Thursday, February 26, 2015

Current Status - Limbo

Short update:

As many of you will know, especially if you follow me on Twitter, I have just handed in my corrections!

Go celebrate, you say?! Hmmm, I'll hold off - don't want to jinx anything! But it certainly does feel nice to have them handed in and out of the way. Hopefully all will go well, and the next phase of my life can start. And of course, a couple of libations to celebrate that moment will definitely happen!

But currently I am in a state of limbo - or maybe stasis is a better way to describe it! Or maybe I'm paralysed by the feel that something will inevitably go wrong!

I know what I should be doing while I await the outcome: work on articles, polish my CV and cover letters, and continue with the job hunt. Did I do that today? No, I made this instead (please don't judge me on being a grown-up with an unhealthy fondness for minions!):

My PhD journey

I know where I am on this PhD map - stuck somewhere between viva and official result!
Where are you?

Next post will be a proper one, I promise!

Monday, February 23, 2015

Major Corrections

I have a sneaking suspicion that there are way more PhD students out their who were given major corrections after their viva than are willing to admit! But I want to share my story in order to demystify the process, both for current PhD students and prospective employers.

I passed my viva and was told that I had major corrections. At first I was disappointed and a little ashamed, but I soon shrugged those feelings off and set to work immediately addressing the examiners concerns. Now I going to hand in my corrections tomorrow and am pleased to state that:
I am glad I was given major corrections!
"Huh?! Are you crazy?", you may ask. Of course, there are significant downsides to major corrections: the process is dragged on a little longer, their is a greater financial burden, job hunting is delayed, etc. But the benefits outweigh the negatives in my opinion. I appreciate that the regulations about corrections vary from institution to institution. For example, my institution recently introduced new regulations about viva results:
  • Minor corrections: 1 month
  • Major corrections: 6 months
  • Referral and resubmit: up to 6 terms

Now, one of the reasons examiners will give major corrections is that they don't want to put undue stress on the student to complete all the corrections in 4 weeks. If they think it can be done in 2 months, you will still get major corrections! 

However, more than that, they want to help you to improve your work, especially to make it more publishable. You and your supervisor have lived this project for 3-4 years (or longer in many cases), and having a fresh pair of critical eyes on your work will only ever be a good thing. Having systematically gone through the criticisms and comments, my thesis is a much more coherent piece of work, with a stronger voice and argument, and is far more likely to be appreciated by a future publisher. Major corrections are not a punishment, they are an opportunity for reflection and improvement on your work.

In addition, I am a much stronger person for it. After the initial disappointment wore off, I became more focused, more authoritative, confident, and more willing to accept constructive criticism. Yes, there are some points of my corrections which I disagree with, but I can now confidently defend my point of view. Accepting criticism and demonstrating a willingness to learn and adapt are all skills that major corrections will foster. 

Practically speaking, yes, I wish I had received minor corrections. But, I think the changes to my thesis (and to my attitude and personal outlook) will be of immense value and help as I enter the job market.

So, no, I am not ashamed to say that I have been given major corrections, and neither should you!

Do you have a positive spin on a negative experience during your doctorate? Please share in the comments section!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Advice from Academics

The survey results are steadily coming in, and people have been providing some very useful advice, both in the academic and non-academic. If you want to share your story, please click the link below:

Here I'll include words of wisdom from those who remained in academia, and the helpful advice they have on what to do to boost your odds of staying in academia!

A Junior Postdoc in medieval studies wrote:
In academia immediately post PhD: Don't apply for every position going, chose carefully. You could better spend the time spent writing applications, working on your publication record. Network. Don't shy away from smaller projects that last only a few months by thinking it is better to aim for a big project, small fundings lead to bigger opportunities by proving you are already fundable. Check the publication and grant-award records of any supervisor you are going to apply for a position under. Be honest with yourself.
I would largely agree with this advice, especially the part about publications and networking. I would add that PhD's should attend conferences, both as presenters of material and just as an attendee. A research fellow's advice was to begin
...the process of looking for a job start well before you finish your PhD. If you want to stay in academia, make sure you have a couple of publications under your belt and that you can show you understand what you need to do to be a good academic (collegiality, conferences, guest speaking...)
Through conferences, you will disseminate your research, get vital feedback that isn't your supervisors, and meet new people who may be able to help you down the line. For example, I presented my research at a graduate conference, was then asked to present my material to a group of senior academics, and from there collaborated with other members of this group to publish a collaborative interdisciplinary book chapter. If I had not been proactive in attending conferences, that publication would not have come about!

