Hello! I’m Sam and I was asked to write a piece for RGS-PGF detailing how I achieved my first academic job. I was asked to write the kind of blog post I wish I’d read when I was starting to job hunt; and with that in mind, here goes…
It’s one of those truisms that finding an academic job is hard. And it really is – it feels somehow unlike finding any other kind of job, and the specific knowledge around academic job hiring processes is something you’re also somehow expected to know, maybe by osmosis. It’s no wonder Imposter Syndrome strikes so many of us (and I hate to break it to you, but for some of us it never really goes away – I still feel it plenty). Take for example academic CVs, where longer is better. It goes against every fibre of my being to go over the 2 pages I was always told is the maximum you should fill. Even the listing of education/jobs/experience is differently ordered in an academic CV to CVs in every other job in the world. Don’t get me started on the job adverts themselves, which can be confusing in terms of terminology and contract type, or arcane or confusing working conditions (hello Oxbridge), or are freighted with acronyms without explanations. On top of this, salary, contract length and expectations of entry-level posts can be vague, missing or intimidating.
It all results in a task that feels unclear and applications that feel rather uncertain. Usually, that’s through no fault of your own (as evidenced when you’re several applications in, facing radio silence from each institution). Are you even doing it right? Obviously, the offer of an actual job would answer that question, but academic posts are so competitive that your empty inbox is probably more of a testament to a stricken job market than your own merits, or lack thereof, and the COVID-19 pandemic has made a precarious market even worse. You will often be rejected without any feedback from the hiring institution. The standard response to requests for feedback is ‘we don’t offer feedback to candidates unless they’re shortlisted for interview’: but it’s tricky to get to shortlist and interview if you don’t gain feedback on what you need to finesse! In the absence of clear direction from institutions, you may need to utilise a few different approaches. I’ll lay out some that I used.
Here’s what my own journey looked like: In the final year of my PhD, I applied to several lectureships without success. The applications I submitted were for posts that normally required ‘a PhD in geography or social sciences, or close to completing one’ – which I took to mean that they were open to newly minted PhDs as much as anyone else. From asking more established colleagues at my institution, networking with early-career-researchers (ECRs) at a conference that spring, and looking out for the hiring announcements of the successful candidates who were ultimately hired for jobs I applied to and didn’t get (these often pop up on Twitter), I realised the reality was that new PhD finishers rarely get these jobs. The market is crowded with brilliant and equally highly-qualified candidates. Vacancies are limited (and by some accounts, dwindling further).
Most lectureships I applied for were against vastly more experienced candidates, who were usually already lecturers with years of teaching experience, many of whom had convened their own module or taken on additional responsibilities such as admissions tutor or international student coordinator. They had not only already published a monograph, they were in contract for a second book. At the very least, successful candidates had postdoctorates under their belts, or had worked as teaching fellows for extended periods of time – up to 5 years in some cases.
I would argue that at this point a lectureship is more often not a newly qualified position. It is now common for PhD finishers to work on one or several assistantships or postdoctoral posts before getting a lectureship (if they do). Even then, that post is often fixed term.
During my own job hunt, a Research Fellow post at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) caught my eye. It required a PhD in public health or related profession, including social sciences. It was slightly outside of my prior experience and discipline, but I could at least partly match the focus on sexual health. With my PhD researching the mapping of queer male sex and relationships on location-based dating apps. I made sure I read everything I could about reproductive health, which was the other component of the post and an area where I was less experienced. The specification emphasised qualitative methods, which matched my experience, and co-produced research outcomes with communities. My doctoral research was participant-centred and I had been reflecting on making a safe space for sensitive topic discussions, but I wanted to develop this more. The LSHTM post would specifically engage participatory research, so I took what I knew about PAR in geography and brought myself up to speed on co-production and PPI (patient/public involvement) in public health.
I revised (and revised, and revised) my academic CV, highlighting teaching experience as well as research outputs to date. I wrote a targeted cover letter which addressed each of the candidate specification requirements listed in their ‘essential’ list for the vacancy. I addressed each criteria only briefly, keeping the letter to the point, but then noted down longer answers as kickstarters if I got to interview. The hiring panel requested writing samples, so I included a published article but also decided to include a recent blog I had written about the Pulse nightclub shooting in Florida and its impact on LGBTQ space. I was shortlisted for interview(!) and prepared obsessively. I read articles, chapters and media pieces from the hiring team, and took them up on their invitation to produce a slideshow to present in the job interview. I tried to make sure I could highlight the ways in which my research experience matched their goals and I matched up every item in the person specification to a demonstrable activity, role or expertise.
