I’ve got a permanent job. As of September this year, I’ll be a Lecturer in Education Studies. Da-dah!
So, it can be done: I had my viva last August and minor corrections signed off about a fortnight later. I’ve been working on two part-time jobs – one research, one not – for about a year and a half, and in that period of looking at and applying for jobs, I’ve learnt the hard way that having a PhD alone won’t cut the mustard. I’m becoming increasingly aware that a lot of people studying for doctorates are pretty uninformed about the gap between PhD and career stability. It can be a bit of a chasm, and crossing it takes a combination of judgement and luck. Judgement can be applied by being a bit strategic through publishing, teaching and research experience, a developing profile at conferences and online, and so on. I’ve been on a bit of a mission to work on the bits that I don’t/didn’t have, and I’ve written about this here. Whether all of this made much difference, I don’t know. I don’t think it will have hurt, most of it has been fun, and in the limbo between doctored and published, it shows willing, activity, and engagement.
Over the past two years I’ve applied for about thirty jobs, but have probably only been in with a real chance since I had my PhD in the bag. In the past six months I’ve applied for ten, and for all of these I met the essential criteria and most of the desirable ones, too. Shortlisted for two, interviewed for one. Filling in application forms is a bore, all those boxes about whether you’re legally entitled to work, where you’ve worked and how long for, what you did in the gaps, and so on. It also took me a while – and some professorial input – to work out what my CV was supposed to look like. Then, along with a little help from your friends, you learn how to create what you hope is a shiny personal statement, you fire the whole lot off, and hope that you make the cut. Then you get yet another demoralising ‘thanks but no thanks’ email, or from some universities, nothing. ‘If you don’t hear from us within four weeks of the deadline, you should assume that you’ve not been shortlisted’. That’s pretty shabby, really: if you’ve spent the equivalent of a day submitting an application, the least they can do is put you out of your misery!
I was having a discussion with a friend of mine the other day as to whether you should apply for jobs for which you’re technically qualified but which aren’t in your exact field. Neither of us are convinced. We’ve both applied for some of these – he’s in physiology – where you have all of the technical skills (him on certain procedures and machinery, me on qualitative data gathering and analysis) but not the specific background. Some jobs say they’re open to those kinds of people. We think you’ll always be at a disadvantage against those in that specialism, so perhaps you’re better off not applying. There’s also a question mark over publications, because what you’re publishing may not be in the journals or topics that help your career in the long run. Established academics can take risks like that, early career researchers less so. Then there are the jobs that are pretty close to your area but where you have to slightly shoehorn yourself into what they’re looking for. Employers can probably tell, particularly if you’re compared with people that are a close fit.
So how did I get the job? I only know a few people who’ve got lectureships soon after (and one before, the bastard) completing their doctorates. They’re good at what they do, and were also lucky that the right thing came along at the right time. I think the latter is key – there has to be a very good fit, in addition to having enough of the necessary boxes ticked. I was asked to do a short presentation at the start of the interview on where my research fits into their teaching; there were bits all through the curriculum that I could either teach tomorrow or would like to read up on and teach. Then there were a few other areas where I could add to what they already offered, complementing and contrasting with some of the existing material. When I looked through the staff profiles of my future colleagues, I had something in common with a lot of them, but was also different enough to be able to bring something fresh to the mix. You can’t really choose your doctoral topic based on what you think someone might be looking for in four years’ time, so a lot of this is a question of luck.
In the run-up to the interview, I was looking for tips on questions for the interview. I don’t usually drop names, but Nadine Muller – who calls the gap between the PhD and job ‘The Twilight Zone’ – has a few really useful blog posts on academic interviews. One of her guest bloggers wrote: ‘Don’t forget that the right job will be the job that you are offered’. You can apply for all sorts of things, but unless you really do hit the nail on the head in terms of what they’re after (ALWAYS make informal enquiries to find out what these are, by the way) – and are fortunate to be have it better than the competition – you’re not going to get it. You just have to keep firing those ‘could be’ applications into the dark and wait for one of them to click. I was lucky enough to find one that did. Phew!