Applying for academic jobs: Seven choices to make

This post first appeared in 2014 on Sophie Coulombeau’s personal blog. While aware that the academic job market has changed somewhat, I think there is still so much solid sensible advice here that it is worth re-posting.

Yesterday I had a chat with postgraduate students in my new department at Cardiff University, about the process of applying for academic jobs after the PhD. It was felt by organisers of the Thesis Group (the forum in which I was speaking, along with one of the professors who recently hired me!) that as I was hired only a few weeks ago it would be useful for us both to share our observations on the recent recruitment process with PG students who will soon be venturing out into the academic job market themselves. In the spirit of academic collegiality, this post is my attempt to share the skeleton outline of my talk more widely.

Lots of these observations are not new or original, and many can be found in other academics’ blog posts (see in particular Josephine Crawley Quinn’s blog, here and here, which were recommended to me on Twitter yesterday, and which comprehensively cover the paper application and interview stages.) As ever, these insights are only meant to represent my own personal experiences and thoughts: they are aimed at humanities students completing a PhD (or hoping to do so in the next year or two) within the UK higher education system and, for the most part, they focus on applying for jobs in UK universities too. Like my previous post on writing up the PhD thesis, I found it useful to frame my insights as a series of choices that have to be made, rather than a series of prescriptive tips.

Feedback welcome as ever!


Applying for academic jobs: Seven choices to make

1) Whether to apply for jobs in the last year of your PhD, or to leave it until you’ve handed in?

This is something I touched on briefly in my ‘Writing up the thesis’ post. There are pros and cons to both choices here. The main pro is that you might actually get one of the jobs you’re apply for (!) and be able to segue into employment straight after the PhD. But even if this doesn’t happen, the application process will help you to refine your ideas, both about your thesis and your next project/future career. The cons are that the job application process is incredibly time-consuming (thus taking precious time away from thesis work), and that it can be disheartening. It is universally agreed (in my admittedly anecdotal experience) that a candidate who doesn’t have a doctorate in hand, or at the very least a viva date, is less likely to get called for interview than one of equivalent merit who does. So, in a way, you’re stacking the odds against yourself from the start.

I chose to apply for jobs from the beginning of my fourth year. I applied for fourteen jobs in between October 2013 and May 2014. Of those, I received eleven rejections, one request for written work (followed by a rejection), one invitation to interview (followed by rejection) and one invitation to interview followed by an offer of employment. I always asked for feedback to my application, but my request was only responded to after the unsuccessful interview. I also always asked how many people had applied for the post. The numbers given ranged from thirty-five (for one post) to six hundred (for four posts).

I’m not sorry I decided to apply before I had my doctorate in hand. The first reason why I don’t regret it, unsurprisingly, is that the gamble paid off (though it is worth noting that my two invites to interview were issued late in my final year, when I was able to include my submission date in my application.) The second reason is that, while the job app process was often a royal pain, it really helped me to get my ideas in order for my thesis. By  the time I was called for interview, I knew my stuff off by heart.

I can’t personally speak for the benefits and disadvantages of waiting until you’re properly doctored up to apply for jobs. But I imagine that the main disadvantage is that it’s hard to juggle paying the bills with keeping a foot in the door of academia and getting those job apps in. On the bright side, you’d be more likely to make it through to the interview stage once your PhD is in hand, which might mean success in a shorter space of time. Do feel free to share experiences below!


2) Who should be your referees?

Once you have decided you want to apply for jobs, you should identify prospective referees and ask them if they are happy to write for you. Most jobs I applied for required two references, which was fairly unproblematic – my doctoral supervisor provided one, and my secondary doctoral advisor provided the second. They had both seen good chunks of my work and knew me personally, which are (in my opinion) the main requirements in a referee. But some jobs specified that there must be a third referee, from an external institution. This can be rather tricky, especially if you haven’t done your viva yet (if you have, your external examiner is the obvious port of call.) I ended up emailing the Director of a research centre where I had done a one-month fellowship, and asking if he’d mind reading some of my work and writing the third reference when it was required. He was willing to do so, luckily, and has my eternal gratitude. I think this is well worth flagging up early to PhD students. If I hadn’t done that fellowship, I honestly don’t know who I would have asked, because I hadn’t been moving through my PhD trying to identify and ingratiate myself with external mentors. The lesson is this: to do so, if you want to apply for jobs in the final year of your doctorate, is really not a bad idea.


3) What kind of jobs to apply for?

So, your referees have agreed to write for you. Next thing:  Sign up to Get a tailored email service letting you know when jobs in your field come up, or else make sure you check the website every day. was the only jobs website I ever needed, but I also found Twitter very useful: the odd opportunity would appear there but not on jobs websites, especially postdocs based in the USA and Canada.