If you want a sense of what it takes to remain in academia, here is a list of key items, although it is easier said than done in some cases. This is advice from a lecturer in Computer Science:
If you want to stay in academia:
  • Do interesting research (i.e. work you can easily describe in 10 second elevator pitches).
  • Write lots of papers.
  • Do enough teaching to write a decent teaching statement
  • Build a track record winning money.
  • Get involved in outreach activities relevant to your discipline, e.g. organising workshops/symposia, reviewing papers. Esteem factors are important when it comes to looking for jobs and applying for money.
One of the overarching pieces of advice rested on the 'publish or perish' problem. This varies according to fields of research. Humanities students, such as in history, would do well to have 1-2 solid articles published, with the goal of publishing the thesis as a book. Science requires greater output in the form of articles. One good piece of advice I was given was to diversify your publications. Yes, you will inevitably publish based on your thesis/dissertation, but you should try to publish something doesn't emanate from your niche PhD focus.

PhD's definitely need to be flexible about the roles they choose, and gaining experience in short-term roles will help to achieve the big dream job, rather than consistently applying for and failing to get interviews which are slightly out of your remit. This idea is echoed by an associate professor in archaeology who wrote:
Publish early and don't try or expect to out down roots somewhere.
This returns to the idea of flexibility and not being set on location, job role, salary, etc. By remaining flexible, you can build up short-term experience which can help you reel in that dream job! However, that is easier said than done. Financial circumstances (PhDs funding running out, etc.) means that there is immense pressure to find a stable, salaried job. And especially for international students who want to stay in the country where they completed their PhD, finding a job right after the PhD is paramount for remaining in that country. When PhD's say that they feel they have "sold-out" and left academia, we need to be sensitive to these issues and not judge them as failures for not having secured that academic job.

To look at advice for those in science, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow wrote:
  • Think early what you want to do. For academia:Some fellowships (Henry Wellcome one) are only available within a year of finishing. Certain ones only have deadlines once a year. Rather than getting a fellowship it can be nice apply for jobs which are already funded for set amount of time (means not having to fill out grant applications as well as knowing how long a contract can last). Use your first (or 2nd) job as an opportunity to see somewhere new/explore the world. Initial post doc contracts are relatively short( 1-4 years), so can be a good time to go somewhere new, even if you want to return to where you did your degree (and sometimes you are welcomed back even more if you go away).
  • For people not sure what to do - talk to others who have passed through doing similar degrees to find out what they are doing now, how they got there and see if its something you fancy doing. Use university career services - Oxford University one helps out for life, and people there will read cvs, cover letters, give mock interviews and help with ideas (over skype, email and in person).
  • Having a PhD demonstrates lots of transferable skills, not just subject specific = lots of different non academic opportunities also available

University careers services provide invaluable assistance to students and alumni, whether they remain in academia or not. They are an often under-utilized university facility, and I wholeheartedly agree that students need to exploit that resource! One of the key things to take away from the advice given in the survey is that PhDs need to think about and prepare for their future from a very early stage. The panic in the last year of the PhD when in the throes of thesis writing, submission, and viva preparation is not the time to freak out over the next stage. As one respondent wrote:

It's never too early to start looking and thinking about what you want to do afterwards.
The next post will focus on the alternatives to academia, and the advice from those who have left academia for varying reasons and work in diverse jobs. Many thanks again for those who have contributed to the survey responses!

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Survey - Initial Results

Thanks to so many people who have already responded to the survey. I really appreciate the time taken to fill it out, and I have no doubt the responses will help other PhD students!

