You’re close to submitting your PhD, to passing your viva voce examination with flying colours, and to be awarded your doctorate. At various stages in these final months of your existence as a PhD student certain scary thoughts – of the practical kind – enter your mind repeatedly and persistently. When will my university email account be closed? Should I be emailing academic colleagues from my embarrassingly named non-institutional email account? How will I keep researching and writing without physical or online access to my university library and its resources? How will I stand a chance on the academic job market if I can’t research and publish? And then there are the more existential questions that lead on from the practical problems: Am I a failure if I take on a non-academic job to pay the bills? This post is about the peculiar period of time when you turn from PhD student to early-career researcher, the challenges you may face during that period and in the time leading up to it, and how you may be able to tackle some of these problems.
Affiliation & Resources
Usually the first problem you face the day that you are awarded your PhD is that you no longer are affiliated with your university in an official capacity, and this also means you will usually not have access to their resources any longer. One way to prepare for this and avoid being unable to continue your research is to investigate whether your university – or any other university with whom you have some sort of tie via a department and staff contact – offer honorary research fellowships. These fellowships don’t pay you anything, but if you can convince the relevant people that it’s in their interest for their department to be represented by you – because of your past, present, and future research – then an honorary fellowship equals an institutional email account as well as access to the university’s physical and online library resources. Note here that I don’t mean those “honorary” posts that are clearly exploitative, jobs advertised openly (and widely criticised in recent months) as unpaid work experience. Ensure that both sides are clear on what you will receive for such an affiliation and what the university or department expects in return (in my case it was only that I name the university as my institutional affiliation in publications and at conferences, etc.).
Continuing Academic Work
For most of us it’s a reality that without a job we can’t pay our rent or any other bills. So even if you did your PhD on a scholarship, that money will end as soon as you’ve completed your doctoral studies (often it even stops the day you submit, rather than the day you have your viva). It depends heavily on what kind of institution you are doing your PhD at and what kind of person your supervisor is whether there is some work available for you post-PhD. One of the things you should certainly try is secure some teaching hours for the term post-completion. Don’t feel bad or embarrassed about emailing and speaking to the people who are in charge of the teaching allocation. Make sure you they know you’re available for anything that comes up and that they know exactly what you’re able to teach. Equally, ensure your supervisor is aware of your situation and see if they run any modules on which you might be able to teach. Another avenue to explore are funding bids led by or including your supervisor or other research contacts who may be willing to budget for a research assistant or post-doc (i.e. you). Of course there’s no guarantee the bid will be successful, but it’s good to be aware of these options and keep your eyes and ears open to see who is planning what and checking whether you can perhaps be part of a project.
If there is no teaching available at your university or if you require more hours, do send your CV and a covering email to departments to which you’d be willing to travel for work. Highlight your experience in the email, mention your specialism and other areas you can teach in, name any contacts you have in the department, and mention any modules the department runs that you know or think they may need part-timers for. It’s important you send those emails to the right people, i.e. those who are in charge of the teaching allocation (usually heads of departments, subject leaders, etc.). These days departments receive lots of blind inquiries and CVs, which is why networking is even more important. Make contacts with people and make them want to work with you. It also means it’s important your email is specific and clearly directed at the relevant person in the department (don’t just copy and paste an email you’ve just sent to another university). If you are aiming for a lectureship, or any academic position that includes teaching, then it’s important you have experience to show in this area, so try your best to secure some of form of teaching if at all possible. For research fellowships and post-docs, it’s often acceptable if you haven’t got much teaching experience, as usually your research will be the absolute center of attention and you will get teaching opportunities as you go along in those positions, learning on the job, as it were. Also remember that there is such a thing as academic administration. If you can secure a clerical or admin post in a university, this can often give you valuable insights into and experience in the inner workings of departments and universities. Unfortunately, I’ve encountered a lot of snobbishness towards administrative staff among academics, and I’m proud to say that my current department is a refreshing exception to this, as are many, many other academics in the UK, of course. Don’t let anyone else’s attitudes towards this area of work deter you – many academics seem to look down on admin staff only because they have the talent to expose their inefficiency and sometimes uselessness beyond their very specific skill sets and areas of expertise.
Why You’re Not A Failure: Taking on Non-Academic Work
No matter if you can or can’t secure teaching hours, it’s perfectly normal that you take on a non-academic job. Those bills don’t pay themselves, and no one who lives in the real world will frown upon you for having to earn a living. The problem isn’t the non-academic job in itself. The problem is keeping up your profile as a researcher while you do other work. As many of the posts in “Brains, Time, Money: Part-Time & Self-Funded Postgraduate Study” mention, it’s tough working a normal day and then switching over from that day job to your research brain in the evening (or whenever you don’t do paid work) to write conference papers, journal articles, and job applications. This is tough, and I would be lying if I said that it’s only for a short, finite period of time. It may only take a couple of months to find an academic job, or it may take you several years. It would also be a lie to say it’s impossible. A vast amount of people have done it, and have subsequently secured an academic position. I’ve said elsewhere that juggling various kinds of tasks is a key skill we have to learn as early as possible during our PhDs. It becomes even more invaluable when you do not possess the privilege to focus all your time on academic activities. Be strategic and don’t lose focus: what’s the next gap to fill on your CV? Make a list of the things you need to do to make you employable, or more employable. Work that list off item by item. Focus on quality, not quantity. The same rules of selection as apply as I’ve outlined in Academic Juggling, but it’s likely you’ll have to be even stricter with yourself, and you’ll have to show extra initiative to fund those conferences and archive trips if you haven’t got a departmental budget to draw on. Small pots of money in various places are often overlooked – seek them out (and see some short ideas on where to start in this post).
Taking on non-academic work doesn’t make you a failure, and neither does not immediately securing an academic position. It’s tough, but you have to stay positive and believe in yourself, the value of your work, and learn to value yourself, a skill that you had best acquire earlier rather than later if academia is your preferred career choice. In short, I can’t say it better than Caroline Magennis in her guest post for The New Academic’s Guides to Academia, fittingly titled “Fail Better: Surviving the Slings & Arrows of Academic Fortune”. If you struggle to remind yourself of why you’re doing all this, read Caroline’s post. She has just been offered a permanent lectureship, and I have no doubt that the strategies and attitudes she outlines in this post have a great deal to do with her achievements to date.
Focus on the good things, and all your good experiences: the stimulating conversations, the great lectures and seminars, the students, and of course the passion you have for your subject. Hold on to this, do what lies within your power, and don’t blame yourself for the things that don’t.