Finishing Your Humanities PhD? Tips on How to Get Ahead in Academia

by Stephen Gordon*
*completed PhD in 2013 and has held numerous postdoctoral positions and student support roles; worked as an Advisor in the University of Manchester Careers Service since 2016

The period following the completion of a PhD is often fraught with uncertainty. I know it was for me. After four long years (comprising an ~80,000 word thesis and innumerable cups of coffee), I was unsure how the skills I had acquired during my PhD in Medieval Literature would translate to postdoctoral life. Did I want to stay in academia, or pursue a different type career? If the former, would I be able to compete with my peers and fellow postgraduates? If the latter, what rung would I occupy on the job ladder? These are questions that will have crossed the mind of anyone who has recently submitted their thesis. For the purpose of this blog, I want to explore some of the best ways to get ahead in Higher Education as an Art and Humanities postdoc, looking specifically at publications and teaching.

Publishing

Knowledge of the type of role you are applying for is extremely important. Be aware from the get-go that the academic job market is extremely (and, I stress, extremely) competitive, especially in the Arts and Humanities. It is now quite common for postdocs to hold many short-term research or teaching positions before finally attaining a permanent contract.

Publications (or a demonstration that you have the ability to publish) are a vitally important means of standing out from the crowd. A developing track record of publications is an essential criterion of academic recruitment. One of the most common strategies employed by recent graduates is to turn their PhD thesis into a monograph. A useful resource is Sarah Caro’s How to Publish Your PhD: A Practical Guide for the Humanities and Social Sciences (London: SAGE, 2009), which offers lots of useful information on how to revise your thesis for publication as well as giving practical tips on how to find the right publisher. Even if you haven’t completed the monograph by the time you’re applying for jobs, academic recruitment panels look very kindly on signed and sealed book contracts. Another strategy (and the one which I took) is to publish the content of the PhD as a series of journal articles and book chapters. Publishing a series of journal articles may enable you to disseminate your research to a wide audience and in a shorter time than waiting for a book publication. If you have previously organised (or an in the process of organising) a conference, it is also worth trying to publish a selection of papers as an edited volume. Ultimately, it is essential that recruiters know your name, your work, and your potential to deliver good outputs for the Research Excellence Framework (REF).

Teaching

Much emphasis is also put on teaching experience. Most doctoral students in the Art and Humanities will have spent at least one semester teaching undergraduate seminars and workshops, or giving the occasional guest lecture. Whether you are applying for fixed-term or full-time positions, academic recruiters put great emphasis on the ability to teach on courses beyond your own immediate areas of expertise.

One of the most effective ways of expanding your teaching portfolio is to send speculative emails and CVs to Heads of Department at neighbouring universities, enquiring if they need any short-term visiting lecturers. Not only will you be forming new academic networks, but as a (potential) course convenor there is a chance to complete the required tasks to become a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (FHEA). This is especially important, as institutions are putting greater emphasis on professional teaching qualifications, mainly as a consequence of the newly-implemented Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF).

Of course, there are also other things to consider – maintaining a professional social media account; public engagement work; demonstrable ability of Grant Capture; how to structure academic CVs – but these are topics for a later blog.

All Careers advice Postgrad-highlighted Postgraduate

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