If you haven't had a chance to fill out the survey, here's the link! It will take 30 seconds, I swear!

I'll have a full blog post on the pieces of advice which people have left, which are immensely helpful, insightful, and positive for the most part. But here I want to briefly note a trend that I am already witnessing. Obviously, I will need more data, so take this with a pinch of salt!

I want to focus on the similarities and differences between the humanities and STEM responses. I had:

53% Humanities responses
30% STEM responses

Of the humanities responses, 94% already had the PhD and all were employed (which is brilliant!). What was interesting was that it was split down the middle: 50% were in academic jobs (lecturers, postdocs, JRF, etc.) and 50% in non-academic jobs (including teaching, administration, librarianship, etc.)

This was mirrored for the STEM responses. 67% of respondents had the PhD in hand, and all were employed, split evenly down the middle between academic and non-academic jobs.

What was really interesting, was the responses from those still in the process of gaining the PhD. They accounted for approximately 27% of respondents.

63% wanted to leave academia
25% wanted to stay in academia
12% were undecided

While the 63% represented PhD's in STEM, medicine, education, and business, almost 100% of current humanities PhD's wanted to stay in academia.

This makes me wonder. If non-humanities students are already considering leaving academia, are they more likely to be proactive in developing other skills for when they finish the PhD?

And, should humanities students be more realistic about the future and think about non-subject specific skills to develop?

If 50% of humanities phds are in non-academic jobs (according to this survey; the official figure is somewhere around the 80% mark!), are universities doing enough to support students identify and develop these non academic skills? And, should universities and supervisors alike be more pragmatic and realistic about the future prospects of their students?

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Staying Positive

Job hunting is a stressful and often demoralizing experience. Often it can be frustrating when the rejections come in, and you seriously begin to doubt the value of your PhD.

Newspapers, social media, among other channels, are quick to tell tales of people with PhD's languishing in unemployment, working on short-term contracts, or living on meagre salaries. It's no wonder PhD's feel immense trepidation about the future, regardless of whether that future is academic or non-academic.

I want to shift the narrative to a positive outlook. Yes, it will be tough, but if we celebrate the successes rather than the failures, we can at least remain hopeful about the future.

To that end, I want to compile a list of positive stories about what people did after the PhD! If you would like to join in, please email, leave a comment, or fill out this short survey:

Not only will this allow people to remain upbeat about the job hunt, but it will also (fingers-crossed) result in a database of sorts, where other PhD's can see what other people have done in life beyond the doctorate.

It would be great to know:

  1. What subject your PhD was in.
  2. Roughly what you have done since (academic/non-academic); which sector you work in.
  3. How long the process of finding a job took.
  4. Any advice based on your own experiences.
Long or short, I want to hear from you! You can add your comments below, or even better (and for anonymity) you can fill out the super short survey!!

Many thanks in advance!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Academic Referees - Short Musings

This is more of a short musing to myself, than a real discussion of references. I'll do a full blog post on that later. Although if readers have any advice, please leave comments below!

I'm wondering at what point in the post-viva process is it acceptable to ask your examiners if they are willing to provide an academic reference? This is particularly pertinent for those who receive more substantial corrections and yet may also be applying for academic positions. In the case of major corrections for example, you may feel that the examiners would either refuse to provide one, or withhold them until the corrections have been approved. Yet another time delay and chance for missed opportunities!

Furthermore, since you tend to only meet your examiners once, how does one gauge the type of reference that viva examiner will provide? This is especially worrisome for students who maybe didn't have the nicest viva experience or encountered a particularly tough examiner.

My over-arching question is this:
Are academic referees duty-bound to inform the candidate that they would not give a good reference and should look elsewhere?

I have no idea to this, and the other issues, and would love some feedback!

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Viva Outcome

The doctoral viva or oral defense is one of those events that consistently hangs over students throughout the length of the PhD. And as we get closer and closer to submission, the realities of the viva becomes clearer and panic sets in. From the moment we find out the date of our viva, the next x number of weeks are fraught with furious re-reading, head-banging on the table when you find another typo, and role-playing the potential viva questions and answers again and again and again, resulting in either sleepless nights or viva re-enactments in our dreams.

