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Top Tips for PhD Students by Dr Alexandra Wilson

The first Opera Research Students’ Conference took place at Brookes on 17 June 2014. For a separate report on the conference, see here. The day concluded with a talk by Dr Alexandra Wilson on career development for PhD students and early career researchers. Alex has distilled her talk down into a list of ‘top tips’, which can be found below.

These are hard times for young academics. Realistically, there have probably never been enough academic jobs for everyone who wanted one, but things seem to be getting more difficult for each successive generation: there are, to put it bluntly, fewer and fewer jobs and more and more people with PhDs. To be in with a fighting chance of making it onto a shortlist, every student therefore needs to arm him- or herself with a sort of ‘tool kit’ of skills and experiences, either before finishing the PhD or shortly after.

First it is worth summarising the main types of employment Music PhDs typically enter after graduating:

  1. Oxbridge Junior Research Fellowships. The holy grail of early career academics: three years with (in most cases) little or no teaching, in which to work on a new research project of your own choosing. These are fearsomely competitive: hundreds of people apply and you’re competing with applicants from around the world.
  2. British Academy and Leverhulme postdocs. These also give you a period of several years in which to undertake a new research project. For these awards you need to find an institution to ‘host’ you and you need to demonstrate that there’s a good fit between you and the institution in question. Again, they’re very competitive.
  3. Postdoctoral research assistant positions. These are often the result of a senior academic making a funding bid to a research council. Unlike with the above, the topic will be stipulated, so your specialism has to be the right fit.
  4. Short-term early career researcher posts in individual university departments. There were lots of these strategic appointments pre-REF but don’t expect to see many being advertised for the next few years.
  5. Short-term teaching posts covering senior academics’ research leave or maternity leave. A very common first job nowadays, this type of post is likely to be heavy on both teaching and administration. Nevertheless, this can be an extremely useful stepping stone to the next thing: you are essentially thrown in at the deep end and expected to prove your mettle.
  6. Freelance jobbing, picking up bits and pieces of teaching here and there: this is not a particularly desirable course but the reality for many people, and some are successful in eventually securing a permanent post.
  7. Finally, there must still be a few people who manage to walk into a permanent, full-time job straight out of a PhD but this route is now unusual.

Below I have outlined the main things an aspiring academic needs to get on their CV, while taking great care not to be distracted from the main task in hand: completing the PhD on time.

1. Have one good publication accepted (if not in press/print) before you graduate

Some supervisors will tell you that you should concentrate on your PhD and wait until after finishing it to write an article. I couldn’t disagree more. The REF pressure may be off (slightly) for a few years, but departments still want to see that you’re going to be able to produce a good return for the next one.

An early-career researcher, entering their first job, usually needs to submit only one article for the REF. This counts for as much as a more senior academic’s four items. Thus, an early-career researcher with an excellent article can be a very hot ticket for a department. But it has to have been published somewhere that is deemed to be good. For all the REF panel may say about an equality of media, there is still a firmly entrenched belief that where you publish counts: that certain journals score more highly and that peer-reviewed articles rank higher than chapters in edited books. It’s worth aiming to place your work in one of the more highly esteemed peer reviewed journal articles to be on the safe side.

The shrewd thing to do, time wise, is to adapt a PhD chapter, or to use some material you haven’t been able to fit in as the basis for an article, rather than writing something entirely new. And get someone to read your work before you send it off. Yes, this is daunting, but anonymous peer reviewers don’t know that you’re a graduate student and will not pull their punches, so it’s worth making use of the feedback of friendly academics to make your work as good as it can be before submitting it.

I’ve written more about the publishing process here.

2. Get some teaching experience

Teaching experience may be relatively unimportant for some of the JRF posts but the majority of first jobs are short term posts that involve covering somebody’s teaching and you need to be able to convince a committee that you can hit the ground running.

There are many different types of teaching and they all require different skills, so it’s worth doing a small amount of lots of different types rather than a lot of one. Tutorials on the Oxford model are quite different to giving large lectures, and seminars where you’re effectively supporting a more senior academic are different to devising your own module. I think departments ideally want to see that you’ve done a bit more than just assisting someone else with a few seminars so any evidence you can provide of having helped devise a course or assessment experience can be a very good thing. Any postgraduate teaching you can get (even just the odd class) can also mark you out from the crowd.

Do be wary of taking on too much teaching experience: the result may be that you drag your PhD out for an extra year.

3. Present your work at conferences

This is like asking for feedback on an article – it helps you to hone and refine your work (and your presentation skills) – and conferences are the best place to make valuable new contacts in the field. Conferences also look good on the CV and every graduating PhD student should make sure they’ve spoken at a couple: it’s a good idea to start out with a student conference and then try to get a paper accepted for a ‘grown up’ conference like the RMA, or one of the specialist conferences in your field. But again, don’t go so overboard with conferences that you get distracted from writing your PhD.

4. Consider taking on a small administrative role

Administration sounds dull but it’s certainly something every academic has to deal with these days. Having some administrative experience is probably going to be neither here nor there if you’re going for an Oxbridge JRF. However, if you’re up for a temporary teaching job, some administrative experience could give you the edge. You can pick up a certain amount of administrative experience as part and parcel of taking on teaching, or you might want to seek out some extra responsibility, such as serving on the RMA committee as a student rep.

5. Start thinking about sharing your research with the public

Impact matters these days and a willingness to engage with wider audiences is likely to be regarded as an asset by most departments. Activities like writing programme notes, talking on the radio or giving pre-concert talks can also help us to hone our academic skills, making us better lecturers and better writers. It’s also possible to talk about your research with a wider audience via blogs and social media but beware of giving away your actual research findings. I have written more about what impact is and how to get into it here.

6. Network, network, network.

You need to get to know senior academics early on in your career who are not your supervisor, who will be on your side as your career develops and whom you can ask to write references for you. A typical JRF application requires you to nominate three referees and they have to be senior academics from well-respected institutions. Having international referees can also be extremely valuable. Networking can be daunting but you can’t afford to be shy. Develop a network among your peers as well: friends made at this stage can be a vital source of support for years to come.

Armed with this tool kit of skills you should be able to approach the job market with a reasonable amount of confidence, but every aspiring academic, however brilliant, still needs to tick the last box on my list, which is: have a Plan B… and preferably a Plan C.

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