I’ve been writing a lot of job applications and research proposals recently, and it has made me think about the nature of such applications and the information they require. Many of them have been online, and again, that has made me question my attitude towards completing them, and the content I need to put in to make my applications stand out.
Doing these things can make you feel as if you’re jumping through hoops, acting in some kind of unseen combat with your competitors for the role, playing to entertain and interest the cruel and unknown providers of jobs. You aren’t, of course – yes, you’re in competition, but most of the time when you apply for a job, you’ll be performing for someone who’s never seen you before, and who hasn’t the personal investment in you to be able to be cruel. Getting a position has to be about showing yourself at your best, proving your ability and appropriateness for the job in question. If you have a PhD, you’ll have been through a similar process of application before, but there are still things to be learned. So what, then, has doing all these applications taught me?
Keep your eyes open and your head in the game
Yes, it sounds blindingly obvious. But it’s easy to get jaded about looking through the same set of emails and adverts again and again. And when that happens, it’s very easy to miss stuff. So make sure that you focus on what you’re doing. I know that the whole process of looking and applying can be so depressing and boring at times that it’s easy to do it half-heartedly, or put it off entirely. But dedicate some time each week to looking and doing the applications: it doesn’t matter if you dedicate one day a week, or an hour a day, just make the time.
Do your departmental research
If you have a project in mind, is there a school in which it might fit? If there’s a department where you’d like to work, is there a project that you can make to fit them? And what journals do the staff at those departments publish in? Can you publish in those too? It is vital to seem like a good fit for the department: they aren’t going to pick someone who, no matter how brilliant, is entirely outside their culture and publication system. Getting a job is about accommodating the needs of an institution as well as your own personal desires, particularly in the first few years. I say this, despite the fact that I, and I know many of you, have so many personal projects that you desperately want to work on that working them in to fit a department seems like a betrayal of your idea. But it doesn’t have to be. In fact, it can lead you onto adventures you never imagined. When people become passionate about a research project, they can be as blinkered about how it ‘should’ be done as any discipline or department can be. Innovation stems from open minds.
Balance Passion with Practicality
It may be the wisest thing, financially at least, and potentially professionally and intellectually, to open your mind to your career options. I’ve fallen into the trap recently of applying for the same kind of positions, research fellowships, which only seem to be coming up at a couple of institutions. This constant application to the same role and place, and my as yet continual lack of success, has made me question whether this is the right way to go about things, and, indeed, how long I can justifiably keep my interests and desires entrenched in this way. I’m more fortunate than most, but I can’t rely on my partner, family and savings forever and the time is probably soon upon us where I will have to just apply for first jobs which were not what I imagined.
So, if need be, be prepared to diversify your career choices – whether that’s about institutions, subjects, research positions, location or whatever else. But if there’s a way for you to hang on long enough, whether you have to get another part-time ‘unofficial’ job, as it were, then you never know what perseverance and hard work will get you.
Get the Admin Right
Keep a complete and up to date CV in a separate folder, and update it! This way, you can modify ones for each individual job depending upon what they need. Make sure the complete version fulfils every possible criteria, and that it has no formatting issues: there’s nothing I hate more than reformatting a CV that’s gone wrong.
Keep a separate publications sheet, too. Some places ask for it. It’s also good to keep a record of your work separate from your CV in any case: and remember to keep it fully referenced. Don’t just use it as a reminder for yourself!
Keep that sheet going. Keep publishing, attending conferences, making papers. Even if you’re unemployed, there’s no excuse to not be working. If you’re to get a job, you need to have good, REF-able publications, or the proof that you are able to get them. This will make you far more appealing. It will also keep you current in the field, make your name known, and, perhaps more importantly, keep you thinking. I get very anxious when my brain shuts down: it is one of the things I value most about myself, and if I lack confidence in its abilities and productivity, then I become very unhappy. Like Sherlock Holmes, I really don’t do nothing very well.
Keep ALL THE DATES for everything. And your grades – you’ll be supprised how often you need them. I’ve had to ask my parents for my GCSE grades several times in the past few months, as they keep all my old admin at the moment. I’ve also had to ask people on which days I graduated so many times that it’s ridiculous. I’m keeping all those details on a separate sheet now, so that I don’t become inconsistent or go bonkers.
Have a Research Plan
If you’re applying for research positions, and have a research topic in mind, have a solid basic plan for which isn’t over ambitious, and which can, again, be modified to appeal to the target institution. At some point, I’ll write a blog post about writing proposals: a whole topic in itself. But for the moment let me say this – make sure that you can achieve the goals you set yourself and whilst modifying your idea to appeal to the institutions, please retain the innovation and sense of excitement that you had when you wrote that new and unique PhD proposal. No longer are you being innovative for your own sake, but for the sake of employers too, and you have to give them the novelty they want with the stability and accountability they need.
Be proactive! Make yourself known, and ask to see if there is work available. Target institutions who might be able to find something for you, particularly if you’re thinking of applying for funding such as the Leverhulme. Make sure that they know what you have to offer, and why they need you in particular. I’m appalling at this. Really. You’re a braver man than me if you can do it, but it might well get you somewhere.
Good luck to all of you out there looking for employment. Keep working. Keep jumping through the application hoops and hold onto yourself whilst you do it. The people you’re sending them too might seem distant and uncaring, but they’re people like you, who have to fill in positions with the best they can get. They have to make hard decisions every day, and whilst it can seem like mortal combat with an unknown adversary, the truth is far less personal and far more mundane.
2013 has not been a good year for finding work it seems. But I tend to see the combination of job and research as a privilege rather than a necessity: I’m still going to do my research, still have adventures with time, space and dodos, no matter whether I’m being paid or not to do it. I’d like to be, in the future, but I’ll consider myself a very lucky Doctor when and if that happens.