Back in 2014, I wrote a couple of posts on this site with suggestions about how to approach academic job applications and interviews, especially in the Humanities. This is a sequel on the broader topic of career development for post-graduate and post-doctoral researchers: what sort of strategies can you adopt now to maximise the chances of making a competitive academic job application in the future? As usual, there’s a lot of good advice already out there on this, and what follows is full of opinion and prejudice, and should not be taken as representing anything other than my personal views. I’ll be grateful for all comments, links, additions, and disagreements, here or on twitter (@josephinequinn), and I’ll turn them into a Storify (as here and here).
Just say no
I’ll come straight out with my central piece of advice: what matters most at this stage is what you don’t do. What publishing opportunities you avoid, what conference announcements you ignore, what teaching requests you turn down. It’s too easy to get involved in time-consuming projects which might further your career, but get in the way of what you actually need to do to land an academic job. Which is: finish your thesis, and publish excellent books and peer-reviewed articles. Everything else is, at best, a bonus.
It isn’t always easy for people in insecure academic positions (including ‘being a graduate student’) to say no to their more senior colleagues – colleagues who might interview them for a job one day, and who might already have helped them in one way or another, or even supervised them. But few established academics will resent someone explaining that they need to focus on other commitments or priorities at the moment, and many are simply unaware that such requests can be intimidating: they are not necessarily expecting the answer ‘yes’. If you do suspect that they might take a polite no badly, then blame someone else who won’t let you write that review, give that talk, or sit that cat. Your supervisor or PI, the director of graduate studies or head of department, your editor, mentor, or Impact Co-ordinator. Or feel free to tell them it was me.
Giving conference papers can be a great way to meet other scholars in your field, to impress them with your work, and to get useful feedback from them on your research. But only if they happen to be in the room, and paying attention, and if you happen to be on form, having had the time and inspiration to prepare something that distracts them from the email on their iPad. And if the price of giving that paper is publication in a conference volume, that is going to take up a lot more of your time on something that probably won’t strike risk-averse potential employers as a good bet for submission to government research exercises (sadly no longer solely a British problem). So, give yourself a limit on the number of conference papers you do a year (1 as a graduate student, 2 as a post-doc?), and use them as a way to clarify and test out your current research, not to cheat on it. Focus on the two ends of the conference spectrum: small, specialist conferences on your own author, or region, or problem, which are likely to give you the most in terms of specialist feedback and quality time with your colleagues, and the big conventions, where large numbers gather, papers are short, and publication is not expected. Remember that you don’t have to give a paper to go to a conference – and that asking a good, friendly, articulate question gets you noticed too.
All this goes with far more force for organising conferences and, god forbid, publishing them. Publishing an edited volume of any kind involves a huge amount of work and diplomacy and can take years from start to finish (7, 6 and 5 in the case of the three I’ve done myself). It is very unlikely to be worth it for people at the beginning of their careers, especially if you actually value your relationship with anyone else involved. Think about the classic edited volumes in your field – the ones that caused a stir, that people keep coming back to. Were many of them edited by people at the beginning of their careers? Any of them by graduate students? If there is any doubt left in your mind on this point, please read this post by the brilliant Dr Karen of The Professor is In.
If you are keen to develop or demonstrate your administrative skills by organising an event, consider a work-in-progress workshop in your field, getting people together to share their latest thoughts and findings, with a view to all involved improving their own theses and/or submissions to peer-reviewed journals as a result. If you feel a burning desire to permanently record the event, look for an instant online solution: from simply videoing the event, to a website with blog-posts by the contributors, to a forum where people can read and comment on the draft papers before (not after!) the event.
On the subject of publications, here again it is very easy to be side-tracked by invitations that provide a welcome demonstration of the high regard in which your work is held. Unfortunately, the kind of work you are most likely to be invited to publish is unlikely to be the most useful when it comes to writing a job application – not least since, by definition, it won’t be (seriously) peer-reviewed.
Writing for edited volumes will help you get your name and work better known, especially if some of the other contributors, and ideally editors, are more senior. But it is likely to take a considerable amount of time, and won’t improve your job prospects nearly as much a peer-reviewed article in one of the top journals in your discipline. Writing a review can be an excellent discipline if you really want or, better, need to read the book anyway. Still, write for the sites and journals people actually read (and so will see your name even in passing), don’t underestimate the time it will take to do it well, and never agree to review a book in a language you don’t easily read. I cannot see any advantage at all for an early career scholar in writing for a ‘Companion’ volume.
