We recently worked with Professor Charles Stafford as he spoke to PhD students and researchers about the state of the academic job market in light of COVID-19 and answered their questions relating to their future in academia. Joined also by Professor Rita Astuti who organised the event, here LSE PhD and Research Staff Careers Consultant, Catherine Reynolds, reflects on key information and insights.
In the current challenging circumstances we asked Charles Stafford what PhD students and postdocs should be doing, assuming that the academic job market might be extremely quiet for at least the coming year. In his role as Vice Chair of the Appointments Committee at LSE for the past four years, Charles has chaired most of the LSE’s academic hiring panels, and has been dealing more generally with recruitment and selection processes. During our Q&A he talked about the job market in general, and answered questions about strategies for the year ahead.
Charles started by clarifying differences in selection processes in the academic job market, depending on discipline area making sure that everyone was aware of the situation in their own field and not over generalising from hearsay. He gave his predictions on the shape of the job market for the year ahead.
Think about the timing
Insight into the cycle of academic hiring, get to know the patterns. Remember back in February, March and April 2020: we started to realise that COVID-19 was big but were not clear how big. At LSE, we thought we might be able to have summer school in 2020, if things improved. They didn’t! The impact of the pandemic on the HE sector became clearer as the Summer Term started.
A bit of good news: by the time things really sank in, much of the 2019-20 normal hiring cycle for career track academic posts was already over, and posts which had been advertised for and were filled. However, much of the normal hiring cycle for short term teaching focused posts for the year ahead – in our case, LSE Fellows, GTAs etc – had yet to begin or was just starting (this is bad news overall, but with some variable patches because in fact many institutions have still done some hiring of this kind).
Looking ahead, what about the 2020-21 cycle?
The sector is assuming bad news financially but what will actually happen is very uncertain. LSE is modelling everything from a mega drop-off in student numbers, to us having more students than usual. Pay attention to messages about student recruitment in your field(s), and across different types of institutions – and in different countries.
If student numbers look strong in September we may find that LSE and others start doing teaching focused hiring for the year ahead. Around the same time, universities will start having discussions about what career track hiring, if any, they can do going forward. This is still unknown by everyone.
Importantly, it’s not certain the job market will just shut down – it depends. Things may be difficult. But there is likely to be some hiring: posts need to be filled, e.g. because of retirement and people leaving for other reasons. Teaching needs still need to be met.
So watch this space, noting that a key issue for the reopening of the market will be optimism re: 2021-22.
What you should do now
If the job market is nearly or totally shut down, what is your strategy for the year ahead?
Of course, job markets in different disciplines are not alike, but in general, Charles’ advice is to:
- Publish (and not let other activities, important as they are, deter you from this).
- Think very hard about what is missing from your CV – and plug that gap somehow (example of teaching: even without a teaching job per se you may be able to get some educated related training/experience that will look good on your CV).
- Arrange to have an affiliation on your CV rather than a one-year gap (Visiting Fellow post, for example).
- Think about what you can DO without a job or grant of any kind, bearing in mind the need to show progression from the PhD.
- In line with this, be creative about imagining and planning your career trajectory (e.g. could you do a small pilot project this year that shows you are thinking creatively about your trajectory going forward?Of course, it’s difficult to do things without funding and while in lockdown, but there are pluses as well: no visa requirement, no grant application needed, no constraints on what it can be about, etc.)
- Do consider applying for research funding as an individual or as part of a group – bearing in mind that you won’t get the funds for a long time, normally something like a year.
- Network (virtually, probably) and keep in touch with your referees, and others who can support you professionally and personally in future.
Questions from participants provoked further interesting comments, for example:
Be optimistic and be prepared to wait a year, if necessary, because most institutions are very likely to weather the storm. After a year of limited hiring, if that’s what happens, most will very likely be recruiting again to some extent. Hiring has continued here and in other well-resourced universities and we might well bounce back quickly. Institutions are more resilient than we might imagine and even the dual impact of Brexit and COVID-19 will be mitigated by other global circumstances (such as visa restrictions that make study in the US less attractive).
Broaden your scope: increase your chances by being as mobile as possible; consider moving across disciplines and consider applying to less prestigious institutions. Interdisciplinary work might add to your value in the longer term, although views about this do vary across disciplines and departments. You can apply to your first choice institutions/departments as soon as they are recruiting again.
Research/teaching positions in the early stage? Depends on your CV and what experience you already have. Hiring committees look for both.
Time away from academia: yes, can be useful for gaining new collaborators, participants for future projects, preparing for impact and knowledge exchange, etc. But remember the basic academic job description will not change; you will be competing against people who have been in an institution teaching, publishing etc.
New roles in HE: increasingly there are new academic positions and career tracks in such things as policy and research work. Time outside academia might build your capacity and reputation for this type of work.
Future promotion: thinking ahead to establishing an academic career, at different stages – such as Major Review – a new set of referees will be required with whom you don’t have a direct connection (ie, not your PhD Supervisor; your co-author or other academic who is in some way invested in your career success). So think about how to interact with leading scholars in your specialism and make them aware of your work. If a couple of those people will write in strong support of you it can really help.
A good point was also raised about the application deadline for ESRC post docs for next academic year. Watch this space and look out for the call at the end of the (calendar) year.
Most of all stay optimistic, your LSE PhD has great value in the academic job market.
Our dedicated PhD and Research Staff Careers Consultant, Catherine Reyonlds (email@example.com) is here to talk through your concerns and help you to manage your career. You can book a PhD careers appointment on CareerHub.