The Twilight Zone: After the PhD, Before the Academic Job

question-markYou’re close to submitting your PhD, to passing your viva voce examination with flying colours, and to be awarded your doctorate. At various stages in these final months of your existence as a PhD student certain scary thoughts – of the practical kind – enter your mind repeatedly and persistently. When will my university email account be closed? Should I be emailing academic colleagues from my embarrassingly named non-institutional email account? How will I keep researching and writing without physical or online access to my university library and its resources? How will I stand a chance on the academic job market if I can’t research and publish? And then there are the more existential questions that lead on from the practical problems: Am I a failure if I take on a non-academic job to pay the bills? This post is about the peculiar period of time when you turn from PhD student to early-career researcher, the challenges you may face during that period and in the time leading up to it, and how you may be able to tackle some of these problems.


Affiliation & Resources

Slide1Usually the first problem you face the day that you are awarded your PhD is that you no longer are affiliated with your university in an official capacity, and this also means you will usually not have access to their resources any longer. One way to prepare for this and avoid being unable to continue your research is to investigate whether your university – or any other university with whom you have some sort of tie via a department and staff contact – offer honorary research fellowships. These fellowships don’t pay you anything, but if you can convince the relevant people that it’s in their interest for their department to be represented by you – because of your past, present, and future research – then an honorary fellowship equals an institutional email account as well as access to the university’s physical and online library resources. Note here that I don’t mean those “honorary” posts that are clearly exploitative, jobs advertised openly (and widely criticised in recent months) as unpaid work experience. Ensure that both sides are clear on what you will receive for such an affiliation and what the university or department expects in return (in my case it was only that I name the university as my institutional affiliation in publications and at conferences, etc.).


Continuing Academic Work

7-200For most of us it’s a reality that without a job we can’t pay our rent or any other bills. So even if you did your PhD on a scholarship, that money will end as soon as you’ve completed your doctoral studies (often it even stops the day you submit, rather than the day you have your viva). It depends heavily on what kind of institution you are doing your PhD at and what kind of person your supervisor is whether there is some work available for you post-PhD. One of the things you should certainly try is secure some teaching hours for the term post-completion. Don’t feel bad or embarrassed about emailing and speaking to the people who are in charge of the teaching allocation. Make sure you they know you’re available for anything that comes up and that they know exactly what you’re able to teach. Equally, ensure your supervisor is aware of your situation and see if they run any modules on which you might be able to teach. Another avenue to explore are funding bids led by or including your supervisor or other research contacts who may be willing to budget for a research assistant or post-doc (i.e. you). Of course there’s no guarantee the bid will be successful, but it’s good to be aware of these options and keep your eyes and ears open to see who is planning what and checking whether you can perhaps be part of a project.

document_archiving__670-articleIf there is no teaching available at your university or if you require more hours, do send your CV and a covering email to departments to which you’d be willing to travel for work. Highlight your experience in the email, mention your specialism and other areas you can teach in, name any contacts you have in the department, and mention any modules the department runs that you know or think they may need part-timers for. It’s important you send those emails to the right people, i.e. those who are in charge of the teaching allocation (usually heads of departments, subject leaders, etc.). These days departments receive lots of blind inquiries and CVs, which is why networking is even more important. Make contacts with people and make them want to work with you. It also means it’s important your email is specific and clearly directed at the relevant person in the department (don’t just copy and paste an email you’ve just sent to another university). If you are aiming for a lectureship, or any academic position that includes teaching, then it’s important you have experience to show in this area, so try your best to secure some of form of teaching if at all possible. For research fellowships and post-docs, it’s often acceptable if you haven’t got much teaching experience, as usually your research will be the absolute center of attention and you will get teaching opportunities as you go along in those positions, learning on the job, as it were. Also remember that there is such a thing as academic administration. If you can secure a clerical or admin post in a university, this can often give you valuable insights into and experience in the inner workings of departments and universities. Unfortunately, I’ve encountered a lot of snobbishness towards administrative staff among academics, and I’m proud to say that my current department is a refreshing exception to this, as are many, many other academics in the UK, of course. Don’t let anyone else’s attitudes towards this area of work deter you – many academics seem to look down on admin staff only because they have the talent to expose their inefficiency and sometimes uselessness beyond their very specific skill sets and areas of expertise.


