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!

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