Guest blog by David Hope (PhD Political Science) who is now a Researcher at LSE’s International Inequalities Institute:
It is a daunting prospect coming to the end of a PhD and looking to take that next step and secure a permanent job in academia. For four or five years, your success and progress have largely been in your own hands, but obtaining a job seems so much more uncertain, with luck and timing often playing a crucial role. While you cannot control these things, you can take action to put yourself in the best possible position when it comes to making applications, giving job talks, and doing interviews. I hope that this blog post, which summarises my experience of transitioning from the PhD into a permanent academic job, can provide some useful insights as you look to make your own transition.
My academic and career trajectory
Before I discuss my transition, I will briefly summarise this to provide a (heavily abridged) roadmap of my journey from undergraduate student to university lecturer.
My university career began in economics, where I gained BSc and MSc degrees from UCL and LSE respectively. After a couple of years working as a Macroeconomic Consultant for PwC, I decided that wasn’t the career for me and came back into academia. Having lived through the global financial crisis, I became convinced that economics and politics were inextricably linked and that we could not hope to understand major macroeconomic phenomena without taking politics into account. I therefore moved in political science when I started my PhD at the LSE. Zoom forward four years (skipping over lots of hard work and more than a couple of existential crises) and I submitted my PhD at the end of September 2016. Three days later, I began as a Postdoctoral Research Officer in Inequalities at LSE’s International Inequalities Institute. To complete the journey, I recently secured a permanent academic post as a Lecturer in Political Economy in the King’s College London (KCL) Department of Political Economy, starting September 2017.
Transition from PhD student to Postdoctoral Research Officer
The MRes/PhD programme in the Department of Government at the LSE is four years in total and can often take a little longer. After Christmas in my fourth year, I did not think I would finish on time, so wanted to apply for a fixed-term teaching or research position that could help me while I finalised the PhD. I also had a strong preference to stay in London, where my family and friends all live and work.
I applied for two positions at LSE. The first was a Teaching Fellow position in the Department of Government and the other was a Postdoctoral Research Officer position in the International Inequalities Institute. There are many fixed-term positions that open up at LSE and universities around the country that are perfect for PhD students who are close to finishing or have recently finished, but are not ready to go onto the job market for permanent positions. I heard about the two positions I applied for through my PhD supervisor and fellow PhD students. It is important to make full use of the academic network you have built up over the course of the PhD when looking for jobs (for positions further afield in the UK, you can search on jobs.ac.uk).
Given that one of the positions I applied for was a teaching position and the other was a research position, I adapted my CV and cover letter to reflect that. For example, I moved my teaching experience higher up my CV for the Teaching Fellow application and spent more time in the associated cover letter talking about my teaching experience. I luckily got shortlisted for both the positions. The processes were then very similar; a short presentation on my research followed by a short interview. The best way to prepare for interviews and presentations is to practice. I booked an PhD appointment with LSE Careers to do a mock interview and went through my presentation with my supervisors and friends from the PhD.
The stumbling block in the Teaching Fellow interview was my lack of teaching experience in political science (all my teaching was in economics up to that point). This interview experience provides a cautionary tale about the risks of applying for positions you are not a good fit for; you will be picked up on any relevant gaps in the CV in the interview, so be prepared for that! Needless to say, I did not get the position, but it did give me a clear signal that certain areas of my CV would need to be improved before I applied for permanent positions.
The job talk and interview went more smoothly for the position in the International Inequalities Institute. As an interdisciplinary institute, my academic background in both economics and political science was a big plus and I was clearly a better fit for this position. The panel were particularly impressed by my three publications in peer-reviewed journals. The importance of publications to both fixed-term research positions and permanent positions, particularly in the UK and Europe, cannot be overstated. It gives the department you are applying for confidence that you will be able to publish in the future. It is therefore important to send papers/chapters out to journals during the course of your PhD, and as the review process can take some time, it is better to send them out earlier rather than later. Your supervisors will be the best guides of when and where to send your work, and may even provide you with opportunities to co-author work with them.
Research in the role
The only prerequisite of the Inequalities Institute position was that I pursued a research agenda on inequality. My PhD was not closely related to inequality, but I had taken the time to develop a new research agenda that both built on my existing research and shifted focus toward inequality. My willingness to be flexible with my postdoctoral research agenda definitely helped support my application. A couple of days after the interview, I was offered the position part-time for two years. The panel were meant to be making an appointment for one full-time position, but had taken a shine to two of the candidates. As I had indicated in the interview that I would be willing to do the position part-time, they managed to shuffle some resources around and employ one candidate full-time for a year and me part-time for two years. This further emphasises the importance of being flexible.