Broadly speaking, I found that there were four types of opportunity on offer in the UK academic job market for English Literature, at the time that I applied. There were research-based postdocs, attached to a project, which usually lasted 1-5 years, were very specific about responsibilities and outputs, and generally paid about £17-25k p.a. There were research-based postdocs not attached to a project, usually fellowships at Oxbridge colleges: these allowed a far greater degree of freedom around research, were usually for a two or three year period, and paid about £15-21k p.a. There were temporary teaching posts for 1-3 years, paying £13-30k p.a. (the upper end of the scale is much more typical, but some Oxbridge colleges seem to think a ten-hour teaching load exclusive of marking, prep and admin is worth less than minimum wage.) And then there were permanent posts or  lectureships, that require both teaching and research and that are, well, permanent (subject to a probation period) and generally pay £25-33k p.a. All in all, I’d say that on average a job I was eligible for came up about once every two weeks, with October and May particularly busy months.

On the one hand: I’d recommend thinking very hard about what you want to do. Would you prefer teaching or research? Is it more important to you to get your first monograph out or to develop your teaching portfolio?

On the other: I’d recommend applying for all the jobs you’re eligible for anyway. Unless the thought of doing it makes you completely miserable, you need to be very flexible and receptive at this point. And every application is good practice. So, cast the net wide. When you see a good opportunity, note the deadline in your diary or calendar and set yourself frequent reminders to avoid a last-minute panic. Email your referees and send them the link to the job ad, stressing the deadline. Then get to work on the application itself.


4) How to present yourself on paper?

The first stage of every single one of these jobs will be to send a certain selection of documents to an administrator. Unfortunately, that is where the certainty ends. Each job you apply for will require a different permutation of the following: cv, research proposal, teaching statement or portfolio, cover letter, sample work, references. They will all want different word counts. And they will all want to see slightly different things. This is where the UK academic job market differs fundamentally from the North American one. As I understand it, in the USA and Canada references are standardised and job application materials are far more similar between different jobs. Not so here, I’m afraid. You can’t get away with anything other than rewriting your job application for every single post. If you cut and paste chunks, be very careful. I nearly sent an application to a Cambridge college once enthusing about how much I needed to use the incomparable archives in Oxford.

The person specification is your bible: this is usually a list of eight to fifteen bullet points listing the things you will have or be able to do in order to be qualified for the job. The things that person specifications wanted to see most, in my experience, were: a strong publication record in a particular area; teaching experience in a particular area; clear and well-defined plans for future research; evidence of attracting external and internal funding; evidence of working collaboratively; evidence of public engagement and understanding of impact. Often they would also ask for evidence that you could demonstrate leadership, administrative expertise, evidence of valuing diversity, etc: the slightly less specific things that you might (rightly) find in most person specifications outside academia as well as inside.

Your cover letter should say very briefly who you are (stage of career, institution, subject) then summarise your main strengths, in line with the person specification, and (briefly) why you want the job: feel free to add ‘see cv for full details’.  Re-draft your cv to fit the page count and highlight the most important things that you think the panel wants to see. If it’s a research-based postdoc, put your research up front. If it’s a teaching post, major on your training and the courses you’ve taught. If there is information that you are planning on elaborating in your ‘research statement’ or ‘teaching statement’, you can trim duplicated information from your cv. The challenge is to present the fullest picture possible, across several documents, in the smallest number of words.

Save. Re-read. Re-draft. Proof. Repeat. Repeat again. Then send it. It can take anything from a week to forever, to receive a response. Forget it and move on. Get started on the next one. But before you do this: SAVE THE JOB ADVERTISEMENT! It will be taken offline after the deadline passes, meaning that if you are invited to interview you will need to consult it again.


5) How to respond to rejection?

The most likely outcome is, your application will be rejected. It is bruising and disheartening and really rather horrible. But, most of the time, it is not personal. Chalk it up to experience, don’t get bitter, move on. Ask for feedback. They will almost never give it before interview, but ask.


6) What written work to send?

If you receive an email asking for for written work: congratulations, you have made it through the first round. Ask for guidance if it’s not clear exactly what they want to see. Most often, they will ask for a published article. This is worth flagging up because it demonstrates the importance of publishing at least one article during your doctorate. They will also specify a word count that may well be different from your published article. Don’t quibble. Edit it up or down, and make sure to specify ‘This is an edited version of an article published/forthcoming in x.” If you don’t have a published article, that can’t be helped. But make sure to ask what they want from you: a self-contained essay, or a section of your thesis.

Whatever the piece of work is, make sure it is meticulously proofed, and send it in PDF form. Then, sit back and wait again. If rejection follows, the same advice applies as above. Chalk it up to experience, don’t get bitter, move on. Ask for feedback. They will almost never give it before interview, but ask.


7) How to prepare for interview? and What to expect at interview?

You’ve got invited to interview: hooray! Give yourself a big pat on the back, and have a celebration (just not the night before the interview itself.) My own experience gets a lot more sparse here, because I only had two interviews – at Cambridge for 1-year teaching post, and Cardiff for a permanent job. They were about as different as could be, though, so I can give a decent overview of the various scenarios that might take place. Hopefully from reading these stories you will get a good idea, too, of what I think is the best way to prepare. I’m not going to cover things like “Dress smartly,” “Make eye contact” and “Get a good night’s sleep” – you can take those as read!

