On Wednesday 13th January, some researchers and postdoctoral fellows
from UCL's School of European Language and Culture Studies and Centre for
Multidisciplinary and Intercultural Inquiry had a panel discussion about
academic careers. Thanks to the panel members: Lee Grievson, Lois Lee, Chris
O'Rourke, Michael McClusky, Matt Davis and Stephanie Bird. It was really
useful to hear so many different perspectives from people at different stages
in their careers and in different departments.
They talked about various aspects of applying for academic jobs after a PhD: teaching and publishing, practical tips for applying, skills to develop during the PhD and what a panel looks for when they review your application. The main focus was postdoctoral study, but there was some discussion of jobs after that, and applying for teaching posts. Overall, the emphasis was placed on the importance of the research itself, but all of the other elements were important contributory factors.
The event started with the bad news: there are too many PhD applicants for the postdoctoral positions and academic jobs available. There's no guarantee of a career progression either, and so it's worth thinking through the alternatives for if you're not successful after a certain period of time. It's important to learn to deal with insecurity without panicking, and to have an immediate plan for after you finish your PhD so that you're not worrying about living costs. Your first job will probably be peripatetic; it's unlikely that you'd get your dream job straight away. Your own wellbeing is paramount throughout the process, and it's important not to base your self-worth on getting an academic job.
Teaching and publishing
Most candidates applying for a postdoc will have at least two publications, and those applying later on will have 2-4 articles in peer-reviewed journals, and will be looking to publish their PhD in book form. Publishing a book might also be important for future career progression, and it's also possible to get a postdoctoral fellowship where your focus will be writing the book, rather than trying to write the book alongside doing a new project.
Focus on publishing journal articles in journals that you read a lot, rather than sections in books. However, things might not get published straight away, so try to get something in print for when you're submitting your application. Don’t worry about rejections- you'll still hopefully get useful feedback, and develop your editing skills.
It's good to go into the PhD viva having published in a peer review journal, as then you know you've already made a contribution to scholarship.
Teaching experience doesn’t have to be at university if there are no positions available, so explore any other options. A good way to get teaching experience as a postdoc is to design a course and present it to your department, for them to accept or not. This will be useful in future applications to demonstrate that you'll actively contribute to a department, not just slot in. Try to do different sorts of teaching, to small groups and larger lectures. Some jobs might ask for a syllabus outline that they'd expect you to start teaching straight away
Practical Points for Postdoc Applications
You can apply for a postdoc usually up to five years after your PhD, and don’t have to wait until you have lots of articles published or a book contract before applying. Even if you're not successful, it's still useful experience.
The cover letter is crucial to show your strengths and what you're about as a researcher. Make sure that your presentation is perfect- the formatting, spelling and grammar. Think about who you want to be your mentor, and don’t be shy about approaching people.
Look out for where jobs are likely to be posted e.g. in the MLA, where postdoc applications are usually due at the start of the academic year.
It's like applying for another PhD- you need to map out a project and demonstrate that it's sustainable and that you can sustain it. Demonstrate the specific niche for your research and its broader application. Give a rough breakdown of how you might present it. Think about outputs, so publications, as well as collaborations and conferences.
Your referees are really important. For applications just after your PhD, you should have your supervisor, but if you're applying later, they don’t have to be a referee for you. Choose referees who understand the position you're applying for.
While people who get postdocs feel like it was luck, often they're very well suited to the position. Think about streamlining your applications to the jobs which best fit your skill set- you won't get the job if you're not a good fit. Don't just send off hundreds of identical applications, really tailor each one to the department you're applying to and show that you understand the institution in your cover letter.
Take a look at other people's applications. Departments usually have a folder of previous applications they would let you look through, or ask people who have got a position. This is especially useful if you're applying for a particular grant- it's so much easier than trying to work it all out on your own.
Skills to develop
Responsibility and management e.g. through other jobs, conference organising.
Demonstrate the position of your research, both broadly in relation to other fields, and specifically, showing that you are an expert. Go to conferences and present your research and organise panels.
Grants- write down all of the funding you have received, however small. Apply for grants to run conferences, workshops or seminars. Most departments have a small amount of money earmarked for this sort of thing. Also include PhD and travel funding- everything counts. Having a funded PhD obviously helps, as it obviously marks you out. However there are other ways to get bits of funding throughout your PhD, and supporting yourself demonstrates resourcefulness.
Take advantage of training programs to develop skills you might need- you never know when they might be useful.
What does a panel look for?
Panels selecting candidates look for four main things: prompt completion of a PhD (in around 4 years), proof of high quality research outputs, teaching experience and public engagement and impact. The most important thing that they'll be looking for is research excellence. Usually the panel will read the submitted written work of the candidates they shortlist.
The proposal needs to be fully formed, and you should outline the practicalities of your research, how much it would cost, the intellectual rational. It's a large grant that you'd be getting, essentially a salary, so you need to justify that.
At interview, be nice! Be the sort of person that colleagues would want to have coffee with, and not dread meetings with. It's also important to be yourself, so that they know what you'd be like to work with. If you have to do a presentation, be mindful of the audience it should be directed to, which is usually stipulated beforehand.
Is it important to be geographically flexible?
Ultimately yes, but not being able to move won't end your career. Think outside the box though, lots of academics don't necessarily live where they teach, so it is possible to commute.
Do you have to have a postdoc to apply for a teaching position?
No, but you'll probably be competing against people who have teaching experience and postdocs as well, so it would definitely be advantageous. If you move to a position where you're just teaching, be aware that it can be harder to move back to a more research based job. Have a sense of what you want your future to look like.
Alex Lee, PhD Candidate in Italian Studies