My first ‘job season’

Now that I’ve settled into my new job at the Open University, I thought I’d share what my journey from the end of my PhD to this first, fixed-term job. Reading about other people’s trajectories was something that helped me a lot during the long slog of job applications, so I hope this might be able to do the same for some of you, who might be stepping onto that path soon, or may even already be on it.

I submitted my PhD thesis roughly a year ago (22nd September 2016). As far as I remember, I only applied for one fixed-term job before submitting – it was at my home institution, and I had a lot of knowledge about the job because of that, so I applied despite knowing I would be in an unfavourable position compared to other candidates who had the PhD in hand (and indeed I was). After that, I didn’t keep track of how many jobs I applied for pre-viva, but I don’t think it was very many, it being September-October and my viva being only 6 weeks after submission. The majority of the jobs I applied for came up after I had passed my viva. These were a mixture of hourly, fixed-term and permanent positions – the latter I didn’t hold out much hope for, but was advised to apply for everything, as I think many of us are. This is good advice in some ways, as it gives you a lot of practice at writing applications, but unless you’re a really exceptional candidate (as in, book contract in place as soon as the PhD is done, lots of publications, lots of teaching experience, and probably some other x-factor too) these permanent positions seem to go to people a little further along the career road, and so applying for them at the stage immediately post-viva adds a healthy dollop onto an already weighty pile of rejections. I don’t know what the best route is, in that case – but I have to say that I really did hone my application-writing skills over the many applications I submitted.

All in all, I submitted 37 applications to 18 different institutions. Four of these were academic skills positions; the rest were in subdivisions of Classics. Three of the jobs were research-only; the rest were solely or primarily teaching, with one or two 50/50 exceptions. For 32 of the jobs, I was rejected at the first stage, prior to shortlisting.

Before talking about the other five, a word on those rejections. Writing it out, 32 doesn’t seem like many. It felt like A LOT. Some rejections hurt more than others – ones at institutions where I knew colleagues, ones where the job description seemed to perfectly fit my skills – basically, ones that I let myself get my heart set on. This sucks, but if you’re an emotionally-focused and future-imagining person like me, it’s unavoidable. I’m lucky that I’m also good at picking myself up and dusting myself off. Still, some of those rejections were firmly drowned in wine and chocolate. It also didn’t help that it was (what felt like) a long time – 6ish months) – of applying and rejecting before I started getting any shortlistings. I know a lot of people go a lot longer, and my heart goes out to them.

It was just at the point of the year when I was starting to get really antsy about the coming year’s financial (and, let’s face it, psychological) situation when I started getting some shortlistings. I passed the first round of the Leverhulme ECR applications, which was a whole thing. I was shortlisted for two academic skills posts – both were two hours commute by car from my home, one 3 days a week, one full time. I interviewed for both within one week of each other, thought I gave a great performance at one and a pretty good performance at the other, and was offered neither. I wasn’t heartbroken about this in terms of the jobs themselves – I’d applied for them because I believed I had the skills, they paid well, and I really needed a job this year – but the double blow and the ‘back to square one’ feeling hit harder than I was expecting, along with a fresh dose of financial anxiety (and the fact that one of them never paid me my travel expenses claim). A couple of weeks later, I got rejected at the final stage for the Leverhulme. This one hit really hard, particularly because of the long and laborious application process, but also because of how much I love my post-doctoral project idea – I think it’s really great, and I’m still pursuing it. The only good thing was that these rejections all come out at the same time, so there were plenty of people to commiserate with on twitter.

Another couple of weeks passed, and then I received two invites to interview in one week – for my job at the OU, and another job. The OU gave me about four weeks until the interview, which was great – I felt I had plenty of time to prepare, and was able to arrange a mock interview at the UCL careers service. For the other job, I had around a week, which I understand is very common. This meant I’d be doing the interview the day after I arrived back around 11pm from a conference in Poland. I didn’t hold out a whole lot of hope because of this, and because of the nature of the activity I had to prepare for the interview – the job was firmly weighted towards Greek History, and I have more literary knowledge. I went, I interviewed, I wasn’t offered the position. It went to a colleague, who I couldn’t be happier for.

I went into my OU interview relaxed and reasonably confident. I felt I’d prepared well – the mock interview was really helpful, and highlighted some areas that I hadn’t fully realised were weaknesses in my interview style. I’d really recommend this sort of service if it’s available to you. I also felt better having had three academic interviews already, including one in Classics, because I felt I had a better sense of the things I might be asked, and therefore a clearer idea of what sort of research to do. I also really, really wanted the job, primarily because I loved the job description and the OU’s mission, but also because I wouldn’t have to relocate. I interviewed and felt it went well – I came out with the sense that if I wasn’t offered the position, it would be because they were looking for something different from what I was offering, not because I hadn’t given a good account of myself (as I felt was the case at the first Classics interview). Clearly they were looking for someone like me, and I got the job.

I’m very aware that this isn’t the end of my job application journey, but I’ve got a little breathing room until I need to start the push again. I’ve taken some valuable lessons from this first round, which I’ll summarise:

  • Do try to get as much experience writing applications as you can. I never got feedback on any of my applications from colleagues, at least not to a great extent, but this is a good thing you can do if it’s possible for you. But as with anything, the more you write them, the better they get.
  • Continue doing CV-enhancing things while you’re on the market. Your CV can be improving all the time, and it helps to break up the seek-apply-seek-apply monotony.
  • Give yourself room to breathe, especially after rejections. Just be as good to yourself as you can – this is a really hard thing to do.
  • If you don’t get shortlisted for the ‘perfect job’, the world will not end. There will be other perfect jobs, I promise. (It’s also a little trite, but if you don’t get it, it’s not your perfect job, is it?)
  • Take advantage of any interview preparation services you can if you do get shortlisted. I can’t stress how invaluable this was to me, especially in highlighting things like…
  • If you feel like you don’t have direct experience of something, find indirect experience, or extrapolate from other experiences. In any case, find a positive response to the question – I was a devil for: ‘what’s your experience with x?’ ‘I don’t really have any, but…’ That’s not something an interviewer really wants to hear.
  • Let your personality shine through at all stages. If you write that you’re friendly and collegial, be friendly and collegial at interview.

There is also plenty to be said about deciding if and when it’s the right time to leave academia and pursue something else, but those issues have been covered much more meaningfully than I can right now. All I’ll say is that there’s nothing wrong with deciding not to do all this. It’s a lot, to be sure. Everyone has a path to go down, and if it feels wrong, it might just be.

I hope that some of this might help someone on the academic job market for the first time. If you have any questions about any of this, or related issues, please tweet me or comment here – I’m happy to impart whatever tiny grains of knowledge I might have. And finally, here’s to all those on the job market – may your fortitude be maintained, your applications be brilliant, and your wine glass be full.

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