Life After the PhD

This is the (lightly edited) text of a talk I gave for History Lab Plus at a really useful day on ‘Getting Grants, Getting Published and Staying Sane: Life After the PhD’ which was held at the Institute of Historical Research on Friday 15th July. My panel was called ‘Making the Transition’, so I talked mostly about my experiences of post-PhD life.

The rest of the day was full of great practical information, including quite a few things I was glad to learn about, such as details about academic publishing, preparing impact studies, and other social media that I wasn’t familiar with, such as MeetUp. Thanks to Jessica Hamnett and Kelly Spring for organising.


My Experiences

So some of what I have to say is pretty grim, but I hope there’s some optimism to be found in what I’m going to say. I could have given some more specific tips on job hunting and CVs, such as useful advice I have heard about ‘crafting a narrative’ and ‘protecting your brand’, but you can find these things yourself on the internet, and I wanted to take this opportunity to offer advice on the process of taking advice itself.

Based on my own experience, I have begun to think of the end of the PhD as a bit like a long, slow illness.

I actually don’t mean to be flippant. I think that it really can be very painful, disconcerting, and downright frightening. It does not end with some dramatic reveal, like in the films. No deathbed scene of reconciliation or deep meaning, and certainly none of the drama nor the brevity of Stephen Hawking’s viva defence in that hilariously unlikely biopic with Eddie Redmayne.

But the experience is different for different people.

This is my own personal experience of making the transition, and I want to stress very strongly that it is a very personal experience in many ways, whatever the shared challenges all early-career academics face. I will focus on the things I have done, as someone who both knew they wanted to stay in academia if they could, and who has learned a lot from social media. The focus is on me for three reasons:

  1. I’m fascinated by me.
  2. You may have heard all sorts of generic advice before, but I guess most of you won’t have heard me talk about my experiences and
  3. I think the post-PhD experience is individual in some important ways.

On Privilege

So let me start by saying that I have been very privileged.

I have had enough work and research income to support myself financially during writing up and in the time since I finished – not least thanks to the IHR who very kindly gave me two different fellowships. When I was preparing this talk, I thought I’d have a look at how many different jobs and grants I applied for in the first two years after my doctorate: 44. That may shock some of you, or many of you may already know that this is pretty typical. They take a long time. I spent days or even weeks on some of those applications.

I never heard back from some of them.

I received a great many one line rejections, of which by far the most painful was a rejection for a scheme from which I had already withdrawn.

You can’t reject me: I rejected YOU already.

And I had some interviews. Some went OK. Some of them were very bad experiences.

One that sticks in my mind: I was interviewed twice at the same place, first for a research position, which I didn’t get, then for a teaching position. In the second interview, one of the interviewers said ‘Oh, this is normally the part of the interview where we’d normally talk about research, but we’ve heard all about your research a few weeks ago.’ Way to make me feel great!

Oh, and they gave me the job, by the way.

Why? Partly because interviews make no sense, and you cannot know why you were rejected, or accepted for most of the things you apply for. All you can do is do your best to do your research for each job, and prepare in as much depth as possible, using your friends and colleagues to support your preparation.

I’m calling myself privileged [besides the reasons that mark me out sociologically as privileged] because I ended up after those 44 applications with a permanent lectureship at Bristol, and two years on the job market and just 44 applications is pretty good going in the current climate. I could point to any number of fabulous people I know, the best and the brightest, who have struggled for years.

Let me point to just two examples, as they have both blogged about it. Sumita Mukherjee recently blogged about the 9 years she has spent on the job market since getting her PhD. It’s a pretty grim read, but with a happy ending. My other example is a similar mixture of rage, disappointment, and joy: you should all read Ludivine Broch’s blog about how, in a moment of frustration, she accidentally replied to a rejection email rather than forwarding it to her friends with a string of expletives.

Ludivine and Sumita’s struggles to get jobs are not down to talent: the market is so tough for those of you who want to stay in academia that a lot comes down to chance.

Do you happen to be working on the right topic to join a big project, or to appeal to colleagues at a specific institution? Are six departments going to offer lectureships in your sub-field next year?

And – of course – it is persistently depressing to see how ‘luck’ seems to favour a rather homogenous social profile of academics. I don’t want to leave it unsaid that those of us with caring responsibilities, and those of us from different cultural, ethnic, and class backgrounds to the majority of academics, not to mention those of us whose gendered and sexual identities, or bodily and mental differences mark us out, face even more challenges at this stage.

There is a mental health epidemic among our junior colleagues.

I’ve been treated for anxiety, I’ve been on anti-depressants, I’ve had emergency counselling. I’m not ashamed of that.

And while a lot of what I have to say is about how you as an individual can adapt, survive, and even enjoy this period, I think it is important to make it clear at the beginning that I think we also have obligations to one another, to recognise that other early-career academics can be judgmental, and that what we make our profession is important.

From my point of view politically, what that involves is joining the union if you can, and supporting campaigns against casualization, if you can. And even if your politics might be different, the standard advice applies: there are a lot of pressures on early-career academics, but making things worse for everyone is not a solution: as far as possible, try not to be a dick. No matter how tough things are right now, we make the profession what it is.


 

The Advice You Didn’t Ask For

The thing is you probably all get loads of careers advice from loads of different sources, and I think it is really important to say right away that a lot of this advice needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Apologies if you have seen this before, but what I am about to say is straight plagiarised [edit: actually with some minor changes] from my blog.

When I was finishing my PhD, I had a lot of advice along the lines of (for instance):

 

– “Don’t apply for that job, you won’t be shortlisted.”

– “There’s no need to prepare anything special for an interview.”

