On 5th December I spoke to PGRs in Surrey’s School of English and Languages about getting the first job post-PhD. I talked through my career path, from the messy immediacy of the post-PhD stage through to the permanent job I started 4 months ago, and drew out some (potentially) useful things I learned along the way. Below are my notes and slides from the talk.
What jobs are available post-PhD
I focused on the academic route post-PhD, while my colleague Joanna Gough gave further insights into industry in her half of the talk. Going the academic route, I assumed that the end goal is a permanent lectureship combining teaching, research, and admin.
To get there, though, may take several years via the following:
My experience has covered most of these at some point – a brief summary of my career path is as follows:
- PhD, University of Warwick 2007-2010 (viva 2011)
- 1.5 years of hourly-paid teaching, marking, invigilation, academic writing and 1-1 tuition, A-level tuition, short term research fellowship, research assistant on project bid, work on University projects supporting ECRs, freelance proofreading, etc… (Jan 2011 – Oct 2012)
- 1 year as 0.6 FTE research project fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study, University of Warwick; plus hourly-paid teaching (Oct 2012 – Sept 2013)
- 2 years further in this position FT with research time (Sept 2013 – Sept 2015)
- 10-month teaching fellowship at Newcastle University (Sept 2015 – July 2016)
- University of Surrey lectureship (August 2016 – )
In what followed I talked through this in more detail, drawing out a few things I learned along the way about how to make the most of what has been a highly unpredictable, precarious, and varied career path.
The first 1-2 years
This, for me, was the hardest in terms of managing multiple jobs. Like many others I found myself in the double bind of the post-PhD landscape: teaching is what pays, but research publications are (typically) the key experience needed for permanent job. Unless you are very lucky to secure a research post straight away – and some are, of course – you will likely find yourself with a heavy and unpredictable teaching load while trying to write publications. At this point my key aim was finding a way to stay in the game by any means possible. The key things I learned in this period were:
Be flexible: some jobs might not always look like the ideal positions in terms of research time or teaching experience, but there can benefits of roles that offer the development of other skills, building networks and connections (such as my public engagement post).*
Stay affiliated: a library card and institutional affiliation are key, and various University positions should keep you in with these. At Warwick an Associate Fellow status was created which granted 3 years affiliation post-PhD.
Support is everything: work with, not against, your peers for advice, moral support, and help each other with applications and interviews – talk to people who have been to interviews, ask what questions they had and what their experiences were like, build up knowledge of the sector. Your supervisor(s) will hopefully remain a valuable source of support at this point, but you may also seek out others who can mentor you – advice from a range of people across career stages is especially valuable, from early career colleagues who are a few years down the line to more senior professors who have been on interview panels. (Not sure how to find a mentor? This ECRchat has some good advice).
Plan: have a 1, 2, and 5-year plan. This is far from easy when you are living month to month, but keeping in mind long-term goals and objectives is crucial to making the most of the time you do have and, importantly, keeping your morale and long-term focus going in difficult times. Be strategic and prioritise publications, as well as identifying CV gaps to fill; and be realistic, recognize that plans will change and you need to review, revise, readjust periodically.
- I talk further about having a plan in this post on publication strategies as an ECR, and at the end of this post on balancing teaching and research as an ECR.
- I have also spoken more about the challenges of navigating the post-PhD years in this talk (slides only) “Money and a Room of One’s Own” from a professionalisation event at York University last year. This also includes more detail on applying to research fellowships.
3-5 years: finding (some) stability
After 2 years of precarity I took up a 0.6 position at Warwick’s Institute of Advanced Study. I was nominally a Research Fellow but employed to work on public engagement strategy, launching Warwick’s first Book Festival. There were some less than ideal features about the post, not least that I had to make up the remaining time from hourly-paid teaching, and while in theory I had 1 day a week (unpaid) for research, in practice I was working every spare hour on teaching, marking, and applying for jobs.
I also wasn’t in a strictly academic post as my remit was public engagement. However, there are strong advantages in alternative paths such as this: I gained valuable skills and experience in public engagement which became a unique selling-point on my CV. I learned a lot about the higher education landscape and relationships between universities and the public sector, and was able to build up networks of contacts around the University and beyond which became useful in my academic work. It was also immensely enjoyable and refreshing, if challenging at times, to work on something completely different but related to my academic work.
I also tried to be as proactive as possible in making the most of the project I’d been given, and following the success of the pilot Festival in 2013, funding was secured for my job for a further two years. At this point I was extremely lucky: my post was extended to full-time and this included some research time, which was exactly what I needed to write my monograph which in turn, I hoped, would help me get an academic post. Although the job didn’t started as the ideal position, a combination of luck, hard work, and being proactive meant that it came to work to my advantage in the long-term.