Yet, we focus so much on the questions and answers, and the potential to fail, that many doctoral students go into the viva process slightly unaware of what the results can mean, and certainly the implications for future plans. I can only speak for the arrangements in my own institution, but I will generalize them as best I can.


  • You've passed, yay! With no corrections! Yay, your thesis is perfect and you can just deposit that baby in the library and be on your merry way into life beyond the doctorate! (sorry peeps, this almost never happens!)

Pass (Minor Corrections)

  • You've passed. yay! Well, you may have to fix a typo here, a footnote there, but really these are niggly little points that are done in less than one month! You are a hop and skip away from finishing the doctorate! One month, email your corrections to your internal, they get approved, and bingo-bango you are a doctor! Congratulations!

Pass (Major Corrections)

  • You've passed, yay? The question mark is deliberate because major corrections are so hard to understand. You walk out thinking, "did I pass? I think I did, but I can't be sure. Ah, I'll check the exam regulations. Hmmm, they are confusing, but I *think* I've passed!"
  • Yes, you have passed but it may not feel that way, and it is difficult to explain to others. I have a sneaky suspicion that there is many a student out there who doesn't want to admit to major corrections. But it doesn't matter in the end. You have 6 months to address the examiners concerns and once they approve them, you should be golden.
  • But wait! You have 6 months to submit your corrections, but it has to be a hard copy, not electronic. So, you submit and it gets sent out to both examiners, who have to read it, coordinate with each other, and decide the next step - which could include more minor corrections or even a second viva. So 6 months may become 8-9 months. All the while, the poor doctoral student is shelling out more money to hang around and wait for the result. And, our job applications may get delayed, we may miss out on the dream job, and are generally stuck waiting for our lives to more on.
  • But one thing I will say about major corrections that is positive is that your thesis will likely be better for it. The revisions are not meant to torture you or be a punishment; rather, it will make your thesis more defensible and publishable,

There are other outcomes, of course, more extreme than those listed above. A resubmit can take up to another year, a referral may mean that you are offered a lesser degree, such as an MLitt, or there is the potential for an outright fail - but I have never heard of that happening. Universities *should* have safeguards in place to monitor your progress along the way. But inevitably, there are exceptions to rule. Go to forums (or even the pub) and people will be willing to tell horrid viva stories, but no one talks about the process afterwards. It is frustrating to not have an outright pass, but usually there are valid reasons for not getting it.

Reflect on the examiners comments, create a plan of action with your supervisor, and implement them as fast and conscientiously as you can. Remember, a pass is a pass is a pass, and your thesis will be better for it.

My one request is for more transparency from universities about the meaning of each outcome, and a awareness of the stress that certain results place on students, both emotional, psychological, and financial. A greater support system post-viva would certainly help to alleviate some of the disappointment and anxiety students feel when the viva doesn't go quite to plan!

If you have any stories or advice to share, please do leave a comment!

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Skills of a Doctorate

One of the things that I find enjoyable about the job application process and beginning my journey after the doctorate is that it has forced me to think long and hard about what my doctorate has given me. And yes, I do mean that horrible phrase 'transferable skills', but I do genuinely believe that many students find it hard to see beyond our academic knowledge and research specialties.

The skill-set that doctoral students, often unwittingly gained and under appreciated, has resonance and value for the non-academic job market. So, what have I gained from my doctorate you may ask? Here is just a brief intro to my initial thoughts on just a couple of areas:

Project Management
While we like to say that we are involved in research, we are in effect working on a long-term project which we have sole responsibility for. While our supervisors/advisors provide support and guidance, the success of the project falls on us. I have timetabled a long-term project, juggled multiple short-term projects (conference papers, journal articles, teaching plans, etc.), sets goals and targets. And while I have been lucky to have been involved in some collaborative projects, for the most a humanities doctoral student will work alone. Therefore, we are great at independent work.

