How to compete in academia

It’s not by doing more of what everyone else is doing. It’s not about doing more unpaid administrative overtime than anyone else.

It’s by doing important work that people beyond your department will care about.

This means that you have to protect your time and attention. It means sometimes saying no (or not now) to other people, or just turning off email for a while so you can do your thing.

See also
From PhD to postdoc
3 harsh truths about academic careers (and how to succeed)

From PhD to Postdoc, Part 2

A few peope have asked recently about making the transition to a posdoc after graduating with a PhD, so here are some more thoughts…

(For part 1, click here)

When should you start applying for postdoc jobs?

This is one of those questions that doesn’t have a single answer, as it very much depends on your personal circumstances. I wanted to take a break and travel after my PhD (I spent 3 months in Japan doing martial arts), so it didn’t make sense to start applying before i finished. Others might not be able to afford to take a break, so they should start applying much earlier.

I would say, as a rough guide, you should probably start applying at least 6 months before you want to start a job, and before that you should start looking at academic job sites to see what the market is like in your field.

Some people start postdocs before they finish and defend their thesis, and this can work well if you have done all the work, you know how to write and you know exactly what you want to communicate (and the job allows you the time to finish). If you haven’t done any analysis, though, don’t start a postdoc.

Take your time

Take your time over every application, tailoring each one to the specific job. Read any papers referenced in the project description, and make sure you understand what the aims are. You then want to emphasise the relevant skills and experience you have.

(see How to write your academic CV (and how not to)

As with research though, you should expect that not every application will be successful, but put effort into them anyway. You might see the perfect job and put days into applying but not succeed. That’s just the nature of job hunting, so you need to be prepared for it and not lose heart.

Use your network

In a perfect world, all applications would be assessed purely on merit. But in the real world, you have a huge advantage if the person looking at your application already knows you.

Also, many jobs are never formally advertised, so if you have a good network of contacts who know you’re looking for work then you may hear of jobs you never would have otherwise.

Both my postdoc positions came about through people I knew (or contacts of contacts). Who you know is almost as important as what you know!


From PhD to Postdoc, Part 1

A few people have asked recently about making the transition to a postdoc position after graduating with a PhD, so here are a few thoughts…

A PhD is a beginner’s qualification. It’s the first proper research project you do and it’s mainly about developing your skills as a researcher. When you get to postdoc level, having made all the rookie mistakes during your PhD and with the pressure of the thesis behind you, that’s when you can really start to make an impact.

My first postdoc was a lot like my PhD in terms of day-to-day routine. The only major difference was that I knew what I was doing. I didn’t have admin duties or teaching, and there wasn’t a big exam at the end to worry about, so I could just get on with doing good research.

A lecturer-friend of mine once said to me that “it’s at postdoc level that you’re dangerous”, meaning that this is the perfect time to do your best work, when you have the skill but you don’t yet have the admin or teaching burden of a permanent staff member. Also, without a reputation to protect you can do the risky, paradigm-challenging work that’s only ever done by the young.

Of course there are also a lot of potential downsides. Postdocs are temporary positions, usually 1 to 3 years, and to find a job that matches your specialist skills often means moving city or country. If you’re single that’s not such a big problem, but if you have a partner (or worse, an academic partner also looking for a job) or a family then it can be a nightmare. Even if you find a suitable job in a suitable place, there is always the insecurity of not knowing what’s going to happen after the contract ends. It is extremely difficult to find a permanent position, so a lot of researchers end up just hopping from one temporary job to another. Many just quit academia after a couple of years.

If you’re just looking to delay life decisions, a postdoc is a good way to do it (it worked for me). But if you want to be an academic, you have to be extremely driven and make decisions based on clear goals. That means looking for jobs that have the potential to lead into permanent positions and working with people who can mentor you in your career.

If you end up taking a job just because it’s the only offer, it’s unlikely to lead to a fulfilling career. As with PhD applications, a lot of people worry about being good enough to be accepted. But you need to ask yourself whether the job is good enough for you, whether it’s the right work environment and whether your potential colleagues are people you want to work with.

Being an academic can be fantsatic. It’s hard, but if you find the right environment to do something exciting and challenging and important in your research, and if you can inspire the next generation to do the same, that’s a special kind of life.


How will Brexit affect PhD students in the UK and Europe?

Britain has voted to leave the European union. How will this affect PhD students in the UK, in Europe and beyond?

The exact form of Britain’s exit (or “Brexit”) is as yet unclear. The result of the referendum is not legally binding so in principle parliament could ignore it, though this seems unlikely. The first major step will be the formal notification to the EU of the intention to leave, which will then trigger a negotiation period of up to two years to decide the terms of the exit. This has not happened yet, and at the time of writing it isn’t clear when it will.