The first of my interviews was for a one-year teaching post at a Cambridge college. I was told there would be a half-hour interview with a panel of several members of staff, and that I should prepare a five-minute presentation about my research. I was pretty worried about being able to summarise my research in five minutes, and came to the conclusion that all I could do was give a broad outline of the argument of my thesis. I researched the interests of the Fellows in English at the college (though none of them worked in my area) and tried to anticipate a few questions. Come the day, I toddled down to Cambridge and turned up at the (very pleasant) college. After waiting for fifteen minutes, I was called into the interview room where there was a panel of six people. There were all the College Fellows in English, the College Principal, and an expert in my period of research brought in from a neighbouring college. So far, so fair enough. They asked me to give my presentation, and nodded sagely while I did so. Then they asked me a couple of questions each. Could I talk a little bit more about this or that aspect of my research? How would I convey the exciting aspects of eighteenth-century literature to students through my teaching? Which two long-eighteenth-century texts would I put down for compulsory reading? (That one threw me a bit: I went for Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Burney’s Cecilia.) What could I contribute to college life? It was a very pleasant chat, and I left the College buzzing. Less than two hours later, I received an email saying that unfortunately they could not offer me the post but they wished me all the best in my career. I asked for feedback and was told that, compared to the successful candidate, my five-minute presentation was not as imaginative as it could have been and I did not answer questions as directly as I could have done. I was a bit crushed, to say the least. Rejection felt worse when I had gone a long way (without being reimbursed for my travelling expenses) and put in substantial preparation. I wondered who the other candidates had been, why one of them had beaten me. I asked myself the dread ‘Was it an internal candidate?’ question. I concluded that no, it was probably me. My confidence crashed through the floor. But as time passed, I resolved to learn from the experience, to think of a more imaginative way to present my research next time. I got on with the thesis. And just as I was hurtling towards my submission deadline, I got another invitation to interview.

This time, it was for a permanent early career lectureship in Romantic Literature at Cardiff University. Frankly, I didn’t have my hopes up very high when I applied, because I knew that permanent posts generally went to people with postdocs and rafts of teaching experience, who had already published at least one monograph. I did, however, spot that the person specification indicated that a supplementary specialism in creative writing (which I had)  would be an advantage, so I thought it was worth a shot. I received the invitation to interview just before I handed in my thesis, so I could hardly even think about it until I was all handed in and caught up on sleep. Then I replied to say I’d be delighted to attend, and got preparing.

The Cardiff interview was far more formalised than the Cambridge one, and far more similar to the standard interview procedure (as I understand it) in North American universities. It took place over two days, and consisted of two informal interviews, one formal interview, and the fabled ‘job talk’, a twenty-minute presentation about ‘My next research project’, delivered to staff and students from the Department, followed by ten minutes of questions. Perhaps this more formal structure motivated me to prepare more thoroughly; or perhaps my rejection at Cambridge had shaken me up a bit and made me wonder if I prepared adequately. In either case, I prepared obsessively for the Cardiff interview. I researched the interests of every member of staff in the Department with areas of study related even tangentially to my own, and read all of their publications I could get my hands on. I read the University’s and the Department’s strategy documents, and the handbooks and module guides for all years of the undergraduate degree and the taught Masters. I trawled the library holdings at Cardiff to see which collections might be of use in my future research. I emailed friends who had studied at Cardiff to ask what it was like, and emailed fairly new lecturers among my friends and acquaintances to ask about their own ‘job talks’ and how they prepared. I re-drafted my ‘job talk’ probably about ten times, and practised it with a stopwatch. Bearing in mind the feedback from my Cambridge interview, I tried to think of ways to make my presentation engaging: talking the audience through a brief extract of primary text, for example, to show my teaching in action while also pulling out the main ideas that characterised my research.  I got used to pitching myself in brief, succinct paragraphs. My past work. The argument of my thesis. My future plans. My experience of public engagement. My teaching strategy. I devised a sample module that I could talk about with ease, to convince them that I could hit the ground running. Then I flew halfway across the world to attend interview (I was based in California on the interview date – it is to Cardiff’s immense credit that they were willing to cover my travel expenses).

Again, it was a very pleasant experience in the end. The two informal interviews on the first day, with the Heads of Department and the Director of Studies respectively, provided me with a huge amount of helpful information about the School, much of which I managed to work into my presentation that evening. It also gave me a greater desire to work there: I could think in a more informed way about the challenges and opportunities that this particular position presented, and about how I might be able to put up a decent case for myself as the best candidate to address them. That evening, I had a rotten night’s sleep thanks to my jetlag, but fuelled up on a Welsh fry-up the next day and got myself along to my ‘job talk’. I had practised enough that it came reasonably naturally, and my three questions (asking me to clarify an aspect of my project; to talk about the project I’d pursue after my next project; and about my creative work) were addressed in a friendly and interested way. My formal interview (with three members of the School faculty and one external member from the Music department) was a little more nerve-wracking as I was really starting to feel the jetlag by that point. But, like my Cambridge interview, everybody was very pleasant and the questions didn’t seem designed to catch me out. Why did I want the job? Why should they hire me? What new directions lay ahead for Romanticism? What was the place of literary form in my work? Could I talk about my understanding of impact and my experience of public engagement? And finally, would I take the job if they offered it to me? (Apparently some people answer this question with a hesitation or “Hmmmm.” Baffling.) I left feeling pretty good, but chastened by my Cambridge experience. “I have no idea whether I got it,” I said to my partner when we met for a beer afterwards. “But I think I acquitted myself okay.”

