Life in the Wilderness: Ten Tips for Surviving in Academia as an ECR

This blog post is intended for PhD students and early career academics. Since passing my viva (see blog post here) in January, I’ve learnt many things about the job market, current trends and what can really help you get shortlisted for a job. Here are my top ten tips for those who are actively seeking to remain in academia and make it their career.

1) The PhD is only the beginning. 

Many people might tell you that the PhD is simply an academic exercise and ‘doesn’t need to be perfect’. Although you might not believe it, there is some truth to the fact that it doesn’t have to be ‘perfect’. What you thought at the start of the PhD will be entirely different to the final product because knowledge is cumulative. The more you learn and research, the more perspective you have. This doesn’t stop when you submit and wait for your viva. I developed my ideas further when preparing for my viva because I’d had a break and approached it with fresh eyes. As a result, the viva was more a reflective process- what would you do differently etc. The PhD needs to be as good as possible for the time you have: coherent, well researched, well written, and with a clear narrative and structure. It isn’t your masterpiece. After the viva you will be full of ideas on how to improve, rewrite and restructure. This will all help the process of rewriting for publication as a monograph. The viva should not be seen as the end of the PhD, but rather the first stepping stone towards fully developing your ideas for a wider academic and non-academic audience.

2) PhD ≠ Monograph

From initial idea to PhD to monograph-
the process doesn’t end after three years.

Most academic publishers won’t even look at PhD thesis manuscripts. They expect it to be rewritten and reassessed using the extra time, knowledge and perspective you have developed since passing. Although the thought of going back and rewriting what you might have only just finished may seem soul crushing, it comes with a great sense of achievement when parts of your thesis you might not have been totally happy with are improved with extra perspective. Different publishers will also want different things. Some only request a proposal (which will annoy you when they reject it without reading a single word you’ve written for the book), others want two sample chapters (one of which is normally an introduction), while some might ask for the fully rewritten manuscript.

3) Your external examiner will be your new lifeline.

Choosing a good external examiner is vital. While some students do not have a say in who is their external, some supervisors (like mine) trust you to suggest realistic options. Trying to meet them in advance of your viva (at a conference for example) is sometimes a good idea. I informally asked my external if he would be interested over a year before I had submitted. A word of warning- choosing someone who seems ‘nice’ for an ‘easy ride’ is never the best option. Every external will want the viva to be a thought provoking and challenging event. Most importantly your external examiner will be your new lifeline as you pass into the wider academic job market. They will provide references for jobs, perhaps keep you updated on prospective jobs, and often use their established connections to help get your research noticed. Picking an examiner that is well connected, a leader in their field, and an established expert is vital. Often your external is the only other person (apart from your internal examiner and supervisors) that has read the entire thesis. Their knowledge, expertise and connections will be vital. They will, in time, become so much more than the final hurdle on the road to finishing your doctorate.

4) Publications > Teaching.

Publications trump teaching experience every time.  This is a sad fact, but true nonetheless. The current state of the job market means that even temporary teaching contracts, for as short as six months, still want someone who has published. Teaching experience is hard enough to come by, so if you are offered it, take it. But with the pressures of the REF (how the TEF will impact on this isn’t established yet), universities are more interested in your prospects as a researcher, than a teacher. No one will ever tell you that, but it is true. Another problem with the job market is the sheer lack of positions. Junior research positions are now being filled by people with a substantial publication portfolio (who should, in an ideal world, be in lecturing posts). This blows early career researchers out of the water in many scenarios, so having at least one journal article under your belt helps stop this from happening so easily.

5) Publish early.

My supervisors told me to publish early as soon as I told them I wanted a career in academia. I was lucky that this happened in the first year of my PhD. Two rejected submissions of my article to different journals over twelve months was what it took to get it into print. Each rejection (and redraft afterwards) taught me more about the craft of writing an article and gave me valuable experience of just how slow peer reviewing and publishing can be. As a result, the best advice is to start the process early. My first article was based on my MRes research, while my second forthcoming article is based on an aspect of my research that just didn’t fit in the thesis, but was self-contained enough for 10,000 words. Either of these are a good choice for a first article. I know some who discourage this practice, but the academic job market is no longer a place for idealism. Unless you have some form of inside connection for a job or fellowship, publish or perish is still a sad reality.

6) Organize something. 

This is especially important if you are applying for lectureships. Having evidence of arranging a conference, workshop, reading group or discussion group can greatly improve a CV. Universities are ultimately looking for evidence that you can organize and plan. More importantly, they want to see if you could organize events that would attract scholars to the university, thereby improving their reputation as an institution. During the PhD it is vital that you organize something to show these skills. On top of this, ‘wider engagement’ is one of the new important buzzwords. Organizing a public event outside of your institution, as part of the ‘Being Human’ festival for example, is even better. The REF (see below) also factors in ‘impact’, so having experience of events which disseminate your work to a non-academic audience and enhance the standing of the university is also a great CV booster.

7) Find some funding.

