Thursday 21 November 2013

Recap: Where Next? Postgraduates in the World of Work

A few weeks ago, New History Lab welcomed two external speakers who gave some great tips and advice about building a career after postgraduate study. George Turner, currently working as a freelance researcher, talked about careers in the non-academic sector. He highlighted the importance of flexibility in how you can mobilise the transferrable skills acquired through postgraduate study and the importance of developing and maintaining networks of friends and colleagues across different sectors. In terms of deciding which career path to follow, George also recommended to think less about what sector to pursue, and to think more about what work you would like to spend your days doing. As postgraduate students in the arts and humanities, many of our Labbers will probably enjoy reading, digesting information, writing, finding out new things, or figuring out a solution to a gap in knowledge about a particular issue. So perhaps this is a really creative way to decide on a role rather than a sector. Research-orientated roles exist within many sectors, as George’s own career path as a researcher through the worlds of documentary film-making, party politics, thinktanks, and journalism revealed. You might also look for research roles within the publishing, heritage, PR, and other sectors. 

These ideas about building networks and thinking creatively about how to make the most of your research skills also chimed with the themes covered by the second speaker, Catherine Armstrong, who joined us from Manchester Metropolitan University to talk about academic careers. As is unavoidable these days, Catherine spent some time reflecting on the challenges of the academic job market. For recent PhD graduates and early career scholars, the transition is not easy, and it is often about piecing together a portfolio of expertise and experience through casual teaching contracts, temporary research positions, and short-term administrative roles. During this period, trying to keep up on the conference circuit, make progress with research and publications, and fill out endless job applications can become very daunting. But Catherine had some great suggestions for making the most of the time as a PhD student, and as an early career scholar in search of that elusive lectureship position. She talked about how you can treat academic conferences as mini-job interviews, where you aim to make yourself known to more senior colleagues in your field. These colleagues will probably end up reading one of your letters of application, and it will help if they are already familiar with your work and skills.

Also, while the importance of building a publication record is clearly a key factor in making yourself competitive for an academic position, many university hiring committees will be increasingly interested in your teaching expertise. Many universities are increasingly focused on improving the “student experience,” as their reputations and strength depend on good NSS (National Student Survey) scores and undergraduate recruitment. As postdoctoral research fellowships in the arts and humanities can be even harder to come by than a permanent lectureship these days, your first decent position in academia will probably be a temporary teaching fellowship or temporary lectureship. In these capacities, departments will want to know that you can run your own modules, do lectures as well as take seminars, handle a heavy teaching load, contribute to the organisation of the department, and follow departmental policies regarding assessment and feedback. Lots of these temporary teaching positions are filled late in the academic year, so you will also be expected to do all this at very short notice! Finally, Catherine highlighted the changing nature of research and research-related funding in higher education at the moment. It’s important to think about things like third-stream income, the REF, and the impact agenda, which departments will expect you to be thinking about. Will your research have the capacity to build partnerships with non-academic organisations, have a broad impact on public discourse, and achieve international recognition? Remember that almost everyone applying for these jobs will have a PhD – departments will want to know what your plans are beyond the PhD, and the extent to which you’ve considered these issues surrounding research impact and funding in making those plans. Catherine has written about all these issues on her blog at, so check out the links for more tips!