In my last post, I stressed the importance of publishing, applying for funding and teaching experience for progressing your academic career. You may have wondered how you will manage to do all this while finishing your PhD or coping with the workload of your postdoctoral research/teaching job (or working in another job while trying to secure an academic post).
There is no easy answer to this, but deciding on your short- and long-term aims – what sort of role, what sort of institution, how flexible you are prepared to be and how many stepping stones you’re willing to take – will help you prioritise.
Practising time management strategies is also important. Check your institution’s policy on professional development as you may be able to take time out for training, or consider working part-time to give you more research/teaching time.
Flexibility will also be your friend: while for many this comes at the price of personal relationships and putting down roots, if you can move wherever there is work in the UK or abroad – the higher education sector is expanding in some areas of the Middle East, South America and Asia – you will likely find a lectureship sooner. A lectureship in a new location will be a lot to get used to but should give you sufficient security and support to build your profile and networks and, if you desire, plan your return to the UK.
As with most career sectors, you need to develop your networking, application and interview skills to secure a job. Networking is crucial in academia before and after you get a job – you need to be active in your field, attend conferences, participate and find collaborators – so you might as well start as early as possible. Get used to sharing your research interests and being curious about other people’s, both at events and online. Ask your supervisor and external examiner for introductions. Look into which social media tools are well-used in your field – would it be worth joining Twitter, Academia.edu, ResearchGate, commenting on other academics’ blogs or even starting your own?
CVs and cover letters are about selling your skills and experience clearly and concisely. Get feedback on your applications from a careers adviser if you have access to one (if you are not currently studying, some university careers services support alumni and research staff). Otherwise, Vitae is a great resource for CV and cover letter tips, as are your colleagues and friends who recently got academic jobs.
Tailor your CV and cover letter to each job; the CV might not change much but the cover letter will need to be a unique persuasive document. It should say why you want to work in that particular department or research group, show you have done your research into what goes on there and who works there, and explain how you are going to fit in. It is likely that you will also have to write in-depth about your research and/or your teaching – either in the cover letter or in a separate research/teaching statement (check the job advert carefully for instructions).
When describing research, a common downfall is to be too vague with your future research plans. Give as much detail as possible about what you plan to do and how you aim to disseminate it. If asked to write a teaching statement or philosophy, try to give specific examples from your experience.
Interview skills are also about selling your strengths and experiences, but this time you have to do it in person (or potentially over the phone or Skype). This means you have to think about more than your words: your body language and tone communicates confidence, enthusiasm and interest (or insecurity and apathy if you get it wrong). Find out as much as you can about the interview process and how many people will be interviewing you so that you know what to expect. Prepare by reminding yourself of your strengths, anticipating and working out answers to tricky questions, and practising with a friend or careers adviser. You might also have to give a presentation at an academic interview, so make sure you know as much as possible about the audience, technical set-up and time limit so you can prepare effectively.
Finally, there may be a social or ‘informal’ element to the interview, where you have a meal with other candidates and staff. Make sure you are friendly and show interest in everyone you meet during this part of the interview – don’t sit in a corner studying your notes.
In summary, ensure your institution works for you. Make the most of your supervisor’s contacts, training opportunities and careers support. Moreover, don’t underestimate the importance of marketing yourself to employers.