Post-PhD career struggles!

This blog post is a guest post by Dr Laura Jenkins. Coincidently, I know her very well and jokingly asked her to write a blog post for me as I did not have time (I am writing up my PhD of course!). After a summer of decisions, moves and a lot of wondering what could be next, Laura talks about her journey from PhD student to Teaching Associate and the struggles she has faced.

Read on for Laura’s post…

Dr Laura Jenkins

Early career academics are considered those people who have recently completed a PhD, teaching qualification or postgraduate qualification. Being an early career academic itself has many challenges from gaining the appropriate teaching and research experience, to developing an approachable and enthusiastic personality to show that you aim to be engaged in the work that you do.

Some of the skills developed by an early career researcher can be learnt from education and further study when interacting with fellow students and staff. When studying towards a qualification, skills like communication and presentation skills are used on a regular basis and these are the skills which can be applied to any job or voluntary work context outside of education.

There are some skills, however, that need direct work/employment experience and this is one thing that can be difficult for early career researchers to gain. These skills can be detailed statistical analysis skills, software skills or the ability to teach a class independently, which are not always taught in an educational setting.

Trying to find work in an academic setting, in particular in a university setting, can bring a set of challenges for an individual. These can include a heavy workload, teaching and research commitments and instances where student support is needed. Most of these are great challenges and I have thoroughly enjoyed them throughout my early career, especially working alongside and supporting students during their study of Psychology. I am fortunate enough to have gained experience in a variety of universities across the UK so I am able to quickly adapt my teaching and learning style to the situation needed.

The main challenge faced by early career academics is often the insecurity of a job. Once that educational qualification is completed, whether it be a PhD or teaching related, real world experience is often needed to support the skills learned during education. This is one thing that early career academics can find difficult to achieve. One of the ways to overcome the obstacle of experience is to undertake a fixed-term contact. Some fixed-term contacts can be as short as nine months but there are longer fixed-term contracts which can be as long as three years.

After completing my PhD in Psychology (well, when I was approaching my submission date), I decided to embark on the task of looking for a job. I began the job search long before the submission of my PhD but one of the criticisms from applications was that I did not technically have a PhD at the time of applying as it had not been assessed. The first round of ‘job hunting’ was a very daunting process and I was concerned that my applications were not strong enough. As a result of this, I waited until I was nearly ready to submit my PhD before applying for different academic roles so that I could say that my PhD submission was pending examination – it worked!

The first job I was offered after my PhD was a two-year contract in a more teaching support role. I had decided to focus upon teaching rather than research as I wanted to be more involved with helping students develop their own skills rather than continuing with my own research (I do complete some research at the minute, just not a lot).

In my first post-PhD role at Oxford Brookes University, I gained excellent experience at leading classes and being that primary support member of staff for students. I took Research Methods and Statistics classes, of which in my area of Psychology, are important topics to help students develop themselves as independent Psychological researchers themselves.

I do believe that the students enjoyed my teaching methods as I tried to move away from the standard lecture and textbook approach. I would often try techniques such as blended learning techniques where I would use both online and offline material in the class. During my PhD, I had taught classes with more senior staff members during the completion of my PhD at Northumbria University, but my role at Oxford Brookes was much more independent. Some of the people who I had met during my very early teaching career had ‘warned’ me about such fixed-term contracts and I had tried to avoid them when initially applying for employment after my PhD. I was told that a fixed-term contract would make you feel as though you were not really involved with a department but I can honestly say that I disagree with this. I’ve met some lovely colleagues and have felt involved with all of the departments I have been in and Oxford Brookes University was the first university to accept me as a member of teaching staff.  I was also told that fixed-term contacts provide people with a lack of stability with regards to an income, and yes, I can agree to a point, however I have never had an issue and have only had a small worry about what was going to be my next form of income.

After a year in this role I wondered about the direction of my career and decided to look for a more teaching-based role in Psychology. Although I thoroughly enjoyed my role at Oxford Brookes University, I wanted the opportunity to start lecturing, supervising students and taking more independent classes in other areas of Psychology. I never thought that I would be on the job search again so soon, and only a year into my two-year contract, but I felt as though it was the right step for me to help progress my career in teaching Psychology and to gain more direct experience.

Again, I began the task of completing academic applications and as before, this was not an easy process. Being asked to provide the basic C.V. details in an online form can be long enough for anyone (to type in all the individual details) but nowadays, academic institutions like candidates to write a supporting statement indicating how well they believe they fit with the job specification. After completing many applications and interviews, I can now say that I fully understand why candidates are asked to do this. It is simply the best way for a recruiter to get a ‘snap shot’ of who an individual is alongside what their C.V. may detail about the work experience. I was also advised on many occasions that if I did not meet all of the expected criteria with a job advertisement then there was no point in applying – again, I now disagree with this as on many applications where I have been asked to interview stages. I have frequently said that I would be willing to learn more about a certain area or skills!