So it will take some time before anything is decided, and in the short-term it probably won’t affect your studies much, and in the long-term things will reach some kind of equilibrium. In the medium-term, though, the next 2 to 5 years or so, there’s a lot of uncertainty and a few potentially worrying possibilities.

leap of faith

Funding and collaborations

The EU funds a significant amount of academic research in the UK, as well as pan-european collaborations involving UK researchers. If you are already on an EU-backed PhD project, it seems unlikely that you’ll lose funding that’s already been assigned to you (though pretty much everything is uncertain at this point).

But even if it doesn’t affect you directly it may affect people around you in negative ways, which may then have negative consequences for you if, for example, your supervisor relies on European funding or collaboration for their research (or their job).

Now it could be that Britain reaches some kind of deal whereby funding and collaboration carries on in much the same way as it does now. If not, it seems unlikely that all collaboration will cease, but until things are sorted out the big problem is the uncertainty; in academia as in business most people are hesitant to make big commitments in uncertain circumstances. I’ve heard anecdotal evidence that some European collaborations are already being affected, with some academics being reluctant to join long-term projects with UK researchers.

Jobs and freedom of movement

One of the most prominent and persistently stated aims of the pro-Brexit campaign was to limit immigration. Currently, it is very easy for EU citizens to move between member states for work or study, but this might change – at least between the UK and Europe – in the next few years.

Again, we don’t know what will happen, if anything. If you’re already on a PhD programme it probably won’t affect your studies too much. The big potential problem lies in getting work after you graduate.

Following my PhD, I had to move to France to find a postdoc job that matched my specific skills. My second postdoc was in Spain. In the worst post-brexit case, it could be much harder for British PhD students to get jobs in Europe. It won’t be impossible, but the administrative burden of employing a non-EU citizen could make it harder to compete in an already very competitive job-market.

Of course, not everyone wants to work abroad; but your prospects of academic work in the UK could be affected too. Postdoc jobs need to be paid for by someone; without EU money there could be fewer available.

What to do if you’re already on a PhD programme

In the short-term, stay calm and keep working, but talk to people and stay informed about the circumstances that might affect you.

In the long-term, your best defence is to develop really, really solid research skills and get really, really good at what you do. Whatever happens, you’ll always have more options if you have a well-developed set of marketable skills.

What to do if you’re applying for a PhD in the UK

Ask prospective supervisors if they are funded by the EU and if they might be affected by Brexit. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work with EU funded supervisors, but you have to know what you’re getting into.

If you’re a PhD student outside the EU

The pro-Brexit campaign argued that leaving the EU would allow the UK to take the best people from everywhere, rather than favouring those from Europe. In principle, this could mean more opportunities to come to the UK to work.

Like everything else though, it’s unclear whether this will actually happen. Whether it does or not, your best strategy is still to get as good as you can at what you do.

Anything to add?

If you’ve been affected by or are worried about the effects of Brexit, or if you have something useful to contribute, please comment below. If you’ve been following events on news websites or Facebook you’ll know that these discussions can get very ugly very quickly, so I won’t allow any off-topic or inflammatory posts. Stay calm, re-read before posting, and don’t write anything you wouldn’t say to a colleague’s face.

How to write your academic CV (and how not to)

When writing your academic CV, as with any kind of writing, it’s not just the information you put in.

How you present that information can make the difference between getting a job you love or finding yourself stuck in a job you hate. In other words, it can alter the course of your whole life.

Writing your academic CV: the 2 basic rules

1: Individual CVs for individual jobs

The absolute number 1 golden rule is that you shouldn’t just write one CV, but should tailor it to each individual job you apply for.

If you’re applying for academic jobs, the CV you send will be different to the one you send to work in a bank or bakery, but you should also tweak every CV you send to the specific job you apply for.

The facts don’t change, but you might choose to emphasise certain skills and experience over others.

2: Not all content is equal

Just like in your thesis, not all potential content in is equally valuable.

Not everything you’ve done is equally interesting to an employer. You want them to read you CV and want to know more about you, rather than skimming sections looking for something interesting.

Once you’ve listed your PhD, master’s degree and undergraduate degree, there’s no need to say where you went to high school. If you have a ton of experience as a computer programmer, saying you can use Microsoft Office is pointless.

I’d say 2 pages is a maximum for a CV, but if you had to reduce your CV to one page (which is OK to do), what information would be indispensable?

Think about what information you want them to ask you in your interview, and what they might want to know and make those the focus of your CV

Structuring your academic CV

Part 1: Who are you?

What are you going to put first? Your name, obviously needs to be clear in large bold type at the top of the page. Put your contact information in small type underneath, like a sub-title. Contact information is only useful to the reader when they decide to contact you, so giving it a third of the space on the first page doesn’t make much sense.

What’s the next thing you want a potential employer to see?

Give them a quick summary (about 3 to 5 lines, probably no more) of what you do and what your experience is. For example;

“Recent PhD graduate* in (insert subject), specialising in (insert 1 or 2 skills or areas of expertise, relevant to the job your applying for). Also highly experienced in (something else), with practical experience in/ working knowledge of/ familiarity with (some area you might not be as confident in, but the employer may be looking for).”