Again, I heard very quickly: probably not two hours later, I received an email asking me to call the Head of School around seven o’clock. He told me that they wanted to offer me the position – or rather, a position, since they had decided, in light of a very strong field of candidates, to make two appointments. The job offer was, however, conditional upon me passing my viva. I attempted to stay very calm and cool on the phone, assured him I would pass the viva, confirmed my provisional acceptance of the job, and told the HoS I was really looking forward to working with him. Then I put the phone down, screamed, drank some bubbly, and fell asleep. It wouldn’t be until the next day that it occurred to me that the viva now lay ahead. Which will be the subject of my next post…




I think the key points I’d like to finish up with, aimed at current PhD students, are these. First, I am acutely aware that I was very, very lucky. A job came up at the right time; moreover, it was a job that was right for me. Many people, far more talented than me, do not have that luck, and I would never wish to dismiss or undermine their experiences and entirely valid critiques of the system within which we are forced to work.

But second, the prospect is not necessarily as dreary out there as you imagine. Certainly it may well not be as dreary as that twenty-fifth despondent blog post you read last week, about why the dispirited author left academia, seems to suggest. I know several other recent humanities PhDs who went straight into jobs after submission, and numerous ones who were employed within a year. It is harder to talk about successes than failures online, though. Nobody wants to be that smug git. I know I don’t. But I also get sad when I see friends convinced they shouldn’t even try for academic jobs because it’s such a tough market; when I see them literally losing sleep and making themselves ill because they’re convinced they’ve committed to a dead-end career. I guess the note I’d like to leave it on is: give it a go. Give it lots of goes. You never know. You might be surprised.

Sophie Coulombeau Sophie Coulombeau is a lecturer in English literature at Cardiff University. She has been a BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker, and is involved in multiple public engagement projects. As well as her research on Romantic literature and writing her own historical fiction, she is a mentor and advocate on behalf of early career academics. She tweets at @smcoulombeau and blogs at

REF 2021: update for ECRs

This post first appeared on Charlotte Mathieson’s blog on November 21, 2017.

This post provides an update to my previous blog post on “REF 2021 and ECRs: the current situation” in which I outlined the key decisions and remaining areas of uncertainty (mostly the latter) surrounding the next Research Excellence Framework.

Today, quite a few of those uncertainties have been clarified by the publication of “Decisions on Staff and Outputs“. I will soon update my earlier post to reflect this latest document (and offer a few more interpretations of the ECR implications), but in the meantime here is a brief summary of the key points of relevance for ECRs that have been announced today:

Staff eligibility: this latest document confirms that the Stern recommendation that “all staff with significant responsibility for research” are returned will be implemented. 6.a of the document outlines the core criteria (which broadly follows that of REF 2014), but there is more detailed guidance this time on what constitutes “significant responsibility” in paras. 11-13: “those for whom explicit time and resources are made available to engage actively in independent research, and that is an expectation of their job role.”

100% of staff defined in this way are expected to be returned. Meanwhile, teaching-only contracts with no research element won’t count as returnable under these guidelines; neither will RAs employed on project work (see Independent Research, paras. 14-15) nor those without a “substantive connection” to the submitting HEI. This seems to accord with what was suggested previously (see section 3 here); although I’d add that, while the intention here is to offer a more rigorous approach as to who is submitted, there does still seem to be a large amount of flexibility as to how “significant responsibility” will be determined.

Decoupling: the proposed decoupling of staff from submissions (see my previous explanation of decoupling in section 4 here) is going ahead, as described in paras. 25-29, with the numbers of outputs now confirmed: a minimum of one per researcher; a maximum of 5; an average of 2.5 per FTE, across the submitting unit. That means that as an ECR you will need at least one output, and more than that would be beneficial as the submitting unit will be looking for 2-3 per person.

The big change here from REF 2014 (although it is one which we’ve been expecting) is that there is no “ECR discount” that would be deductable per person; instead, the average and min./max. figures account for this across the whole submitting unit (as previously the expectation was 4 per person, so the average is lower). There are guidelines to account for exceptional individual circumstances (paras. 30-32), thus addressing earlier concerns that circumstances such as substantial periods of parental leave/ illness etc would not be acknowledged; deductions for individual circumstances will be applied to the total number of outputs required of the submitting unit as a whole. ECRs without exceptional circumstances, however, need to work to the minimum/average figures.

Portability: (background context in section 5 here). After much talk of the non-portability of research we have clarification as follows (paras. 33-36):

We will implement a transitional approach to the non-portability of outputs in REF 2021, whereby outputs may be submitted by both the institution employing the staff member on the census date and the originating institution where the staff member was previously employed as Category A eligible when the output was demonstrably generated.

