How to get a job in academia when you finish your PhD

We’ve been talking a lot lately about the parlous state of the academic workplace. Just for a change, I thought it would be nice to do a hopeful post about the employment situation.

The usual advice boils down to one statement: “publish early, publish often”. However, after reading Jen’s post last week I think we should approach this advice with caution. Jen’s figures showed most academics in permanent positions do teaching and research. Being ‘one dimensional’, i.e. just a researcher or just a teacher, is the surest road to marginal employment.

Publishing will never be enough because academia is not a meritocracy. It is a workplace like any other, but perhaps with more than your average number of delicate egos and competing interests. Some people will tell you there is an element of luck involved and that you don’t have much control.

Do you want to know what I think?

Screw Luck.

I’m a firm believer in making your own. After years in the trenches as a casual lecturer and numerous unsuccessful job interviews I finally achieved my ambition. Here are the five most important things I learned along the way. I offer these in the hope that many of you who have managed to find that elusive job will write in and share yours.

1) Get the right kind of teaching experience

We saw in Jen’s post that over 80% of undergraduate teaching is done by casuals, so there’s plenty of work around. This should allow you to have choice in the classes you teach, so be strategic. Diversify: show you can teach across a range of subjects and year levels. Try not to get stuck in a specialist role, but, if you, do make sure it’s a technical side of the discipline – these are usually the hardest roles to fill.

Be generous to other casual lecturers. Have a list of names to recommend if you can’t fill a role. You will find other casuals generally return the favour – next semester or even later in your career. This is one way of building your professional network (you just never know where people will end up).

Your role as ‘finder’ is valuable to permanent staff members too, who may pass on your details to other staff members who are looking for warm bodies. I felt like a bit of a pimp sometimes, but I did get know many people within my institution this way. And I found out it’s true what they say: who you know really is more important than what you know.

2) Get ‘back stage’ whenever possible

Try to gain administrative experience, this counts in interviews. Volunteer to take a leading role, like a head tutor and attend all the staff meetings you can. Offer to join the ethics committee or, even better, the research committee. Watching academics in these ‘back stage’ activities is very instructive, but keep your mouth shut until you get a sense of how it all works.

Being seen ‘back stage’ helps the academics in the school to view you as a colleague, not a student. It puts you in a position to ask for job references or career advice. If you are lucky, you may get advance notice of upcoming positions, either at your institution or at others.

3) if you can, work the ‘coat-tails’ method

A couple of times I was shortlisted for a position but beaten by people – ok, men – who were less qualified than me, but had been research assistants at one time for powerful professors in the department. I didn’t take this route, so I’m not too clear on how the research assistant to fulltime staff member transition works, but clearly it does.

I do hope someone will write in to the comments and tell us if there’s a magic formula to cultivating the favour of powerful professors. The relationships I’ve seen are deep; often they go back to undergraduate years. Perhaps the powerful professor sees in the protege a version of their younger self? Since most of the powerful are still ‘pale and male’ it’s going to be harder for those of us who aren’t… or maybe I am just being cynical? I have met plenty of people who are ‘stuck’ in the role of protege and unable to escape so perhaps it’s a risky strategy too.

4) Look for the ‘adjacent possible’

I taught casually while I worked as an architect, so I had a lot of teaching experience before I developed a serious ambition to be an academic. Although I was very successful at getting jobs when I was an architect, clearly the criteria for becoming an architecture academic was different. After a series of unsuccessful and demoralising job interviews I had to face facts:

Architecture departments were just not that into me.

I liked the university lifestyle too much too leave, so I started to look for what Steven Johnson calls “The adjacent possible”. In my case this meant the so called ‘professional roles’ which were available in the central administrative units. To my surprise I had the skill set and background to be a contender, so when a job came up I had a go, not really caring if I got it or not.

I didn’t get it, but I came very close, which inspired me to continue looking for non architecture opportunities. When my current job came up, initially as a six week, casual contract for two days a week, I figured: what have I got to lose? It was academic, but it wasn’t architecture, therefore I might learn something different which would tip me over the line next time a professional role came up. 6 years later here I am, happy as a clam.

