Five tips for starting an academic career in times of crisis

Due to the 2008 global financial crisis, a long shadow loomed over me and my cohort. Over the medium term, though, most of us made it, says Lucas Lixinski

February 19, 2021
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Contrary to appearances, all is not lost for the next generation of aspiring academics. Yes, universities are under much financial and logistical strain, people are losing their jobs, and those doing their PhDs and hoping for academic jobs are wondering what is going to happen to them. I can relate.

The 2008 global financial crisis hit when I was in the first year of my PhD. A long, dark shadow loomed over me and almost everyone in my cohort. Over the medium term, though, most of us made it.

Here are five things I have learned, both at the time and with the benefit of hindsight, that may be helpful to those who envisage propelling themselves from a PhD into an academic career in the coming months and years.

Beggars can’t be choosers
I learned quickly that my career would have a better chance of gaining traction if I was willing to compromise at the beginning. There are three factors to consider when it comes to a coveted academic position: location; quality of institution in terms of rankings or whatever measure of esteem you use; and the type of position. You’ll do well to be open to compromise on at least one of them, possibly two.

If you opt for a type of position different from your preferred mode, you will probably have to work harder during those insecure years to keep yourself competitive for when the more secure positions in your desired location come along – a harsh and unfair circumstance, but worth bearing in mind in weighing the compromises you are willing to make.

I compromised on two grounds: I moved across the world to a country I had never visited before to a postdoctoral position, which, at least at the time, was not a type of position prevalent in my field. It worked out, even if it did not feel like it at the time.

Publish strategically beyond your thesis
Having a PhD manuscript, however brilliant, is not nearly enough to get an academic job any more. That was already the case before Covid, and it will be even more so in the near future. If you aim to become an academic in the coming months or years, you need to publish beyond your PhD.

Specifically, it pays to be strategic and publish on something that connects your research to a core subject that needs to be taught in your discipline. That way, you can demonstrate to any hiring committee that you have bona fide credentials to teach that subject and a genuine interest in it. Remember that everyone can teach an elective in their chosen field of research, but hiring committees are often thinking carefully of what core subjects you can teach that will meet their needs.

Find your gurus in their many forms
Gurus in this context are people who make you think outside of your research project, about where you want to go next, what you want to be known for in the discipline, and how to get there. They can be supervisors; they can be other academics at the same institution or beyond; they can even be peers. And they are very important.

Mentorship can happen via relatively formalised processes, over food or a beverage, or even via text exchanges. There is no right or wrong format, beyond you having someone that makes you think more strategically. Find the people who ask you questions about life, the world and your place within both.

Admittedly, these things are not natural to everyone, particularly in the introvert-packed halls of academia. It does not come easy to me, and I have been extraordinarily lucky to stumble upon my many mentors over time. But I also know in hindsight that having those people around me made a huge difference.

Have a back-up plan
Academia is great, but it pays to keep an open mind about other cool jobs out there. You can still put most of your eggs in the academic basket, but do set a couple aside for other endeavours. At best, you will get a job in academia, and thinking outside will have allowed you to distil your skillset in ways that are more easily communicated to academic hiring committees. At worst, you will be better prepared for the world beyond the ivory tower.

Remember (to remind yourself) that it does get better
A lot of rejection will be coming your way. I applied for well over 30 positions before I received two offers (at the same time). Keep telling yourself that being rejected for a job has little to nothing to do with your worth as an academic. It is nearly always about the other people who applied and, fundamentally, about the people selecting. Rejection is just part of the journey.

Finally, and I cannot stress this enough, crises do not last forever. The sector is likely to bounce back (even if transformed). So, do not despair, but remember that it pays to be ready.

Lucas Lixinski is a professor at the Faculty of Law and Justice at UNSW Sydney.

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