Pursuing an academic career: resources to support you

Many of the researchers I meet in one:one appointments or through workshops across King’s are, of course, interested in pursuing an academic career.  It seems that more of you are approaching this decision knowing it’s a competitive field to enter; the oft-quoted statistic that just 3.5% of PhDs will make it to permanent research staff is sobering.

These resources can’t replace a conversation with a careers consultant, supervisor or other adviser, but they’re here to prompt some thinking from you, perhaps to provide an alternative view, and to help you think fully around the issues confronting you.

Making the decision

  • This part of the Vitae website* offers help with information on what doctoral graduates do and analyses the results of the various longitudinal studies on academic progression.
  • Jobs.ac.uk, as well as being one of the key sources of academic vacancies, has a key series of ebooks you can download for free to help with understanding how to plan an academic career.
  • RCUK hosts links to the research councils and their career sections.  Take a look at these profiles for comparison with your own situation and feelings about your future.
  • This report, from the Wellcome Trust, includes information on how doctoral students choose their careers.

Research

It’s important to have an understanding of the pressures universities face, particularly in terms of research funding and student numbers.  These pressures influence recruitment of academics, who need to be able to demonstrate how they will contribute to the new employer’s research impact, public profile and attractiveness to students.  Read more about the REF and how it impacts recruitment here.

Your supervisor is best placed to help you develop the direction of your research.  In terms of your chances of success in the recruitment process, understanding how to get your research published is vital.  Talk to your supervisor about the best conferences for you to attend to raise your profile.  Do you know which are the universities that have research strength in your area?  These could be on your ‘hit list’ of places to target, to research and investigate their research direction and strategy.

Use the people available to you while you’re doing your PhD as an invaluable source of information and advice:

  • Talk to postdocs and new lecturers in your dept and faculty about their experiences – things they wish they knew…
  • Go to as many seminars/talks/events in your faculty and beyond to meet people, get advice and see how a dept/faculty operates
  • Look out for activities of the various learned societies and academies – these are great chances to network and develop skills and learn about funding etc
  • Start to develop your research ideas (and sound them out with others), remembering you might need to go beyond your current research

Have you thought about working overseas? Euraxess is the best place to start thinking about working in Europe; while this forum may help with thinking about the US. Further help on working in France is available here.

Finally, it’s important to have an idea of how your research could be funded.  Which research council, charity or other body will you identify and how can you meet its requirements?  What are the possibilities of crowd-funding for your research?  Practise applying for grants by successfully getting conference funding, or applying for Graduate School funding for a training event.

Teaching

The next part of your professional portfolio to address is teaching.  What have you done to indicate your interest and motivation in this area?  How have you innovated and what feedback have you had?  Can you demonstrate to your department that you are willing and able to teach on areas other than your research topic?  Find out how the TEF may affect universities (clue: it’s rumoured to be the teaching equivalent of the REF….).

Different Faculties, Schools and Departments have their own rules on PhDs and post-docs teaching undergrads and Master’s students at KCL.  Some of you may have had extensive experience and been able to complete the PGCAP(HE) (though PhDs and GTAs will not be accepted onto this programme in 2015-16).  You may have found it harder to combine study or work with teaching, but you may like to consider, for example, taking the short  Preparing to Teach course.  The Graduate School also encourages you to consider applying to the Brilliant Club which offers opportunities to teach in secondary schools. I meet some PhDs who have successfully created tutoring opportunities for themselves.  King’s Widening Participation department uses PhDs to work on the K+ Summer Schools.

Have you thought about online teaching?  King’s is forging ahead with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and may well be interested in ideas coming from the PGR community.  Or, you may have ideas about how KEATS can be better used to support undergrad teaching.

Admin

Academic admin can cover a multitude of activities, anything from being part of the examinations process, to participating in the Widening Participation agenda for your department, to being a PGR student rep on a committee or offering to create a researcher society.  Perhaps you can contribute to the ATHENA Swan or other equality scheme?  Does the learned society or professional body linked to your subject area have any opportunities?

Taking part in these departmental activities demonstrates your wider understanding of how a university operates and the processes and procedures necessary for its smooth running.

Online profile

‘The world is changing and so are expectations,’ says Guy Trainin, a US associate professor surprised at how few of his students use social media to advertise their work. Developing your online profile can help to:

  • improve your research by connecting with academics outside the UK
  • improve your profile (one KCL PhD recently appeared on BBC Radio 4 discussing his work, following a tweet about it)
  • help you research future careers – job titles and employer names.

Keep an eye on the Researcher Development Programme for help with developing your social media skills.

Making the application and being interviewed

So, you’ve made the decision to stick with an academic career, you’ve developed a strong research profile, taken on some admin and teaching and have done what you can to create an online presence.  The next step is applying for jobs, and following through with succeeding at interviews.

