Surviving Your PhD – Year Three: Professionalisation
By the time you reach Year 3 of your PhD, you may already have done most of your writing and be looking ahead to what happens next in between finishing and revising your thesis. Although, you’ll still have work to do to ensure your thesis makes the grade and you can successfully pass your viva (more on this below). The watchword for your third year of PhD study should be professionalisation. If you’re serious about securing an academic job after your study – or even if you simply want to ensure the work you’ve done over the past three years affords you the best possible opportunities for employment outside academia – you need to learn to sell the experiences you’ve had in terms of the skills they’ve given you to be successful in your chosen career.
If this chosen career is in academia, you need to make sure you’ve checked all the boxes necessary to demonstrate that you’re the very embodiment of the well-rounded, multifaceted modern academic. If you’re moving onto pastures new and seeking to embark on a career outside academia, professionalisation is just as important. You need to maximise your opportunities to acquire – and demonstrate that you’ve acquired – the transferable skills that will make you an attractive proposition to an employer. Some of these you’ve acquired simply by conducting your research. You’ve demonstrated time-management skills, the ability to work independently and creatively, and that all-important, elusive “self-starter” quality that many job ads these days mandate. If you’ve worked on a collaborative project, you can also check off the ability to work constructively as part of a team. Although some employers might understandably be a little sceptical on this front if you’ve spent the last three years in a library and surfaced only to give a couple of conference presentations.
Publish and pitch
By now you’ve hopefully submitted a few articles to scholarly journals, derived from PhD thesis chapters or maybe even from work you did in your Master’s degree or other projects you’ve been working on in parallel to your PhD. And ideally one or two have now come back with positive results, with or without revisions, and you have some scholarly publications in print or forthcoming as you graduate from your PhD. Academic hiring committees generally want candidates who publish at a decent rate (at minimum 1-2 articles per year if you’re the sole author, correspondingly more if you’re a co-author on a larger project). So, if you haven’t done much or any publishing yet, this is the number one area in which you’re going to have to professionalise quickly.
If you have been publishing throughout your PhD, you need to maintain a consistent output and, if possible, increase your rate of publications just a little to demonstrate that your productivity is on the rise as you enter the academic job market. Whether you’re a seasoned academic publisher or new to the game, you need to balance quality and quantity. Submit to a mix of prestigious journals in your field and niche publications that might yield an easier line on your CV but will still be widely read by scholars in your particular area.
If you’re in an arts, humanities or social sciences discipline - and especially if you already have a good track record in publishing - you should be starting to write and pitch a book proposal based on your thesis. Don’t fall into the trap of believing you have to have finished and defended your thesis before pitching it as a book. Many successful academics have a book deal in hand before their viva, and it’s a big advantage heading into the job market. Hiring committees, even for the most junior lecturer or teaching fellow position, will almost always choose the candidate with a book published or demonstrably in the works above the candidate with only journal publications. And in the current market, hiring committees can usually have their pick of candidates for any position!
Putting your book proposal together is a relatively easy, pleasant, and rewarding task. And you’ve done much of the grunt work already in developing (and hopefully keeping up to date) your detailed research proposal (see our Year 1 article for details). Odds are you'll also have to submit some sample material. You’ll most likely also have to submit some sample material. Discuss with your supervisor which of your thesis chapters is likely to be most engaging to a reader who isn’t embedded in your project.
This last point - making your work appealing to somebody who isn’t immersed in your work the same way you are - is really the key point to a book pitch. Most scholarly publishing imprints - even university presses - are looking to target a wider audience than interested scholars in your field. As a result, most are clear that they won’t accept and publish unedited theses. As part of your pitch, you need to make clear how you plan to turn a project of purely scholarly interest into one that can engage an educated lay reader, or an academic from outside your discipline who stumbles on your work, or an undergraduate student approaching your area for the first time. These are all things that academic journal publishers don’t really care about. Their objective is to advance knowledge in an often very narrow disciplinary area. But to sell your work as a potential book, you need to show you’ve thought about these things and can frame your work in an interesting and engaging way.
All the above is well worth doing even if you intend on bidding academia a fond farewell after you graduate. A set of scholarly publications to your name - and even a book! - is a great way to ensure that your research makes its mark in your field even after you’ve departed. More pertinently for those looking to a career outside academia, it also demonstrates that you can convert your work into tangible deliverables, satisfying editorial requirements, meeting deadlines, and staying accountable to people other than yourself. There’s no better testament to your time management skills or your ability to deliver high-quality work than your publication profile.