The lesson from this is, as the Rolling Stones so famously said: “You don’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you might just get what you need”. If it’s just not working, broaden your horizons about what ‘being an academic’ might mean. Look for an adjacent discipline or even country, if you don’t mind moving. Have a look at some of those ‘quasi academic’ roles: many are well paid and allow you use your research skills without the pressure to publish.

5) Remember – it’s co-operitition, not co-operation…

Great – you were shortlisted for an interview. Half the battle is won, but remember what I said about fragile egos? Your researcher talents can be an asset, but they are also a potential threat to your future colleagues. Read the CVs of all the permanent staff members carefully and download a selection of papers. Ask yourself: where do I fit in? Who can I work with? What can I offer that’s slightly different to what is already here, but clearly useful? Find ways to present yourself as filling a gap in the current staff profile, not overlapping.

So – what do you think? Have you any advice to offer? Love to hear it in the comments!

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51 thoughts on “How to get a job in academia when you finish your PhD

  1. Hi Inger. Could you give me some examples of the types of roles you mean when you say “Have a look at some of those ‘quasi academic’ roles: many are well paid and allow you use your research skills without the pressure to publish”? Thanks, Laura

    • Many academics don’t have the time to lead and project manage their larger projects. Some of the nationally funded Office of Learning and Teaching, ARC grants, and institutional projects have project managers who fit into this ‘quasi academic’ role. They are normally fixed term positions for 1-2 years because of the funding term.

      If you have alot of sessional teaching experience and its not getting you anywhere (like me), it does allow you to build academic managerial and leadership experience to set you apart in the university.

      Inger- there is still publishing pressure but its for ‘institutional’ publishing, ie reports, teaching resources etc, that we can turn into academic publishing and conference presentations etc, so we are still building our academic profiles. And I think academic profile and your personal networks are some of the most important things in the university for either job.

  2. Laura, look at your Uni website. You will probably find quite a few units that employ people with PhDs in teaching support or policy roles: DVC education/academic, institute of teaching and learning and elearning support are a few that I know of in our Uni.

  3. I applied for a couple of jobs speculatively when I was about a year out from finishing. I had a phone interview for one (found out later through the grape-vine I would have got the job if I was closer to submission – which is a bit ARGH as it was a perfect job – 6 months UK 6 months Oz at an institute which was 20 minute bus ride from my mums on a direct route).
    As for the coat tails – thats when you start working with someone on U/G independent projects, then get them to supervise your honours thesis, then turn your honours thesis into your PhD and then post doc in that same lab, all the while making yourself avaliable for casual lecturing in that area, and generally making yourself indespensible doing all the things you mention above. That way if/when a position becomes avaliable (ie mentor is cutting back teaching committments/someone else is looking at retiring) everyone just assumes you will take teh job as your have come all the way through from UG with this person and thus are obviously just like them.
    It is really prevelent in the sciences – also the “we employed one of their graduates last round, thus they should employ one of our graduate this round” type mentality.
    I applied for the job I am in now with no expectation of getting an interview, let alone the job. A year in I am actually enjoying myself and what I am doing…its not what I expected I would be doing after doing a PhD in ethics, but I get to use ALL my degrees (except my Unergrad in zoology) so its all good. It should be noted though that I am in a unique position as being a 99% research person at a currently predominately teaching University.
    You really need to sell yourself to your prospective employer. Be adaptable, friendly and confident. Also be honest. It amazes me how many people sing their own praises for things that they may not have actually done that much on.
    Will stop waffling now…..but its an interesting blog, and I suspect Americans and Europeans will have VERY different expereinces to Australians.

    • I’d just like to comment on this to say that fewer and fewer people go straight to PhD from honours now; most people have worked for at least a couple of years – or even a couple of decades. :) Cozy long-term arrangements may not be so easy to keep up, and there will more and more ‘outsiders’ applying for that job you thought was yours; universities are appointing more widely than they used to. But don’t discount ‘other’ work experience either. If you’ve been in the work force for a few years before you do you PhD you will be bringing a lot of skills back into academia with you, and they can be built into your academic CV too. It’s not jurt teaching and research that matter.

