Forging your post-PhD, during your PhD

Photo by Wade Kelly – used with permission

I am, perhaps, a unique creature in academia, an avowed extrovert.

Being around others recharges me and gives me energy.

That said, the prospect of cold-contacting people has never been a thrilling proposition. I once had a survival job working at a call centre that conducted surveys. I realised very quickly how little I liked cold calls. At the end of each call another number would appear on the screen then auto-dial. As I heard the tones through my headset another lump would emerge in my throat — over and over.

The work was soul sucking. I only lasted two weeks. There are jobs you do to pay the bills and hope that you never have to do again, and that was one. It turns out, however, that the skills I acquired during my brief stint in a call centre would come in handy down the road over a decade later!

This post is about how I built skills during my PhD for the post-PhD job search.

In late 2014, I gave up my permanent position as an instructional designer at the University of Alberta to start a PhD in Australia. I was back to square one at the bottom of the hierarchical heap. I left the security of a job, home, family, and friends and found myself in regional New South Wales, Australia, in a town called Wagga Wagga. There, I quickly found that if you wanted something done, it was easiest to pick up the phone. People would sometimes take weeks and even months (six months for one memorable email) to respond by email, but phones were answered immediately. Learning to pick up the phone again was but one of the strategies I identified and employed early in my PhD and throughout.

Early in my PhD program my supervisor encouraged me to insisted that I complete a 3-year plan. It was the first week of my PhD and I didn’t know where to start, but her eye was already on graduation and beyond. She knew that in order to get the most out of the PhD beyond your time as a PhD student, you had to make the most of your time as a PhD student. My plan included stuff about writing the thesis, outreach and engagement, teaching, committee work, post-PhD job-searching, and much more.

I hated putting that 3-year plan together. It occasionally felt like a waste of time to work on something that I knew would change dramatically, but it was something. It was a start, and I had to start somewhere. It took far longer than I’d expected it would to produce but what began to emerge was a picture of how my life would look for the next three years and beyond on a month by month (and in time, week by week) basis. The process of doing this matters. As is often the case, it turns out my supervisor’s advice was stellar.

As I worked through the degree, I did most of the things I had committed to doing. Moving to a new city and university halfway through delayed things, but I still had a clear picture of what needed to be done. I pushed hard for committee work, in one case having the terms of reference changed to include a PhD student in the committee composition. I joined professional associations and volunteered in the community. I did media, presented at conferences, and published papers. I even started a non-profit related to my PhD research (Nerd Nite!). Everything was going according to plan and suitable progress was being made on the thesis, but the one barrier that I kept running into was finding opportunities to teach.

In my search for teaching (not marking) positions, I sent so many emails with my CV and suggestions of where I fit in within various courses and programs. I submitted my CV to a number of universities via their online recruitment systems as well. Occasionally, I’d get a hopeful response but then never hear back. I would follow up to be told that no opportunities were available.

I was frustrated and flummoxed. My supervisor provided me with various names of colleagues and suggested that I contact them. Instead of an email with my CV, I changed my strategy. With my supervisor’s permission to drop her name, I would ask those on her list to a coffee, to pick their brains about career trajectory. Rather than looking for a single short-term teaching role, I was genuinely looking for their insights into potential jobs post-PhD. I was hoping they could help me understand how to better navigate the higher education space in Australia.

The conversations touched on the various activities that academics are responsible for. We would talk about my research and career aspirations, and inevitably teaching would come up. This approach allowed me to draw on their knowledge of not only current opportunities but opportunities that were forthcoming, timelines for applications, who to talk to, and how to sell myself (particularly in the Australian context). This is what turned things around.

I eventually found the right person who understood what I could offer and was in a position to support me. But it was persistence, over a year, that made it happen. Eventually, I secured a teaching and unit coordination position but, more importantly, I started the process of building a career network and gained critical skills that would support me when it came to the post-PhD job search.

With about a year left before submitting, I looked at my timeline and there was an entry that said, “sign up for job alerts.” So, I did. Most universities have their own systems, and many allow you to sign up for alerts based on keywords. I also signed up to more general job alerts. In total, I submitted applications totalling over 80K words, including cover letters, key selection criteria, and philosophy of teaching (not including CVs).

Like my pursuit of teaching opportunities through blindly sending out CVs, this method was largely — if not utterly — fruitless. One application took days to put together and required a substantial application package including a philosophy of teaching. It took over six months to get the rejection — there were hundreds of applications. In spite of the setbacks and frustration that accompanies any job search, I started to get a sense of what was out there, what I needed to produce, timelines for submissions, and salary expectations.

I continued informally taking people for coffee — the elevated cold call. In a three-month period, I had conversations with about a dozen people. Once contact was made and plans were arranged, meeting the people who were willing to meet (and there were a few that did not respond) was sensational. I meet some wonderful, helpful, delightful people. We talked about potential jobs, but also the city, and coffee, and shows to see. This type of collegial information sharing was like a snowball. One person would introduce me to the next and the next and next.

One fateful day, a member of my PhD committee introduced me to Jonathan (one half of the Research Whisperer), and Jonathan introduced me to Tseen (the other half). Tseen and I had a fantastic chat and at the end she invited me to participate in a panel she was organising around research impact (which is part of my PhD research). It was the least I could do, and I happily obliged.

Two weeks before I was to present as part of the impact panel at La Trobe University, Tseen alerted me to a job ad that had been posted on the university website. I had not come across it and it was not highlighted in any of the job alerts I had set up. The job was Senior Coordinator, Research Impact. I put my application together during the week and it closed on the Sunday. The following Thursday was the panel and the person chairing it, Kelly, happened to be the person the position would report to. It was serendipitous but it wasn’t luck. It was the culmination of months of building my network so that when it was possible to be in the right place at the right time, I would be.

Just over a month and two interviews later, I was offered the position. The role fits beautifully with my professional experience, research expertise, and career trajectory. The reason I was able to get the job was because I had worked hard to build a network of people who were willing to help me out by recommending others to chat with, and who shared information about jobs and opportunities.

It’s not fun, and it’s certainly not easy, but putting your plan on paper and picking up the phone (or typing that email) may open a door to untold possibility.

There is no one set pathway that will guarantee you a job (academic or otherwise), post-PhD. There are, however, things you can do to increase the likelihood of securing a position.

Dr Wade Kelly is the Senior Coordinator, Research Impact, at La Trobe University, in Melbourne, Australia.

Wade’s PhD research focused on how and why universities and academics engage with communities.

This is Wade’s personal website and he tweets from @wadekelly.

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