*Added note: see para. 34 for the definition of “demonstrably generated”:  “for REF 2021 ‘demonstrably generated’ will be determined by the date when the output was first made publicly available.”

This means that if you publish while at institution A, and you move to institution B, your output can count at both institutions. This has been a big area of concern for many ECRs and I’m relieved to (finally!) see a clear decision on the issue, and one which recognises and prevents the potentially disastrous consequences for ECRs that non-portability may have had.

Open Access: the latest guidance (paras. 37-40) seems to align with what has been suggested for a long time now about Open Access requirements for REF 2021: “The policy will require outputs to be deposited as soon after the point of acceptance as possible, and no later than three months after this date (as given in the acceptance letter or email from the publication to the author) from 1 April 2018.” There are some further exceptions outlined in the next paragraph (39). As I’ve mentioned before, if you’re at all confused about OA requirements then I would suggest that you familiarise yourself with your institution’s OA support and get in touch with the relevant team if you have any queries and concerns about the process.

A couple of final points: the census date is now confirmed as 31st July 2020; and more detailed guidelines on the above are expected mid-2018.


That summarises most of what I’ve read so far; I’ll potentially add to / clarify these points in coming days and if helpful, offer further guidance on ECR implications and what to do next; but for the moment, it looks like the outline framework is fairly clearly in place and ECRs can now start planning accordingly.

Charlotte Mathieson is a Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Surrey, and has been at the forefront of giving guidance to ECAs on the impact of REF, publishing, public engagement and social media. More of her work can be found on her website, where she shares many of the resources for ECAs she has created.Charlotte Mathieson II


Academic Administration for ECAs: From Surviving to Thriving!

by David Hitchcock

flowchart Pixabay



This is how I imagine the reaction of most academics to the labours of organising and administering things. The third rail of intellectual life, administration is thought to kill the teaching and research of those who touch it. Starting from our days in PhD programmes we absorb an understanding of academic administration as a series of things that full-time staff do reluctantly, in rotas, via meetings and using terribly designed spreadsheets (this last one is definitely true). When the PhD ends we enter the realm of the early career academic, where precarity, uncertainty, job applications, and adjunct teaching posts combine with the occasionally better outcome (say, a postdoctoral fellowship) to produce the conditions in which we must publish and hopefully get hired full-time.

Yet, when we do get to interview, almost inevitably there will be a considerable number of questions about, you guessed it, administration. These questions will be couched by hiring committees first and foremost as about collegiality, i.e. the things you, applicant, are willing go ‘above and beyond’ to do for your potential new workplace to ensure the smooth functioning of the team. But as a recent graduate, or as an independent scholar or sessional lecturer, how the heck are you supposed to have obtained experience in this realm without doing loads of unpaid work? And in a worrying development, fractional hires and short-term contracts are now often include significant administrative burdens which presuppose a fair amount of institutional knowledge; such as module and programme design, and even responsibilities for entire year cohorts and pastoral care. These commitments are nebulous and difficult to quantify, and there is little doubt that folks in precarious positions who undertake these tasks are paid appallingly poorly for doing them, if they are paid at all.

When I went through this period I was lucky to have a short-term fellowship pretty much solely about preparation for the job market, and when I was hired I was asked very quickly to take on a (ever increasing) range of administrative and eventually leadership responsibilities. I thought it might be useful to write about some ways that early career academics can make administration work for them, rather than finding themselves worked over, as it were.

  1. It is OK to see everything that is not about in-classroom teaching or research as ‘administration’ and ‘doing administration’ is not a bad thing

This first one is about the category itself. I think most of us got into academia with the idea of teaching at university and of pursuing research, and we identify ourselves very strongly with those two well-defined tasks. To our chagrin we quickly learn that these activities often make up less than half of our day-to-day work as academics, and we tend to resent time ‘taken away’ from our two core purposes. This tip is about treating administrative work as meaningful work. Where possible, I think it pays to see those committees, roles, and responsibilities as opportunities to make it easier to teach well and research well. Resenting administration tends to accomplish very little other than eating into the wellbeing we know we need in order to even be good teachers and good researchers in the first place. This attitude also tends to privilege those activities over the reams of meaningful work that people of all persuasions constantly do to keep departments and programmes running. It’s self-evidently elitist to look down on administrators. We all know how indispensable departmental administrators are and how important their work is to a functioning programme, why should the administration we do be any different? Continue reading “Academic Administration for ECAs: From Surviving to Thriving!”

An Anxious Mind

This post first appeared on Nadine Muller’s blog on October 2, 2012

We all worry. Some occasionally, some more often than others, some rarely. Being a worrier, or an anxious person, is not necessarily a problem. It becomes an issue, however, when you find yourself unable to switch off, feel content, or focus; when your head is permanently filled not only with thoughts but with worries about what you need to do next and what you have (not yet) done, and what the consequences of this are. From the moment you wake up to the second you fall asleep, your head spins with daunting fragments of task lists, personal worries, and the imagining of bad things that have not happened, and are not likely to. The result of this state of mind can vary between at least two behaviors; some people experience both in turn, some only encounter one throughout their lives.