- We discussed writing the monograph and getting published further in the post-talk questions yesterday; I have spoken further about my experience here. The Palgrave Macmillan ECR hub also has useful advice.
- The benefits of public engagement and impact for researchers was the subject of this jobs.ac.uk discussion in July 2015, in which I spoke about the ECR experience and wrote further about what ECRs on the job market need to know.
- Social media and networking also came up in discussion – I have written about Creating a Digital Identity as a Researcher for the NU Women’s Network.
4 years post-viva
By March 2015 it was 4 years since my viva and my monograph had been contracted, but getting long- and short-listed for jobs was still tough. At this point, I referred to the statistics published by Professor Andrew McRae, Head of the English Department at the University of Exeter, on the recruitment of a typical permanent lectureship and the number of applicants that had monographs at various stages of publication:
While these figures are a stark reminder of the realities of competition on the job market, I raised these not to prompt worry but rather as a reminder of the importance of both being realistic, and staying on top of this kind of information. Reading about the job market and the state of HE in general may not be the most cheering topic, but it’s much better to know what you, and universities, are up against. Going to professionalisation talks, reading HE news, and talking to others about this, is as important to your career development as what goes on your CV and will not only help you focus your goals but also speak to these better in interviews.
- One particular challenge for ECRs has, and will continue to be, the Research Excellence Framework. My work on the REF 2014 is fast becoming outdated as the landscape changes ahead of the next REF, but this post on my talk at the Westminster HE forum in 2015 and my detailed post on the REF for the New Academic will give an idea of what last time involved, some of which will likely remain relevant.
- Other places you might look to read up about the current state of HE and its impact on ECRs include the THE, Guardian HE Network, Taylor & Francis blog. If you’re on twitter then check out the #ecrchat and #phdchat threads and consider joining the fortnightly chats for more on particular topics.
The final stage of my career journey was relatively straightforward – not withstanding the small issue of moving 300 miles across the country at 2 weeks’ notice for a 10-month job. This position was one that I very (very!) nearly didn’t apply for: the logistics seemed entirely unfeasible for a short-term post, and the quick lead-in time from application close to job start date was such that I assumed there were ideal candidates already in mind. Many of us have been to an interview where another candidate looks sure to get the job – and yet for every experience like this, I have heard another story that ended in success, if not with that job then with future applications to the same department. Although it may not seem like it when you’re faced with a folder full of rejection letters, going for the job you don’t expect to get is always worthwhile: if nothing else, interview experience (and the opportunity to get feedback – something you should always ask for) is always valuable. The experience of going to an interview with a feeling of “nothing to lose” can also be highly liberating – gone is the stifling anxiety of expectation.
And so it was that a couple of weeks later I found myself commuting across the country, and balancing the trials of a new teaching load, panicked flat-hunting in a city I barely knew, and living out of a suitcase in budget hotels for a month (not only soul-destroyingly dull, but 3 fire alarms the night before your first seminars is not the most ideal start).
Even though this was a fixed-term position for 10 months, I had a feeling that this job would be the stepping-stone I needed to get to a permanent position and my instinct was right: I gained useful teaching experience in a new department, built up new networks of contacts, and had incredibly valuable research and career mentorship from senior colleagues, as well as support from fantastic peers. It was the final push I needed to be ready to apply for permanent positions in the spring, securing my current job in late May.
This weekend, I finally faced the horror that is my applications folder and did some sums. Over the course of 5 years, I had applied for a total of 35 jobs, plus 4 attempts at early career fellowship schemes.
I know people who have done many less, and people who have done many more, applications. It varies. There is no golden number, because just like the infuriating advice that something you’ve lost will be in the last place you look, you just never know until the final phone call which application will be the last.
In retrospect it is easy to make some observations about this pattern: I wish I had been more strategic early on and focused on getting published rather than the huge amount of time spent on those unsuccessful applications; I am also aware that I was extremely lucky that the one application I focused my time and energy on this year was successful (there were others advertised at the same time that I decided against going for, for reasons including the vague and not-entirely-advisable “gut instinct”). It is tricky to advise when to start going for jobs as everyone’s preparedness is different at every stage, but hopefully this post has given a few pointers to consider and I am always willing to answer questions in the comments or via email.
* “being flexible” in other terms, e.g. location, is of course hugely dependent upon personal circumstances such as children or other caring responsibilities, which weren’t a factor in my own experience described here.