Why You’re Not A Failure: Taking on Non-Academic Work

tumblr_l7ozc1r6X01qzx5klNo matter if you can or can’t secure teaching hours, it’s perfectly normal that you take on a non-academic job. Those bills don’t pay themselves, and no one who lives in the real world will frown upon you for having to earn a living. The problem isn’t the non-academic job in itself. The problem is keeping up your profile as a researcher while you do other work. As many of the posts in “Brains, Time, Money: Part-Time & Self-Funded Postgraduate Study” mention, it’s tough working a normal day and then switching over from that day job to your research brain in the evening (or whenever you don’t do paid work) to write conference papers, journal articles, and job applications. This is tough, and I would be lying if I said that it’s only for a short, finite period of time. It may only take a couple of months to find an academic job, or it may take you several years. It would also be a lie to say it’s impossible. A vast amount of people have done it, and have subsequently secured an academic position. I’ve said elsewhere that juggling various kinds of tasks is a key skill we have to learn as early as possible during our PhDs. It becomes even more invaluable when you do not possess the privilege to focus all your time on academic activities. Be strategic and don’t lose focus: what’s the next gap to fill on your CV? Make a list of the things you need to do to make you employable, or more employable. Work that list off item by item. Focus on quality, not quantity. The same rules of selection as apply as I’ve outlined in Academic Juggling, but it’s likely you’ll have to be even stricter with yourself, and you’ll have to show extra initiative to fund those conferences and archive trips if you haven’t got a departmental budget to draw on. Small pots of money in various places are often overlooked – seek them out (and see some short ideas on where to start in this post).


Staying Positive

5143_1280x800Taking on non-academic work doesn’t make you a failure, and neither does not immediately securing an academic position. It’s tough, but you have to stay positive and believe in yourself, the value of your work, and learn to value yourself, a skill that you had best acquire earlier rather than later if academia is your preferred career choice. In short, I can’t say it better than Caroline Magennis in her guest post for The New Academic’s Guides to Academia, fittingly titled “Fail Better: Surviving the Slings & Arrows of Academic Fortune”. If you struggle to remind yourself of why you’re doing all this, read Caroline’s post. She has just been offered a permanent lectureship, and I have no doubt that the strategies and attitudes she outlines in this post have a great deal to do with her achievements to date.

Focus on the good things, and all your good experiences: the stimulating conversations, the great lectures and seminars, the students, and of course the passion you have for your subject. Hold on to this, do what lies within your power, and don’t blame yourself for the things that don’t.

Nadine Muller

Nadine Muller

Nadine is Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University. Her research covers the literary and cultural histories of women, gender, and feminism from the nineteenth century through to the present day. She is currently completing a monograph on the Victorian widow (Liverpool University Press, 2019), and is leading War Widows' Stories, a participatory arts and oral history project on war widows in Britain.

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11 Responses

  1. Antonina says:

    This is awesome. Am far beyond encouraged, and I will stay positive

  2. Chris says:

    Thanks Nadine, a very interesting post. One thing which I think is missing from your article is mention of the increasing length of this ‘twilight zone.’ I know many people who completed their PhD between 5 and 7 years ago and are still stuck in precarious hourly paid teaching roles. Many of these people have excellent CVs (at least 3 or 4 journal articles, countless book chapters, some have also published monographs) yet cannot find permanent work. The tragedy is that they have now committed so entirely to the academic career path that they have no other option other than to hang around and hope for a job to finally emerge. Therefore, I would recommend anyone close to completing their PhD to seriously consider a plan B as the academic job market (in the humanities at least) is, frankly, moribund and you could spend a very long time stuck in the ‘twilight zone.’ I really wish I had been told this at the start of my PhD as I would have spent a little more time gaining experience in another field outside academia (something I am having to do now during the post-PhD period).

  3. aesc says:

    Even a part-time job for a university will come with library and email priveleges! (I teach a lifelong learning course and work a few hours a week in the library–it doesn’t pay all the bills, so I’ll need something else soon, but it does give me a university affiliation, teaching experience and library access).

    As a finishing-up PhD student, I do get tired of being told to leave academia all the time; I’m aware most of the people mean well (while there are a few who just want more competition out of the pool) but it’s tiring. I know some people do go straight through degrees, but I at least have already been out in the working world, got experience, been broke and hungry because news flash, private sector jobs are usually crap too, and found the thing I most want to do in the world. Yes, if it doesn’t work out, I will have to do something else, but do these people really think we don’t know that We do know that. What is most productive is when somebody’s willing to help us put our best foot forward to get the jobs we DO want, not discouraging rhetoric about how we should have been accountants. (Not an exaggeration; this happened at a job training thing geared toward Humanities PhDs. We stared in shock-we’re not robots to be installed with any new program out there. We were never going to be accountants; our interests and skills do not that way lie. May as well tell us we should be astronauts.) I was in communication and HR, and I’m good at both those things, but I already know how to get jobs in them and would now like help with the whole academia thing.