Something else which looks impressive on an early career CV is evidence of bidding for and winning external funding. This is arguably much easier as a PhD student as a lot of funding is available. I’ve known many to have success with the Economic History Society’s various funding streams. Often googling your research area might help. I was awarded $800 from the The Elizabeth Ann Bogert Memorial Fund for the Study or Practice of Christian Mysticism which I believe I found by googling ‘mysticism funding’ (go figure!). Specific funds like these do exist, you just have to work to find them. Joining various professional societies (like the Society for Renaissance Studies) for reduced PhD student rates often allows you access to additional funding streams. Even small grants to support research will help you when applying for bigger funding amounts as a post-doc.

 8) Be kind.


Twitter can help you network
with academics in a similar position

Don’t view other PhD students or early career researchers as direct competition. It is highly unlikely that you will be competing for the same post-docs as so many are for very specific projects. Rather, try to build up a network of fellow students and recently completed academics that you can quiz for tips and fall back on for support. Networking at conferences or even just following people on Twitter can help this process. You’ll soon realize everyone is in the same boat. It may be an incredibly unstable and overcrowded boat, but you’re all in it regardless. Pass on information about jobs or funding that are no good to you, but might be a vital lifeline for someone else. You might just find someone does the same for you during an hour of need. It is important to remember that other PhD students will likely form your associates and research partners for years to come in academia.

9) Academia is a lottery. Rejection is not condemnation.

 Something every finishing PhD student needs to learn is to accept rejection. Rejected funding bids (for grants that have a 7% success rate), critical journal article rejection feedback, and rejections from jobs with no comment on why are all part of the process. The most important step is learning that this process is no reflection on you or your work. Academia is often a lottery. You’ll see people getting jobs who you might think are less qualified than you, but in reality knew someone at the host university. You’ll see journal articles published easily when you are struggling to get into print. Many jobs are advertised but actually already being done by someone at the university. Ultimately academia is a game, and you need to be willing to play with full knowledge that the rules are very often flouted. Rejection after rejection will often leave you feeling down and upset, but you have to remember that each criticism can be turned into an advantage next time, each damning review points to literature you’ll never forget about again. The best advice is to disconnect yourself from your work- you are not simply an academic, but rather a human being. When your academic life isn’t going as planned, it is no reflection on you as a person, your skills or your abilities.

10) REF and TEF.

Two abbreviations that will, in time, haunt you. The REF (Research Excellence Framework) assesses the quality of research across the country. In 2014 154 universities submitted a total of 1,911 pieces of work. The work was judged into four bands, with 4* being ‘world-leading’ and 1* being ‘recognised nationally’. What journal or academic press the work was published in should not have made a difference when judged, although whether this happened in reality is far from certain. Most staff had to submit four ‘outputs’ to the REF, with a substantial book possibly counting for two outputs. Staff which had started employment after 2009 could submit a reduced number (i.e. if you started a job in 2011 they wanted either one or two outputs, not four!). The results of the REF were used by the four UK higher education funding bodies to distribute research funding to universities on the basis of quality.

Knowing the REF requirements is vital

In July 2016 we saw suggestions that this was changing, with Lord Stern’s review of the REF suggesting some alterations. All ‘research active’ staff would be submitted for REF2021, rather than simply having universities choose their strongest candidates. The average number of outputs would fall from four to two. A major worry for many is that outputs will no longer be ‘portable’. Some universities have been known to offer big incentives to academics just before the REF in order to ‘poach’ them from other universities and thus increase the quality of their own outputs. Stern’s idea is to make outputs ‘lock’ to the institution they were written at to stop this from happening. Great in theory, but this limits academics from changing universities for legitimate reasons, and may encourage people unhappy with their current environment to stay against their will. Early career researchers also move from contract to contract- making the answer to which university owns which output far from clear. Moving to a new job just before the REF would mean all your previous outputs since 2014 were no longer valid for submission at your new job, despite you (not the university you left) actually doing the majority of the work. REF 2021 is still up in the air- we don’t know if all Stern’s ideas will be implemented.

What this all means for early career academics is that publications are still vital. All the above issues over the REF show just how central publications are when universities are looking to employ someone. Staying on top of developments, and being able to talk confidently at interview about your potential role in the next REF, is vital.

The TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework) is new and currently underdeveloped. It will aim to ensure all students are receiving excellent teaching, and that teaching and research are viewed as equally important. The Times Higher Education recently published a mock TEF which showed some interesting results- universities like De Monfort, Swansea, Kent and Bath came within the top ten, while Oxford and Cambridge were nowhere to be seen. How the TEF will influence employment isn’t clear yet, but knowing about it at interview will never hurt.

Most importantly- don’t give up. 

Some of these tips might seem a bit negative, but unfortunately this is the state of academia at the moment. Employers want you to be all things all of the time- they expect you to publish, present papers, find funding, teach well, organize conferences, and be REF and TEF ready.  If an academic career really is what you want, then this is the reality of what is expected. If you are lacking something on the list, it is never too late to improve however. Academia is full of set-backs and rejections, and you may spend periods working in non-academic jobs just to survive, but the most important thing is to not give up. My office desk features a framed quote from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke- ‘the purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things’. Making sure you are as prepared as possible by the end of your PhD, and have the will power and perseverance to believe that each defeat will eventually become a victory, will set you on the path for success.

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