by Dr Catherine Armstrong
Many of the articles on jobs.ac.uk's Career Development site focus on tailoring yourself to job descriptions and the needs of particular employers. This article will instead look at the sort of skills you need to compete in a very challenging job market. By focussing on ‘skills' you can highlight key areas in which you need to be proficient before applying for any job in academia, and if you are currently a PhD student then you should be trying to develop these early on in your career.
1. Public Speaking
It sounds obvious but much of a lecturer's work involves public speaking in front of audiences ranging from two or three people in Oxbridge tutorials through to hundreds of people in large lecture theatres.
Anyone who has been through the university system as a student has a story to tell about a lecturer who was extremely intelligent but simply could not convey ideas and information to his or her students because of poor public speaking skills. If you can perfect this skill early on then your lecturing technique will improve and it will also help you to do well in interviews.
The most important factor to master is controlling your nerves and adrenalin levels, pitch, tone and pace while speaking. The vast majority of people speak too fast and too quietly with not enough eye contact with the audience. If you listen to great orators such as Martin Luther King, it actually takes them a long time to say each sentence, but nerves mean that most of us speak too quickly.
2. Time Management
Because there are many different strands involved in a lecturing job you have to be able to be a good time manager, juggling classroom time, preparation time, administration work and research. Unless you have a particularly heavy-handed head of department, or you are on probation, you will be able to decide when and how you distribute these tasks during your week.
The advantage of this is that you can find out your strengths and play to them: if you are a ‘morning person' you can start work early and finish before you get too tired, vice versa if you prefer evening working. However, the downside of being so independent is that you have to be good at prioritising tasks and allocating them to spaces of time in your schedule. You might be juggling the requirements of several different ‘bosses', including answering queries from numerous students, so you have to remain cool and focussed under pressure.
There are many ways of handling this. You could, for example, have an A4 page-per-day diary into which everything you have to do is written. Planning and constantly assessing and reassessing progress are key here. It may have worked as a student to leave assignments to the very last minute, but in the world of work this will leave you looking unprofessional and out of control.
Linked with point two above is the skill of self-motivation. It is one of the joys of being in charge of your own working day that you can make it varied and tailor it to your own best working pattern. However this relies on being able to motivate yourself without the formality of having your boss standing over you.
Many people find this especially challenging when working from home. Not all lecturers work from home, but many do spend several days or parts of days per week out of their office. It is important to have a routine in which you are able to prioritise your work above more menial matters such as cleaning the house or looking after family.
This requires a good deal of discipline and time management. The advantage is that both of these skills will have been honed during your PhD, as they are integral to success in that degree. A secret to achieving self-motivation is to constantly define and assess the goals you are hoping to achieve. In the world of work this will have the added bonus of allowing you to develop your career too; if you know that you lack a particular skill or knowledge base than you can pursue it.
4. Inter-personal communication
The cliché of an academic stuck in his or her ivory tower is now a distant myth; in order to get on in higher education in the twenty-first century it is important to be able to discuss your ideas on a one-to-one basis with students and your peers. Disseminating your work at a high level is an important skill to develop for interviews and conferences, but this involves not just being familiar with your topic and field (this will probably come automatically as you delve deeper into it).
Communicating ideas to other individuals also requires skills similar to public speaking including being able to maintain eye contact or reacting quickly to signals given off by your audience.
You will also find that the lecturer's job requires you to communicate with students on a one-to-one basis. Despite their familiarity with technology, many students still prefer to meet with the lecturers face to face, especially if they need to discuss problems with their work or their personal life. While not being a trained counsellor, you need to be able to put the students at their ease and encourage them to discuss personal issues with you. Your mannerisms need to convey an ‘open door' policy, encouraging them to trust you as a mentor and in loco parentis. This is very important if you are given the role of personal tutor. If you feel you lack confidence or skill in this area, many departments will be keen to provide training for you so that you can provide support to your students.
5. Record keeping
One of the most important skills for an academic to develop right from the start of his or her career is that of being a good record keeper. Vast amounts of time can be wasted trying to retrieve misplaced information. It is important to be well-organised in both your physical office and in your email and electronic filing systems.
The sorts of information you are likely to have to deal with at the start of your career are things like student marks for essays and exams. You may have several hundred students in your care every year across several different courses so it's vital that you keep clear records as to their progress. These marks will be gathered gradually across the year. At the end of the academic year you may have to submit these to a course leader or to a faculty administrator, so it is important that you keep those records accurately and securely.
Not every department operates in this way; sometimes support staff do all of this sort of record keeping, sometimes it is done centrally at faculty level or even higher. But it is an example of the sort of level of organisation you need to maintain in order to function as an academic. You will cause great difficulty to your colleagues and administrative staff if you are negligent in this area. Again the cliché of an academic living in an office surrounded by piles of paper does not ring true for the vast majority of us: we need to be able to lay our hands on information very quickly and if we cannot do so, it reflects badly on us and may even hinder our career progress.