      • It is such a complex area isn’t it? I agree that the ‘extras’ count. For me, ironically, it was my training in Blackboard – software I HATE using – which got me my current job.

  4. I have only just started my PhD and as a quite old student I don’t feel I have time to mess about so I am considering moving to Asia when I finish. Apparently the Asian universities are moving to teaching in English so as an Australian who has lived in Asia previously, I’m hoping I may be able to get a job. We shall see.

    • Hi Meredith,Unfortunately I could hardly hear the audio that went with the pemrcrfanoe. If there is a way to increase the audio volume I think it would enhance the perfomance on your site. Thanks for sending this for me to see.

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  6. I was fortunate enough to apply for and be offered a position in the law school where I was doing my PhD. To some extent it was a case of being in the right place and the right time, but I also think I was well positioned to make the most of opportunities that came up. I was prepared to teach particular subjects. My impression (and it could be an inaccurate one!) is that there are actually fairly good opportunities in law relative to other disciplines if you’re prepared to teach certain subjects (anecdotally, law schools in Australia, the USA and the UK are all struggling to recruit junior academics for particular subjects which are core to the discipline).

    I had also been working as an RA for three people at separate universities since I was an undergrad. One of these roles was fairly independent so I had publications in my own name only, as well as several co-authored – however I would hasten to add that it wasn’t a long or impressive list of pubs!

    I tutored various subjects while doing my PhD, but I don’t think that this was as significant a factor as the others.

    Having experience as an RA was probably the most significant factor for me landing a job. The three academics I have worked for have all been “pale and male”. I’m pale but not male, and I suspect that they have nurtured my career partly because they’re aware of existing inequalities. I’ve often been asked how I got these jobs. A large part of the answer is simply that I bothered/was naive enough/had the confidence to ask whether there were jobs going. In each instance, the initial contact was made by me. I admired the work of these people, and I simply asked them whether they needed an RA. Looking back, I can also see that I asked the right way (although I didn’t know this at the time) – I didn’t send the kinds of vague, rambly emails that these men often get, I sent them very succinct and direct emails with a specific question and a specific explanation of why I was approaching them.

    • You raise an important point about scarcity – there are some fields where there are too many grads for the positions… and some where there are not enough. Unfortunately, many of us make a choice with our undergraduate degrees which does not take into account how things might change in the future. I made a career change, but it was 10 years of work to do so.

  7. Great article, as always… I just wanted to address one point in particular.

    For the “Coat Tails” section, I’d like to point out that (a) places that are predominantly pale and male are probably not that interesting to begin with, (b) there are enough places around with diversity in pigment and gender roles that there’ll be a role model and potential mentor of every shade, and (c) those of us who have developed our skills in diverse schools/centres/departments are probably quite good at finding mentees based on skills/personality/attitude rather than genetics.

    As a sample of one, I can tell you that my mentors as an undergraduate and postgraduate were both women (I’m not) in extremely powerful positions. The leader of my centre during my first post-doc was a woman and a sociologist (I’m neither), and I moved into my second post-doc under a trifecta of differences – a Muslim woman originally from India (I’m none of those). I’m now more “out on my own” in a way, but work in a centre where there are about 30 different countries/nationalities/cultures are represented amongst about 20 academic staff – we’re super-diverse. And I don’t think that is all that unusual.

    I’m not saying that pale-male dominance doesn’t still happen (of course), but I’d like to think that there are enough powerful professors who are either less pale and less male (or are but don’t look for such qualities in proteges), that there’s a powerful professor out there for everyone.

    I guess my simple pieces of advice are to treasure diversity when looking for a new position – and to use it as an indicator when aiming for the “coat tails” approach.

  8. What I see, as a ‘foreigner’ in my uni, is preferential treatment of students who get in early – often during undergrad years – and yes, they become ‘indispensable’ but mostly I think because they are there. Period. People (lecturers) hate change and like the familiar, generalising wildly, but there you are. Once a lecturer gets used to a certain voice/workflow/personality it’s just easier to keep things the same. So all the other students who would love some experience (admin, teaching, marking, etc.) never even have a chance. There are far more students than there are RA or TA jobs, and for those of us who show up late, it’s tough luck. Nice idea, though.

    • But I have experienced the opposite too – been too available and too well known. Appreciated for the holes I could plug – but not that interesting because they thought they had seen all I had to offer… I have certainly seen ‘foriegners’ being more attractive in at least 3 other universities. I wouldn’t give up based on your experience where you are now. Other places may have an entirely different set of criteria.

  9. Hi Inger,

    Really interesting post, I’m with you on this about being proactive in terms of trying to stack things in your own favour.

    My advice to PhDers (an underused term to describe PhD students I feel!) is that if you have designs on being an academic one should seek to gain experience in 3 areas.
    1) Research (obviously?) – Not just doing good research but also understanding how it gets funded, how to best strategise in terms of publications etc.
    2) Teaching. To do some but not let it get in the way of 1)
    3) Administration. Universities are complex places, run by committees. It does no harm to learn how universities operate by becoming involved in how they are run – maybe taking a representative role, contributing to a project outside of your immediate area etc. Understanding the politics of institutions can give valuable insights into how you can find out about more opportunities in the future.

    The best thing about this advice is that you can start doing it today, you don’t have to wait until your PhD is over to start doing these things, offer to review a paper for someone else, offer assistance to writing that funding bid, help to write/edit papers for publication, find some teaching (Heads of Department usually control the teaching hours in my own institution) and get on a committee.

  10. Very good constructive advice in the post. It is nice to hear someone saying that publication is not everything, too.
    I think it is still mostly about luck, being in the right place at the right time. You can be someone’s protege, but it’s no use till they have a post to fill, which does not happen every day, especially now and in the humanities.

    • True – but you might be surprised where your humanities training might be useful. For instance, I know people who have scored great jobs in business faculties with their humanities training…

    • Nor does it work when your supervisor gets sick of the uni and takes early retirement just as you finish… I have also seen other professors take full advantage of the benefits of having a student ‘on their coat tails’ but then basically dump them once their PhD is finished. I have always tried to foster relationships across my department and across unis. It did pay off getting me some RA work straight out of my PhD in a different area, hopefully it will pay off again at some point.

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  12. My idea of the magic of the “coat-tails” formula:

    The trick: Build a personal relationship with the professor early on. How to do that?

    1. Research in undergraduate and Masters – join the professors research group, do your undergraduate and Master’s research projects for the particular respected professor.

    2. Show enthusiasm early on – Attend all the departmental events (socials, presentations, seminars or workshops etc) and be the first to email the professor asking about possible topics and anyway to get involved. Some of these events may allow time to even socialize with the professor.

    3. Undergraduate Performance: Professors do take notice of top performing students. That is a fact. Put effort into undergraduate performance and you’re bound to get noticed by top professors. Answer the questions in lectures

    4. Teaching – I know this is not the same of all university but at my university, we have a range of assistant teaching positions – at the lowest level, one is a “tutor” (marking and invigilating tests and such) and at the top is the “assistant lecturer” position (often performing all the duties of a full-time lecturer except for less hours a week). Applying for these positions (try for a variety) and performing well in these jobs gets one noticed and promoted.

    5. Administration – If there are “class representative” positions in undergraduate, run for those positions. This way the professors will most likely interact with you in some way or another if you achieve the position. A well-spoken individual who has guts to stand up to an authority figure and communicate an opinion often attracts attention from the right people.

    Is this the actual formula? Not sure, but so far so good with me! Also, I’m female, in a male dominated field and it seems to be working fine :) The same is true of people in our department from multiple ethnicities, both male and female, some who are international, so not necessarily true about “male and pale”. I think the fact I am in the Sciences helps, as there seems to be more positions available.

    • I couldn’t agree more re: “show enthusiasm” – one of the advantages of doing a PhD full-time is that it provides ample opportunity to become a part of the life of a department. If/when a job comes up in the department, people already know a lot about you as a colleague.

  13. Good advice all round I am sure, but it doesn’t stop nepotistic appointments. I missed out on a job, despite being very qualified, with specific and unique skills that fit within the uni’s strategic statement. The joker who got the job hadn’t completed their PhD, had a degree in a totally different discipline, and therefore cannot teach half the curriculum, simply because their spouse was high up in the faculty.

    Nepotism still rules I am afraid.

  14. Thanks for this post…definitely some food for thought about creatively positioning oneself and finding a good fit for a career. I would love to learn from those who plan on or are in non-traditional PhD careers, perhaps an interdisciplinary position, for example.

  15. I think it’s a great post, and I know that in all of our “job workshops” they keep telling us how teaching and administrative experience is important for faculty jobs for sure.
    The thing I’m concerned about with the “tail coat” method is that, as a woman, and since most star professors are men, this is a very fine line to walk. I have a friend who is an extraordinary researcher, teacher, and lab manager for her supervisor, and many people assume he keeps her around for the “extracurricular activities”. No one who knows her thinks that, but the people in the hiring committee don’t know you, and that’s the point. I’m not saying it’s not a good method, I’m just saying it could paint the wrong picture of you. I know this is not something that is typically talked about, and I apologize in advance if I’m offending anyone, but I thought that angle should be out there.

    • Thanks for raising this issue. I’d love to think that this sort of gossip would not affect a woman’s chance of being taken seriously, but… I think every woman academic should read Emily Toth’s “Ms Mentor’s impeccable advice for women in academia” which is both funny and informative. It has excellent and practical advice on dealing with these kind of problems. In fact, there’s many a man who would benefit from her advice too….

      • I now don’t attend any conference social activities because after a few drinks (not by me!) lines were crossed by people who were likely to be on my future interview panels. When they didn’t talk to me the days after out of embarrassment, it occurred to me that they’d likely never hire me because of this embarrassment. I know conference social events are a key way to network, but it was a total fail for me!

  16. Hi Inger, thanks for this article – great stuff!

    Possibly going off on a bit of a tangent here but just wanted to hear your thoughts on giving conference papers that are not automatically published after the conference, in terms of adding to one’s “publication” record? I’ve presented at a few of these but have little work that has been published in writing. I presume the presentations aren’t viewed as highly when going for jobs (even though they can often take as much work)?!

    • This is an area of academic publishing which is very much influenced by disciplinary norms. In education, where I work, it’s generally accepted that the conference presentations are like a ‘draft’ of a future journal paper. Even if you publish an extended abstract you should go on to do a full paper; if you don’t, it doesn’t really count. It may be different in a discipline like computer science where conference papers have more validity.

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  18. I had formulated a longish response… and then WordPress ate it. So, I will try to be more succinct:

    Shoe-ins. Academic job applications take a lot of time and thought. Which I invested in a short-term job, I got shortlisted, went to the interview, it went very well, and I didn’t get the job. At first, I thought it was somehow my fault, I screwed up in the interview at some stage and didn’t realize it. Not so. I received an unrelated email that tipped me off that someone from within the university had been selected, but for legal reasons, the job had to be advertised, other candidates had to be brought in. It felt better to know that it wasn’t my “fault” somehow, that my CV lacked something or there wasn’t any rapport at the interview. However, having put in that much thought and effort, and discover the uneven playing field continues, well that’s disheartening. I know this happens in every industry, but that doesn’t make it right. Particularly difficult for me, as I moved countries and thus am having to “sell” myself even harder, which I am not very good at and I do not like to do. I have seen these sort of shoe-in scenarios in my department, too, and I think it happens most of the time. Disheartening.

    Rejections happen to everyone, and now I need to publish more to become more competitive—yet I have a friend in a different discipline who has just had a paper rejected twenty times. Again, disheartening. I can’t believe the paper is unpublishable or that he’s aimed at the wrong journals. Same thing with funding. I had a fair share of rejections, then got lucky.

