise, with what Michaela said in her post MacTaggart interview, “I’m becoming clearer on what my role is in this industry.” Being involved in the TV PhD scheme was a step towards me understanding what my role is here, both in academia and the media industry.

Going forward I hope to continue to bridge the gap between academia and industry. It’s clear there are shared interests and common goals but there are difficulties when it comes to both areas communicating with one another and understanding the language and processes on both sides. Breaking down the misconception that academics don’t want to share their research beyond the academy or that the media industry doesn’t want to work with academics is key. As academics, we are more than talking heads or ‘quotables’. Our research and expertise is also more than a single documentary. It moves beyond factual content and has the ability to be transmedia. But if we want to build a more symbiotic relationship with the industry, we must discuss how we can change current academic culture to enable better communication, form better collaborations and diversify our storytelling when it comes to our research in a way that opens it up for wider audience engagement that doesn’t necessarily result in simplification.

Ayesha Taylor-Camara is a Black British PhD candidate within the department of Cultural, Media and Visual Studies at the University of Nottingham and is of Jamaican and Sierra Leonean heritage. She is also a member of the African-Caribbean Research Collective and the West-African Research Collective. Her research explores the role and value of The BBC within the current UK digital media landscape and is funded by AHRC/Midlands 4 Cities as part of the National Productivity Investment Fund (NPIF). She has extensive work experience across multiple fields within the creative industries including advertising, TV and radio. Ayesha is also one of the judges of this year’s Research in Film Awards.

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