When it comes to submissions to peer-reviewed journals, remember that you will be judged by the quality of your best piece – which is to say, at least at the shortlisting stage, where it is published. Quantity matters a lot less, save for fulfilling the minimum requirements of any upcoming government research exercise. So put the work required into writing one or two excellent articles, and when you submit them, start at the top, where even if you get rejected you are likely – never certain, of course – to get good quality advice on revision for resubmission elsewhere. This is not a game in which ‘working your way up’ makes any sense.
Should graduate students publish, or should they concentrate on getting their theses finished? The thesis has to be the main focus, but writing often comes in waves, and working in a different form can refocus the larger project. It’s also the case these days that the viable candidates for the most desirable teaching jobs and research fellowships often have at least one publication under their belts before submission. The trick, then, is to choose that thing. A peer-reviewed article is best, but can – should – be pretty time-consuming, and university regulations sometimes forbid publishing sections of dissertation before submission. One answer is to submit a short, technical piece emerging directly from your doctoral work, but that (if necessary) does not need to be included in detail in the doctorate itself. The biggest generalist journals in your field probably won’t be interested in your correction of a minor manuscript error, nor even your demonstration that the manuscript in question was written in May and not June of 1547, but publication in more technical venues is fine as long as they are well known and respected.
Probably the most important thing any of us do, often the most rewarding, and usually a welcome source of cash – but it’s easy to let teaching the balance of time tilt too far away from research, and unsurprising: teaching offers much faster and more tangible rewards. It also has a tendency to expand to fill the time available. Accept good enough: how long does it really take to mark a paper or an essay? Half an hour? Then if you have four papers to mark, start marking two hours before the deadline. How long does it take to write a pretty good lecture? A day? Then don’t start until the day before you give the lecture. If you aren’t in a full time teaching position, ask people who are how long they spend on the various associated tasks, and start practising.
Skills training is an increasingly important part of graduate work in particular, and is now a national research council priority in the UK; the courses and events on offer have multiplied enormously, even if they are not always well-advertised. They don’t usually take up a huge amount of time: there are plenty of opportunities to increase your skills, your employability, and your enjoyment of your work without derailing it. Find out what’s on offer at your institution. There will be teaching training, offering associate or full membership of the Higher Education Academy; there will be training in academic and transferable skills; there will be courses on IT, languages, and effective leadership at all levels. Figure out the gaps in your own skill-set, and fill them efficiently.
It’s easy to find opportunities to talk about your research, and your wider field, to non-academic audiences (including work with schools).This is a good in itself, a chance to communicate the value of our work and of the Humanities, and it is a duty for those of us in secure and permanent jobs funded by public money. It is not a requirement for early career academics, though they are often the first people asked to do it, as they tend to be particularly enthusiastic and articulate champions of their disciplines – and because they find it harder to say no. Take advantage of opportunities that interest you, but make sure that you are getting something tangible out of the experience yourself.
Discussing your work with non-academics is a good way to develop your skills in such things as public speaking, writing for different audiences, and podcasting, as well as helping you articulate your own ideas to yourself. Opportunities to appear on radio, television or in the press are a great opportunity to get your research or (more usually) your wider discipline known to a broader audience, but make sure that you get paid when it’s appropriate, especially when you work for profit-making companies. Look out for ‘knowledge exchange’ activities, where you work with an external organisation, say a charity, company or cultural venue, to complete a project of benefit to you both, as well as to the wider world: here are some examples of the way this works here at Oxford.
Don’t assume that public engagement activity will necessarily propel you up the academic career ladder; they don’t hurt, for sure, but for more research-focussed academic positions the CV points are marginal. It is worth noting in passing that that younger female academics tend to get more involved in public engagement and other forms of academic ‘citizenship’ than their male counterparts, but that this has not as yet resulted in a disproportionate number of female appointments to secure, well-paid academic jobs . On the other hand, and unlike publishing in conference volumes, this kind of work and experience can be extremely helpful if you decide to apply for non-academic jobs – but that’s another topic worth a blogpost of its own.
- Google yourself, and make sure that the right things come up, and that they are up to date.
- Make an academia.edu page, and keep it updated: it’s the first place a lot of people now look once they hear someone’s name.
- Keep up with developments in teaching, research, and the higher education sector in general – own your chosen profession, and educate yourself on the problems we all face. The UK Times Higher and the US Chronicle of Higher Education are obvious places to start.
- Ask senior colleagues for advice – and if possible ask in person: sending an email might seem more polite, but it actually demands a more time-consuming response.
- Remember that while it might be worth doing something for a CV point, it’s very rarely worth doing it twice.