Landing your first lectureship: top five academic career planning tips
Utsa Mukherjee shares five tips to help early career researchers build their professional experience and CV in order to secure their first permanent academic post
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For many PhD students and early career researchers (ECRs) on fixed-term contracts, permanent lectureships are the holy grail. Although many PhD graduates and postdocs pursue careers and flourish in sectors beyond academia, if it is a permanent academic job that you covet then I’d like to share some tips I learned while navigating the academic job market in the middle of a pandemic. The recommendations I share here are largely based on my own experiences, as well as the many conversations I have had with friends and colleagues across UK higher education. They are mostly directed at PhDs and ECRs in the humanities and social sciences, but can be equally relevant to scholars in other disciplines.
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Start career planning early
If you are serious about an academic career, start your career planning early. Even if you are at the beginning of your PhD journey, it is never too early to get a sense of how to prepare yourself and what sort of skills and experiences you need to develop during your PhD journey in order to land an academic job at the end of it. Start by familiarising yourself with academic job websites (they differ by country), the criteria for various posts (postdocs, teaching-focused roles, lectureships etc) and what sort of application materials they ask for (again, they vary by national contexts). Just like your area of research, the academic job market has its own patterns and peculiarities, and you must get the hang of these as early as possible so that you have more time to build your profile. There is no shortcut.
Build your academic CV
Academic CVs differ in format and function from the kind of CV you might have used to get a part-time job as a PhD student or the one you used in your non-academic career. The two- or three-page rule of non-academic CVs does not apply here. But don’t make your CV too wordy either. Imagine a senior academic going through hundreds of these submissions to shortlist five people for a job – you don’t want to bore them or make it difficult for them to locate the relevant detail they need to assess whether you meet the job criteria. Think of your CV as a boiling pot. As you go through your PhD journey and pick up small travel bursaries, do a guest lecture, organise a departmental seminar, write a short piece for a media outlet or publish a book review, make sure you keep adding these to the CV. A good academic CV takes time to build, so start early. If you identify major holes in your CV, for example, you have never done a conference presentation, then seek out those opportunities as soon as possible.
Gather teaching experience
It is important that you focus on your research and writing during your PhD, and do not get too distracted. However, you will never get a lectureship without relevant teaching experience. If your PhD studentship does not come with teaching hours, then seek out seminar teaching roles in your department, and if they don’t offer any, look outside. Cap the teaching hours but focus on the skills and experiences you are gathering. If you look at specifications for most lectureships in the humanities and social sciences, you will see they mention teaching experience or qualifications. If you are teaching in your PhD university, find out if you can enrol in a higher education teacher training course that comes with an Associate Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy. If so, then do it. It will be hard getting it all done while working on your PhD but these things make a difference to your overall profile and improve your chances of getting shortlisted. It also shows you can juggle multiple commitments.
A seemingly obvious point, but it bears emphasising here: be flexible with disciplinary boundaries. If your PhD bridges more than one field of research or discipline, capitalise on that in the job market. If your PhD is in sociology but it contributes to debates in gender studies, human geography, childhood studies, social anthropology or any other neighbouring disciplines and fields, then do not narrow your search to sociology posts alone but widen your focus and apply for posts in the neighbouring areas as well, tailoring your application materials to highlight aspects of your work that speak to that area. Given the paucity of academic posts, widen your search wherever possible.
Speak to other academics
Seek out and speak to those who have landed an academic job within the past year or two and find out how they put their cover letters and CVs together or performed in the interview. This has proved the most beneficial approach for me. I was lucky enough to get two postdoc fellowships, with the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and Leverhulme Trust respectively. Before applying, I spoke to people in my department who had been successful in the past – some I didn’t even know beforehand – and they were all very kind and generous with their time, sharing their applications with me and offering tips that made a big difference. Similarly, before my lectureship interview, I spoke to a friend who’d had a similar interview at a different institution a few months prior. Hearing his experiences and the kind of questions he was asked helped enormously. So, network with other ECRs and I am sure they will help you. And in a few years’ time, when you have secured an academic post, pass on your knowledge to PhD students and postdocs around you.
All the best with your academic job search!
Utsa Mukherjee is a lecturer in education at Brunel University London.