The truth about academic jobs.
February 9, 2018
Written by: Emmanuel G Escobar
The last question of my PhD interview five years ago was: what do you want to do after your PhD? At the time, I wanted to go into industry with a plan to return to academia and perform my own experiments. Four years later, I am not sure I still think that way. Employability and the value of the PhD has always been in the background during the degree. On the first day of the programme, the Graduate Director told everyone that about 10% of PhD graduates get a post-doc and something like 2% of those get professorships. At first, I thought it was about the competition based on the mere number of applicants and positions to be filled, but in reality, competition has very little do with it. There is competition within science, of course, and that plays a significant part to an academic’s development (see here), but to say that only 10% of PhD graduates get a post-doc because they managed to out-compete other contenders, is too simplistic.
Here’s the truth about getting academic jobs.
You might argue that academic jobs are some of the most stressful and demanding jobs out there, but with good rewards, such as flexible working hours, constant travel to conferences abroad and getting to do what you are passionate about. And while that may be true to some extent, not all academic jobs have the same luxuries. You will be fortunate if you do your PhD in a medium to large group, with a descent research and travel budget. However, if your research group is small and has limited funding, you might struggle to fit into the academic world later on. Limited funding however should not stop you from conducting original research and completing a successful PhD. Knowing how much funding a project has is also important when looking for post-doc positions. On certain websites the salary for the position will be given as a range, with the typical post-doc earning around £31,000 - £38,000 a year in the UK, and a bit more if you are looking for positions in London. However, within the project description you will find that that particular position will be offered a maximum of £31,000 due to limited funding, for example. Just remember to keep your options open and don’t fall into having general expectations or even taking the information on the advertisement seriously until you read the job specifications.
Academics are employers like any other that you will find outside of university. They seek talent, a person they can trust and some times, they will take risks. But you will find that the risks they take when employing a post-doc have been carefully planned in advance. The first thing to look out for is networking. Networking expands your social circle and lets other academics know that you exist and that you are a good researcher. You may have an advantage if you have the chance to travel to several conferences, and if you don’t, that is not an excuse to not make some contacts. Here’s where the cliche comes in: have good contacts and you can go places. As simple and generic as that sounds, it is true and you might lose out of job if no one knows you. Academics want people they can trust. They will be more likely to employ someone that is within their ‘reach’ rather than someone who is new and not known by the key academics. Some employers may even make their decision based on the fact that candidate lives in the same city as the university or has worked for the university. Then there’s the unfortunate thinking that processing documentation for foreign candidates is too much of a hassle to bother doing it. In this occassion, I’d like to point out that the candidate’s experience was second to their availability. And when it comes to experience, it is important how you show it. The post-doc interview is like any other interview: tell me about yourself, strengths, weaknesses, how did you handle certain situations. But the part that they will really assess you on, is how well you can communicate your previous research. That is the only way they can really judge you and assess whether you are competent for a post-doc. But that is not to say that the most experienced will get a post-doc. It doesn’t help either if you are coming from industry, as you might find that the approach to academic interviews is by far too relaxed and perhaps you may have over prepared for it. Chances are that if you are known by the department and have done some related research, you will find it easier to get a post-doc.
But what if you have finished a PhD and want to carry on doing a post-doc in the same lab?
There are several PhD students that I know that continued working in their old lab or with a collaborator. I suppose the logic here is that there was sufficient funding and the academic chose someone simply because that person is good enough to do a descent job. I frequently catch up with former PhD students and ask them how everything is going, only to find out that they are continuing their research as a post-doc in their old lab. So I ask whether it’s the job that I had read on an online advertisement. This throws them off and most have no idea that their post-doc project should be or had been advertised online. So three things could be going on: 1) they don’t know that their post-doc project is worthy of being advertised to external candidates and thus may think it’s just an extension to the PhD project, 2) their supervisor employs them on the basis that the former student will be grateful for the new project as well as being someone they can trust and know they are familiar with the aspects of the project or 3) the supervisor does not inform the former student that the job must have an internal (for former university employees) application process as well as an external process. This is what I describe as the ‘easy’ road into a post-doc. It might not feel like getting a job, but rather as an extension of the PhD. So who really wins?
Former university employees can access internal job listings before the job is advertised online. The hiring body can even make a decision before the ad is put online (bear in mind that ethical practices have a sliding scale). Ideally, the online ad should open the post to all other potential candidates so that there is equal opportunity to all. Talking to someone that went through this process, they had been informally given the job before the ad went online to external candidates. They explained to me that the wait to see if someone was to eventually replace them caused too much stress. Of course academics must follow certain 'rules' when advertising a job, but that may place any internal candidate, which has been considered, in a difficult position. There are a lot of opportunities advertised online, but if you are looking for a post-doc at the end of your PhD, you might find it very difficult. Some post-docs require previous post-doc experience, while others consider candidates that have submitted their thesis or are about to obtain their PhD. And at the core of it all, getting a post-doc really depends on the maturity of the candidate, above everything else. As I reflect from my own experience, there may be a typical 'new PhD graduate' personality that I have been unaware of. It is those graduates that feel that the post-doc is an extension of their research and thus take a more informal approach to the interview. If you are applying for post-docs, be mentally prepared to take the giant leap away from your PhD and away from being a student and becoming a professional.
It is not uncommon to think that your PhD supervisor might offer you a job somewhere down the line, but is it something that will develop you as a researcher or is it something that is easy and that you are comfortable doing? Sometimes you won’t have the luxury to make this choice, since taking risks early in your career can lead to a delay in your development. I didn’t have the opportunity to continue to work in the same laboratory, and I don’t think it is something I would have been keen on doing had I had the choice. This just comes down to how much you value your PhD and what really gives you joy. As a PhD graduate, you must be adaptable and always look for the best opportunities, without limiting what you can accomplish with a PhD. When looking for an academic job, they will not care about how well you can do the proposed project, they are assessing how well you have done your PhD research and from that, they make their decision. If you want to stay in academia, get involved as early as you can and make long lasting collaborations. If you are wanting to enter academia, you will need to possess skills and have a relevant publication record to outcompete the better known candidates around that department. But in the end, it is not about the competition because there are a lot of applicants and very few spaces. There is so much more to that; it goes beyond what could be explained here. In the end, it depends on the personality of each academic.
NB. I base this entry on my own experiences and talking to PhD students, candidate post-docs and post-docs. I am aware that my experiences are limited, but I just wanted to point out that these things do happen and it is something that you should look out for.