Strategic Academic Career Planning – top tips

If you weren’t able to make it to Pathways, you’ll have missed the session that Prof. Helen Gleeson and I ran on Strategic Academic Career Planning. So, below you’ll find a brief summary of some of the tips that we offered in that session. Obviously they’re not going to give you a magic formula for getting an academic job or be able to tell you precisely what you should do (you need to book an appointment at the Careers Service for that kind of individual help: http://www.careers.manchester.ac.uk/staff/research-staff/book/), but they might help you to start planning how to ensure you’re a credible candidate for an academic job.

1. Think carefully about what kind of academic job you’d prefer. You shouldn’t get your heart set on one ‘perfect’ job, but equally you should be aware that not all academic jobs are the same and have thought about what kind of role might appeal to you the most.

  • Do you want to be a research-focussed, teaching-focussed or research and teaching lecturer? How feasible are these different career pathways in your discipline? What are the pros and cons of each one?
  • What kind of University would you like to work in? There can be some significant differences between Russel Group and post-1992 Universities. Find out what they are and what that might mean for your day-to-day work.
  • What kind of department could you work in? It’s worth considering how flexible you are, particularly if you’re in an interdisicplinary area like criminology where you might be able to work in a history, sociology or law department depending on the approach to criminology that you take. Know where the jobs are and think about how best to position yourself.
  • Do you want to stay in the UK? If you think you might like to go abroad, find out what the norms are in the country you’re applying to. In North America, for instance, you are often expected to have a teaching portfolio for lectureship positions.

2. Be aware of the potential barriers to geting an academic job and think about which ones are going to be difficult for you to overcome. Some of the barriers might include:

  • Not being clear about what is needed or expected in your field. This is relatively easy to deal with these days – go to www.jobs.ac.uk and look up jobs in your area. Read through the job description and person specification to get a sense of what is needed for jobs at your level. You could also look up people that you admire or who are at rougly the same career stage as you. Many people now have their CVs on-line so you can keep an eye on how many publications or conference presentations the competition might have done. Find out what the exceptional people do and copy them!
  • Not having the time to do what’s needed. This is where being strategic and well-informed about what is expected comes in. Spending a bit of time understanding what you really need to be doing to get the kind of academic role you’d like will actually save you lots of time in the long run. Knowing whether to spend your time getting publications out or improving your teaching means that the time you spend preparing for your next career step isn’t wasted.
  • Geographical /time /financial limitations. Sometimes these are all connected, and they often depend on your personal priorities. If the next academic job that comes up is in Aberdeen, can you move there? Or do you have a home and family in Manchester? Can you afford to take more fixed-term contracts or do you want the security to be able to buy a house? If you’re planning to have a family, can you do that while still on fixed term contracts? All of these issues need to be thought about carefully and prioritised.

3. Once you’ve figured out what role you’d like and are clear on what you need to do to be in with a chance of getting it, start gathering the experience and knowledge you need. Manchester has lots of opportunities for Researchers to develop their skills and knowledge in lots of different ways including Researchers into Management, Researchers in Residence, the Manchester Beacon for Public Engagement, the Museum and Whitworth Gallery, the Performance and Developement Review system, mentoring schemes and several other Universities in very close proximity (if you need some other teaching opportunities). You may, however, have to think laterally – it might not be possible for you to gain the exact experience that recruiters are looking for (you may not, for instance, have the chance to supervise PhD students while you’re a researcher), but you might be able to learn some of the skills needed in other ways (by offering to act as a mentor for junior researchers, for example).

4. When you do get invited for interview, make sure you have a good understanding of the department, the job and your research area. These may seem like obvious things, but academic recruiters often report candidates not having a good sense of what the job entails or what their skills or research might bring to the department. Use your research skills to find out what you might have to offer them and go in with a very clear understanding of why they should hire you.

5. Have a Plan B and be developing your potential to be a credible candidate for this alternative job alongside working towards your Plan A. Your Plan B should not be a second choice, something to do if you ‘fail’ as an academic, but something that you would be equally good at and enjoy almost as much. Find out what other researchers in your field have gone on to do. Think carefully about what you enjoy and how you would like to spend your working time. Ensure that you also get a realistic sense of what an academic job involves and think carefully about whether it’s for you – academia can involve a huge amount of criticism and rejection. If you’re not fairly resilient, it may not be the right kind of job for you.

