This article shares insights from the stories of three early career researchers outlining how their PhD subject and the skills gained helped them to gain a first post in academia.
The quotes and insights are taken from case studies generously provided by Caroline a lecturer in English Language Studies at the University of Birmingham, Monna a senior lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology at the University of Northampton and Michelle a researcher in the Centre for Health and Wellbeing Research at the University of Northampton.
The value of contacts and networking
It is who you know, as much as what you know that can help you to stand out in a competitive job market and it is therefore essential to network and build contacts during your PhD.
“I think that if you are considering applying to work in academia talking to as many people as possible is the best thing you can do. I was often told that networking was a really important part of hearing about potential employment opportunities but I would take it a stage further than that. Hearing about the roles that other people do really helps you to frame the kind of job that would – and would not – work for you.” (Michelle)
“It also helped that the department knew me from my PhD days and that I’d gained experience at the Open University.” (Caroline)
Experience, skills and attitude
It is important to demonstrate in a CV or at interview that you have the relevant experience, skills and attitude for the role. Ensure that you think strategically to build up the skills prospective employers will be looking for.
“I think that during the PhD, I developed number of key skills vital to my current role: organisational skills, people skills, communication skills, problem solving skills, administrative skills, willingness to work long hours and team working skills. In addition, I believe my love for research, self-motivation and hunger for knowledge has really helped not only to complete the PhD, but in my role as a senior lecturer.” (Monna)
“I think that the key things that helped me to succeed at interview above research knowledge/skills were communication skills and evidence of having worked with a range of different groups. Whilst I was completing my doctorate I did a number of work placements, from researching in third sector organisations to acting as a consultant to local authorities alongside some part time lecturing. This gave me the opportunity to apply what I was learning and I think that those experiences combined with my doctorate gave evidence that I could manage quite a varied workload and liaise effectively within and across different organisations.” (Michelle)
Publications and creating an online presence
“My message to current students thinking of career in academia post PhD would be to first of all, be active in your area. This is best demonstrated by publications, so get your work out there! Also there is no harm is setting up research alliances and find that “writing partner” who shares your work ethic, writing style, and needs the publications as much as you. That way you can spar each other on! I found mine post PhD, and so far it has been great!” (Monna)
It is also increasingly important to consider how social media can enable you to share your work and to create an online presence, for example through writing a blog.
Knowing what is important to you
Approach your job search and the application process knowing what is important to you. At interview employers will be looking to see your motivation and commitment to the post.
“At the end of my PhD I was quite unsure about the career path that I wanted to follow. I wanted to be able to conduct research, although I was less sure about the teaching side of a traditional academic post! It was important to me that any research that I did was applied: I wanted it to have the best possible chance of making an impact, even in a small way. The systems in place to support research in academia in terms of peer support, training and development were a secondary but still important element of this decision. (Michelle)
Caroline is a lecturer in English Language Studies at the University of Birmingham where she completed her PhD entitled ‘A Corpus Linguistics Study of SMS Text Messaging’.
Monna is a senior lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology at the University of Northampton. Her PhD was entitled Psychological Rehabilitation from Sport Injury: Issues in the Training and Development of Chartered Physiotherapists.
Michelle is a researcher in the Centre for Health and Wellbeing Research at the University of Northampton. Her PhD focussed on the (in)accessibility of leisure spaces as experienced by teenagers who used wheelchairs.