How Applying for my First Job has Made me Feel Great about my PhD

It’s that dreaded time of the PhD journey. I have spent the last two and a half years ignoring the fact that my PhD must come to an end and I will have to move on and find my first academic job. It was blissful ignorance. However, it can no longer be ignored and last month I finally started to search for jobs.

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I was advised by some colleagues that I shouldn’t be spending too much time applying for jobs now, as I have not yet completed my PhD. This make sense, as you are going to be competing with others who already have their PhD and possibly years of experience. Being closer to completion will help you get to the interview stage, and anything which distracts from this (including loads of job applications) is only counterproductive. So, I decided until I am ready/have submitted my thesis I will only apply for one – three jobs now, for experience and feedback.

I found only one academic post, at another university to where I am presently, which is in my research field and requires my expertise. If I’m only to apply for one post right now, this is it! Of course, I procrastinated for two weeks, thinking about it constantly, but not doing anything about it. Reflecting, I think this is because I was terrified to take this step and leave the nice secure PhD bubble I’ve lived in for the last three years, putting myself and my work out into the academic world more than it has been already. However, getting my CV, covering letter and additional information together has completely changed my feelings towards moving on and made me feel more positive about my PhD work. Here’s why:

I’ve done a lot!

When I started to think about applying for jobs, I was concerned that my application was going to look weak. Universities are increasingly requiring more skills of academics, including proof that you can generate income and secure research grants. Any other PhD student knows it can be hard to get an opportunity to teach, participate in research assistant work or be given more organisational roles within an institution. However, when I look at my CV I feel very fortunate to see all of these as evidence of my work. As I progressed through my PhD I was allocated more responsibility. I picked up research assistance work whenever it was offered to me, I was asked to review a journal article, help organise conferences and sit on faculty committees. Sometimes balancing all of this was a little stressful, but I feel like it’s now all paying off. I may have turned down some offers of research and policy work, but I’ve covered all my bases with everything else I’ve done.

My advice to any current PhD students out there is to grab the opportunities that are thrown at you. And if they aren’t then make them. Get to know the people in your faculty, tell them you want teaching, let them know what your skills are and how you can help with research projects. As we say in Newcastle, shy bairns get nowt. Also, start designing your CV as soon as you start. It’s easy to forget everything you’ve done over the years and it’s immensely satisfying to see it grow.

I wasn’t scared to discuss my failures or what I hadn’t done

Yes, looking at my CV and seeing all of my achievements and work was great. However, I had to acknowledge where I had gaps in my experience. For example, my experience of income generation was not very strong. I had sent out grant applications to help fund my fieldwork, but unfortunately was not awarded one and funded myself (which I think shows dedication, for any other PhD students funding their work!). I admitted on my application that I had not received a research grant, but I was able to say that I was familiar with the process and have feedback from it that I can feed into future applications. I placed more emphasis on other kinds of income generated, such as securing sponsors for conferences. It may be on a smaller scale, but it’s still evidence! I’ve never had the opportunity to formally supervise students, but I have made other opportunities, like working with the Student Law Think Tank, an undergraduate organisation. Or volunteering to help Student Law Office Tutors with their student’s client interviews. It’s okay to admit when something hasn’t worked out as, let’s be honest, research never works out completely how you want it to. But I’m able to learn from it, being adaptive and creative enough to find other opportunities.

I know my worth

Okay, so a job application is a really self-indulgent process. It can be hard to discuss your hard work and success without feeling like you’re blowing your own trumpet constantly. So, why not think of it as knowing your worth?

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After getting my covering letter together and designing my five year research plan, I realised that I have some valuable work for the future. It’s not about being egotistical, but rather knowing that I am competent and my research is an asset to a university. Feeling this way strengthened my application. I wasn’t tentative when demonstrating how I fit the job criteria, how I promote collegiality or how I can develop new teaching and assessment techniques. The confidence I feel in my work comes across and will hopefully be noticed. If I don’t sell my worth to potential employers, how will they know what it is?

It’s given me a motivation boost in the final stages of my PhD

Being able to see everything I have achieved over the last few years has given me this amazing amount of motivation to get my PhD finished. I don’t get that self-doubt over whether I can do this anymore, because I know I can. When I look at my CV I can see how I have developed as a researcher and how my skill set has grown. I know I can defend my thesis at viva, because I have done so during at least ten conference papers and research sessions. I know my writing is of publishable quality because I will be graduating with several publications. I know I can generate income, because I have done so for conferences. And I know I can teach, because my students have done well and my student feedback has led me to be shortlisted for a teaching award. I feel so confident about my work now, that I feel less stressed and excited to do it. I’ve got that first year PhD energy back! Even if I don’t get an interview for this job, I know I’ll get one eventually.

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My final advice is to discuss your application with as many people as possible. If your university is anything like mine, then academics are more than happy to give advice, look over CVs and talk over research plans, which gave me some great ideas. However, always get feedback from your supervisor, if you can. They have seen you develop as a researcher and a professional throughout your PhD and their insight is invaluable. My supervisor has been AMAZING and I am very thankful.

So, all that fear of taking the next step and leaving my PhD bubble was ridiculous. Instead of applying for jobs with dread, I’m approaching it with excitement. Applying for this job has made me realise that I’m ready to move on and really start my academic career. I have exceeded what I was meant to do as a PhD student and now it’s time to push it further and grow as a professional. Bring it on!


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