– “Don’t waste time with social media and blogging.”

 

I could go on.

What it took me a long time to realize is that the advice that other academics give to early-career researchers is not bad in itself. It just has this tendency to be very idiosyncratic. When asked for advice (or when offering it unprompted!) academics have a tendency to generalise their own experiences.

If social media is irrelevant to how their career has progressed, of course they will be dismissive. If they did a PhD in three years, went straight into a postdoc, and then into a permanent job, they will see that as somehow ‘normal’.

And of course the problem is that norms have changed really quite quickly in the job market for historians, as Brodie Waddell’s recent attempts at quantification on the Many-Headed Monster history blog have outlined.

A great many aspiring historians now spend a great deal longer on temporary, and even part-time contracts, forced to juggle different responsibilities at different institutions, and constantly re-applying for positions as they go.

But my point about anti-advice is a slightly broader one.

I would advise all students who want a career as an academic to take what other academics tell them with a pinch of salt.

Pretty much the only thing I have seen consistently valued by hiring committees and my colleagues are publications. Do you have a good journal article? Is it based on fairly extensive empirical research? Is it in a history journal? Even better, is it in a ‘top’ journal (and we could debate how we judge that)?

And even this is not universal. The Oxbridge JRFs (which I will freely admit are hardly the best benchmark for measuring how hiring procedures work) are notoriously fickle when it comes to publications. Some now seem to prefer candidates with a track record, while others seem to favour an old-school (sic?) model of nurturing minds of the future before they have published their first work.

More broadly, I know of a few permanent jobs that have gone to people without the sacred monograph. (Myself included).

So much for anti-advice: do I have anything positive to say?

Yes.

Without getting sucked into the relentlessly optimistic language of self-determination and fulfilment, I do tend to think (based of course on my own experiences) that one of the most important things you can do if you are job hunting is focus on what makes you happy.

Jobs are important. Many of us who recently graduated from doctorates are simply struggling to make ends meet.

But don’t make the job the be all and end all.

The reasons I found academia so appealing have to do with intellectual curiosity, freedom, community, and learning. And when I was job hunting, I sometimes felt that a lot of those aspects faded to the back of my consciousness. I developed a certain amount of cynicism about how hiring works, and while I still think that cynicism was largely well-founded, this feeling has stuck with me that it was a damaging experience.

I love my research, even though it’s a topic that sometime other people sneer at.

I like social media: I think it contributes to my career, and I find it useful.

I applied for jobs people told me I would never get. And I got some of them. I really, really think that it is so hard to guess why you get interviews for one thing and not for another, that the best strategy is simply to go for the things that you most want.

My advice: do the stuff you love, and focus on getting the job you really want.

Yes, it will suck sometimes.

If you are currently fixated on an academic career – and I’m sure lots of you aren’t- you may well wonder if it is worth going on in academia. You may even decide it isn’t.

But you know what the worst thing would be? To spend all those years struggling to get an academic job, only to realise you’ve had to sacrifice all the things that made that important to you, and ended up doing research, teaching, and other kinds of work that weren’t even what you set out to do.

At the risk of offering advice, and advice you all know at that, you do need to say no, as often as you can.

You won’t always be able to. I, for instance, ended up working for years for little pay on a publishing project that [isn’t super relevant to what I do, but] I agreed to do because 1. I had no money and 2. It was run by someone whose support I needed. But I have succeeded in saying no to some things.


 

Social Media: the Things I Wished I’d Known

I want to end now with a few thoughts on social media in life after the PhD.

I am a big advocate.

I like Twitter, and I like blogging – you will have noticed that all of the slides I’ve put up are from blogs. I have met people through these social media, and I think they make my research better. It’s at the point now where I think a lot of the invitations I get to be involved with things are based on my social media presence, and I like that.

But I want to say something really important about this: as far as I am aware, social media is not yet something that you have to do if you want to get a job in academia. I heard someone at a conference last week say that they had actually seen a job advert that included a specific number of Twitter followers under the ‘essential requirements’ but I myself have never seen anything like that.

More pernicious, I think, is this sense among ECR that you should do social media because it will give you the edge for job interviews. But I haven’t seen much evidence of that. I just don’t think it is on most hiring committee’s radars at the moment, although I’d be interested to hear if people have different experiences. [Edit: discussion on the day highlighted that no-one had seen any evidence of (academic) jobs that required social media credentials, and many felt this smelled like an urban legend.]

Don’t do social media because it will get you a job, and don’t do it (I would advise) if you feel pressured into it: do it because you enjoy it. I like that blogging and Twitter are a less formal way to interact with other researchers, to try out new ideas, to become involved in conversations. [Edit: and read Mark Carrigan’s excellent recent blog post making these points much more clearly than I have.]

I tell people: make social media part of your productivity. Rather than a distraction, or procrastination, use your blog to practice writing, try out new ideas, get ideas out there. Use Twitter to discuss your half-formed thoughts, to keep up on what’s happening in your disciplines.

And I don’t think it is without its risks. Clearly, nuance is hard to achieve in 140 characters. Twitter debates, I increasingly think, are pointless. And blogging can go wrong, as when your site gets bombarded with abuse, or newspapers steal your research – it can happen.

But most of all, I still think the risk with social media is the pressure ECR feel under to use it, and I think I’d encourage other academics to see it as a choice that some of us embrace. Like our methodologies, our time periods, our specialisations, surely different academics can play different roles in online and offline debates.


Wrap Up

I thought about some kind of feel good conclusion to my talk today, but then I realised I wouldn’t really have time.

So all I will say is that I hope some of what I have had to say is helpful to you, not only as advice, but as advice on how to take advice.

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