education, Teaching resources

Coffee & Cocktails- Episode 2 Excerpt re: Early Career Researchers and the job market


Below is an extended excerpt based on Dr Ann Wand’s interview with Dr Nicolette ‘Niki’ Makovicky and Dr Robert ‘Bob’ Parkin of Oxford University on some of the items discussed during Coffee & Cocktail’s second podcast on ‘ECRs and the job market’.

Ann: Since this podcast is partially designed to dispel the myths for ECRs working on job applications, I asked each of you before the show to create a short list of check-list items you normally look for when going through applications. The objective of this first list is to give ECRs an understanding of how the job application process works.

Since this is a rather extensive list I have divided it up into four parts: 1) those looking for post-doctoral or research positions 2) those looking for temporary lectureship positions 3) those applying for permanent posts and 4) any additional advice you may have to those ECRs applying for the job market.

1) Post-doctoral and/or research positions:

Niki: If it is a post-doc/ research officer post on, for example, a larger project, the committee will most likely be looking for someone with strong research and publishing credentials and very good organisational skills. They will want to find someone they can rely on to do good research (fieldwork, etc.), help develop a solid methodology and potentially co-author some publications – but also someone whom they can rely on to do the organisational work that comes with administering a large grant (keeping track of data, finances, the contributions of team members, setting up and running seminars, etc.) because they are usually very busy with a host of other duties.

Bob: I have provided a bullet point list below of what is required for those applying for post-doctoral positions:

  • The applicant often needs institutional backing as well as a staff member to be the PI (Principal Investigator).
  • Post-docs are often recruited as salaried employees.
  • The applicant needs to account for full economic costing when working on their application (and will need to be precise).
  • There may need to be prior consultation with ‘research consumers’ (e.g. the ESRC).
  • There needs to be an international dimension to the post-doctoral project, e.g. EU funding = multiple partners
  • Funding bodies often like multidisciplinarity, which of course necessitates someone forming a team of researchers from different disciplines, rather than going it alone.
  • FYI: ECRs may either 1) be expected to do some teaching as part of the fellowship; 2) be restricted in how much they teach (a common restriction is six hours a week); 3) not be allowed to do teaching at all.

Below are the qualities expected for research proposals:

  • Pay attention to the application requirements and restrictions (if any)
  • Show an originality of theme and/or its treatment
    • Originality of topic: What gaps does your research fill in? How topical is it? Why does it need doing, and why now? Show the relationship of your project to previous ethnographic work in same area.
    • Originality of approach is important both theoretically and methodologically; the latter is especially more difficult to be original about, but some funding bodies place a great deal of stress on it, and attention should always be paid to it.
  • Clarity and sharpness of expression
    • Be bold as well as clear in expressing what your project is about without being arrogant or dismissive of others’ work.
  • Make every word count! Do you really need that adjective?!

How to structure a research proposal:

  • There is no one ‘right way’ to structure a proposal.
  • However, a common structure might look like this:
  • Provide a brief statement of the problem to be investigated.
  • Provide a brief review of relevant previous literature and what is wrong with it or what is lacking.
  • Develop your research proposal with more detail of its intellectual content and     trajectory.
  • State your methodology (this may be quite simple: e.g. participant observation     and interviews).
  • State the feasibility of your project (and link it with the methodology): Can the     project be completed in the time allowed? If fieldwork is proposed, are there any     obstacles to entering the field that are apparent? Do other proposed methods make sense in terms of the project overall?

2) Temporary lectureships:

Niki: If it is a temporary lectureship, the institute where you apply will want to be sure that you are a capable educator (and that you have relevant experience teaching in the subject/direction they ask) and can do a good job mentoring and supervising students. They will want someone who enriches the research programme and if you are nearing REF (Research Excellent Framework), they will want someone who publishes enough to be submitted to REF on behalf of the institution. Finally, they will be looking for someone who can take over administrative duties.