Take advantage of the workshops available through the RDP as a starting point and use these resources too.  An Academic Career blog from Manchester University is helpful, and this blog has a recording of a CV webinar and articles on writing a CV.  Help with reviewing CVs, application forms and interview practice is available through King’s Careers & Employability.

Further help

There is more support available for you through the online module Careers and Professional Skills for Researcher on KEATS**.

Good luck with your decision-making!

*King’s has an institutional membership of the Vitae website but you will need to create a log-in – use your KCL email address and a password of your choice

** Log in using your KCL credentials and then self-enrol onto this course

Careers Inspiration: Researcher Development

A case study kindly contributed by Dr Laura Speers, KCL Alumnus now working at QMUL within researcher development

Can you remind us what your PhD was about at KCL?

My PhD, undertaken in the department of Culture, Media and Creative Industries, explored the identity politics of participants of the London hip hop scene, focusing on how artists negotiate authenticity and what ‘keeping it real’ means lived out on a day-to-day basis. This involved looking at issues surrounding race, class, commerce, creativity and place.

How did you decide what the next best step for you was?

Towards the end of my PhD, I was unsure whether I wanted to continue in academia so began exploring various jobs both inside and outside higher education. There were many personal preferences that I factored in too. For instance, I wanted to stay in London and was not prepared to move abroad or around the UK to chase academic jobs.

I attended various career events exploring my options, making the most of the services whilst I was still a student. For example, sessions held at UCL as part of King’s membership to the Bloomsbury Postgraduate Skills Network. I also informally chatted to friends, family members and contacts I had in various sectors to get an idea of what opportunities were out there as it’s a common pitfall that humanities PhD graduates think the only career paths are academia or in the publishing industry.

I started applying for jobs immediately after submitting my thesis. I registered on jobs.ac.uk and set up email notifications alerting me to any new jobs. I kept an excel spreadsheet of the roles I was interested in, the application forms required, type of CV (whether academic or not) and most importantly, deadlines. I also went to see Kate Murray, the PhD careers consultant, to get feedback on my CV and advice on applications.

I landed a temporary part-time research assistant post through contacts in my department which I really enjoyed. However, the whole time I was keeping an eye open for more permanent positions and applying to them. In total, I applied to 12 different jobs (roles inside and outside academia to keep my options open). I got shortlisted and interviewed for two different posts which was a really good experience before getting my current job at QMUL. Of the few sociology lectureships I applied for, I was informed by the institutions that they had received unprecedented numbers of applications. Around 200-300 applicants were chasing each position so most universities were not interested in junior, fresh-out-of-PhD candidates.

How did you get your new role, what are you now doing, and what do you do day-to-day?

My official title is Postdoctoral Associate for Knowledge Exchange and Postgraduate Training at Queen Mary University of London. I found the position on jobs.ac.uk and immediately started compiling the application materials. I emailed the named contact on the job advert to ask specific questions about the role so as to tailor my application. I asked a colleague in my department whether I could see her successful postdoctoral application which was a really helpful starting point to structure mine. I had my CV and application form checked by the careers consultant at King’s.

After being shortlisted for an interview, I contacted a person in the Graduate School at King’s who was doing a similar job to the position I was applying for and asked whether I could do an informational interview with her. This was really valuable as it gave me an insight into the role and the type of issues I might face, which I brought up in the interview. I then had a practice interview with a careers consultant which was instrumental in me getting the job, as the feedback I received was critical in shaping my presentation and answers to tricky questions.

On the interview day I was required to give a presentation on three questions that were sent to me beforehand. There was a panel of five people asking rather challenging questions but I felt quite confident with all the preparation I had done. I was offered the job that very afternoon!

My day-to-day job centres on events management – basically planning, programming and organising innovative research training for PhD students in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. In addition, I work one day a week for the London Arts & Humanities Partnership (LAHP), which is an AHRC-funded Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP) so I also have a desk at UCL. For LAHP PhD students, I also programme training activities, though focus on collaborative training with external cultural partners. These various responsibilities involve working closely with all levels of the university – from the Executive Dean and the Director of the Doctoral College, to academics and PhD students, and professional services staff – and increasingly with external partners and cultural institutions in London.

Have you experienced any differences in terms of working in a different academic institution?

As LAHP is a consortium between King’s, UCL, the School of Advanced Study and QMUL as an associate member, I am getting to experience quite a range of academic institutions all at one go! There are immediate differences one encounters such as in the infrastructure of how the university works and the communication channels one has to go through. It’s quite a steep learning curve realising how bureaucratic academic institutions are – you can have a brilliant idea but it often takes months and months to make happen because of the chains of command and budgeting protocol you have to go through!

When your time at QMUL ends, what might you move on to do?

My current post-doc position is for three years and I’m still unsure exactly what I’d like to do afterwards. However, I’m coming to many realisations about my ideal working conditions and that I enjoy variety so I’m starting to think about a ‘portfolio career’ and working on a freelance basis. In an ideal world this would involve working maybe 2-3 days a week in a fixed post and the other two days working on my own creative projects or writing/research.