Edvard Munch, "Anxiety" (1894)

The first is a sort of hyperactivity, or mania. There is no task list, no breakfast, perhaps not even time for a shower. The next best computer is still switched on from a late night, or rather an early morning, of work and is the first object on which your focus turns (next to, perhaps, the kettle or the coffee machine). Things get done in no particular order. Anything and everything you can think of is approached with the same tense energy and urgency, from emails to rushed writing jobs. The physical manifestations of this manic state are a pounding heart, a permanent frown, constantly tense shoulders, and an inability to sleep (or rather to sleep peacefully and sufficiently). You are irritable (to say the very least), become angry and frustrated with others who do not do as you would do, or not at the pace at which you would like them to do it. Most of the time this is not their fault. Lessons learned from this state of mind: never, never respond to or write an email during this period without waiting at least half a day, especially if the email concerns some sort of dispute or touches on anything about which you do not feel entirely positive. The good side: it can make you look pretty efficient, and your task list certainly becomes (temporarily) a lot smaller.

The second possible outcome of an anxious mind, and the state with which hyperactivity can sometimes alternate, is complete exhaustion and detachment, both mentally and physically, bordering very often on depression. You don’t get up. Often you feel you cannot get up because you’re unbearably tired, both in body and mind. If you do get up, it tends to result in a distracted stare at your computer screen or out of the window. It’s difficult – perhaps, at the time, impossible – to snap out of that distractedness, that emptiness, that tiredness, and distance. You think about everything and nothing, though in quite a lot of depth, but it seems as though you’re not part of the world. Instead, you stare at it in disappointment, deeply involved only in its worst aspects. You live, more than you usually do, entirely in your own mind. The positives of this state are difficult to identify. Sleeping, no matter for how long, brings nothing but more tiredness; your task list does not become shorter; you’re unable to engage with anyone in a genuine or meaningful way, simply because they cannot match or follow your thoughts.

The sometimes punishing and multiple pressures and schedules of academia can foster these behavioral patterns, at least for those of us who are prone to them. It can also lead to or – perhaps more often – stem from a lack of confidence, and a lack of belief in your abilities or the worth of your work. Unfortunately, the current job market (not just, but particularly) in academia also encourages unhealthy work patterns and attitudes. While working on your thesis, you are trying to meet the various other requirements you spot in the person specifications of the academic job adverts you dare cast your eye on. Conscious that you should be publishing, teaching, giving papers, organizing events, and trying to capture external grants, the question arises how you will produce a passable doctoral thesis next to the workload associated with all these various activities which *may* (or, for that matter, may not) secure you an academic job after your Ph.D. If you are self-funded and a part-time student, with a job on the side that pays for your fees or a family to care for next to doing your research, this question becomes, on all accounts, ridiculous. Of course, there are voices that promise you that you merely need to show the “promise” of being able to do all these things, but how will you even make the shortlist if there are Ph.D. graduates out there who have all this and more already on their CV, not least because they have been on the job market for a year at least? The task seems impossible, quite frankly, and even more so if your funding (if you have it) ends once you submit your thesis, and you have no family support to fall back on; only one or more hourly-paid teaching contracts or a job that gives you little towards your academic CV. The pressure is incredible, and there is not a day you don’t remind yourself of it. (Yet, it’s not impossible, and I and many others are living proof of this.)

10743744_lAll you can do is try your very best and hope for the best, which often isn’t a very comforting mantra to fall back on. Instead, you work yourself into the ground, internalize the negativity and the ruthless critique of your work on a personal level, and your self-worth only witnesses occasional peaks when students leave you lovely feedback for your seminars, or when your supervisor tells you your latest chapter draft was excellent. But even in those moments there is that doubt: does your supervisor mean “excellent” when they say it? Are they too close to your work to see all those “obvious” flaws? Are they just trying to be nice because they can see that your confidence is seriously failing you? Perhaps the students pity you, or they can’t spot the last-minute, flawed prep you did in the last two weeks. These thoughts feed your anxiety. They feed your physical and emotional lack of wellbeing.

imenoughYou tell yourself that things will be different once you have that holy grail, that first permanent academic job, when you can relax on a decent salary, traveling to only one place of work, being an integral part of your department and a permanent good colleague. But if you internalize the behavioral patterns described above now, during your Ph.D., they won’t ever go away. Not on their own, not without you recognizing that you are the one who maintains them, feeds them. You will continue to feel insecure, you’ll feel unfairly threatened by colleagues, you will beat yourself up because not everyone in your department likes you, because you can’t please everyone, because you do everything wrong, always. While academia can be challenging and punishing in itself, don’t underestimate the effect your Ph.D. studies can have on you. Depending on your subject, spending three years on your own and largely in your head is bound to throw up the good, the bad, and the ugly, especially if you have struggled with mental health issues before.

