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Navigating the academic job market – music edition, Dr F Zanatta and Dr J Javornik

black vinyl record playing on turntable
Photo by Elviss Railijs Bitāns on

Spotify Playlist:

Stairway to Heaven (Led Zeppelin)

PhD life is often described as stressful, busy, and lonely. In that unique creative loneliness, however, you are accompanied by your supervisors, fellow PhDs and – let’s not forget – the demons (i.e. the social and emotional foundations of and threats to your knowledge production): fear of failure, fraud anxiety, and acedia or a “gradual withdrawal of motivation and an increasing alienation from science” (Hans Zetterberg, 1967: 139). These arise from failure to reach one’s goals, or from too quick of a success. They are degenerative, as each unproductive day raises their nasty voices. Some companions, huh?

The writing-up period is the toughest. No room for the small pangs of boredom, grand frustration that we all felt. Until it’s all over and there is nothing else but you and your new title – and newly gained freedom, you thought (let’s not forget the post-PhD-blues  and the horror vacui). After years of solitary, marginality, intense exploration and creativity, you are kicked out into the ‘real world’. This is followed by profound realisation that you must now figure it out whether, and how to (1) enter academia or (2) to leave it for greener pastures beyond, famously known as industry (untranslatable beyond English). The first failure and rejection and all that follows feels futile and meaningless. This is a dangerous condition in the sense that it may end your career before it has even started.

There is a troublesome path dependency, in which we apply received frames, not daring to venture beyond our comfort zones and small worlds of experience. Unfortunately, this tendency is now supported by many systems of evaluation, which tend to focus heavily on productivity rather than quality and innovation.

Higher Education is at a complex crossroads and the decision tree is merciless. While short-term considerations such as Where should I publish? Where should I apply? Who should I talk to? do matter, they matter less to your long-term development as a scholar and a thinker than you might think. That said, as you prepare to enter one of the many worlds of academia, you ought to ask yourself a few questions that may help you shape your own intellectual life in the long term. The key is to see your early-career choices and decisions as life investments in skills and creativity, something to carry from now until the end of your intellectual life.

Some advice that we offer is an attempt to suggest what you might do or think about to keep your creativity, originality and spirits alive over the long-term.

Should I stay or should I go? (The Clash)

Life outside academia

It is normal to have a dip after completing your PhD. Just do not let it last too long. Be willing to look outside of academia. The academic job market is tough – even if you do well. Talk to academics and non-academics alike to find out what professional options suit you best.

A growing number of academics are leaving for greener pastures. That’s fine, too. After all, portfolio careers are good as long as you manage your transferable skills and are able to navigate different worlds (and understand the importance of time). To learn more about the life outside, this blog debunks the myths of life-outside-academia; while you are at it, do take a look through the recommended links offered on this page.

Regardless of where you want to go, it is important to build a solid base in key academic networks/societies. Be active, present posters/papers, (co)organise, collaborate. You may want to find your way back into academia, someday.

Actively think about your professional goals, and what you need to do to achieve them (i.e. do not just wait for opportunities to happen).

You can have it all (Yo La Tengo)

The Teaching, Research, Community Engagement dilemma

Many British institutions are starting to differentiate between teaching and research contracts (Sweden has had such system in place for a while). Alongside more traditional scholarly activities, community engagement, innovation and policy impact have taken a stronger role in the life of academics. Whilst we do not argue for a separation between different aspects of academic life, it is helpful to identify your own strengths and emphasise your focus on what you excel in.

Remember: research pathways demand publications, grants, and self-organisation; teaching pathways require a dynamic engagement with pedagogy and the latest developments in the field and a love for teaching; community engagement needs links, networking skills and solid project management skills. Let problems drive: do things that you really care about. Let your passion and curiosity lead the way. Get embroiled in things you do not understand and cannot make sense of. Do not become overly strategic in your choice of research problems. Do not let theories drive; the ones we have are too weak to support your allegiance in the long run. Stay with the problems, they will lead your way. And do not overspecialize. There is too much narrow strategic behaviour as is. “No, I don’t have the time to go to that workshop – it does not concern my research topic”. But a good seminar beyond your own specialty can make you see analogies, ways to tackle problems that you can apply in your own field. Broaden your mind as much as possible, not narrow it down. Extend your questions to new arenas or fields, apply something you already know to new unsolved problems, move sideways rather than downwards. Early in your career that’s easier to do. And more rewarding, too.

Where do we go from here? (Charles Bradley)

The institution, the country, the culture

If you have read Kate Fox’ ‘Watching the British’ or Owen Jones’ ‘Chavs’ or Charles Umney’s ‘Class Matters’, you would have sufficient evidence that class underpins all aspects of British life; academia is not immune. In a piece for the Times Literary Supplement, Julia Bell  elegantly reflects on the impact of class, confidence and presence, whilst Melanie Reynolds explores the challenges experienced by the working-class scholars.

