One of the best things about being funded through a consortium like CHASE is the opportunity to attend events run by other partner institutions. Today, I went along to an event at SOAS to hear all about what an academic job is really like, and how to prepare for the next steps in academia following a PhD. I wasn’t sure if it would be relevant yet, and expected there to be more people in their second and third year, but thought it was probably a better idea to go this year as then I can implement anything I learn during my PhD, rather than leaving it too late and wishing I’d done things differently.
In the first session of the morning, Christopher Cramer talked about the positives ( including flexibility and collegiality) and negatives (largely admin-related) to working in academia. Interestingly, he suggested that the reason a lot of academics complain about the amount of admin they have to do is because they started out their careers with much less, and it has crept in more and more – people going into academia nowadays tend to be more aware of this and their expectations are managed from the outset.
Matthew Craven then spoke about current issues in academia, which mostly relate to the REF, TEF and funding bids. In particular, a strong publication record is increasingly important, with journal impact factor still carrying a large amount of weight in many disciplines. Encouragingly, Matthew extolled the benefits of making your research openly accessible, in terms of increasing your visibility and your citation count. Having worked in the area of scholarly communications, it really pleases me when academics talk so positively about OA, as this will hopefully develop a cohort of early-career researchers who are happy to work in an open and transparent way (where possible).
The next talk was from Mandy Sadan, and focused on how to be a ‘career-savvy’ doctoral researcher, with some practical advice to bear in mind during the PhD and beyond. Again, Open Access was mentioned. Mandy also talked about gaining experience in communicating your research to different audiences, presenting at conferences and building your networks. She was reassuring about publishing during your PhD, emphasising that quality is far more important than quantity, and that not managing to produce a publication during your PhD will not put you at a significant disadvantage. Often, waiting and publishing your work when it is fully formed will produce a much better result that will be more helpful to you in the long term.
After lunch, we had a panel session with some current early-career academics from SOAS, who talked about their own experiences and gave advice to those thinking about an academic career. The main pieces of advice, which kept coming up, were:
- Build your networks
- Keep writing – blog posts can be a good starting point
- When applying for a job, always research both the position and the institution beforehand
- Have a publication plan, particularly if you intend to turn your thesis into a monograph
- When writing a postdoctoral research proposal, think about the broader context of your PhD and work out how to build on what you’ve already done – what are the possible future research directions of this general topic area?
- Go to lots of conferences
- Plan for future days / weeks / months
- Choose your publications wisely, thinking about how much it will benefit your career versus the amount of time required
Most of the speakers talked about the large workload, particularly those whose job is purely teaching-focused and who also want to keep up with their research, and one mentioned that having children can considerably slow down your career. However, all also emphasised how much they enjoyed the flexibility and creativity of being able to work in a subject area about which they are passionate, as well as the predominantly supportive environment of the academic community.
Richard Fardon then talked more specifically about applying for a first lectureship role. He started with some stark advice – if you see academia as a job rather than a vocation, don’t do it; if you don’t like writing, don’t do it. As someone who thinks very practically about jobs, this did concern me, so perhaps I will give this some further thought before deciding whether to apply for academic roles following my PhD. More general advice included to find out as much as you can about the institution and tailor your application accordingly, as well as to demonstrate why your research is interesting, and that you are able to plan and visualise a project from beginning to end.
Finally, Tina Lehmbeck gave some advice and information about how to apply for postdoctoral funding. She suggested that Research Professional tends to be a good starting point to find out about funding opportunities and other developments in the sector. Additionally she advised that starting an application at least three months ahead of the deadline will ensure that it is completed in time, as there are often various stages to the process. Tina’s advice was very practical, and will definitely come in useful when I reach the stage of applying for postdoctoral funding. Presumably the Open University also has an office that provides support in this area, which is something I should investigate further.
Generally, I found this to be a really interesting day. Despite my concerns about attending too early in my PhD, I actually felt that first-year students were best placed to get the most out of the advice given by the various speakers. In particular, I will make sure to take advantage of as many networking and presenting opportunities as possible, while being mindful of what makes my research important. I am still not sure if I definitely want to go into academia when I finish, and depending on the job market, I may not have much choice – but I certainly feel better informed about the realities of an academic career and the pathways towards it.