When I was a PhD student, I was lucky enough to have a supervisor who constantly encouraged me to get involved in a variety of activities which I did not, at the time, perceive as being relevant to my main concern – writing my thesis. She encouraged me to submit my first conference paper, to organise a series of seminars in which both master’s and PhD students presented their research, and do other things that although I did enjoy, I did not understand how they were supposed to benefit me or my career in the long run. I did, however, the moment I started applying for jobs after completing my PhD.
A crucial skill in applying for academic/research jobs is extracting from your previous experiences whatever is relevant to a given selection criteria and describing it in a way that makes you look professional, experienced and self-confident. This is why it is so important to build up a portfolio of these various experiences which you will later wrap up nicely and sell to your potential employers.
Below, I listed several activities that may increase your future chances of finding a job. I describe each one, and explain how it fits in some popular selection criteria that appear in job applications (I took these from the actual job descriptions from the jobs I applied for). I also show how I addressed these selection criteria in my job applications.
1. Present at conferences.
You don’t need to have completed your research to present at a conference. You may deliver a presentation about a theoretical aspect of your field or present your master’s study, as well as talk about your research proposal or the initial stages of your PhD study. There are many advantages of going to conferences – you get the opportunity to meet and talk to like-minded people, to practice your presenting skills and to get feedback on your study. By answering questions from the audience, you get to reflect on your research limitations or the ways it could be improved. It is also common that someone will talk to you and suggest that you read an interesting book or article. When you attend other talks, in turn, you may get some inspiration for your own study or for a completely new project. During my first conference (in Greece, pictured above), I got to know two influential scholars in my field, and a few months later we started to develop a large international project, the inspiration for which had come from me attending one of their lectures!
Finally, conferences usually take place in nice locations, so you get to travel a lot 😊 (some universities even provide funding for their students who have been accepted to a conference)
Selection criteria that going to conferences helped me address in job applications (taken from real job applications):
- “A track record of presentation and publication of research results in journals and/or at conferences”,
- “Excellent communication skills (oral and written), including public presentations and ability to communicate complex information clearly and concisely to academic and non-academic audiences”,
- “Networking skills and an entrepreneurial mindset”,
- “Demonstrable ability to write and present coherently and effectively for a range of audiences”,
- “Excellent communication and interpersonal skills”,
- “Highly effective teaching, research and communication skills”,
- “Ability to communicate clearly and work with complex theoretical and conceptual ideas”,
- “Academic experience, including presenting seminars and at conferences, publishing peer-reviewed academic papers”,
- “experience in building local and international networks and partnerships”.
And here is how I presented my conference experiences in these applications:
- “I am an effective communicator with the ability to engage, and develop rapport, with a variety of audiences….”,
- “I communicated my ideas to, and formed collaboration with, a number of recognised academic researchers, external practitioners and stakeholders…”,
- “My outstanding oral communication skills, which developed through a number of recognised scientific conferences…”
2. Organise seminars/workshops/one-to-one consultations/lectures, etc.
It’s usually not as difficult as it may sound. I don’t mean large events for which you will require funding, marketing and a large social network (although you may do these too, of course), but rather small events that are not only easy to organise but also supported by your university. It’s only a matter of booking a room and sending out a few emails. You may always ask your supervisors whether it would be possible to deliver a lecture or two to master’s students on a course that is relevant to your expertise. The universities are usually very supportive of this kind of activities, and some universities/supervisors are required to provide the PhD students with this kind of practice.
- Organise a series of seminars to which you invite other PhD students, master’s students and staff members to present their research,
- Ask to give a lecture to master’s students on the existing course,
- Take part in an event for master’s students (in my university we had a “dissertation training day” in which I gave a lecture on how to plan their dissertation, and in one of the organised workshops was giving one-to-one advice about analysing qualitative data),
- Organise an event (could be a workshop) for students, during which you give a lecture or deliver a workshop on an aspect/skill you are confident in (could be anything – analysing data, reading the literature, conducting interviews, time-management, working to deadlines, working with your supervisor, etc.)
Selection criteria that doing the above helped me address in job applications:
- Most of the criteria listed in the “conferences” section,
- “Experience of making a leading contribution in academic activities”,
- “Evidence of teaching at postgraduate level and experience in teacher training/development at tertiary level”,
- “Evidence of attainments in, or skills sufficient to, the development of supervisory activities at Masters and PhD levels”,
- “Evidence of being proactive, enthusiastic and motivated in developing and delivering new initiatives”,
- “Excellent facilitation skills, including the ability to design and facilitate participatory processes and workshops”,
- “Capacity to attend to multiple projects”.
How I addressed these criteria in my applications:
- “I have organised several internal events aimed at enabling the MSc TESOL students at the University of Edinburgh to maximise the value of their education and to become independent thinkers and effective researchers”,
- “From the start of my PhD study I always strived, not only to improve myself as a researcher and academic, but also to benefit other students and the programme in which I was enrolled”,
- “These seminars provide everyone involved with the opportunity to participate in a research network aimed at enabling students of all levels to learn from each other and to form research partnerships”.