I often found that the applications took me hours at a time to complete as I would have to think of examples of my teaching skills and how I’ve used the specified skills and qualities in my teaching and research career. I would use websites that helped me structure my application responses and they were very useful in giving me guidance when I did not want anyone at my work to know what I was applying elsewhere. During my time of completing applications, I got very disheartened at the lack of responses and in the initial stages of applying I only received one response to my many submitted applications. I’d only had one year-long job at the time and some of the vacancies required many years of experience in areas that I did not have.

After many applications, I saw an advert for a Teaching Associate at the University of Strathclyde and decided to apply. Again, this was an application where I did not have one or two of the required skills, however I worded the application to reflect what skills I had and how they linked to the skills that I did not. I was then interviewed for the job, subsequently being offered the role. Although I was only at the University of Strathclyde for a very short time, it provided me with the experience I was looking for in supervising dissertation students and independently taking lectures. I questioned whether I could move again for another fixed-term contract but I’m pleased to say that I took the job. I was fully aware of the short-term nature of the contract and as soon as I hit my 6 months of employment, I was back looking for my next post so that I had something to go to when I left the University of Strathclyde.

One of the definite issues with fixed-term contracts is not being able to fully plan what you aim to do with regards to your career. I had always planned on completing a teaching qualification, however, qualifications often took longer than a year so I could never take up the opportunity. The shorter courses that I was offered did not cover the aspects I needed help developing in such as utilising different teaching methods, therefore I saw shorter qualifications as no benefit whilst gaining teaching experience at the University of Strathclyde.

Whilst working at the University of Strathclyde, I saw a voluntary opportunity that I thought would help me stay within a Psychology domain should the chance occur that I was going to be unemployed. At present, I am a Cognitive Psychology Correspondent for Psychreg (Journal of Psychology). I have had many opportunities to write for academic and non-academic audiences; I have been invited to talks and conferences and I have been able to develop in a professional manner outside of my teaching career which helped me to progress a little further.image1


This next (technically my third) round of applications took a lot of focus as I had very heavy teaching commitments at the time. I ended up using my evening and weekends to complete applications which meant I was often exhausted when writing about myself and would have to have coffee breaks on a regular basis. Although I thought that my applications were not up to standard due to competing some of them very quickly, I was offered quite a few interviews this time around so was quite happy about how I was learning to structure applications in terms of how to word what I was trying to say and show myself as a confident academic. One thing to note about interviews is that they don’t just involve a face to face interview when you are being interviewed for an academic position. Normally, a presentation or data task is completed alongside the interview, meaning that preparations for interviews are very individual but also very time consuming. The most hectic time for me came when I had three interviews in the space of the week, and they were all very different in nature. I had to constantly be alert when preparing interviews as they all required preparation.

Over the course of progressing with my applications, I tried to attend as many interviews as I could as it provided me with valuable experience of interviews and being able to show a panel why I was a suitable candidate for the job. After the interviews I have had, I’m pleased to say that I have now undertaken a permanent post as a Teaching Associate in Psychology at Loughborough University, and although I’ve only been in the role for a couple of weeks, I am really enjoying it! I now have further career aspirations to complete that teaching qualification I’ve wanted to do since finishing my PhD and I also aim to become a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy after I’ve been in academia for another few years. I do believe that the previous interview practices have helped me to be confident in my more recent interviews. On more than one occasion, I have been congratulated for how well I have presented myself in interview situations…so practicing does help a person to explain themselves.

The one thing I would say to anyone applying for academic jobs is to stick with it and persevere. A job will appear soon enough so it is just a case of continuing with the application process to find a job that may be a good fit. Sometimes the road to a more permanent position involves some shorter contracted jobs and that’s not always a bad thing. I ignored what I was told about fixed term-contracts and continued to apply for them. I would also look at seeking voluntary opportunities to support the development of skills when employment is not an option.

Celebrating the new job of course!

I am very grateful for both of my fixed-term contract posts because without them, I would not have gained experience in teaching and working with some wonderful students! They have provided me with opportunities to interact with and engage students in many areas of Psychology and I hope to continue this in my current post.



Reflections on thesis (not quite) writing

So you may remember that a short while ago I finished my data collection and also started the process of analysing my transcripts from a series of interviews and focus groups. This process took quite a while because I had over sixty participants in my first case study and then twelve each in my second two case studies. Whilst working on my internship between April and June I was able to code some of the data which meant that I was ready for my main task after internship completion of writing up my thesis. This (to me) is the biggest task of the thesis I have had so far and something that makes or breaks the thesis – it’s a piece of cake, right? (question: do I need to reference my cake recipe haha???)