I like to think that this is where the doctorate really comes into its own. Doctoral students will emerge (hopefully!) with incredibly strong communication skills. We should, in theory, be excellent written communicators, evidenced though both our thesis and, ideally, through publications (although I will address the 'publish or peril' issue in a later blog post). For any job that requires attention to detail and written communication skills, we will excel! However, when you think about oral communication, doctoral students may forget how we actually communicate in a number of different registers. There is the academic register, of course, which we achieve through conference and seminar presentations. But a large proportion of students will engage in teaching, which forces us to change our register and communicate in a different manner. In addition, by attending seminars and conferences, we have developed good networking skills and can gain valuable contacts.

Even in the humanities, we should emerge from the doctorate with a reasonable grasp of technology/software/social media etc. MS Office should be a doddle, and depending on your subject or research method, you may be well versed in data collation, management, interpretation, whatever! I also know humanities doctorates who have written their thesis on LaTeX or even taught themselves basic coding. In addition, many of us use social media to engage with fellow students or other academics.

Of course, I am sure that I have neglected others. We are analytical, problem solvers, and self-starters. Without doubt, work experience is vital to supplement certain areas, such as teamwork for example, but the essential skills are there!

But what other skills are derived solely from the doctoral experience? I would love to hear readers views on this!

The Ethics of CV Writing

I was recently sent a link to an article about CV writing. I found it quite interesting;  you can find it here at The Irish Times website:

It talks about how to stand out from the growing pile of CVs that recruiters receive. Interestingly, it discusses the number of people who lie on their CV. I have to admit, I was surprised that people seemed so willing to outright lying and fabricate work experience. Surely they must know that they will be caught out eventually? I have heard tales of exaggeration and embellishment, but it just seems so foolish to lie about academics, work experience, etc. My philosophy is that an employer should want to hire me based on who I am and what I have done, rather than who I pretend to be. Yes, I want to present myself in the best possible light, but that does not mean I should lie or exaggerate facts.

Is that naive of me?

Now, I have and never will lie or even exaggerate on my CV for fear that I would land the dream job and then have it rescinded because I lied - not to mention that lying on a CV would ruin any future opportunities with that employer. I recall my professor once telling me the story of a student who lied about his language abilities to enter a prestigious PhD program at an Ivy League university. He was accepted, moved to the US, and three months later took the language aptitude tests, failed, and was promptly booted out. Morals of the story: one, don't lie, it's stupid; two, do a PhD in the UK, language requirements are much more relaxed!!

However, I am interested in the division between:

  1. Outright lying
  2. Extreme exaggeration
  3. Slight embellishment
I don't think that I do any of these in my CVs, and maybe I naively hope that my academics and work experience will speak for themselves. But I wonder how else one can make an immediate impact in your CV, if the potential recruiter may only take a few seconds for an initial impression. Obviously, spelling and grammatical mistakes are important, avoiding cliched phrases and buzzwords, but do font-choice and formatting also play a role in an impactful CV? What else can help to catch the eye of the recruiter?

I would love to know what you think!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Are Internships Worthwhile?

Before I began my doctorate in history, I was certain that I wanted to work in the cultural sector, ideally for museums and galleries (I have a nasty habit of picking incredibly competitive fields - yay me!). My undergraduate degree is in History of Art and, although my doctorate diverted me to history, I have always maintained a passion for the arts and culture sector.

To that end, I did two internships for prestigious galleries in Ireland and the UK. The first was in an Education Department, while the second was in Press and Marketing, each lasting approximately 3 months each. They were amazing experiences but there certainly were some downsides.

Of course, I have read horror stories about interns being exploited, and I am lucky to say that I do not fall into that category. However, they were unpaid internships so I had to pay for transport and food, effectively paying for the experience.

But was it worth it? There are moments when I am not so sure. Now that I am reentering the job market and applying for jobs in the arts, I fear that potential employers do not view the internships as enough experience or even valid experience. I've thrown my name into the ring for numerous arts jobs to little success thus far. However, I did get one job interview in an Education Department in a UK museum, but came second to someone with just slightly more experience than me.