I had actually been close to not applying for the Inequalities Institute position, as they wanted candidates who could start in July 2016 and already had their PhD in hand. I could not start that early and had not even submitted my PhD. I was thankfully advised by my supervisor to apply anyway. When they offered me the job, we agreed that I would finish my PhD by the end of September 2016 and start at the Institute at the beginning of October 2016. The unexpectedly tight deadline to finish the PhD definitely focused the mind! My experience shows that universities are sometimes willing to work around what is in the job advert for the right candidate. If a job looks right for you, then you might as well apply, as you never know what might happen.
It was of course by no means guaranteed that I would get either of these positions. I had therefore put some backup plans in place. As I was tied to London, I also applied for graduate teaching assistant work at LSE and King’s College London and agreed that I would do some research assistance work for my supervisor. Even though I got the Inequalities Institute position, having a backup plan turned out to be very useful. I ended up teaching in the Department of Government and doing some research assistance for my supervisor alongside my part-time postdoc, which allowed me to make up my work time and salary to the equivalent of a full-time position.
Transition from Postdoctoral Research Officer to Lecturer
The application and interview process for research and teaching positions at the end of the PhD really helped to highlight the weaknesses in my academic CV (the latest version of which is available online). It was clear that I needed political science teaching experience and would also benefit from a teaching qualification. The part-time postdoctoral position was actually a real blessing in disguise as it meant I was able to teach two seminar groups on GV227: The Politics of Economic Policy and study for the Postgraduate Certificate of Higher Education (PGCertHE). I also gained another publication in a peer-reviewed journal from my research assistance work. I was also conscious to try and build my CV through my position in the Inequalities Institute. I became the academic advisor and dissertation supervisor for two MSc students in the Institute and lectured to both MSc and PhD students on the political economy of inequality and redistribution.
I had not planned to go on the job market in the first year of the postdoc. However, the Lecturer in Political Economy position at KCL was such a good fit for me, I thought that I had to apply, especially as they had three positions available. They were explicitly looking for candidates, like me, with interdisciplinary backgrounds and a commitment to interdisciplinary research, to teach on the Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) undergraduate course.
Job talk and interview
Once I was shortlisted for the position, the next stage was spread over two days. The first day was made up of a 20-minute job talk with a ten minute Q and A and a lunch with all the candidates and the faculty. The second day was a panel interview. The four main tips I would give for the job talk and interview are:
- Get input on your presentation from your supervisors, your fellow PhDs and other faculty members.
- Practice, practice, practice: your presentation will be a lot better and you will be more comfortably answering questions on it if you have practiced it many times.
- Thoroughly research the department and the faculty’s research output, and take time to identify the potential teaching contributions you could make.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you or someone in your network has links within the department you are applying for, then use them to find out more about the department and what they are looking for. The overarching theme of these tips is that you cannot get a job alone. Even if you haven’t consciously done so, you will have built up large academic network over the course of your PhD, and there is no better time to exploit it!
One of the main questions PhD students have when they come to the job market is how widely to apply. Good friends of mine applied to (literally) hundreds of places, whereas I only applied to one. There is clearly no hard and fast rule and I would definitely have applied to more places had I been in the second year of the postdoc. However, I would recommend thinking carefully about whether you are a good fit for a position before putting in an application. It adds a lot of unnecessary time and stress applying to positions that you have no hope of getting or to places where you have no intention of moving. As an example of how important being a good fit is to universities, KCL had roughly 180 applications for my position and shortlisted nine candidates for the three available positions. Every single one of the nine shortlisted candidates was working at the interface of at least two of the three disciplines of PPE. Interdisciplinarity was central to the job advert and the shortlisted candidates were clearly chosen accordingly.
I am willing to concede that my experience on the job market was by no means the norm. I did not apply widely, but I think that benefitted me in important ways. I was able to head into the job talk and the interview confident that I was what they were looking for and having had the time to prepare thoroughly, which is not always the case if you apply to a great number of places.
My next steps
I am extremely excited about starting the next stage of my academic journey at King’s College London, where I will get to teach and research on the border between politics and economics, which was exactly what I was striving for when I started the PhD. Hopefully by sharing my experience of transitioning from the PhD to the lectureship, it can help others secure their first permanent academic position and get that same feeling of excitement (and relief!)