If you’ve kept your ear close to the ground during your studies, you’ll have heard academics around you talking about the “impact agenda” and perhaps the Research Excellence Framework or REF. The REF is a major national assessment exercise undertaken to determine not just the quality of a university’s research output, but also the degree to which that research output is demonstrably useful to people outside academia - whether that’s through industry, business, community organisations or influence on policymaking. Restrictions on research “portability” (the extent to which universities can submit for consideration research by their academic staff that was originally conducted independently or at another institution) mean that the extent to which Early Career Researchers can meaningfully contribute to the next REF exercise (in 2021) is still to be determined.
What is clear, though, is that hiring committees will increasingly look for academic staff with the proven ability to engage in high-impact research activity, and who have the ability to articulate the actual and potential value of their work beyond academia. You should be thinking about this as you enter your final year. And looking to your local community to see how you can engage with them in knowledge exchange activities and collaborative projects. Depending on your area of study, you might simply give a talk at a community centre, or you might seek to embark on a project that is more thoroughly embedded in the community by, for example, seeking to consult on a matter of local government policy or devise a project with local schoolteachers and governors to have their students embark on a short learning block related to your research.
Thinking about impact at this stage of your career really is a win-win. If you do go on to pursue an academic career you can speak a language that is increasingly prevalent throughout the Higher Education sector and especially in research-intensive environments. But if you decide to pursue another path after obtaining your PhD, your engagement in research impact activity demonstrates something that might otherwise be missing from the CVs of new PhDs. Which is the ability not just to work as part of a team but to consult and listen closely to the requirements of outside stakeholders and tailor a solution to their needs. This is good professional training no matter what field you end up in!
Prepare your materials and apply efficiently
At some point - and it should really be early in your final year - you’re going to have to take the plunge and start applying for positions you’d like to take up following the completion of your PhD. The key to managing this without distracting from your thesis work and other professionalisation activities is to get a good sense of the shape of a typical academic (or non-academic!) job application and the types of materials you’ll generally need. You can and should adjust these materials to the particular position you’re applying for. But you should lay them out as far as possible so that there are large, generic chunks of text about your achievements and qualities that can be used no matter the position, with space to add detail about how this information demonstrates your fit for a given person specification. Here’s what you should aim to have to hand in your generic application materials set:
- A CV, containing all experience that could be relevant to a given job. It’s easier to delete than to add, so if you have to adjust it to meet a particular word count, or to remove content that’s simply not relevant to a certain subcategory of job, you can delete as needed.
- A statement of application.You may need to paste this into an online application form or send it separately as a letter.
- PDF copies of any articles you’ve published, or other writing sample if you don’t have published material. Most job applications require at least one writing sample.
Because you’ll have to send your statement and CV either as standalone documents (with attractive formatting) or pasted into applications, it’s advisable to keep both formatted and plain-text versions of each. If you only have attractively formatted versions, it’s difficult to know - and to spot on the fly - exactly what will be lost if you paste it into a form that doesn’t preserve its formatting. Keeping a plain text version will ensure you have a better sense of how your information will look to recipients of your application.
You should also ensure that you’ve approached your referees and asked for their permission to name them on any upcoming applications. You should, of course, meet with your referees to tell them the kinds of information you’d like them to emphasise. It’s also a good idea to give them a heads-up as soon as you’ve been shortlisted for a position, so that they know to expect a call. But it’s unlikely to be effective for you or them if you specifically request permission to use their names for every job you apply to.
Finally - Finish your thesis and prepare for your viva!
Amid all the looking to the future you have to be doing now, it’s easy to forget that you still have a thesis to finish and - just as importantly - your final oral examination, or viva, to prepare for. We’ve gone pretty light on the writing tips in this guide to PhD survival. It’s likely you’ll be working closely with a supervisor on your thesis chapters, and we’re willing to bet you have a good idea how to write scholarly prose if you’re in a PhD programme in the first place. But oral exams might be a new thing for you, so it’s worth keeping the following in mind:
- Know your thesis backwards and forwards. You may have written some of the text you’ll be examined on more than two years ago, and you can’t just rely on your memory. Re-read thoroughly and take notes on what you’re written.
- Anticipate counter-arguments. Be prepared to defend choices you made about what to focus on and what not to focus on. Know common or likely strands of argument that could oppose yours, and prepare rebuttals for them.
- For work that’s over a year old, re-run the searches of scholarly databases that you used to find your materials. If new, relevant work has been published since, integrate it into your thesis, even if only by way of a footnote. If you’ve already submitted, make a note separately and discuss it in your viva.
Good luck in there! You’ve got this.