Vesna Curlic is currently undertaking her PhD in History at the University of Edinburgh, supported by the Canadian Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Her doctoral research examines experiences of immigration, ethnicity, and public health in Britain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. More broadly, her research interests include the history of medicine and science, modern immigration law, and public health policy. She splits her time between Edinburgh and her hometown of Toronto, Canada.
It isn’t a great time to be on the job market. This will come to little surprise to any early career researcher. Though the health of the job market is difficult to quantify, things don’t seem to be great. These systemic issues require systemic changes, but doctoral students and early-career researchers (ECRs) still need effective career support in the meantime. There have been some excellent developments in the support offered to doctoral students and ECRs who want to know their options outside of traditional academic positions. The Royal Historical Society recently offered a workshop about non-academic careers, the recording of which is available on their website, as part of their career development programme. Vitae, the UK-based non-profit for researchers’ career development, also offers resources on non-academic jobs, including their publication series called “What do researchers do?” Increasingly, universities themselves are offering support for doctoral students and alumni looking beyond the academy through careers services.
On the other hand, for researchers in pursuit of a traditional academic career, it can be difficult to parse through all the advice and remain hopeful in the face of a difficult job market. In an attempt to combat this, History UK has offered the Academic Job Boot Camp annually since 2016. Having participated in the 2022 event, I am thoroughly convinced that the Academic Job Boot Camp is an exemplary illustration of what practical, useful job market support looks like in the current climate.
The concept of the Boot Camp is straightforward. ECRs apply for the Boot Camp by submitting a cover letter and CV for an imaginary lectureship in an imaginary department. Once accepted, participants prepare a five-minute talk on the question “how does your research inform your teaching practice?” The day of the Boot Camp, each participant gives their presentation, answers questions from the audience, has a mock interview with senior academics with hiring experience, receives feedback, and observes another mock interview. This process is followed by a roundtable Q&A session with the senior academics. After the day is done, participants are sent comprehensive feedback from audience members.
I am a first-generation academic – no one else in my family has gone to university – so my whole academic career thus far has been a process of figuring out each step as I go. The Boot Camp really demystified the experience and made an academic job application and interview feel like a more approachable feat. There were no assumptions made about what people knew or didn’t know. Unspoken expectations were said aloud and explained clearly. It was a refreshingly transparent approach to academia.
A few pieces of advice that stuck out included:
Do your research, but remember that you can never predict everything:
The main point of an interview is assessing how you might fit in with the department’s teaching and research goals, and the university ecosystem as a whole. As a result, there is an expectation that you have done your research about the department’s strengths and priorities, and evidence how your skills complement those areas. However, there are limits to this and mistakes will happen. Many of the senior scholars shared instances when they misread how an interview went or misunderstood a committee’s instructions. There might be times when you tread on an unspoken tension or emphasise the wrong things. You simply must embrace that these things might be out of your control.
Be true to yourself:
This sounds like unhelpful advice, but it wasn’t meant as a flippant ‘just be yourself and everything will work out!’ Instead, the way I understood it, the senior academics were reminding us that applicants have agency in this process too. In a climate of scarcity, it can feel like we have to mould ourselves to the jobs and apply for anything that comes our way. It was heartening to be reminded to not compromise your values or personality during the job search. The interview committee is hiring, in the case of permanent jobs, a potential colleague for life and you are looking at your possible colleagues for life, too. There has to be a level of interpersonal connection, institutional fit, etc. These amorphous factors can sometimes feel like hurdles, but it is helpful to remember that they work both ways.
Make a Plan B that’s almost as good as your Plan A:
There is a lot of talk about careers for PhDs that are outside the traditional academic teaching and research posts. This is an excellent development, and I personally know many ECRs who have found exciting, fulfilling work beyond the academy. I also know many current doctoral students who are making active plans for work outside the academy, using internships and part-time work alongside their studies to gain relevant experience. I think it makes a lot of sense to have an idea of what else you could do. However, it was also really validating to hear that falling back on your Plan B is allowed to be a little disappointing. The PhD is, at its core, training for a certain kind of academic job. It’s unfair that many qualified, talented people do not end up in academic careers and that’s allowed to sting.
The Boot Camp was the first time I walked away from a job market event feeling more hopeful and more prepared than before. Offering prospective applicants an insight into what it feels like to be interviewed and following up with individualised feedback is an incredible way of supporting ECRs in a difficult market.