First a bit of employment background. In 2007, I was in the final year of writing up my PhD. During this time I applied for an ESRC Postdoctoral Fellowship. The day arrived when I expected to hear something. However, I was unsuccessful but the letter said, we will re-review your application during the next panel. Several months later and days before my PhD viva – I found out my application was successful. This particular award was for 1 year to publish and consolidate post-PhD. In 2006, I’d applied and been interviewed for a PDRA job – this interview served to prove that I needed my PhD complete before searching for the next thing. Prior to the end of my ESRC award I applied for a 3 year PDRA job at Exeter examining the human geographies of climate change. The job was in Cornwall. I made the shortlist and following an interview was offered the job. The post required the holder to move to Cornwall. My partner and I took the decision that living apart during the week and renting a small flat for me was doable. Initially this was made easier by our plans to get married in Cornwall and the flexibility of him catching a train down to Cornwall on Fridays and then back up to Reading on Mondays at 6am. This was a wonderful time. But it was also very tough – splitting life between two places. I’m a geographer and should love this, but 18 months later – it was proving to be lonely and his job was changing with less time to visit and I was exhausted from travelling back to Reading. To cut a long story short – this period felt like I was failing in academia. I wasn’t giving my best, I wasn’t living up to the expectations I’d set myself or those I thought that others held of me. This was, of course, misplaced but it lead to all sorts of fraudster, imposter feelings. At one point, I ended up at the doctors to talk it through. She said, you need a job close to home. Before I conclude this period, I want to say that whilst personally this was a difficult time, professionally this experience of working with a senior colleague on research and papers has stood me in great stead for my career to date and for that I am very grateful. In the final months of my 3 year contract, I began to apply for the next thing. This was my ESRC Future Research Leader award. I knew I needed to move back to Reading full-time. I also wanted to be in-charge of my own project. It was my last few months of being classed as early-career, so applying was a no brainer. UCL was a good choice, my PhD examiner was there and was pleased to act as host for my award, so too was a new colleague who has since become a mentor who has been particularly generous with ideas, comment and advice. Between Exeter and UCL I took a job at the Science Museum that related to my PhD.
After 6 months at UCL, a colleague suggested I apply for a lectureship he’d seen advertised at Reading. I was unsure as I’d just started my new project. However, I was persuaded to apply following a phone call from a member of staff at Reading. Once I’d submitted my application – things went quiet – but an interview followed after several months. During my presentation and interview I felt relaxed. For me, at this time, this was unusual. But I felt I’d done all I could. If this job wasn’t for me – they were obviously looking for something else. I made a very good friend on that interview day who was also offered a job and is now a Leverhulme Fellow in our department at Reading. So reader, I got the job. And I’m not looking back.
The career trajectory outlined above reads as reasonably smooth – but read between the lines: stress, anxiety, loneliness were mixed with academic highs of funding, publishing, researching, finding things out. Cling on it’s an emotional rollercoaster. We all have colleagues who make academic life look easy – but take a closer look. Yes, they love it (let’s face it – we love it!), but they’ve had to make sacrifices in various areas to make it work. We need to be more open about this.
My job advice:
1. It’s tough out there – following PhD, PDRA, Lectureship. But it’s tough everywhere. Nothing great was ever achieved without perseverance and hardwork. It’s not easy. You have to work hard.
2. You might need to make sacrifices – personally, professionally – you might get a postdoc job or fellowship but there is often a price. Sometimes well-hidden. But this is the same in many sectors.
3. Target your applications and be strategic. We might not like to admit this, but people have strategies, career plans, goals.
4. The scattergun and the apply for everything approach can work, but making an application for anything takes so much effort that you need to be able to convince short-listers, panels, potential colleagues of your commitment and suitability.
5. Good applications – in my experience – take a long time to craft. Be a perfectionist in this regard. Make it specific, make it sound as real as possible.
6. Avoid generic statements – talk about you. Why you for this job? Why now? Wear your academic heart on your sleeve.
7. Get an interview – get practising. Know your presentation backwards. Get familiar with the sound of your own voice. You’ll be less nervous if you actually spend some time considering what it is you might say.
8. Smile. A lot.
9. Be ambitious. Don’t be a total ar*e but don’t hold back on where you hope to be in the future. What is this job going to lead to. I included a 5 year plan in my presentation – my colleagues do laugh at me for this but they also remember it.
10. Be yourself. Know yourself. Make a list of the compromises you’re prepared to make in the early days. Think about the non-negotiables as jobs become more permanent-looking.
Finally – talk to peers, colleagues, friends, family about their experiences and yours. Share your applications for feedback and practise your job presentations in front of them. It will bore some of them silly, but the difference they notice in you – once you find that job – whatever job it ends up being is priceless.