Making the Transition from PhD Student to Junior Academic

On 5 June 2014 I attended the “Getting Grants, Getting Published and Staying Sane: Life After the PhD” event at the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London organised by HistoryLab+. Links to the full “series” can be found here.

UPDATE: I recently came across this interesting article in The Guardian by Adam Dunn about “Early Career Research: The Power of ‘No'” which may be of interest.

Few PhD students thinking of going into academia are under any illusions as to the sharp difference between being a PhD student and entering into the world of professional academia. Nonetheless, the first session of the event was a welcome one on “Making the Transition”. The speakers were Emily Robinson (University of Sussex), Daniel Gerrard (St Peter’s College, Oxford) and Catherine Armstrong (Loughborough University).

1: Hunting for a Job

They all highlighted how hard it is to enter into academia. Very few routes into the profession are smooth. Certainly, it is now almost unheard of for PhD students to smoothly move from their PhD straight into a permanent position.

Consider Other Departments and Disciplines

One of the first bits of advice was not to immediately limit the scope of your application process. Be open minded about the departments you can apply to.

Obviously they were not advocating carpet bombing the History, English, Philosophy and Politics departments of every university that catches your fancy. However, be aware that, for example, English departments often find historians attractive as members of staff (and indeed vice versa). Historians with an acute literary eye can bring new perspectives.

Similarly, don’t be afraid to teach classes outside your discipline. In an increasingly interdisciplinary world this will not be frowned upon and may well help bolster your CV.

A Few Lines, A Lot of Information

They also noted that you should consider putting together a little short piece of a few lines which seels you and your research interests. Ask yourself and answer them in these lines:
  • What exactly are you doing as a scholar?
  • what makes you special?
  • How does this research focus inform your teaching?
  • Where will it lead you going forward research wise?

Awareness of Future Projects is Important

On that final point, be aware that you should have started thinking seriously about your future projects. Where do you want to go with your research. What naturally progresses out of your previous work? Or, if you feel that research line is drained, where are you heading next, and why?
What is more, don’t just think about the next project you wish to immediately follow. What about the one after that? It will give you a better idea of where you’re going not only for yourself but for possible employers.

Tell People the Search is On

Remember to tell people that you are looking for a job or will be shortly. If you don’t tell them they are unlikely to know. But if they do know they may–when they hear of a position available–think to contact you about it.
All of us have heard about events etc. which were perfect but which we missed. Imagine if that was the ideal job. Getting your name out there will increase the chance of serendipity stepping in and making you aware of a job you would not ordinarily have come across.

Start Applying early

Don’t start job hunting after your have submitted but before your viva. Get started early. This way you will get your eye in for how to best apply. What works and what does not. Where are the jobs in your field most coming up. All is useful information.
What is more, if you start applying before it reaches the panic stage you may find that you can dedicate more time to creating applications and getting to know what they want and don’t want. This will set you up well ready for when the panic period does set in.

On a more practical note, many positions such as post-doctoral/junior research fellowships have very early closing dates. Find out those dates early and plan accordingly.

Think Internationally

For some people there is the possibility to think internationally. If you can consider teaching abroad, do so. With the increasing internationalisation of higher education it is far from a black mark against your name. Indeed, it is very much a positive.
Naturally, international applications require different skills. For example, American applications tend to require a greater deal of evidence of teaching.

Think Nationally

You must be willing to travel fairly widely. Look for jobs around you, certainly. But look beyond your immediate area. You will increase your chances of getting a role and increase your experience.

Link Your Topic to Current Work in Institution

When setting out your application, try and work out where a potential course your could teach could supplement current modules run at the institution. You may find that a course you feel you’re ideal to set up will dovetail perfectly with one already operating. Highlight it. It shows you have thought about your application and shows that you can immediately become integrated into the current departments academic work.

Handling Weird Personal Specifications

Some personal specifications are written–at least in part–by HR departments. As a result they can offer have an odd-sounding tone. For example, they could talk about proof of a ‘customer focus’. If this is the case, include answers to these questions as a separate section of your application. Make it clear that it is in answer to very specific requests for an application.
You may find that these questions will be needed to pass through the HR department through to the academics who will assess your application. Definitely answer them even if once through to the academic assessors they may seem rather silly. If you make it clear that it is in specific answer to these specifications then you can both answer them and avoiding sounding foolish.

2: Early Days as a Junior Academic

Once you have got a job of some description, whether part-time, full-time, temporary or permanent you still have work to do. This is what the panel offered:

“Traps” for Post-Doctoral Work

Academia is a world in which there are a number of things that seem like the first rungs up the ladder but in fact are the first rungs up the step ladder next to the ladder. Consequently, they highlighted, what Daniel Gerrard termed, the “traps” for new lecturers:

  1. Time spent teaching is not spent on research. As a result, as research is the chief currency for progressing in academia you will find yourself falling behind your peers.
  2. Universities run on informal work such as favours, etc. However, jobs follow formal lines of promotion. As a result, the informal work that makes departments run do not easily or directly feed into helping you get jobs.
  3. The academic system up to PhD is founded on a rational system. In other words, you work hard and do well and you will be rewarded. The academic system after PhD is an irrational system in which connections and luck play more of a role. Should be aware of this as you move between the stages.

Next Stage of the Apprenticeship

One thing I often say to people is that I see a PhD not as a qualification per se but as an apprenticeship into academia. This was echoed by Catherine Armstrong, she highlighted that certainly some aspects of academia can be exploitative, but you should see many of them (such as teaching experience) as an extension of that apprenticeship.

Become Part of the Department…No matter What Your Role

Although the thread of caution as to informal work that keeps universities running was certainly obvious, they also encouraged getting involved in the department.

Even if you are only teaching a handful of lessons, get involved in the meetings affecting teaching direction. It is relevant to you and will get you known in the department. It was noted that many temporary teaching staff are almost invisible in the department as they rarely involve themselves.

Of course, it was also highlighted that sometimes that is impossible. If you are travelling many miles to a job for a few hours, unless the meeting/department event coincides with you being on campus it is nigh on impossible to attend them.

Nonetheless, you can still be part of the department in spirit even if being so in person is beyond possibility. If you can’t attend meetings make sure you get and read the minutes. Ask questions. Raise items. Get involved.

Make Sure You Get Full Value from Your Activities

As the “traps” part notes, there are many time-sapping activities which may not count for much in an application formally. However, ensure that these informal activities are advertised in some way or another in your application for other jobs. Choose your referees for this purpose. Ask them to make sure that your informal departmental activities are highlighted in their references.

Some Useful Websites Mentioned

  • jobs.ac.uk–Excellent for higher education jobs in the UK and beyond. Also highlighted that it includes a large section on advice for academic job hunters.
  • h-net.org–Very good for positions in the US. Also very good for various international events and conferences.
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