Academia can be a tough environment. The current neo-liberal structures that dictate its activities and processes make it more competitive, less friendly, and often isolating. As difficult as it may seem, you must not give into the thoughts and behaviors these structures breed, or you will never be happy with who you are, or with what you do. There comes a point – hopefully sooner rather than later, perhaps when you’ve finished reading this post – that you must change your thinking about yourself and your work. The sooner you learn to be happy with yourself – your flaws, your quirks, your strengths – the sooner you will become the researcher that you’ve always aspired to be but have always felt like you may never become. If you don’t change the way you think, you won’t be able to enjoy that first job, that first salary, that sense of being part of a department for longer than a semester, because all you’ll do is just carry on what you’ve always done, and it will make you unhealthy on so many levels.

7828965_sIf you feel you need professional, medical help because of your depression or anxiety, then seek it. I don’t advocate medication for these issues, but when you are in a truly difficult, bad place, they can sometimes give short-term relief while you’re getting ready to see your problems constructively and honestly. You needn’t suffer your challenges on your own, either. There are colleagues and fellow Ph.D. students who will be happy to provide honest, open dialogue about the problems we all face – some of us more severely and more often than others. Constructive action instead of pathologization seems, to me, the way forward. No matter if you give your state(s) of mind medical name or not matters little, at least to me. Medical labels can be unhelpful, or they can help you rationalize your issues.

14568033_sWhat’s disturbing is that it’s so easy, for those of us who are prone to worrying and to being anxious (especially those on an academic pathway), to remain entirely ignorant of just how much we internalize, accept, and indeed comprehend as ‘normal’ the state of stress and anxiety under which we (are conditioned and force ourselves to) operate on a day-to-day basis for extensive periods of time, from weeks through to years. Of course some, or even many, of you may say that all this is (easily) controllable, or that I dramatize perfectly normal periods of academic stress. However, it’s exactly the thought that this is ‘part of the job’, or even the idea that the ‘really capable’ ones do not encounter these issues, which I find frightening, and which, I suppose, I ask you reconsider. Our work means a lot to us, but the world didn’t end when I last said “no” to an opportunity, or when I decided to finish a task tomorrow and give myself an evening off for once. Most importantly, it’s only when you are happy with yourself that you can teach others to do the same, that you can help change the structures that encourage us to feel inferior, and that you can be at your best, as a researcher, a teacher, a colleague, and a friend.


Nadine Muller

Dr. Nadine Muller is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature & Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University, and an outspoken advocate for early career researchers, creating and developing The New Academic blog. She has been a BBC New Generation Thinker and most recently has been awarded a British Academy Rising Star grant for her latest project, War Widows’ Stories.


What is to be done? Seven practical steps for historians

This post first appeared on the Many-headed Monster blog on September 21, 2015

Brodie Waddell

I’m very grateful to all of you who’ve already offered your thoughts on how we can improve the history profession. I agree with most of the comments on my previous posts on academic employment and practical responses – in fact some of the suggestions below are borrowed from those comments. However, I promised that I would offer my own tuppence so here I’ll try to set out some steps that we can take individually or collectively. Most of these are quite minor, but hopefully they are a good start. They aren’t in order of priority, but the first four are generally about gathering and publishing information and the rest are about more direct action.

1) Publicising ‘official’ information about the academic job market for potential doctoral students. As has been said several times already, all potential PhD supervisors need to have a frank conversation with anyone who applies to study with them. I’ve tried to have this conversion myself, but didn’t feel like I had enough solid information to provide an accurate picture, which is partly why I researched and wrote these posts. However, these posts are not especially rigorous or official. What I really want is that the RHS or IHR to put together a webpage that sets out the situation clearly, to which we could direct applicants. This would have two uses. First, it would inform potential supervisors, some of whom are not aware of the current job market, especially those who are furthest from the market themselves. Second, it would inform potential applicants, who could then make a more informed decision about how to proceed.

2) Annually collecting and publicising ‘official’ data on the state of history in universities. This is of course related to the previous point, but goes beyond and serves other purposes. The IHR already has a ‘Facts & Figures’ page which was invaluable for my own posts, but most of it is almost 10 years out of date and it is not especially clear or easy to use. Instead, I would recommend producing an annual report (which could be disseminated via RHS and IHR newsletters, blogs, etc.), which would track (at least) the following figures:

  • Students studying history, including new/total, full/part-time, under/post-grad, UK/overseas, etc. (from HESA reports, which seem to be published in January)
  • PhDs granted (from HESA)
  • Theses in history (from IHR)
  • Teachers of history (from IHR)
  • perhaps publications (from Bibliography of British and Irish History)

Gathering this data for previous years would be time-consuming (though I’ve already done this for some of the categories), but I don’t think it would be difficult at all to do this on an annual basis. In fact, I would guess that it would only take a couple hours per year. This data would be valuable for several reasons. It would, for example, provide the numbers needed to keep the job market information described above up-to-date. However, it would also be an important resource for those making decisions about funding, hiring, admissions, etc. It would be invaluable for those of us who want to understand the history of historical education, whether as interested amateurs (such as myself) or professionals (such as Peter Mandler and William Whyte). It is strange that we – as historians specifically and scholars generally – are so under-informed about our own profession.