In other words, if they only read the top half of the first page, they’ll know everything they need to to decide whether you’re at least worth talking to.

Tailor the statement to the job, or if it’s a speculative job enquiry, to the research group in question. Be brief, but anything you think makes you good for the job, include it here.

Everything else you put in your CV needs to support that opening statement.

Part 2: Can you do the job?

It’s safe to assume that everyone else going for that postdoc position has got good academic qualifications, so is that what you want them to see next? It won’t necessarily help you stand out from everyone else.

So thinking about what to put next… well what do academics care about most?

Publications, publications, publications.

If you’ve published papers or presented work at conferences, then it demonstrates professional competence and backs up your opening statement.

When you come to apply for your second research job or a lectureship, you might want to put your research experience in the form of an employment history, but fresh out of your PhD, demonstrating just that you’ve been published is the most important thing to highlight.

The big difference between an academic CV and non-academic CV is that if you’re applying for jobs outside academia, the specific publications might not be so important. To a  non-academic employer, they simply serve as proof that you were competent at what you were doing before.

Part 3: How did you get here?

Once you’ve shown your publications, you can give your qualifications. For your first “real” job, this will double up as an employment history as it accounts for your time over the last several years.

It’s good to structure this as a timeline, working backwards from the most recent, or what you’re doing now.

The bar job you took to pay your way through your masters probably isn’t relevant to the job you’re applying for, but if you had a job for a significant length of time then put it in. You want to avoid gaps in your history because these cause a bit of suspicion about what you were doing.

Wherever relevant, put some detail in about what you were doing at each place, again to reinforce what you said in part 1. Those things you said you have some knowledge of, this is where to say where you got that experience.

Part 4: Anything you’d like to add?

Finally, if there’s anything else interesting you want to say about yourself, then include a section about your other experience. You could list interests, but its way better to frame it as things you’ve done or achieved.

It’s not interesting that you like running or music, but it is interesting if you’ve run a marathon or played in an orchestra. Interviewers like these kind of things!

A few things to avoid…

DON’T: rush your application by sending a generic CV

DON’T: List everything you’ve ever done to try to make your CV look fuller, you’ll only dilute the good stuff

DON’T: send your CV without checking for errors at least twice. Get someone else to read over it if you have difficulty checking it yourself.

DON’T: use big, dense chunks of text

DON’T: include anything you wouldn’t want them to ask about in the interview (either because you think it’d be boring, or because it isn’t true)

*If you haven’t finished your thesis yet, just replace “recent graduate” with “PhD researcher in…” , and finish the paragraph with “Expected thesis submission date: (insert date)”. If you think you could do the job and can demonstrate that you have the right skills, the fact that you haven’t yet finished doesn’t rule you out.

3 harsh truths about pursuing an academic career (and how to succeed)

After you finish your PhD thesis, you might be tempted, or even excited, to pursue a career in academia. Or you might be looking at postdoc contracts because you don’t know what else to do.

A career in academia does suit some people quite well, but you need to know what you’re getting into before you set foot on that path.

harsh truths

1: There is no academic career ladder

There is no academic career ladder. It’s a pyramid, and it’s crowded at the top.

Most postdocs never progress to permanent positions (or tenure) simply because there are fewer available. and there are more people trying to get into that top tier than are retiring or dying.

It’s certainly possible to get up there, but it takes determination, which means being certain that’s what you want. So you can make the decision to leave now, delay the decision, or make a determined effort to make progress in your career.

Not knowing what else to do is not the same as “I can’t imagine doing anything else”.

The question to ask yourself is this; do you ever wake up early because you are excited by your work?

If yes, continue. If not, do something easier and better paid.

2: Being smart and working hard is not enough

Being good and waiting to get noticed just isn’t enough. Lots of other people are as smart as you, and just as hard-working.

So how can you get ahead?

You have to know what you’re aiming for, set yourself a target and a time frame, and make the decisions necessary to get you there.

If you decide, before your first postdoc, that you are aiming for a permanent position by the age of 32, that gives you a framework for making decisions.

Is that next contract going to advance your career, or just delay your exit? Is it just the first thing that came along?

Are you publishing results just to stay alive, or to make a name for yourself?

3: Contacts are the lifeblood of your career

Who you work with is at least as important as what you do.

It’s vital to find people to work with who are interested in your long-term career, people you can learn from, and people you can trust.

Absolutely the best way to do this is to treat conferences and seminars as networking events, rather than expenses-paid boredom (or stress when you have to present).

If you go to a conference and don’t introduce yourself to at least 10 people, you are wasting your time.

Those contacts are the lifeblood of your career.

It’s OK to search through job listings, but it’s better when the opportunities come to you.

If nobody knows you through your work yet, the only way to start is by meeting people personally. Get out there and get known, because nobody else is going to do it for you.