Strategic Academic Career Planning

Those of you who are aiming to spend the rest of your working lives in academia won’t be surprised to hear that securing an academic job these days is increasingly difficult. Long gone are the days when having a PhD was enough to get you a lectureship – nowadays you really do have to set yourself apart from the crowd to get an academic job. It’s easy to complain that the jobs just aren’t out there, or that there are so many demands placed on would-be academics that it is virtually impossible to meet the standards required: not only do you have to have a PhD, but you also have to have published in top journals, secured funding, taught undergraduates, supervised post-graduates, served on loads of committees and have a record of knowledge transfer before they’ll even look at you for a lectureship.

Clearly it’s virtually impossible to have done all of these things while simultaneously finishing a PhD or even while holding down a full-time research associate post (although there are those superstar researchers out there who do seem to have managed all of this and more). However, with a bit of strategic (and lateral) thinking, it is possible to show that you have the potential to do all of these things. So – below are my top tips for preparing for an academic career:

  • Sign up for job alerts in your field from sites like jobs.ac.uk, guardian jobs and the THES (probably 2 of those 3 are enough to make sure you’re getting notified of all of the jobs in your field). If you want to stay in Manchester (or go to another University in particular) make sure you regularly check their HR website so that you know about jobs as soon as they are advertised. You’ll want plenty of time to prepare your application. Even if you’re not job hunting right now, it’s useful to know what jobs are coming up and what you need to have on your CV to be a credible candidate. That means you have time to fill in any gaps that you become aware of.
  • Be strategic in planning your progress towards the job you want. Once you know what potential employers are looking for, you can plan how to fill any gaps in your experience. Some of those gaps may require several steps in order to fill them. For instance, if you decide that you need more experience of knowledge transfer, you’ll need to think carefully about where and how to get that experience. Who’s potentially interested in your research? How will you make contact with them? If you want to use the media, what’s the most appropriate forum and how can you get them interested in your work?  – all of this will require reflection and thought before you can really make things happen.
  • If it’s proving difficult to get the exact experience that you need, think laterally about how you can get the skills required instead. For instance, a lot of job adverts for lectureships will want you to have supervised graduate students. If you’re relatively junior in your department or there are few PhDs to supervise, you’re not likely to be able to get that experience. However, you might be able to get some of the skills needed for PhD supervision in other contexts. For instance you could offer to mentor a graduate student in your department or sign up for Manchester Gold. That way you are working with graduates and getting a sense of some of the issues and challenges that they face as well as honing some of the skills that are probably going to help you support a graduate student through his or her PhD. You could also attend some of the training on offer to Supervisors – some of the sessions are open to research staff as well as academic staff, and that would show that you’re interested in supervision and willing to get the training that you’ll need as a new supervisor. Similarly, you might find it difficult to get opportunitites to teach undergraduates, but you can develop the relevant teaching skills by working with other groups – you could sign up to Researchers in Residence or even work with groups at the Manchester Museum. You won’t have the exact experience of having taught undergraduates, but you will be able to talk about your approach to teaching and how you could use your experience as a basis for future degree teaching.
  • Make the most of being at Manchester. There are lots of opportunities here that other candidates may not have had access to. For instance, if you haven’t had chance to deliver a conference paper on your research it might be worth thinking about offering to deliver a talk on your research method as part of the methods@manchester project. If you’re interested in public engagement, Manchester has the Beacon project which may be able to help you to identify a potential audience for your research. As a member of staff you are also entitled to an annual ‘Performance and Development Review’ in which you have the opportunity to discuss your career aspirations and development with your line manager to ensure that you are performing your current role satisfactorily, but also that you are able to develop the skills and knowedge that will help you to progress. These are just some of the opportunities available to you while you are at Manchester, so make sure you take full advantage of them.
  • Find ways to demonstrate the characteristics that academic employers are likely to value. You may not be able to show that you’ve managed a grant, but there are other ways to show that you have the skills needed to manage a grant. For instance, grant-makers and employers look for evidence that you can deliver what you promise within the timeframe set. You can show this by emphasising timely completion of the PhD or a journal article. You can show that you can manage projects and budgets by organising a small conference or researcher symposium within your school or in collaboration with other Universities in the North-West (another advantage of being in Manchester is the abundance of other Univesities in the vicinity – what other University has another University on the same street?!).
  • Much of what I’ve said above about developing skills in lieu of elusive experience relies on your ability to articulate the skills that you’ve developed to potential employers, and to recognise how skills and knowledge are transferable between contexts. Researchers are notoriously bad at this, so get some practice in. Take some time to reflect on your achievements and experiences and consider how they might help to prepare you for academia. If you’re not sure, get some advice from a PI, the Careers Service or myself.

If anyone has any other top tips to add, it would be great to hear them – just comment on this post!

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