Preparing for an Academic Role – Not Just a Job, but a Calling

Before the year 2000, it was quite usual for a considerable number of postgraduate students to secure full-time academic roles even before they submitted their dissertations. Nowadays this has become extremely rare.  It is now only reserved for the very exceptional.

The Current Academic Job Market

Competition for academic roles has now become so intense that it is not unusual for a PhD graduate to go for more than a year before securing an academic role. Even then, the promise of a full-time secure academic role is increasingly becoming rare. Most early stage academic roles, such as postgraduate research or teaching fellow roles are offered on short term contracts, usually one to three years. Alternatively, such roles may be temporary part–time roles. Guaranteed employment can last for as little as a university term in the case of teaching-only roles, and for just the duration of a research project for postgraduate researchers. Some academic appointments, particularly those for teaching, are hourly paid, and they come with no guarantee for progressing to full-time academic roles.

According to the UK Higher Education Statistics Agency (Academic Staff, Table 2), almost 33% of all academics in 2014/15 were on part-time, or casual, contracts. Casualisation amongst academic staff is now commonplace in most Western countries, including Australia, the United States and Canada. For the aspiring academic, this means that the academic job market has become highly competitive.  And yet, for most PhD students, preparing for the job market is usually one of their least consideration. The result is that most PhD students graduate with very high expectations, only to have them ruthlessly shattered as they start in earnest to apply for academic roles.

Preparing for a Career During Your PhD

Ideally, a PhD student should start preparing for a career right from the start of their PhD studies. There is now a lot of career guidance and support in most universities. Over the past five years I have witnessed more and more universities offering career guidance to their graduate students and postdoctoral research staff. This guidance includes training on day-to-day careers stuff such as putting together a CV, writing personal statements, and interview techniques. Universities are now also raising awareness of alternative, and potentially lucrative, non-academic career routes for PhD graduates.  However, when it comes to careers training most PhD students do the barest minimum, usually just doing the compulsory career guidance sessions. Given the tightness of the academic job market, I think this is a big mistake. Preparing for your post-PhD career should be taken just as seriously as pursuing the PhD.

The PhD has traditionally been regarded as an apprenticeship into the academic role. Even though there are now other career pathways in addition to pursuing an academic role, I feel that when you sign up for a PhD, you should still consider yourself as an academic apprentice. There is a lot to learn. This includes taking part in academic seminars and conferences, writing academic papers, and teaching and supporting learning.  All these activities mean that you gain communication and peoples skills that are critical to any professional role. Do not skimp on any of them. All these activities should be part of your day-to-day PhD timetable, starting from day one.

One important thing you need to work at is to stand out from the competition when it comes to job hunting. This requires you to gain competence in at least one skill, and to gain widespread recognition as an expert. For instance, most PhD work in the sciences and engineering requires some computer programming. Develop expertise in a programming language, and seek to gain recognition for that expertise within your subject area and beyond. Contribute to technical forums, and offer to run workshops within your university, and at your disciplinary conferences.

Sometimes your area of expertise may be directly linked to your research area. If this is the case, then make use of academic conferences to gain recognition for this expertise, and seek out opportunities to be a guest speaker in other universities. As more people within the academic field get to know you, then your chances of catching the eyes of decision makers also increases, and with that, the likelihood of securing an academic role.

You should also seek to gain recognition as an expert in teaching. After all, teaching is an integral part of the academic role. Don’t just teach to while away the time and get some payment. Invest time and effort in improving your teaching skills. This includes keeping abreast of current advances in learning and teaching. At the end of each term, students complete their evaluations of your teaching. Teaching excellency is highly prized, especially now as we move into the era of the Teaching Excellence Framework. In addition, most universities now offer Higher Education Academy (HEA) accredited teaching training schemes. These schemes are free for students and staff, and they are worth the effort. Doing one means that in addition to your PhD, you will come out of graduate school with national recognition for the quality of your teaching.

 What if You Don’t Get an Academic Job Before Graduating?

In the present climate getting a permanent academic job is more of playing the long game, and not a 100-metre sprint. At a minimum, you should stay focussed, and continue building on your academic, technical and soft skills. Most importantly, ensure that you remain connected to the academic world. Make it a point to continue publishing and attending your disciplinary conferences. If you live close to a university, look up the seminar schedule for your subject area, and get involved. Attend sessions and also offer to speak on your area of expertise. After all, seminar speakers are difficult to lay hold of. Most subject disciplines have one or more academic associations. Be active in one, thereby ensuring that you remain visible to decision makers within your discipline.

If opportunities for part time teaching or research come up, and they are in line with your field, then consider taking them up. But this is not for everyone as the salary from part-time academic roles is on the low side. However, you could be strategic about this, and take up a role that allows you to pursue a more lucrative career elsewhere. Getting a teaching role ensures that you get access to other academic colleagues, you stay connected to what is taking place in academia, and you can access online databases and publications via the university library website. Most importantly, you are able to build up on your teaching and research skills.

If you are in the sciences or engineering, or in management, another promising route into academia is via a career in industry.   People with industrial experience who are able and willing to teach are increasingly in high demand. This is because undergraduate students are increasingly expected to have industry/business awareness. And designing and running modules which equip students with appropriate industry skills can only be done effectively by someone who has been in industry. Two to three years in industry should be enough to make you competitive in the academic market.

Building Your Own Academic Brand

Finally, when it comes to being an academic, it’s all about branding yourself. Undertaking a PhD means foregoing a salary for three or more years. It also means committing yourself to hard, usually solitary work. For you to have committed yourself to undertaking a PhD, it means you have to be driven by an inner desire to search out new knowledge and to gain expertise in a particular academic field. Therefore, even after the PhD, you should continue with your academic journey. Continue with your research, wherever and whenever possible. And remain engaged with your academic community. After all, unlike most other careers, being appointed to any academic post should be seen as more of getting peer recognition of your academic progress to date, as opposed to simply filling up a role.

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