Today’s extremely competitive academic job environment can cause a great deal of heartache for the would-be academic. I have written before about priorities for PhD candidates when planning ahead for an academic career. Here I want to add a few words of advice about how to maintain a methodical and pragmatic approach to looking for a job, particularly when the field is so challenging and the pressure so great.
Understand employment patterns
Probably the hardest thing to do while you are a postgraduate student or an early career academic is to get a handle on the overall employment patterns of your particular area of study. It is almost impossible to judge this from the outside, since you need both time and a fair amount of inside knowledge to arrive at an understanding of where the jobs might fall, who might be up for retirement, what recruitment strategies a given institution might have, where might be having a job freeze, and so forth. Much of this information is not publicly advertised, so it is worth keeping your ear to the ground when networking, attending conferences, and interacting with peer groups. Paying attention to trends and patterns in your field in this way will enable you to gain a greater understanding of where to focus your energies in the job hunt, how best to approach the department or institution of your dreams – and importantly, where might be unrealistic to expect any kind of opening. In other words, you need to do your research early, in a targeted fashion, and preferably, long before you get to interview.
Tailor your CV
This is obvious advice, but it bears repeating. Make sure you maintain a single ‘running’ CV which simply documents all your accomplishments – but never send this out. This master document can serve as the template on the basis of which you will be able to tailor your applications appropriately. Bring your expertise as a researcher to bear on this task: don’t just send out a generic CV, but make sure your CV is crafted, honed, and maps directly onto both the job specification and, more subtly, addresses the priorities that you have already learnt (see above) are in place at the institution. Be prepared to drop the parts of your employment history that don’t directly speak to these. As with all good tailoring, less is more.
Watch the Funding Providers
It is always a good idea to keep abreast of large funding providers’ news so that you can anticipate upcoming vacancies. Keep your eye on your favoured universities’ ‘latest news’ publications, subscribe to funding newsletters, and watch the grant announcements in such news and jobs outlets as the Times Higher Education closely. Grant announcements might provide information about any upcoming posts to cover grant holders’ leave, for instance – and even if they don’t, you might be able to anticipate an imminent teaching vacancy or postdoctoral research position and prepare your pitch ahead of the crowd. Remember that such temporary posts can be invaluable stepping stones to building a more stable career. Look out too for any public invitations from the Research Councils to bid for funding on subjects close to your expertise – you might just find yourself in a position to approach an institution or department with a proposal for a bid that they can’t turn down, and which might involve creating a research post for you as part of it.
Be a good record-keeper
As in all things academic, your records should be meticulous. Keep a careful record of the jobs advertised in your field, and if you find yourself in a position to apply for lots of jobs, keep a spreadsheet detailing your application – when it was submitted, responses, and any possible follow-ups.
Keep an open mind
It’s also important to be pragmatic about opportunities more generally, and to understand that the academic workplace is becoming increasingly casualized and subject to many pressures that may not match your understanding of academic work from the point of view of a postgraduate or post-doc researcher. If you find yourself questioning your pursuit of academia, remember that your academic qualifications can take you to many different and exciting careers beyond academia itself.