Let me start by acknowledging two important points: (1) many people now enter academic work through a range of pathways, perhaps transferring from another professional field; (2) many people undertake a doctorate with little or no intention of pursuing an academic career. If one of these applies to you, then this post probably won’t be very interesting.
However if you are a doctoral student and are thinking of an academic career, read on. What I have to say is probably more true of social sciences and humanities than physical sciences, where labs can provide a degree of continuity of focus and career progression. But the warning might be a useful one to bear in mind anyway.
It’s the teaching, stupid
One thing a good mentor does is challenge unhelpful visions and expectations. That is exactly what my mentor did about a year into my doctorate. We were sat in the common room (and he didn’t really know he was my mentor, and probably still doesn’t see himself as such). His comments boiled down to this: I’m sure you’ll do good research and publish heaps, but what are you going to teach? No-one’s going to be interested in you long term unless you can teach something.
My problem was I was doing research on geography education in schools, and I had never been a qualified school teacher. There aren’t many courses around on that topic that aren’t focused on educating new teachers. So, it seemed. I was stuffed. Perhaps I might make it by teaching research methods. But that’s a gamble, and pure methodology didn’t appeal to me as a lifetime’s classroom work.
I am often reminded of this conversation when I talk with doctoral students nearing the end of their candidature, exploring options for what comes next. Many seem to share the hope I had that somewhere, preferably where I was or not far away, a job would appear with my name on it. A lectureship ideally, if not a nice long postdoc on something closely related to my PhD topic, with plenty of teaching thrown in on an area I already know.
It’s probably safest to assume the following: the academic job closely related to your doctoral work almost certainly doesn’t exist, at least not on your continent, and if it does, someone else will probably get it anyway.
What does this mean? Give up on an academic career? No. Not at all. I’m fairly sure there were no jobs that fitted the bill for me anywhere in the world when I finished my PhD in 2006, and pretty sure none have come up since. But I’ve ended up with a lectureship and am very happy. So here are some suggestions to help foster realistic expectations of the academic job market, particularly in social sciences.
The basic foundtion
It all goes without saying that to even get a look-in you’re going to need a stellar track record. This doesn’t mean a Nobel Prize. But it does mean good publications (and this varies: in economics, I understand it is often about the one paper in the big US journal; in history it can be about a book contract with a prestigious publisher). And you’re going to need some teaching under your belt too. And preferably be able to show you understand how universities work (have you been on a committee or two?). And then something else to make you stand out. Plus the confidence in yourself, and ability to secure it in the selection panel, that you’re going to bring in research money.
So let’s take all that for granted.
It will help if you are flexible. You will almost certainly have to budge considerably in one aspect, or perhaps two. Let me explain.
You might have to be ready to move away from where you did your doctoral studies – geographically. Not only are some funders very keen on post-doctoral movement between institutions, some are rather wary of a narrowness that might result from staying put for too long. There might be another uni down the road, or several in one big city. But you may have to move hundreds of kilometres, or more. I eventually moved from the UK to Australia for work. This has its problems. While it is lovely for policy makers to talk of mobile worker ants who can up sticks, grab a visa, and move to where their skills are most needed, some people have things like families, mortgages, commitments to their community. Geographical moves aren’t always possible. In which case others moves will likely be needed.
You might have to be ready to move away from your topic. The number of jobs with the title you’d give your ideal postdoc is probably zero. The number of jobs you could do is considerably larger. You’ve learned valuable research skills, you know how to search and become familiar with new literature, you can add valuable insights by coming to a problem from an oblique angle. A few weeks before I finished by PhD on teenagers’ learning of geography in schools, I applied for a job on a project looking at doctoral students’ experiences. And I got it. I didn’t know a thing about the field of doctoral education. But I convinced the panel I could add value to the team and knew my stuff research methods wise.
You might have to be ready to teach almost anything. Including stuff you really don’t know. Never read Foucault? Turns out you’re giving a lecture series on his work to undergrads. You can help create confidence in those deciding to hire you by teaching outside your direct area while you’re still a student. Don’t go too far and teach so much that you never finish or take a decade to write your thesis, but enough to show you can hold your own in teaching broad content.
