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PhD completed - What's next

If you wish to become an academic after completing your PhD, you will generally seek either a lecturing post or a post-doctoral research position. Job opportunities and job markets vary according to discipline. Economics is distinctive in having developed a systematic process for its ‘job market’, with annual international gatherings in both the UK and the US of researchers and academics designed to match individuals to vacancies. In most fields, however, the process is less structured, and the flow of information about opportunities is more uneven. You will have to hunt for a position for yourself, although your supervisor – and maybe your internal and external examiners – may be able to help you. Here are some tips: 

What to apply for and when

When to start the hunt for a position is up to you, but it is probably worth giving the matter some attention at least 12 months before you defend your PhD. Familiarise yourself first with the main possibilities. One option is to apply directly for a university lecturing position, whether in the UK or elsewhere. Online sources such as www.jobs.ac.uk and the APSA eJobs service are good places to look for advertisements, as well as field-specific mailing lists such as those offered by UACES and EUSA for European Studies, or PHILOS-L for philosophy. Few positions are permanent from the outset, but some are ‘career-track’ (in the US, ‘tenure-track’), and if things go well these can lead to a permanent position after about five years. In probably the ideal scenario, one would find a career-track position at a university of sufficiently high status, or of convenience for private reasons, that one could happily stay there some time. This is ambitious however, and such jobs may be thin on the ground in the coming years. Alternatives are to apply for positions advertised on a short-term contract (usually anything from six months to five years), or to apply for posts at less renowned universities. The latter option has the pitfall that you may be hired for your ability to teach, leaving little time to develop a research profile. 

The second major option is to go for a post-doc. These can be easier to obtain, and offer good possibilities for advancing your research, be it developing a new project or publishing material from your PhD. Post-docs can last anything from one to five years. Some universities fund them directly (e.g. the prestigious Junior Research Fellowships (JRFs) at Oxbridge), but often one applies jointly with a university to a third-party source of funding. In Britain, prominent such sources are the British Academy, the Leverhulme Trust, the ESRC and the AHRC; some other European countries have their equivalents (e.g. the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung and the DAAD in Germany). The European Commission’s Marie Curie programme works on the same principle, but the host university is then expected to be in a different country from that in which you completed your PhD. In general it is up to the individual researcher to make contact with a potential host university and to lead the process of applying for funding, obviously noting the relevant funding deadlines. Take care in identifying host institutions where there is a good fit between your research interests and theirs, since the grading of applicants is partly judged on this. It is often possible to do several post-docs in sequence (though more than two may be of dubious value to your CV).

Preparing an Application

Whichever option you pursue – you may well find yourself pursuing all of them – there are some general preparations which can be made in advance. Work on your publications of course – two or three articles can be considered the minimum for a decent lecturing position, but a successful post-doc application may also require some (at least at the stage of revise-and-resubmit). Start thinking early about how you might continue research beyond your current project, and about how your ideas for future research can be presented as a plausible development of your existing interests. Try to get some teaching experience, particularly if you are aiming for a lecturing position. Try also to attend some conferences and workshops, not just to improve your CV but to publicise your work and meet relevant people. This is a good way to make first contact with senior professors in your field, including those with whom you might want to do post-doctoral research, and it is worth choosing events partly with this criterion in mind.

It is also a way to meet potential referees. Applications of any sort will usually involve a CV, a covering letter and the names of two or three referees. One referee will very likely be your main supervisor, a second is likely to be your second supervisor or another relevant academic at LSE, and your third either someone who knew you as a masters student or someone you have encountered during your PhD (e.g. your external examiner). If you can choose, go for someone who is a well-respected name in the field which you are applying for (in addition of course to being familiar with you and your work). Insofar as it is possible, it is worth tailoring your choice of referees to the nature of the vacancy. The same is true of covering letters, particularly for lecturing positions, which – in around two pages – should make clear why you are a good fit for the post in question. However tempting it may be after serial rejections, avoid firing off your standard covering letter without adapting it to the specifics of the vacancy as outlined in the job description. Your CV is less likely to need adaptation (and some US universities require you to follow a standardised format), but here too where possible think about the form and order in which information is presented. Normally one should emphasise publications over teaching experience, but if you are applying for a teaching position make sure the section on teaching experience is fulsome and prominent.

The Application Process

In the case of many post-docs, there are no intermediary stages between the application itself and the final outcome. In the case of lecturing positions, Oxbridge JRFs and some of the other more prestigious post-docs, there may be several stages. A long list of promising applicants may be formed, who are asked to provide writing samples and whose referees are contacted if they have not been already. (One thing to have ready in the last year of your PhD are some polished chapters of your thesis which could be submitted as a sample, and / or some articles drawn from your research.) Some weeks later a short list will be formed, composed of about five candidates who are invited for interview. If you find yourself being invited to interviews you are doing well. The interview process is structured differently in different places, but it is likely you will have to give a brief presentation on your existing research and plans for the future, followed by questions from the panel. Act like a potential colleague rather than the junior researcher you may still see yourself as.

It can easily be 18 months before you find a position of any kind, and longer before you find one you want. Be patient, and put your faith in the cunning of Reason!