And… I got the job! It was only a one-year contract, but with hopes of renewing this pending funding. That happened at the end of year one, and then again 6 months later, and again a few months later. 3 years later, and I’m still hanging on. We are now embarking on a very exciting project which will hopefully fund my post for another 3 years – at which point I need to think about new grants, funding or jobs.
This brings me to precarity. One thing I was asked to reflect on in my blog post was worries I had when applying for academic posts. To be honest, it’s not a past tense concern: I’m funded until 2023, but then I’ll need to bring in grant money to stay in post. What started as a temporary position became less precarious, but I’ve yet to secure a permanent position, and know strikingly few ECRs who are managing it. Over half of UK lecturers are on fixed term contracts. I worked for several cash-strapped NGOs before my PhD and yet have never experienced precarity like I see in academia.
Some final tips:
– Find academic jobs advertised on jobs.ac.uk and Times Higher. Jobs.ac.uk is better in my view because it allows tighter filtering by salary level, city and discipline. You can also ask it to direct new job alerts straight to your inbox.
– Twitter is an incredibly useful tool, not just for academic networking, but for getting to know an institution and who works there (many staff now have Twitter profiles). It’s also useful to catch job alerts from departments in case you’ve missed them on your job hunt.
– Write a blog. It’s a tip I bet you’ve heard before and probably rolled your eyes at, but it’s true. Writing your own blog as a PhD student is invaluable. I may not keep up a regular blogging schedule, but writing a blog, especially at PhD level, has been useful for thinking ideas through, for connecting with other people online, for publicising my work…and I think getting my job. My hiring committee told me that they read writing samples closely to check that candidates can articulate ideas, and they judge generalist and academic writing equally. Writing a blog allows hirers to witness your skills already in action as a form of public engagement.
– My supervisor, who was himself relatively early into his academic career, was a source of invaluable advice, and I would definitely recommend asking to speak with your supervisor in your final year about your job application plans. Ask to do this separately from your normal supervision slot if that’s what it takes to really get your head in the job hunting zone. Talking your plans over with a supervisor is doubly useful if you have sent them your CV in advance for them to review or comment on.
– Your supervisor has been in your position themselves, and so their advice should be invaluable, but I also know that many supervisors haven’t been on the job market in years (or decades – seriously). Even if they have, the reality of today’s academic job market may be totally different from their understanding. They also may not have time to help you with cover letters or CVs. If this is your experience, ask around to see if another staff member – perhaps your head of department or research lead – would be willing to look over your application materials.
– Find your university careers service and book a CV appointment. Be clear when booking that you are applying for academic jobs and need guidance on an academic CV and cover letter – the advisor is unlikely to be specialist in that area but at you’re giving them the chance to check up on the conventions in order to offer you at least some help. In my case they didn’t have anyone relevant in-house but hired a specialist for PhD students as and when required – the consultant was excellent, and free.
– I would advise job hunters to widen your nets and think laterally about academic applications. STEM and health disciplines are faring better than geography and other social sciences (which in turn are in better shape, hiring-wise, than humanities). Be prepared to articulate why an expert grounding in geography makes you an ideal candidate to think about some of the pressing issues in science, technology and health.
-Take some precious days away from thesis write-up to rehearse how you can show your interview panel specifically how you are the best matched candidate for the role. When universities hire a candidate for a post, they need to fulfil these criteria to be shortlisted and need to demonstrate their fulfilment of these criteria again in interview, so taking time to really read and think about how you match to these criteria is crucial. Think about it: you need to minimise their labour in matching up what they are looking for to interviewing their candidates. You need to prepare some of this work for them, so they aren’t having to find ways to invite you to show how you match up – because you’ve already laid it out concisely and persuasively, on the page and in person. Good luck!
Dr Sam Miles is an Assistant Professor in Social Sciences at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. His work focuses on young people, sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and digital technology.