I am sure that being accepted to attend your desired PhD programme represented a moment of tremendous joy and personal satisfaction. However, once the well-deserved celebrations are over, it is time to start working and make the best out of this unique experience. In reality, being honest with you, the PhD journey is anything but easy and hassle-free. Either if you attend it full-time or part-time, there are several challenges that you will have to overcome, in addition to the development of your research.
They include, for example, trying to secure funding if you have not yet done so before your acceptance, adapting to university life (especially if you are an international student), finding a good balance between personal life and the research demands, establishing a good relationship with your supervisor, among several others. However, the biggest challenge of all comes after completing your studies and comprises finding your spot under the sun in the increasingly competitive academic job market.
I know that you can say that thinking about this topic so much in advance sounds too much to worry about. I understand. But believe me, it is not. On top of that, based on my experience, I want to share a couple of valuable tips and insights that you can incorporate into your career plan from the beginning of your course, which will contribute considerably to raise your academic profile. This way, even without noticing it, by the end of your studies, you will have strengthened your employability potential and become more competitive in the job market, especially if your career goal is to work in academia.
Should you apply or incorporate all the tips and suggestions I explain in this article?
Well, that will depend on numerous factors such as, for instance: a) specificity of your discipline, b) your learning style, c) your research demands, d) the array of extracurricular activities and training seminars available at your institution, e) specific guidelines offered by your supervisor, f) your interests, and so forth. However, despite all these variables, I believe that is extremely important being introduced to these couple of tips and insights due to the potential benefits they can bring to your post-PhD career.
Publishing is an essential part of the game
Although the doctoral thesis represents the ultimate output of a PhD candidate and one of the mandatory requirements to be awarded the degree, most probably, it will not be enough to open too many doors in the job market after your graduation. What really makes you stand out from the crowd and dazzle potential employers (i.e. the members of selection committees) are peer-reviewed publications.
Ideally, it will be awesome if you manage to have a couple of papers either accepted or published in top-ranking international journals in your discipline. However, since we do not live in an ideal world but rather a possible one, my suggestion is that you focus to have at least one publication in a medium-ranked but still respectable international journal.
It is true that to produce a solid publishable piece of research takes considerable time and your priority should always be your doctoral research. I cannot agree more. Nevertheless, since during your first year you must delve deep into the literature review, try to use this to your benefit. You can work strategically with this rich material and develop at least one robust critical appraisal article and, additionally, a couple of book reviews. You will have to read a huge amount of material anyway. So, why not using this task to push your career forward? Therefore, towards the end of your first year and the beginning of the second, you will have a couple of interesting publications out there which will contribute to paving the way for your post-PhD career and start to build your name and reputation in the field.
We live in an increasingly international world
If you examine advertisements of several postdoctoral fellowships you will notice that many of them express that knowledge of other languages represents an important asset. Whilst a few calls establish this aspect as a mandatory person specification, many others say that it would be advantageous for the candidate.
The reason for this increasing trend is that, at least in humanities and social sciences, but I am confident that it is not that different in other disciplines as well, research projects and teams are highly international, collaborative and cross-cultural. Thus, although English is still a dominant working language in many research environments, the knowledge of other languages such as, for instance, French, German, Italian, Mandarin, Spanish, etc. will set you apart from the competition.
Consequently, if you have the chance, I strongly recommend that you try choosing one language that you appreciate or already have a keen interest in and learn at least its basics or slightly more during your doctoral studies. Many universities have a Languages Department, which offers either free or reduced-price foreign language lessons. So, in case your institution offers this type of resource, try grabbing this opportunity.
Grooming your teaching skills
If your long-term career goal is to work in academia, my suggestion is that you take every available teaching opportunity that comes out during your doctoral studies. This experience indeed tends to be laborious with many hours dedicated to class preparation, marking assignments, several administrative tasks and providing pastoral care. I will not lie to you. However, oftentimes, these teaching assistant jobs are paid. Not enough to pay your tuition fees or many bills, as you can imagine, but even so it is better than nothing.
Yet, I must say that more important than the rate the university will eventually pay you is this unique chance of developing and enhancing your teaching skills. If your institution has a well-structured formation programme, you will be assisted by more experienced faculty members who will be there to mentor you, evaluate your performance fairly and offer invaluable guidance regarding ways to improve your skills. Therefore, in case you have the chance, avoid missing it because it will work in your favour shortly.
Moreover, I also advocate that embracing teaching experiences reveals your proactive approach towards new challenges and that you are open to engaging in new endeavours and developing new skill sets.
Let the talk begin
During my doctoral studies, I have attended many national and international conferences, sometimes presenting my research and other occasions simply as a delegate watching other people’s presentations. Either way, it was a fantastic and edifying experience because they have contributed towards the development of my oral communication skills, gaining confidence before peers and established scholars and networking.
However, I want to say that in addition to participating in conferences, having the opportunity to organise one or two of such events during your doctoral studies will make a big difference in your profile. The reason is that it testifies to your command of a series of essential skills sought after by potential academic employers. They include, for example: a) organisational skills, b) time management, c) oral communication, d) negotiation skills, e) establishment of priorities, f) working within deadlines, g) budget management, h) grant application, and i) teamwork, since no one organises an event alone.
Therefore, do bear in mind this aspect and in case you come across an opportunity to organise, for example, a one-day conference in your department do not let it pass. On the one hand, it will indeed increase your workload but, on the other hand, it will reveal a lot about you for potential employers after you complete your studies.
Show me the money
In line with the experience of organising a conference, where most probably you might have to apply for a small grant to fund the event, larger funding bids are also a common element in the academic landscape. Chances are that, as a PhD candidate, it will not involve you directly and neither it might be demanded from you by your institution.
On the other hand, your supervisor might be involved in one or more large funding bids during your studies to develop some big research, which needs considerable resources beyond his possibilities or even the department.
Therefore, if it is not against any institutional policy or internal regulations, and neither your supervisor opposes the idea, you can eventually offer to help with part of the work. Even if the assigned task to you represents just a fraction of the whole project, it might still relieve part of the workload of your supervisor whilst for you represents some degree of experience working in large-scale funding bids.
The relevance of this experience is that many universities nowadays demand this ability from new faculty members, especially in research roles, but on some occasions also in teaching roles. This way, you would be ahead of the curve compared to many other candidates since this skill is not that common among newly graduated PhDs.
So much to do, and so little time
As you can notice, there are so many things you can do during your PhD that it might even look overwhelming. Indeed, it does appear this way and the question that naturally arises is ‘do you need to embrace all of them?’
Well, as I addressed earlier in this article, my opinion is that the answer is not that simple and involves a variety of aspects such as your interests, your long-term career goals, the specific demands of your research and the corresponding workload, personal circumstances, and so forth. I could go on and on with this list and probably would not cover all of them.
Should you feel guilty or bad for not following all the suggested steps in this article?
This question is much easier to answer, ‘not at all’.
In fact, the main goal of this article is to share with the reader a couple of genuinely practical insights based on my own experience and that I wish I had been introduced to them when I started my PhD a few years ago. Although I have attended a great programme and had a fantastic journey, I consider that if I had been introduced to a similar list of options with their respective clarifications, I would at least have a chance to choose which one to follow or not.
Therefore, this concise list of practical insights and suggestions provides the reader exactly with that: the possibility of knowing them and making well-informed choices. It is true that priority number one remains completing your doctoral studies (i.e. producing your thesis, which is the main passport to receive your award) and follow the guidelines of your supervisor. Nevertheless, my expectation with this article is that, at least, it succeeds in bringing you a couple of interesting and useful ideas towards your preparation for your post-PhD career.