The unspoken division is between the different types of institutions existing in the UK. Redbrick academic life differs from the one in post-polytechnics, and the transition can be both hard to achieve and endure. Be mindful of this when applying for jobs.

Having an understanding of the institutional landscape you are applying to will help the application process a great deal (and to manage your expectations and those of the recruitment panel). When browsing the job market, make sure you investigate the institution and its wider setting well. Conferences are a great opportunity for meeting scholars from different universities, and for doing a little investigation on their experiences. Reach out to colleagues, do research. Pick up the phone and have a chat with the contact person – sometimes, this alone can be a tell.

Lastly, be mindful that each country has a different academic tradition. Academic careers, practices and processes vary greatly and are influenced and shaped by social and cultural landscapes. Information is knowledge. Follow the cues and develop your cover letters accordingly (explore the culture and be realistic: if you hate cold and darkness, do not move up north for it will be a short one).

It’s obvious (Au pair)

The personal statement

The selection panel is likely to have a considerable number of applications to read and grade against the person specification points. Nothing gets the readers’ attention more than a memorable opening. Banal, but obvious.

Balance is key: Your cover letter may be reviewed by Human Resources staff to determine if you meet the basic qualifications for the job. A search committee however comprises of faculty members, accustomed to reading more lengthy cover letters. They will be more interested in the philosophical foundations of your work (than the typical business recruiter) and your academic citizenship (learn the jargon).

Review each of the required qualifications included and compose statements containing evidence that you possess the skills, credentials, knowledge, and experiences listed. Also, address as many of the preferred qualifications as possible. Give concrete examples.

Target your letter: Research your department. Emphasise points of intersection. Ensure to point your strengths out. Tailor your letter to the school/department and adjust the mix of emphasis on teaching and research based on their expectations.

Use a basic format: Your cover letter should be written in the same basic format as a business cover letter, typically two pages (compared to a single page for non-academic letters).

Submit all required application materials in the format requested. Send only what is requested. Remember, your cover letter is your business card – the more outstanding it is (in quality), the greater the chance of you being invited for an interview.

Do not open with Dear Sir or Madam but, instead, use more generic ‘Selection Panel or Committee’. Be mindful of gender-neutrality.

Be concise, to the point. Steer away from generalised statements, we all have a solid understanding of pedagogy, but what does this look like in your specific case? I want to know.

As above, be mindful of the cultural and linguistic specificity of the institution you are applying to. The terminology varies across institutions and countries, so do your homework and do the translation for the panel.

Wordy Rappinghood (Tom Tom Club)

The interview

Interviews are complex and fairly surreal events. Can you think of another situation in which you are facing a line of people questioning you, expecting you to sell yourself with confidence, but without overdoing it, as no one likes arrogance?

The best tips to do well in an interview: scan the room, engage all panel members, own your space but with elegance, pace your confidence and your talking, be brief, do not offer reasons for distraction (e.g. clothing, accessories, perfumes – avoid those). Dress comfortably (and avoid clothes that show sweat). Most importantly: come prepared and never avoid any questions. Do your research, know your panel and ask a friend to grill you with questions. It is fine to say: may I come back to you on this as I need to think more about this?

Some pointers:

blog image

Sweet dreams (are made of this) Eurhythmics

Things I wish I’d known – from someone who’s been there

Dr Jana Javornik

*Let problems drive your research and teaching and publishing.
*Narrow down but do not overspecialize (not everyone shares this with me).
*Read widely and not just academic work – do not forget to communicate widely, too (taxpayers have the right to learn about your knowledge, they paid for it).
*Disregard disciplinary boundaries (but know the rules of the game).
*Build teams (but invest smartly).
*Look for structural holes.
*Nurture your marginality (greatest things can be seen from the margins).
*Keep your enemies (nemeses). Be nice, always.
*Get some luck – and send the elevator down.

Under Pressure (Queen – performed by Annie Lennox and David Bowie)

Things I wish I’d known – from someone who is there

Dr Francesca Zanatta

*We are all (almost) replaceable, work for yourself, your students, and for your field, not for the glory.
*The passage from post ’92 to redbrick is steep.
*Academic friends are rare diamonds, rare but true diamonds.
*The academic landscape outside the UK is very different, develop an international network and keep aware.
*Your academic mentors after the PhD will make a difference, identify someone who can challenge and stretch your thinking, whilst also supporting you in finding your own standing.
*The administrative aspect of academia does not have to take over your life.
*Decide early what you are willing to sacrifice, negotiate or fight.

Dr Jana Javornik is Associate Professor of Work and Employment Relations at CERIC – Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change, Leeds University Business School, Contact her at or on TW @JanaSvenska

Dr Francesca Zanatta is Senior Lecturer in Childhood Studies at the University of East London and co-founder of the Twitter chat #ChildRightsChat Contact her at or on TW @DrFranZanatta

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