3) Investigating and publishing data on casualisation. This is again related to the above, but more specific. As I discovered when writing these posts, we have essentially no data on the current or previous ‘quality’ of employment in history (or even in broader categories such as ‘humanities’). Even the HESA numbers for academic employment as a whole are not especially enlightening. If we hope to make academia more equitable (and, I believe, stronger), we need to know the scale of ‘casualisation’. This means we need to find out the numbers and proportions of historians employed on full/part-time and short/long/permanent contracts. To my mind, there are two main sources for this information: job listings and university departments.

  • Job listings: From what I can tell, lists virtually all adverts for new hirings in history in the UK. Ideally, we would convince them to share their listings directly, especially as this would be the only way to get information on previous years. Alternatively, it would be possible to simply record all new listings on a weekly basis (anyone can sign up for a weekly job alert email), which could then be collated at the end of the academic year. I think the key information to record would be FT/PT, length of contract, and wages. It would also be interesting to record location and subfield, but not vital. If the IHR/RHS are not able to devote resources to this, perhaps it could be ‘crowdsourced’, by asking historians to volunteer to record the listings for various weeks.
  • Departmental surveys: Gathering information on current historians is just as important as new hires. It would, I think, not be difficult for a department to provide an annual anonymous ‘census’ of its history staff. This would need to include FT/PT, temp/perm (and gender?) at least, but could also include subfields. This would be much, much more useful than the HESA data and should take only a few minutes of a department’s time each year. Again, it would be useful to have previous years, but it may not be possible. (Would this raise data protection issues?)

4) Publicise information about alternatives to academia. The unbalance between PhDs and academic jobs in history means that many (if not most) new PhDs will not end up as permanent lecturers. This is not necessarily a problem, but it is definitely something that needs to be addressed more directly and earlier in doctoral studies. The RHS currently has a ‘Careers’ page for ECRs that includes a few paragraphs on ‘Do you really want to be an academic?’. This is helpful, but unless I’m mistaken this is the sum total of ‘official’ advice (from the RHS, IHR, etc.) on alternatives to academic employment. There are also many snippets of ‘unofficial’ advice elsewhere, but there needs to be much more information centrally available. Perhaps the RHS could join with the AHA which is developing a major new resource for alt-ac routes (‘Career Diversity for Historians’) to provide a British equivalent.

5) Provide training, support and experience in alternatives to academia. PhD students and ECRs need more than information: they also need opportunities to actually learn the skills and make the connections that would make a career outside of academia more obtainable. Some of this would be courses and workshops but – thinking more ambitiously – it could also involve placements in non-academic workplaces and other direct experience. This is something that is presumably beyond the limits of the RHS, but the IHR already has some potentially useful courses and I know that some departments have at least a few optional events designed to, for example, introduce doctoral students to ‘public history’. There needs to be more of these and they need to be more widespread (rather than concentrated in London). Departments, universities, institutes and perhaps the AHRC doctoral training partnerships need to make this more of a priority.

6) Pressure departments to hire responsibly. The RHS and History Lab Plus have taken an excellent first step towards this with their ‘Code of Good Practice’ for employing temporary teaching staff. The good practices they suggest are virtually costless and ought to be implemented immediately. However, it not enough to just be nice: we actually need to make temporary work less materially exploitative. As John Arnold said in one of the comments, this means hiring on (at least) year-long full-time lectureships instead of nine-month teaching fellowships. Although there are always going to be a few last-minute fractional posts needed due to the nature of departmental needs, it is absolutely essential that we do not allow this to become a standard practice or before long we will be faced with the sort of situation now found in the United States where most university teaching is done by adjuncts who are insecure and underpaid. As individual academics (and administrators) we need to speak up when these hiring decisions come up. And, perhaps even more importantly, we need to act collectively to push back against such exploitative employment.

7) Organise. We are stronger when we act collectively, so find a group or organisation you can believe in and join up. The UCU has all sorts of problems, but it remains a potentially powerful force pushing for a more equitable academic community through, for example, their campaign against casualisation. Likewise, groups like FACE (Fighting Against Casualisation in Education), the IHR’s History Lab for PhDs and History Lab Plus for ECRs, and even the august Royal Historical Society are all valuable as support networks and could be important for lobbying for practical changes.

* * *

Nearly all of the suggestions above relate directly or indirectly to work, but I believe that they are about more than merely improving the employment prospects and working conditions of a few hundred aspiring historians. As previous commenters have noted, the history profession also must address problems such as paywalls preventing open access to scholarly research, the gender imbalance at the top ranks, the lack of racial diversity among both students and staff, the challenges faced by disabled scholars, and the rising cost of higher education at all levels. None of my suggestions will solve these problems, yet I hope that a wider push towards better data-gathering, transparency, training and collective organisation could help advance progress on these other fronts as well.

The current system is not only damaging to doctoral researchers and early career historians, it can also lead to dysfunctional departments, jaded students and a credulous public. Everyone will benefit if we can push the historical profession to become more transparent, more equitable, more diverse and more inclusive.

Staff Profile: Dr Brodie Waddell


Brodie Waddell is a Lecturer in Early Modern History at Birkbeck, University of London, and co-founder of The Many-Headed Monster, a history blog. Though now in secure employment, he spent six years in temporary positions after completing his PhD in 2009.

Other posts by Brodie: