This is going to be a somewhat long, introspective post, but it’s on a topic that people who are doing or just starting PhDs often ask me about, so I figure it’s worth writing something about. One of my favourite academic-type tweeps, Inger Mewburn aka The Thesis Whisperer, wrote a post last week about finding your ‘edge’ in the post-PhD employment market. Essentially she argues that doing something that not many other people in your field can do gives you an edge that will help differentiate you in a sea of people going for that job you are after. I think that’s good advice. Check it out in full.
I managed to find a job pretty quickly after my PhD was finished. In fact, I got offered a continuing (‘tenurable’) Level B Lecturer job at a mid-range Australian university – the University of Tasmania – the same week my PhD was conferred. And I love it. I couldn’t have asked for more welcoming and supportive colleagues, and despite some initial uncertainty, I’m really enjoying life in Launceston. I’m teaching a unit that is totally in my area of expertise (sociology of youth) and the support for marking and other activities is solid. How did I get here? Did I have one of these ‘edges’ that helped me out?
In Mewburn’s post, she also sketches out some of Gavin Kendall’s work, from a paper titled ‘The crisis in Doctoral education: a sociological analysis’, where Kendall looks at where people with PhDs find jobs (and the short answer is: all over the place). It is clear that people do PhDs for a whole range of reasons, and that they end up in all sorts of places, but I’m going to talk here about my own motivations and the pathway that led to where I am now. I’m certainly not saying this is a formula, or the best way to do things, or even that getting an academic job after finishing a PhD is a good goal. This is just how I went about it.
I said yes to things. Lots of foolish things.
I said yes to writing book reviews, which I’ve written about before over on my now retired PhD blog. I said yes to too much teaching early on, which did burn me out but I got more strategic in my second year. I said yes to the crazy idea of helping to start up and run a cultural research postgraduate symposium, but which I am now proud to say is still running and in its fifth year! Check it out.
I also said yes to contributing three chapters to a textbook. I (usually) said yes to reviewing journal articles. I said yes to editing special issues of two journals and a few forthcoming books. I said yes to serving as the HDR representative in my School for a few years. After my fieldwork was done, and in that period of time where I should have been writing up and finishing off, I even said yes to a one year Level A (Associate Lecturer) appointment with a significant service component to it (as a First Year Advisor). Madness! On their own, most of these things (except that last one) are okay and probably manageable. Taken together, though, these things probably did detract from ‘more important things’ like finishing the PhD within three years or publishing more C1/B1 pieces and also sleep. However, they were part of a bigger puzzle for me, and also made it enjoyable along the way. I’m paying for over-commitment now, with a few over-due projects, but saying yes to these things also allowed me to work with some brilliant people and have fun doing it all.
I went to lots of conferences (and I networked).
So, so important. Not just because I met with and talked to people about my research who may one day be on an interview panel. The more important networking for me was with people doing similar stuff to me, hearing about how they had overcome certain challenges or approached their research questions. Conferences also helped me to feel really connected to my two disciplines: 1) the sociology of youth, and 2) internet research.
I was ‘strategic’ from quite early on, and crafted a narrative around what it is that I do.
Actually positioning myself within those two disciplines was a strategic decision. About mid-way through my candidature I was lucky enough to meet with the great Graeme Turner one-on-one as part of a research mentoring exercise. He gave me lots of good advice. He told me that we need good teachers, so it isn’t a death trap to invest in teaching, as long as you don’t lose sight of the research. In the job that I’m in now, I’m certain that having a swag of good teaching experience (with good student evaluations, a teaching citation, and some some scholarship of learning and teaching to back it up) said to the interview panel that I was ‘ready to go’, and would hit the ground running with teaching. And I feel like I have, due largely to that experience and learning how to keep a lid on teaching after that early burn out. Doing a Graduate Certificate in Higher Education in the same year I submitted probably helped too, but also definitely added to the crazy.
Graeme also told me to not worry too much about the big disciplinary conferences, but to try to show up at the smaller topic-specific conferences or symposia where you can connect with people doing similar things to you. I took this one step further and helped to organise a youth subcultures symposium in Brisbane last year with some brilliant colleagues of mine, and now we’re turning that into an edited collection.
I had excellent mentors.
I was only strategic early on because I had good mentors. My principal PhD supervisor, Andy Bennett, introduced me to networks that I now draw on regularly. He also taught me to be clearer with my writing, and to push myself out of my comfort zone. I also recruited mentors. Great teachers like Pat Wise and Sarah Baker. I owe so much to all the people who gave me advice along the way. If you don’t think you have good mentors, go out there and find some.
I got myself one of these ‘web presences’.
I started blogging over on my now defunct PhD blog and I got Twitter. When I grew out of my PhD blogger I started this blog. The Thesis Whisperer has a good list of PhD student blogs over here and Jason Wilson says some pretty useful things about using the Twitters over here. One day a reasonably ‘famous’ professor in my field called me up and said she had been reading my blog (what?!) and that she wanted me to apply for this job in her department. We had only met once very briefly, but obviously she liked something about my blog. That job didn’t eventuate (lack of funding) but it certainly reminded me that having a web presence in academia can be more beneficial than you think. Twitter has been, hands down, one of the best ways to chat with scholars from all over the world, and to participate in conferences that you can’t physically be at.
I was willing to move.
Many colleagues are critical of this emphasis on being willing to move in order to find a gig post-PhD. Some stellar people may be able to find work that pays the bills and that they enjoy in their own city (especially if it’s a big city) but I had always known I would need to move away from the Gold Coast (even away from Brisbane) if I wanted a good job quickly. In fact, I started looking forward to moving, so when I was offered the job in Tasmania (where I had never been outside of the few hours I flew into Launceston for the interview) I jumped at it. There were some personal costs, but I haven’t looked back.
So what was my edge? Maybe I don’t have a single sharp edge, but rather a series of kinda blunt ones, like a hexagonal prism bludgeoning my way around. Hard work, a bit of luck, good mentors, being open to things, and being strategic with both a) how I spent my time and b) the narrative I wove around my work. Seems to be getting the job done so far.