This article was first published in GRADBritain issue 9, autumn 2009
The academic job market is shrinking at an alarming rate. Horror stories are circulating among anxious early career researchers... ‘Between 70 and 100 applicants are applying for every lecturer position'... ‘If you haven't had a book published you won't get shortlisted for an interview'. I could go on but you get the general idea.
To separate fact from fiction in the current jobs market, I spoke to half a dozen lecturers in the social sciences with many years of teaching and appointing experience between them. Before sharing their thoughts with you, it's worth highlighting the basics steps you should be taking to improve your job prospects in this difficult economic climate.
It goes without saying that the more publications you can list on your CV the better, and that articles published in peer-reviewed journals are more highly regarded than e.g. publications of conference papers.
Everybody agrees that teaching experience is valuable. All postgrads know they must network all they can and most realise that they should present papers on their research in as many different locations as possible. Some appreciate that evidence of international activity is viewed as a sign of serious scholarly intent, and go all out to deliver research papers at overseas conferences.
In addition to these basics there are seven key points that I would like to share with my fellow PGRs.
Affiliate yourself to at least one research centre or special interest group. If there isn't one which suits your needs, set one up. It needn't be anything large-scale or ambitious (at first): the important thing is to find or create a secure position alongside like-minded scholars from which to launch your assault on the wider scholarly world. Involving yourself with a centre, group or institute gives you valuable experience of collaborating on funding bids or assisting with conference administration. It also provides you with a clear research identity. This is never more needed or appreciated than during the post submission period when you might otherwise feel slightly lost.
Disseminate your research:
Seize any opportunity you get to disseminate your research outside the academy: ‘a candidate who had taken History into the wider community (schools, museums, community groups) would appeal to my department.'
Realistic publication plans:
Potential employees will expect your CV to include clear and realistic plans for publication and research. Devote a couple of days to producing these plans and be prepared to expand on them at interview. Be aware that you will be questioned on what you're going to do next and what you think you could do if necessary.
Adopt an ‘I can do that' approach:
Most departments need people who can contribute to a range of different teaching areas. However obscure your own research, you need to be clear about what else it enables you to do in broad teaching terms: ‘Our department looks for the ability to think and teach beyond one's specialist field.'
Send out your CV:
One lecturer I spoke to admitted she kept a CV folder containing speculative approaches from early career researchers. If it becomes clear that an additional tutor will be needed in the last few weeks before teaching starts, she revisits this folder to see if there's a candidate able to step in at short notice. So you never know: be enterprising, pro-active and thick-skinned in your approach.
Don't give up!
The general consensus among senior academics is that most PGR's will have to serve an apprenticeship of sorts before they secure a fixed position. Expect to accept part-time jobs and frequent changes of jobs, within and outside the borders of the academy. This type of fractured, uncertain PGR experience has always been the norm. In the current economic climate, we might expect to do too much work for no money at all, taking on voluntary duties and commitments to display our enthusiasm and to expand our skills base and expertise. However, the advice is don't give up: ‘tell them they should be determined and stick with it because the rewards on offer are potentially huge.'
Michelle Johansen is part of the History Lab Plus, a network for early career historians. For further information see www.history.ac.uk/histlab.