Dr Sarah Lane Ritchie

PhD in Science and Religion and Lecturer at St Andrew's University

How did you get your current job?

I was fortunate enough to secure a postdoctoral position while still finishing my PhD. In the third year of my PhD studies at New College, a really exciting new Science & Religion project started at the University of St Andrews. When the postdoc job associated with the project was advertised, I was encouraged to apply, even though it was a long shot – and I’m glad I did! The next several months were fairly intense, as I had to finish my doctoral thesis ahead of schedule, but it was definitely worth the late nights.


What do you enjoy most about your current role?

I feel so lucky to work in a role that enables me to do interdisciplinary work – in any given week, I might do research on neurobiological approaches to consciousness, read Barthian theology, give a lecture on cosmology and the origins of the universe and help plan an international conference. I work with the most fascinating people, and I’m never bored!


How are you using the skills and/or knowledge developed during your PhD in your career?

More than the specific content learned during my PhD, I find myself using the skills acquired during those three years. For example, one of the most important – and most difficult – aspects of an academic career is the ability to question and critique one’s own thought and work. I’m a better scholar when I self-critique; refusing a defensive posture and embracing a bit of humility results in more thoughtful, creative outputs. On a different note, I also find myself using skills related to communicating ideas – I actually enjoy finding ways to relate my subject matter to the lives of people I’m speaking with, be they cab drivers or professors. I don’t expect people to find my work interesting; rather, I try to engage my work with the specific interests of those around me.


What experience do you feel helped you get you where you are now? (e.g. work experience, degree, voluntary work, interests)

So many experiences to choose from! And of course, where I am now is cumulative of a thousand small experiences and choices. I think the turning point in my career was deciding to come to New College for an MSc in Science and Religion – that was the course that “hooked” me, and made me realise that this was a field I could spend my life in. More specifically, I was extremely fortunate to have an outstanding supervisor, Dr Mark Harris. The experience of working with him taught me an immense amount not only about the subject matter of Science and Religion, but also about the subtleties of how to do academia – and still remain a real human being!


Reflecting back on your learning path what decisions did you make and how? 

My learning path seems to have been characterised by my jumping headfirst into situations for which I was wholly unprepared. During my MSc and PhD, I attended as many science and religion and theology conferences as I could. I was always the most inexperienced person in the room (and I knew it!), which was extremely uncomfortable. But, I learned so much this way – by doing a lot of listening and being willing to give many less-than-perfect short papers, I developed far more than I would have if I’d stayed in my “comfort zone.” Surrounding myself with people who were far more knowledgeable and skilled than myself was one of the best ongoing decisions I made.


What advice would you offer to students who want to get into your area of work?

Academics are always talking about the importance of networking, but my advice would be to focus on building good relationships – I would insist that there’s a difference between the two! People know when you’re approaching them just to get an “in” for a job or a reference. Try to inhabit a mindset in which you’re genuinely interested in learning more about the research and lives of the people around you, whether or not they’re “important” or there’s anything to gain from the connection. I’ve found that the right doors tend to open when you’re receptive, kind, and genuinely curious about people, rather than titles.


What general advice would you offer students making career decisions today?

Don’t worry too much about finding your “calling” or dream career! You can’t steer a parked car; be open to the opportunities that present themselves to you, jump in, and see where those experiences take you. I find that each new job experience hones my sense of what I’m really “meant for.” In short – don’t be afraid to take a chance on a path that seems unexpected, off-the-wall, or inadvisable, if it’s something that you’re genuinely intrigued and challenged by. You learn as you go. Sometimes that random summer job at a ranch in Wyoming leads to meaningful opportunities.


What is your best memory of your time at New College?

Meeting my husband! The day after I arrived in Scotland, I attended the New College Ceilidh and saw a kilt-clad Scotsman dancing with a young boy. I was smitten - we started dating, became engaged, and were married, all during our PhD years in New College. Graduating together on the same day in November was a perfect way to end our New College careers!