While this was certainly disappointing, had I not done my internships I would not have even had the smallest of chances of getting to the interview stage.

I have two pleas to employers. Firstly, at the minimum interns should have a transport and food allowance. Secondly, employers should put more stock into those who have completed internships and see it as evidence of our commitment, dedication, and passion for our chosen fields.


I realise that this should have come first, but such was my desire to rant a little about the lengthy post-viva process that I forgot to introduce the aims of this blog!

So, about me!
I am a doctoral student in history, based in the UK. I am keeping this blog reasonably anonymous - mostly because I am actively engaged in a job search, which you will have the joy of reading I hope.

I am first and foremost looking for academic positions - lectureships, research positions, etc. but the realisation of the difficulties and saturation of the humanities academic job market has led me to explore other options in the non-academic world (I'm not a sell-out, I swear!)

This is not from a pragmatic standpoint either. During the doctorate I became increasingly interested in positions that would utilise my doctoral skills (note: not research specialty) and my work experience. I identified two key non-academic areas where I believe I can find a worthwhile and meaningful career - university administration and the cultural sector.

I'll expand on these in later blog posts, but for now, welcome to the blog! And please leave comments about your own post-doc experiences - both good and bad - as my main goal is to start an open and frank dialogue about the trials and tribulations of life beyond the doctorate, and maybe even beyond the ivory tower.

The Problems of the Doctorate 'In Hand'

I recently read a blog post about job vacancies which requires the candidate to have the doctorate 'in-hand'. Sadly, I can't find the link to that blog, but it did inspire me to address some of the issues that may face job-hunters post-doctorate, in both the academic and non-academic fields.

The original blog post talked about whether one should submit an application without the completion of the PhD. That in itself a tricky word - completion - because it is subject to variation from institution to institution, and often misinterpreted by the non-academic world.

At what point can you consider the doctorate complete?

  1. After submission?
  2. After the viva?
  3. After the submission of minor/major corrections?
  4. After the confirmation that the corrections were accepted?
  5. After the faculty/department awards the PhD?
  6. When you have the degree certificate in hand?
Of course, this varies from place to place. But what the laborious process does is delay the whole trial of job hunting after you submit your thesis. The doctoral student can feel like they are in limbo, waiting for the point on the line where they can start apply for jobs which require the doctorate. And, all the while they are seeing potential dream jobs fly by because there is no point in applying.

That is frustrating, and academic institutions rarely seem motivated to expedite the process or make it easier. But, at least when applying to other academic jobs there is an internal awareness that this is the process, it takes this long for a reason, and allowances can be made. For non-academic jobs, the situation can be worse.

At my current institution, the award of the doctorate from viva onward can take an inordinately long time. For example, here is a rough timetable based on a candidate receiving minor corrections:

  1. September 2014: Viva
  2. October 2014: Receive a list of minor corrections to be submitted in 1 month
  3. November 2014: Submit corrections and receive approval from examiners
  4. December 2014: Receive a letter informing you of the award of the doctorate
  5. December 2014: Submit hard copies and electronic version to University
  6. March-June 2015: Graduation (since graduation ceremonies get booked up, you could wait 3-6 months for the official ceremony
Now, that's the ideal situation. Candidates awarded major corrections can add another 6 months to that process. But imagine that after your successful viva, you land a job in a non-academic role, but they need proof that you have the doctorate in hand. In their mind, a degree certificate would do, but you won't get that for at least 6 months. So, you try to explain corrections to them, you get the department to send the employer confirmation of the doctorate, in a process which is far more complex than it needs to be. Even the terminology can be baffling to non-academics. The official letter confirming the award of the doctorate is called 'Leave to Supplicate'. Unless you are academically institutionalized, this is meaningless.

This post was not meant as a rant (although it may have veered in that direction). Rather, it is a plea for more transparency from the universities and more sympathy for the needs of graduates to get on the job ladder. The more labour-intensive and drawn out the process is means that postgraduates are losing valuable opportunities to start their careers, whether academic or not.