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Five tips for graduates who want to pursue a career in academia

Elise Tornos

Permanent academic jobs are notoriously hard to secure. So here are five tips to get you started.

So, you’ve decided on a career as an academic. The first thing you should know is that permanent academic jobs are notoriously hard to secure. Not only are research and teaching positions within niche academic areas extremely competitive, but universities are increasingly likely to rely on the support of adjunct professors—non-tenured faculty staff who are often hired on a contractual basis. With many more people finishing doctoral degrees than there are postdoctoral positions available, universities have been able to dictate the terms.

However, it’s not all bad news. Academic positions still need to be filled and, if you’re tenacious and able to demonstrate an excellent education pedigree, there’s no reason why one of them can’t be yours. So here are five tips to get you started.

1. Get the right kind of teaching experience

Here’s a strange but, perhaps, not so surprising statistic—about 80 per cent of undergraduate teaching is performed by casual employees. Usually, they’re honours or doctoral students who apply to work as tutors while studying. This is an excellent opportunity to establish your bona fides as a would-be lecturer—enthusiastic student evaluations can make all the difference to your future job applications.

It’s a good idea to be strategic about the types of classes you teach—if you can show that you can offer expert instruction across a range of subjects related to your area of expertise. Casual teaching is also an excellent way to network—get to know the academics who are overseeing any courses you support and be ready to recommend other qualified casuals for roles you aren’t yourself able to fill.

2. Publish, publish, publish

You’ve heard this a thousand times before, but it bears repeating: you must have a solid list of publications to your name, preferably in reputable peer-reviewed journals, if you’re to make a competitive application to any academic position. A 2013 article in The Conversation surveyed the data and concluded that the best predictor of your long-term success is the number of papers you’ve published by the time you receive your PhD.

In other words, it’s important—no, vital—that you publish early. The peer-review process is lengthy and competitive, and the chances are that, once you’re immersed in writing a thesis, you won’t have much time for it. So get started now and, if your supervisor or mentor isn’t helping you do so, it’s probably a good idea to have a serious discussion about just how important publishing frequently is to your future career.

3. Have a contingency plan

It bears repeating—the competition for academic positions is fierce, and the process of applying for them is long. Ideally, if you are unsuccessful on your first attempt to secure an academic position, you will be given feedback of some sort, allowing you to prepare for a second, more competitive application. Assuming that you were beaten out by people with more illustrious publication records or extensive teaching experience, it can help to know that there are post-doc programs to fall back on. While these mightn’t be as desirable as tenure-track positions, they can give you a much-needed break from the application process while allowing time to publish additional papers and build a more robust academic CV.

4. Be patient and determined

As dispiriting as they may seem, it’s helpful to face the facts: the academic job market is tough. While around half of all PhD graduates will find work as postdoctoral research fellows or research assistants, only two per cent will go on to enjoy uninterrupted careers with tenure and long-term stability.

Thankfully, there’s cause for optimism. Universities are slowly responding to the opportunity presented by a large number of new postdoctoral students by creating new positions and agitating for greater government investment in large-scale research projects.

This won’t immediately address the fact that, for example, in 2014, graduate schools produced two new history PhDs for every tenure-track job opening. But, with PhDs taking an average of six years to complete, the market could shift dramatically by the time you complete your own.

5. Know the game

In many ways, that application process for academic positions is distinct from that of other professional appointments—there’s a heavy emphasis on research, an expectation that you will excel as both a teacher and writer, and, of course, the politics of individual tertiary institutions, which, as you are probably aware, can be complex and occasionally obstructive.

However, there are also ways in which you can approach an academic position like any other—by learning as much about the position requirements, networking with people who might write you references or offer insights into your would-be responsibilities, meeting with grad students, and being prepared to answer interview questions with conviction. You should have a well-rehearsed summary of your work ready to go and be ready to discuss your future research plans, as well as the work of any other academics who are prolific or influential in your area of expertise.