Brace yourself for insecurity
You might have to be ready to take a short-lived job or one or more part time or casual positions. I was really lucky to get a four year research job the week after I finished my doctorate. But I changed topics completely to do so. I know many recent graduates who get themselves a portfolio of teaching jobs – an undergrad subject in one uni, a masters one in another, an admin job one day a week, and a research assistantship for a few months. It’s all very insecure and rather unsatisfactory, but it’s a way in. There are many reasons why casualization of the academic workforce is growing, and I am not at all convinced it is good for future generations of the academic workforce, for academic collegiality, for universities, or for students being taught by casuals. Of course casualization offers flexibility and economy, very important they are too, but the widespread production of multiple forms of insecure work has its down sides. (This is probably a topic for another post I think! – but if your curiosity is piqued, see below for some reading).
Sell, sell, sell
And finally, it is almost certain that you’re going to have to give your research some extra bite as it enters the next phase. A doctorate is a wonderful, precious opportunity – a privilege to explore something that you really care about. In the process, of course, you argue why this matters to others too, but you really have more freedom than at any other time to ask the questions you want. From post-doc on it’s never really the same. It all becomes a question of what other people are willing to pay for. This may not mean changing topics though ask yourself hard if you’re stabbing yourself in the foot by doggedly sticking to research about how people choose the colour of their toothbrushes, and whether you might be better off going for how people choose their toothpaste, or what influences their oral hygiene practices). I recently heard someone give a very persuasive account of why 18th century female English literature is important and relevant today. I’m not saying you should sell out. I’m saying you need to get good at selling: yourself, your research, and your amazing ability to teach amazingly.
So it’s not all doom and gloom. You have to be good, believe you’re good, and get others to believe you’re good. Fuelling self doubt, imposter syndrome, or seeing self promotion as uncouth and brash won’t get you a job. Neither will waiting for someone to pay you on the back and tell you that perfect job has just come up right in your home town. Nor will putting off submitting that paper until it’s perfect (see my previous post on how not to have a publishing track record). But assuming you’re good, you know it, and can convince others, and have a strong track record, then with a readiness to move (geographically, intellectually, pedagogically) and an ability to engage others in your ideas, it really can work out.
My own, long and winding journey
As I said, I started out looking at geography in secondary schools. Then I got a fixed term, 4-year job on a research and development project looking at doctoral education. During this time I managed to get a bit of teaching on research methods, and completed a higher education module.
When I applied for a postdoc in Australia, I was, sensibly, advised by several people that proposing four years’ work on doctoral education (the follow-on from my first job) was not likely to be competitive. Several people told me: Find something that links clearly and directly to what the university is prioritising and what some really good people there are doing. So, somehow, I convinced a panel that my methodological and theoretical expertise were a secure platform for me to change topics again. And so four years looking at partnership practices in a service for parents with young children began.
Even with a postdoc research fellowship, I still had to confront – explicitly senior managers – the question of what I could teach (my mentor wasn’t wrong: it is the teaching, stupid! But it’s the research $$$ too. And the publications. And the impact….). Luckily, by then my research and teaching experience were broad enough to map out over a sufficient area of taught content. Various hurdles later, and 8 years after I finished my PhD: a full time, permanent academic job.
I have got better at making these intellectual moves part of a coherent academic story. I’ve always been interested in learning, I’ve matured theoretically and methodologically, and I’ve always tried to make a strong case about practical impact of my research. Some threads go way back to 2002 when I started my masters, some have fallen off, others started later and are still going strong. And others are round the corner.
I’d love to hear from others about the twists, turns, leaps, and compromises of early academic careers. Or perhaps what the costs and opportunities of the ‘flexible’ job market are.
Here are some readings about causlisation of the academic workforce:
Hey, V. (2001). The construction of academic time: sub/contracting academic labour in research. Journal of Education Policy, 13(1), 67-84.
Hobson, J., Jones, G., & Deane, E. (2005). The research assistant: silenced partner in Australia’s knowledge production. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 27(3), 357-366.
Lipsett. (2007, 22 November). Union criticises ‘blight’ of fixed-term academic posts. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2007/nov/22/highereducation.uk
Marginson, S. (2000). Rethinking academic work in the global era. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 22(1), 23-35.