On gaining that first post-PhD academic post

I am delighted to be able to say that this week I was successful in getting my first post-PhD academic position (I will say more about that some other time; I haven’t yet had the paperwork so will wait for that before saying too much about the actual job). Now that I’ve had a couple of days space from the interview, I’ve found myself reflecting on the process of applying for academic positions, particularly in these difficult times with increasing expectations and demands on even early career researchers and numbers of applications far outweighing the number of jobs available.

I have been applying for jobs for about the past year and a half, the first interview coming a couple of months before submitting my PhD. What I realised quite early on was that I needed a strategy for applying for jobs – conversations on twitter have convinced me that I am by far not the only one who invests a lot of myself, emotionally as well as in terms of time and effort, in each individual application. Therefore, whilst I have known other people apply for pretty much every job that ever came up, on the assumption that the more they apply for the greater the likelihood of eventual success, I felt that for me, given that I was working almost full-time in clinical practice whilst writing up and then subsequent to the PhD, as well as my Open University tutoring, I simply could not invest that kind of time and emotional effort for jobs which were likely to be more of a long shot. I therefore decided to concentrate my applications a) geographically, and b) on jobs where I could honestly say on paper that I pretty much met every one of the ‘Essential’ items on the person spec. Because of my academic and professional background, and the fact that my PhD was based in an area studies department but drew on a number of disciplines, I was able to be a bit more expansive about the fields I could look at than about the geographical location, and didn’t need to just restrict myself to one subject area.

Overall I think that point b) above is the most important. Whilst I didn’t quite get a 100% success rate of being shortlisted from applications, I did get shortlisted in 7 out of 11 applications, which I think is a pretty reasonable showing. That might not sound like lots of applications (I have a friend who I think applied for over 40 in a similar time period before getting her lectureship), but it meant that I wasn’t constantly going through the applications mill, and also (more importantly) it helped me to concentrate on applying my mind to thinking about how to sell myself for a job which I could realistically do, rather than on how to squeeze my particular skill set into a job which actually wasn’t suited for me at all. Concentrating on the person spec also helps me to work out if I have a realistic chance of being shortlisted. I saw a post recently which sounded amazing, would have been fantastic experience and where I met nearly all of the essential criteria. However, the one aspect I didn’t meet (experience of using SPSS) was big enough that I reluctantly had to decide to not proceed with the application, as that was too important and complicated for me to be able to inflate my (non-existent) skills in that area.

My experience with interviews has been much more mixed, and harder to pin down to a successful formula. Some have gone well, and I have felt that if I didn’t get the job it wasn’t because I wasn’t good enough, but because someone else was better. Others I have realised pretty early on that I am not what they are looking for, or that despite my meticulous preparation they ask me about something really obvious I’ve missed which rocks my confidence. In some I have also felt that, even if I felt it was going OK as an interview, now that I was there I had doubts about whether the job was a good ‘fit’ for me. What I have found, in general, is that I have been able to trace my progress from that first interview in October 2010 to now, and can definitely see on reflection how I have improved in my ability to present myself. Of course there are exceptions to that; I had an interview a few weeks ago after having been ill and unable to prepare well, and I am well aware how poorly I came across on that occasion – however it was good practice for the next interview, which turned out to be the successful one. I think my main tips would be to be familiar with your own research (I read my thesis introduction on the train to the interview this week and having that refresher really helped), and also have a sense of where you would fit into the wider department; ie what you have to offer that complements what they are already doing. In this week’s case, my ‘fit’ came through methodology (the research I will be part of in this job is not in an area I have researched previously, but it is qualitative research so I have good experience of the methods they are using) and to an extent also my professional background. I also found that reading research that has already been done by the people I would be likely to be working with was particularly helpful – it meant that I had a sense of where they were coming from, and could think in advance what I had to contribute to that.

I don’t start until May, so I now have a couple of months where I intend to spend quite a bit of time trying to write some articles from my PhD research, something I’ve had minimal time to do up till now. I think having not published very much up till now is another thing which has, realistically, impacted on the amount of time it has taken me to get a job, and is something which I would urge people still doing their PhD and wanting to move into an academic post to take seriously and build into their work plans. I am lucky that I have the chance to catch up on lost time in that respect!

For all those still going through the mill on the applications merry-go-round, I hope that this post can provide a few pointers and I wish you every success.

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2 responses to “On gaining that first post-PhD academic post

  1. that’s really interesting to hear your strategy Jackie, and makes a lot of sense. I’m still in the apply for everything category, and there are only a few cases where I haven’t put something in, even knowing I’m not quite right (but then I’ve been advised to go for things a bit out of my area just in case it does strike a chord with another interest…). However, you’ve definitely given me something to think about there and with a massive cluster of apps in the next few weeks maybe I’d be better re-thinking my strategy a bit.

  2. I’m not sure, I think there are merits in both approaches. But I just had to be realistic about what I could fit into the time available to me, and thought I would rather spend more time on applications where I felt I was a better fit rather than do more applications less well.

    Good luck however you decide to do it!

    I also remembered today another unsuccessful one, so that makes 7 interviews from 12 applications not 11. But still not bad 🙂

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