Essential Desirables: Academic Employability and the PhD

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In an ideal world, meeting the skills and attributes listed as “essential” for an academic job would get you an interview and, thus, a shot at the role for which you’ve applied. In the real world, it usually doesn’t even get you on the shortlist, and even if you can demonstrate you have all the essentials and all the desirables, you and your research may still not be considered the magic “fit” for the department, something which is bound to happen and happens to academics at all levels of their career. So what can you do to make sure that “fit” is the only thing an employer might worry about when they see your application for a permanent academic post? How can you make yourself employable, and eligible for a shortlist, before you hit the end of your PhD? How are you supposed to produce doctoral research of a passable level while also doing numerous other things that will increase your chances of employment?

The key is to be strategic and selective. Once you have identified the career path you want to pursue, ensure you know what it takes to follow that path. What will be expected of you apart from your PhD and your expertise in your research area? What steps can you take to start ticking those essential and desirable boxes in the job specification? The challenge is not only to create the opportunities that allow you to do this (such as securing teaching, for example, or applying for external funding) but also to ensure that you can manage those additional commitments on top of your PhD. This means you have to set priorities, be honest with yourself, and review your task list and your aims regularly. If a new opportunity arises, you must be clear on what it would add to your CV, what contacts it would create, what the intellectual yields would be for you, and what time and effort are expected of you in return. It’s easy to create and accept lots of opportunities and to be only half-heartedly committed to each of them. This will neither help your CV, not your reputation as a researcher and potential colleague.

Of course money often plays a big role, too. Teaching three seminars for the same module only equals one line on your CV while it usually results in more pay, less preparation time (because you’re teaching the same thing three times in a row), but also more marking. Many academic activities, such as publishing, pay nothing, making it more difficult to make yourself employable as a researcher if you do not have financial backing of some sort, or a reliable income. It’s important you try to balance your financial needs, your career and skills development, and your mental and physical health. If you do not learn this during your PhD, it’s unlikely you’ll become much better at it afterwards, as a job-hunting post-doc or as an early-career researcher in a new post, where many new pressures will be put upon you. If you are doing a PhD in your field of choice, then lots of opportunities can seem like a great bit of fun or simply interesting. Don’t fall into the trap, though: you love your subject, but if you give too much without thinking about what you can take, then that strategy is likely to leave you both without an academic job and without a decent level of health.

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