5. Finally, here are a few (relatively) quick fixes that might help improve your chances of getting an academic job:

  • Get some teaching experience or, if you do have experience, consider getting Associate fellowship with the Higher Education Academy.  For more information, see: http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/ourwork/supportingindividuals/alldisplay?type=resources&newid=ourwork/recognition/new_associate_gainrecognition&site=york
  • Get involved with professional bodies in your area. They often offer small grants and bursaries, and they also offer a way for you to get experience of administration.
  • Get some professional advice on your CV. You could start by reading my post on academic CVs at: https://researchstafftraining.wordpress.com/2010/06/03/writing-an-academic-cv/ but you should also ask someone to cast a critical eye over your CV. The Research Staff Consultant at the Careers Service is available to offer individual feedback on your CV.
  • Have a publication strategy. Ideally you’ll have a pipeline of papers established (some already in print, one or two under review and another one or two in progress) to show that you’re always working on something.
  • Offer to review for some journals. This shows that you are willing to get involved in the ‘service’ aspect of academic work, but it also puts you in touch with editors who might then consider publishing your work or may ask you to become an editor once you’re more established.
  • Offer to mentor junior researchers. Again, this shows a willingness to contribute to your department and discipline, but it also equips you with the kind of skills you might need to work as a PhD supervisor in the future.
  • Get trained to do the roles that you aspire to. You may not be in a position to supervise PhD students now, but getting some training means that you are prepared for the role when it comes along and it shows that you’re committed to becoming an academic and interested in your own professional development.
  • Consider co-authoring. Research shows that multiple-authored articles are generally cited more frequently than single authored pieces. Co-authoring also means that when you are sick of a piece of work or have done all you think you can tolerate, you can pass it to your co-author so that s/he can progress it rather than putting it in a desk drawer where it will languish until you’re ready to pick it up again.  It is important, however, that you agree the order of authorship to avoid problems in the future. For some advice on ownership of intellectual property and author attribution, see the briefing from Canadian Association of University Teachers below:

Advice on Intellectual Property and Authorship

  • Find out about potential funding sources. You should apply for funding (even small travel grants) as early and frequently as possible. Success in securing small grants sets you up for winning larger grants in future.
  • If you cannot get the experience you need within academia, think about ways that you might be able to develop your skills in other arenas. Leadership potential could be shown by running a community group and teaching skills could be developed through work with a youth group. Think about how you could use other opportunities to build up a strong CV.
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2 thoughts on “Strategic Academic Career Planning – top tips

  1. Thanks to Adi Kuntsman for the comments below:

    With all the advice outlined above, which is fantastic, this post says nothing that helps prepare PhD graduates/early career academics, seeking for jobs, to factors that are beyond their control: the difficult state of the UK academic market today (and, I believe, elsewhere as well) ; the incredibly tough competition, and the fact that not every hiring process is fair and meritocratic.

    And of course, young academics should know that they are likely to get a job not because it was their preferable choice or even their plan B, but simply because there were no other options,and they were lucky enough to get any job – and that this is not the result of their poor career planning or lack of experience or insufficient preparation for application/interview. In other words, that it is not their fault.

    Searching for a job after PhD or during ‘early career’ years is incredibly difficult and at times demoralising and depressing. It is important to know that those less successful (or unsuccessful…) may not necessarily be less good academics.

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  2. Some very good points, especially the last one – it’s true that some of the most promising researchers aren’t necessarily the ones that end up in academic posts (and that might be for a variety of reasons).

    One other comment about hiring decisions not being fair or meritocratic – it’s true that recruiters often like to hire people that they know (or at least know of through colleagues or publications). However, there are strict HR procedures which do have to be followed, even within academia and interview panels are generally made up of more than one person. Of course, that doesn’t mean academics can’t suggest that someone apply for a job or, that all other things being roughly equal, they can’t appoint someone that they know. However, if you do suspect you have been treated unfairly or the correct procedures haven’t been followed you have the right to challenge the decision if you choose to.

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