    Sorry, bit of a rant! It’s just frustrating from our POV (and we discuss this in the pub after conferences a lot, believe me) because we want someone to help us with what TO do, not tell us what not to bother with.

  4. Alice says:

    “…offer honorary research fellowships. These fellowships don’t pay you anything”

    No they won’t. And you shouldn’t do them. The exploitation of junior labour in academia – especially in this twilight zone – is shocking and systems like paywalls only help enforce that. Don’t buy into it. If you really are going to stay, stand up to crap like that and make it on your own terms. You shouldn’t be crawling for a job, they should be battling over you.

    My advise is to think very carefully about whether you want to pursue a career in academia at all, as it is currently composed (the idea of academia is great, the current reality, less so). Even if you do get an academic job (and you probably wont) it is likely to be temporary. As will the next one (if you get that, and you probably won’t) and the next (if you get that, and you probably won’t) etc etc…

    If you are going to work for free, rather than publishing and swotting up on the latest papers, get out of academia and learn some new skills. They’ll do you a lot more good, inside as well as out of the ivory towers. If prospective academic employers don’t appreciate them, do you really want to work for these people?

    And no, obviously if you leave you are far from a failure. It’s ludicrous that people even think this is something they have to say. You’ve probably been a lot stronger and brighter than those too scared to try something else.

    (This is based on my own experience of post-doc work and also advising others, as several of the many posts I’ve held since my PhD have involved working with people who have left or are thinking of leaving).

    • Nadine Muller Nadine Muller says:

      Hi Alice! Thanks for these thoughts! I completely agree re exploitation of unpaid junior labour (and I’ve written on it), but I don’t think honorary research fellowships fall into the same category, mainly because they usually don’t actually require you to do anything!

      Your view of academia as a whole is clearly quite negative. I completely disagree with people talking others out of an academic career. It’s important to make an informed decision, know what you’re in for, and prepare accordingly if it’s really what you want. Just telling people not to do it is problematic. You also make it sound like getting a career outside academia is easy, which unfortunately it isn’t. I don’t work in an ivory tower, and I do my fair share to make it less and less like one. That won’t happen ever if we just tell people they can’t do, and they’ll never get a job. How do you propose research will get done? Not at all? Or shall we just fill those positions with those privileged few who can talk their way into a job because their dad is a professor, too? I think it’s very dangerous and counterproductive to tell people to forget about it altogether. Let them know of the alternatives, so they can make an informed decision. Do you disagree with that? It’s very problematic to describe an entire sector the way you have here, and it completely ignores the many people who fight for the same things as you, but from the inside. Do I misunderstand you, you think? Would love to keep talking about this …

      • Alice says:

        Sorry, I didn’t mean to suggest that people should just leave. You are right it shouldn’t be left to elites. But I do think people should think about leaving. And also be prepared for fact that *most people* who do a PhD will have to. Because there aren’t the jobs inside academia. Because academia is very heavily weighted towards a lot of (low /un paid) junior labour. The overall weight of any careers advise to someone in that “twilight zone” (or during PhD/ first postdoc) should be “how can you diversify your skill set so getting a job outside isn’t hard?”

        Your post seemed to be encouraging people to put themselves in a very dis-empowered, almost crawling, position. I’m sorry if I misunderstood, but I really don’t think that is helpful. And skills outside are very important – as I think I said, for work inside as well as outside the academy.

        And honorary research fellowships vary, including how much work is expected for free, and how explicit that is. They are ludicrous non-appointments which shouldn’t exist in this day and age anyway, but that’s a different issue.

        • Nadine Muller Nadine Muller says:

          I get your point, Alice – sorry if I misread initially! I don’t mean to suggest that people *have to* stick with this course or that they shouldn’t get non-academic jobs. What I wanted to do was provide some advice to people who want to pursue an academic career path and prepare them realistically for what lies ahead if you don’t walk straight into a lectureship or post-doc (which you rightly say rarely happens anymore). And that includes taking on non-academic work, as I think I said in the post. I suppose what’s always my main concern in these posts is that people aren’t given concrete advice or insight into what things may be like during and after their PhDs. I think it’s important to facilitate both routes into and out of academia, as you say, by providing as much realistic info as possible (rather than keeping that info available only to those who can access it via highly educated families, etc.). You’re right re the diversity of honorary posts – especially the ones advertised recently. The ones I’m talking about are usually not advertised at all and aren’t posts as such.

        • Nadine Muller Nadine Muller says:

          P.S.: Will edit the honorary fellowships section with some clarifications!

  1. 11/02/2014

    […] am, as the excellent Nadine Muller puts it, in that twilight zone between the end of the PhD and the academic […]

  2. 02/02/2015

    […] The Twilight Zone: after the PhD, before the academic job […]

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