A guest post from Mary Carman, PhD candidate in Philosophy
The academic job market is notoriously saturated and finishing a PhD brings with it a need to realistically assess one’s research trajectory, capabilities, and academic employability. For those in the humanities, like myself studying philosophy, there aren’t many alternative options if you want to work in the same area of interest.
A research postdoc is the dream position – but also rare and highly competitive. I am not one of those inspirationally brilliant students; nevertheless, I have such a postdoc lined up. I was realistic about my job prospects and did a few things over the course of my PhD which contributed to my ultimate success. One in particular, however, has had diffuse effects and is worth drawing attention to because of its unromantic reputation: having networks.
There are three distinct but interconnected ways in which having networks counted in my favour. The first was as a way to build up my CV; the second was as a way to gather information; the third was, simply, knowing people and having people know me.
At the beginning of my final year of PhD, I wasn’t in a good position to be applying for academic jobs in a highly competitive market. I didn’t have any peer-reviewed publications and, because of my visa status, couldn’t apply for the kinds of temporary teaching jobs where publications are less important. Nevertheless, other aspects of my CV are strong and are strong as the result of ‘networking’ activities. For instance, throughout my PhD, I made a point of submitting papers to and attending conferences. By sharing my work with others, I was able to develop and improve my ideas. Through meeting others, I was recruited into various projects such as being a student representative for a research institute and co-running an inter-university research forum. Focusing purely on my CV and not on professional and personal development, the effects are obvious: my CV tracks a clear development of papers related to my area of expertise at conferences which themselves increase in status, and I am able to provide evidence of a strong commitment to the profession, beyond my actual research.
The second way in which having networks counted in my favour was as a way to gather information, both in obvious and non-obvious ways. Here is an example of the latter. As I began my final year, I was disillusioned with the nature of philosophy and the direction my research had taken – disillusionment I was all too happy to complain about to anyone who would listen, including a lecturer in my department I had very little contact with otherwise. A couple of weeks after speaking to her in passing, she forwarded me an email calling for applications for a postdoc project with the cover note, ‘Isn’t this exactly what you’d be interested in?’ And she was right: it was an extension of my research I hadn’t considered, an extension which in fact directly addressed some of my main worries. Putting together the application for the postdoc, I started to think about my research in a new way and realised that I wasn’t at a dead end. The irony is that I had received the same email via a mailing list but had deleted it without taking in the content. I needed someone else, familiar with my ideas and hesitations, to draw my attention to a job option that inspired me.
The final way in which having networks counted in my favour is the most direct: knowing the right people at the right time. I’d successfully been offered the postdoc but was now in a bittersweet position. The project was great but I would be based in a little town I’ve never really liked. I did my undergraduate and masters degrees in South Africa and had kept in contact with some of the people I’d met. So, back on holiday, I dropped by to say hello and attend a talk – and fortuitously mentioned that I had an exciting postdoc offer. The professor I was talking to expressed surprise, said that she wasn’t aware I was interested in these kinds of things, and proceeded to tell me about a project she was initiating. Would I consider applying for that, she asked. I would; I did; I got it. This only happened because I had kept in professional contact with her and she knew and liked my work.
Of course, there were other things I did which helped me to find and secure a postdoc. And, to a certain extent, I was in the right place personally: I was looking for a change and hence was open to new ideas; I was also familiar with a different country and its universities, and wanting to return. Nevertheless, having networks has been crucial to my current success, even though, for the most part, I never consciously thought of myself as ‘networking’.