    I think in the end, luck, timing and geography do make the difference. If you’re on the spot, available, and exactly what is needed, you’re going to get the job. That said, I’m feeling rather ambivalent about academia as a whole, because of the business/corporate mentality being applied everywhere. I suppose I am experiencing the post-PhD letdown. I’ve got the piece of paper, but very few people care and it’s probably not going to help me if I apply to a job outside of academia, because the perception is that academics are aloof, can’t actually do “proper” work, or that I’m simply overqualified, won’t stay in a job, etc. Nice catch-22 if you ask me.

    • Is it a catch 22 or a con job?
      We go without, struggle and pay for our degrees and PhDs, taking the less desirable jobs, often getting exploited by having to do marking in our own time, all to be like wallflowers at a dance – standing all dressed up in the hope that some poonce on a white horse is going to take pity on us.

      For Indigenous academics in Australia, not only is there nepotism to deal with, but also racism.

      I eschew having to crawl, or suck up, to colleagues simply in the hope of being considered for a job ahead of someones spouse, family or friend.

      I do believe though that this blog captures the fundamentals of the growing precariat class.

      • I’m not keen on sucking up to anyone either. I didn’t do it as a student, and I’m not going to start now. Networking, on many levels, feels like that to me. It feels fake and forced. That’s why I find conferences incredibly draining.

        I’m fortunate not to have to deal with racism, but sexism is whole other can of worms that people have touched upon.

        I think you’re spot on about the precariat class. I suppose people in the private sector would scoff and say they never had job security… but then I don’t think universities should be treated as businesses like Apple, etc.

  19. One aspect overlooked by research students seeking a role in academia is the importance of ‘service’ or contribution which is often a part of applications. Thus, it is vital that postgraduates look around for any opportunities to organise conferences, sit on committees and link with industry or community organisations. In my experience, these activities often get applicants over the line.

    Additionally, know your broad skill set e.g., problem solving, teamwork, etc as well as you research and discipline specific skills. No matter what job you end up in, you always need generic or transferable skills.

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  21. Great post, Inger!

    One thing that I’ve been keeping in my head lately is not treating conferences and journals as the only venues in which I can “publish”. I do volunteer work that’s related to my research, and I like to keep an open mind about potential articles I can write for scholarly and professional magazines in my field based on my experiences and observations.

    The style, scope, and expectations for a magazine article are quite different from “research papers”. It’s not enough to have a brilliant idea, you have to make it a light-but-compelling read. Like you address in your post, having such publications shows that the author isn’t exclusively absorbed in research, but in fact finds ways to apply and connect research to outreach and service… which I would hope is a desirable trait to have in any candidate for an academic position.

  22. Thanks for your great post Inger. I’d like to echo Pam’s query about inter-disciplinary positions: as a PhDer at the pointy end, I am spending (possibly too much) time on strategic planning for a career after my PhD. But as a student working across disciplines (theatre/performance + neuroscience) I note that there are few, if any, organisations or institutions that consider inter-disciplinary post-doctoral or other roles. Most science orgs/ARC funded research positions are geared towards clinical research – not my field or interest at all. I think I’ll be looking for overseas posts.

    • Kate, just a quick response – ARC don’t fund clinical research at all, so it’s highly unlikely that ARC funded positions would be geared towards clinical research. There are definitely places in Australia that consider interdisicplinarity a very admirable and useful quality. In my centre, postdocs are hired for their capacity and passion, not necessarily for the acquired skills of a practitioner. I’m paraphrasing but the centre hires for “brilliant minds” not for narrowly-defined practitioners.

  23. Howdy! This article couldn’t be written much better! Reading through this article reminds me of my previous roommate! He continually kept preaching about this. I am going to forward this post to him. Pretty sure he’s going to have a very good read. Thank you for sharing!

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  28. Hi there! Thank you so much for your blog post (and your site more generally), it’s been invaluable for me as a PhD candidate.

    How useful do you think student feedback is when applying for a permanent academic role? I’ve heard conflicting reports – some people say it’s virtually irrelevant, others say it can be useful though not necessary. This semester I didn’t apply to get the forms in time and I wasn’t able to get any feedback from my classes. I’m not planning to teach again until I submit my thesis and start applying for positions, and I’m worried it will look bad if I don’t have any feedback for this semester. Do you think it matters at all job-wise?

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