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How to Navigate the Murky Waters Academic Job Search

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Working in an academic setting, in particular in a university setting, has many challenges: a heavy workload, teaching commitments and elements of student support. Most of these are great challenges and I thoroughly enjoy them, especially working alongside and supporting students during their study of Psychology.

One of the other challenges faced by academics can be that of job insecurity in the early stages of a career. After completing a PhD or teaching qualification, it is not uncommon for academics to undertake temporary work contracts which are also known as fixed-term contracts.

The first job I was offered after my PhD was only a two-year contract in a more teaching support role. In this role, at Oxford Brookes University, I gained excellent experience at leading classes and being that primary support member of staff for students. I do believe that the students enjoyed my teaching methods as I tried to move away from the standard lecture and textbook approach. I would often try techniques such as blended learning where I would use both online and offline material in the class.

During my PhD, I had taught classes with more senior staff members, but my role at Oxford Brookes was much more independent, and I was given the opportunity to teach research methods and statistics – a very interesting topic for me but some of my students would disagree due to the complex (and often confusing) nature of statistics.

Some of the people who I had met during my very early teaching career had ‘warned’ me about such fixed-term contracts and I had tried to avoid them. I was told that you would never really feel like part of the department without a permanent contract, but I can now say that I disagree with this as I have met some lovely colleagues and have felt involved with all the departments I have been in.

After a year in this role I wondered what else was out there and whether I would be more suited to a direct teaching role in Psychology. I’m not 100% sure why I wanted to look for another job but the fear of not having another post after leaving Oxford Brookes was somewhere near the top of my thoughts. I never thought that I would be on the job search again so soon, but I felt as though it was the right step for me to help progress my career in teaching Psychology and to gain more experience in lecturing.

Completing academic applications was not an easy process. Having to provide the basic CV details in an online form can be long enough but nowadays, academic institutions like candidates to write a statement indicating how well they fit the job specification. It’s only after many interviews that I’ve now realised that this is the best way to recruit staff as you can get a clear view of someone by how they write and describe their skills and qualities.

I often found that the applications took me hours at a time to complete as I would have to think of examples of my teaching skills and how I’ve used the specified skills and qualities in my teaching and research career. I would  search for tips helped me structure my application responses, and they were very useful in giving me guidance when I did not want anyone at my work to know what I was applying elsewhere.

During my time of completing applications, I got very disheartened at the lack of responses and in the initial stages of applying I only received one response to my many submitted applications. I was only in the early stages of my career and some of the vacancies required years of experience. That was until a job at the University of Strathclyde was advertised, where I applied, and was subsequently offered the job.

Although I was only at the University of Strathclyde for a very short time, it provided me with the experience I was looking for in supervising dissertation students and independently taking lectures. I questioned whether I could move again for another fixed-term contract, but I’m pleased to say that I took the job. 

I was fully aware of the short-term nature of the contract and as soon as I hit my 6 months of employment, I was back looking for my next post so that I had something to go to when I left the University of Strathclyde.

This next round of applications took a lot out of me as I had very heavy teaching commitments so ended up using my evening and weekends to complete applications. Although I thought that my applications were not up to standard due to completing some of them very quickly, I was offered quite a few interviews this time around.

One thing to note about interviews is that they don’t just involve a face to face interview when you are being interviewed for an academic position. There’s usually a presentation of some form or a task alongside the interview making preparations very time consuming. At one point, I had three interviews in the space of a week, and they were all very different in nature, so I had to constantly switch from teaching mode to interview preparation mode.

I’m pleased that I attended as many interviews as I could as it provided me with experience of interviews and being able to answer questions clearly (as well as presentation practice!). After the interviews I’d had, I’m pleased to say that I have now undertaken a permanent post as a teaching associate in psychology, and although I’ve only been in the role for a couple of weeks, I am really enjoying it! I do believe that the previous interview practices helped me to be confident in my more recent interviews because on more than one occasion, I have been congratulated for how well I present myself in interview – so practice does make perfect (or improvements anyway).

The one thing I would say to anyone applying for academic jobs is to stick with it and persevere. A job will appear soon enough. Sometimes the road to a more permanent position involves some shorter contracted jobs and that is not always a bad thing.

I am very grateful for both of my fixed-term contract posts because without them, I would not have gained experience in teaching and working with some wonderful students! They have provided me with opportunities to interact with and engage students in many areas of Psychology and I hope to continue this in my current post as a teaching associate in psychology.

Laura Jenkins, PhD is a teaching associate in the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University. 


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