Piece of cake, right?  **I did not get to eat a piece of this cake I made!**

At this point in time (when I was just finishing my internship) I had nothing to do on my thesis but write, write and keep writing. However once I had finished my internship I knew that this task of writing would not be as easy as I thought. I have not written a thesis before and the structure of my thesis is somewhat basic. I therefore decided that writing plan was needed so that I knew what I needed to do and when.

On first day back after my internship I started to write this writing plan and set goals, targets and smaller steps towards completing my thesis chapters. However whilst writing this writing plan I discovered that I do not have a lot of time between now and the start of my new job in November. This means I do not have full working weeks after November 19th and this scared me a little (although only technically its only 6 full time weeks until submission). I therefore had to be very specific in my writing plan and make sure all of my major tasks are scheduled to be completed (by the plan) before my time as a full time student is up . Again I found this somewhat difficult because I was not able to visualise the next few months ahead and plan my weeks quickly in advance. I struggled at first but I made sure that I had to look at my calendar to see my other commitments (such as conference presentations and attendance and also guest lectures). These commitments were anticipated to hinder (well completely stop) my PhD writing. I had to make sure that all additional tasks were accounted for so that I could work on my thesis chapters to draft them to a decent level. Once I had accounted for all of the additional tasks, I was able to make a week by week plan and ask my supervisors what they thought of my plan for my first supervision after my internship. My supervisors gave the general go-ahead on this (although we still need to work out drafts and dates etc) and gave some advice that I think I should share. So here is the advice I received:

[Paraphrased to reflect all advice in one conversation]

‘Please do let us know if you’re not able to keep to this plan of the goals and targets you have set yourself…we know that things may get in the way and this job is something of a big change to you and your working routine. You may find that you are exhausted, tired and are not able to do some of the work when you think you can… This is okay as we know it is a big change for you and your thesis progression**. The overall aim now is for you to submit the thesis and it doesn’t have to be perfect, but of a good standard (appropriate) for submission and assessment (the Viva).  We can roughly plan when your Viva may be but we cannot plan this for sure until you officially submit. We therefore want you to focus more on submitting and writing your thesis to a good standard rather that what may happen after…’

**they emphasised the changes ahead a lot!

This advice from my supervisors was sound. My supervisors know what they are talking about. They have had students have thesis submission delays, students get jobs and students succeed so they know what can and will (possibly) happen. My priorities in terms of the time I can devote to my thesis is almost definitely going to change in the near future. This means I will not be able to spend a full weeks’ worth of work on my thesis after November and the things I want to get done may have to chance. I have designed my writing plan to account for this change in schedule and to attempt to work out what can be plausible and what cannot.

However (as noted as a potential risk by one of my supervisors) at the moment my plan is not going to plan. Since returning to the office from my internship I have had a virus (with a lovely combination of tonsillitis and mild gastritis) which has meant I have been out of action for a couple of weeks. This has also meant that my thesis writing has been out of action for a couple of weeks and I have gotten myself behind in what I wanted to do. On telling my supervisors that this was the case, their (all three of them) main concern was not of my doctoral thesis but with of my own health. All of my supervisors now know that if I am not too well and do not rest, I tend to relapse and my illness comes back twice as bad. With this in mind one of my supervisors told me to get well soon and to focus on me (not the thesis).  To me this makes me realise that my supervisory team know a lot more about their own students (including me) than what I think. They also understand and acknowledge that sometimes things happen and sometimes things don’t go to plan. I’m grateful for the attitude (and behaviours) of my supervisors and the fact that they don’t freak out when I cannot complete some work due to ill health or other commitments. I’m not saying they don’t worry about progress however!

These pens have survived for 3 years… hopefully now until thesis submission

I’m now getting back on my feet now after having some treatment but this will take a while to settle down properly. I’m starting to get back into routine of writing but I am still struggling. I am struggling to find motivation to want to write and I’m struggling to find the motivation to finish my thesis. I partly blame the fact that I have a job to go to in November I am very impatient and I just want to get started quickly as possible. However I need to realise for myself that my thesis is a priority at the moment and that this needs writing before I am able to start my job properly. With this in mind I am trying to find the motivation that I have lost because I know that if I do not have a decent standard of thesis draft before I leave for my job I will really not enjoy the first few weeks of my job as I’m hoping to do.

So if anyone has any good advice on how to increase PhD writing motivation then please do share them with me! For now, I have the help of my supervisors to give me reassurance/motivation when I think things are going wrong and they are really not… and the help of my own baking to distract me when things get tough.