Sounds good, doesn’t it?
3. Develop a side research project, get people involved and apply for funding.
No need to panic – this is not something that you are either expected or required to do. This is just something that I did when I was doing my PhD, and which really helped me in my applications. The best (worst?) thing about it – the project I developed never actually “happened”. I did not succeed with my first funding application, and by the time I was advised on how to improve it to make it pass, I was almost done with my PhD and didn’t really feel like doing it any more. Nevertheless, not only did I learn a lot from this experience but, most importantly, I made my future employers aware that I did.
The proposed project was a follow-up project to my PhD study and it was based on findings from it. I had a promising idea on how to continue this research and I spoke to both of my supervisors about it. They liked the idea and suggested that we apply for funding. I was not eligible for this funding, so they were named as primary applicants. I was, however, in charge of preparing the funding bid, getting other people on board, planning the study, getting in touch with our potential project partners (it involved collaboration between a variety of schools in Scotland) and organising a team meeting where I outlined the idea to everyone involved. It was a great learning experience for me.
As I already noted, we did not get the funding to develop this project, but here are some selection criteria that this whole experience helped me address:
- “Excellent organisational skills, efficiency in managing tasks and meeting deadlines”,
- “Ability to work efficiently and to tight deadlines”,
- “Relevant experience carrying out collaborative research and fieldwork”,
- “Excellent interpersonal skills including team working and a collaborative, collegiate approach”,
- “Research creativity and strong interdisciplinary ability”,
- “Experience in undertaking independent research”,
- “Networking skills and an entrepreneurial mindset”,
- “Project management (support) skills and experience in project management and coordination”,
- “Mediation skills and ability to facilitate difficult conversations”,
- “Proven ability to carry out a plan of research from inception to dissemination”.
And here is how I described this experience in my applications:
- “I also recruited research participants and partners across public and private sector organisations…”
- “I have also been involved in several research projects, some of which I fully developed and conceived (and some of which are described in the other responses to the selection criteria). For example, I developed a proposal for a follow-up study to my PhD research, entitled Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) Community Engagement: facilitating collaboration with the current TESOL provision in Scotland” (…) Whilst preparing this project proposal I communicated my ideas to a number of researchers, policymakers and teachers across a variety of institutions in Scotland. I also led the internal research team within the University of Edinburgh, was in charge of writing funding bids and set up links with academics and practitioners from outside the university.”
- “Another example demonstrating not only my excellent communication skills and ability to perform effectively within a team, but also my experience in community engagement and building local and international networks and partnerships, is the aforementioned follow-up project to my PhD research, entitled “Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) Community Engagement: facilitating collaboration with the current TESOL provision in Scotland”….”
- “With my participation the internal team, through effective communication and regular weekly meetings, managed to develop a potentially strong research grant application.”
4. Keep track of these activities.
You do need to keep track of all these separate activities you are involved in, because as they pile up you may simply forget about some of them.
I kept a separate Word file called “career”, in which I listed all the things that I did.
I also kept a file with a rough time table for what I was hoping to achieve by the end of my studies.
This one often appears in other articles/blog posts about enhancing your employment opportunities, and I remember thinking about it as something that is easier said than done (“what the hell am I supposed to publish?!”). Don’t worry, some academics haven’t published until they were years after the graduation, so it’s not like you have to publish now but, as you probably understand, this will also significantly increase your chances of getting a job in the future. You may also ask your supervisor for help and you may publish something together. You may publish an article based on your master’s dissertation or on a finding from your PhD study, for example. You may also offer your supervisor help and publish something based on his/her collected data (academics often have tons of data at their disposal that they haven’t had the chance to work on/publish), where you would be in charge of certain sections.
I won’t list any selection criteria or my responses here, as there is not much scope for “making it sound good” here – you simply have published, or you haven’t.
6. Become competent in data analysis software.
I can’t stress this enough – almost every research-related job requires this skill nowadays. Mind you, I did focus mainly on Research Assistant/Associate posts when applying for jobs, but I have also seen lecturing job descriptions mentioning this skill among their selection criteria. Whether it’s SPSS or NVivo (or both) is up to you and depends on what kind of research you prefer and envision yourself doing in the future, but in my opinion, it is good to be competent in at least one of them (I tried to learn both at first, but I don’t think I will ever manage to get my head around statistics).
As I said, this skill has been required in most of the jobs I applied for, and when addressing these selection criteria, I always listed a number of things that I had applied NVivo for, to show that I really know my stuff when it comes to this software.
There are arguably many more things that could be added to this list, but I focused on the ones that helped me most and which have not been discussed extensively in other blogs. Things like getting a part-time job, networking, etc. are always listed among these activities and may, in fact, help a lot too. The advice I listed here is something that almost everyone can do (maybe apart from the “side project” one) and these activities have been very helpful in my job applications. If you have any more ideas to add to this list, or would like to discuss your career plans or the activities you are involved in as a student – get in touch!