3) Permanent posts:

Niki: For a permanent post, publications take first place, followed by grant income and administration. The institution where you apply will want to see the whole package or at least potential for it. You must be ‘REFable’ as they say (this may mean that you need to have a book/ book contract, but not necessarily, you ‘just’ have to fulfil the criteria for REF) and be able to demonstrate that you have undertaken some large-ish administrative jobs in the department. Your future colleagues will want to know that they can rely on you alleviating the enormous administrative burden we are under. And finally, you will be expected to show you have had the potential to attract substantial research funding, as these revenue streams are vital to the finances of the department and university. Finally, if you have done something the department can put forward as ‘impact’ (e.g. influencing policy, innovation or collaboration with industry and/or arts), then so much the better.

4) Additional advice:

Niki: I think as an ECR you spend a lot of time trying to ‘crack’ the job market by finding out ‘what they want’. So you feel torn between getting teaching experience, arranging and attending conferences, searching for jobs, writing grant applications and trying to publish – feeling like you need to do it all because you don’t know what will be ‘the’ thing that gets you a job. While it is true that a committee looks for a candidate who does ALL of these things, it is worth creating a hierarchy of what is most important and concentrating on that – simply by spending much more of your time on it. For example, use no more than a day to write your standard conference paper of 20-25 minutes (two – maybe three days if you are working with brand-new material and not something from your thesis). Conferences are good for networking, but after a few years you’ll have been to so many you’ll stop putting them on your CV and most people will not remember what you said (and feedback is rarely good).

Teaching experience – unless you need the money (and you often do), also teach as little as you can get away with (i.e. a few hours or something very close to home where you don’t need to spend days preparing for each class). But do teach, because the committee will want to see experience. However, spend most of your time publishing and writing grant proposals. Aim to publish 1-2 REFable articles within a year of getting your PHD – find the easiest parts of the thesis to convert to articles and just get them out as soon as possible. If nothing else, that will make you tempting to any UK department. [Some people publish nothing for 2-3 years and then come out with a book. This is also a good strategy BUT only if you have some employment for those 3 years like a post doc. Otherwise you will simply look like someone who has not published].

In reality, it is almost impossible to know what a certain research committee wants, and there can be many reasons why they choose to go with a certain candidate which is not immediately obvious from the job advert. Don’t forget, like in any job, we also look for someone who we think fits the departmental culture and will be a good colleague.


Remember when working on research proposals:

1) Don’t get bogged down in detail unnecessarily.

2) Don’t over-emphasize one’s own credentials: keep it simple and to the point, but don’t boast for the sake of it!

3) Being up-front is more acceptable in the USA; but may be seen as boasting in Britain or Europe.

4) Don’t lack clarity when focusing on research aims and methods.

Ann: For the latter part of this show, I’ve asked you to create a short list of additional responsibilities that come with being a full-time academic, especially for those ECRs who are unfamiliar with how academia works behind the scenes.

Additional responsibilities:

Niki: This is the single biggest shock when you do get an academic post. The entire machinery of the academic department, the publishing system, and the grant system are pretty much hidden to you as a student – its vastly more work than you might imagine and you need to put up guards to stop it from taking up all of your time.

List of duties (not comprehensive):

On top of teaching (including syllabus development, making reading lists, teaching, examining, etc.) and thesis supervision, teaching provision involves this: examining (not just you own but other people’s courses and theses) and all the administration that comes with it (making exam questions, vetting exam questions, sitting on exam boards, mediating any issues with exams and theses), admissions (a huge job, which requires reading 200 applications, monitoring English language requirements for students, dealing with complaints or people visiting who are interested in your course), student matters (anything from mental health and health issues, crises of various kinds, wanting to change courses or subjects requiring paperwork, special needs because of disabilities, which requires more paperwork, etc), central administration matters (departmental financial matters, various inspections/ quality control, contractual matters of staffing, staffing and student ratios, continually changing policies on health and safety, research codes of practice, plagiarism policies, policies about students taking courses from other departments or gap-years, or exchange programmes), and dealing with cross-departmental teaching matters. If you are in Oxford, you will have all the same matters and meetings once again to deal with in whatever college you are a member. So think double the trouble.

Then you have to deal with the department’s external examiners and being an external examiner yourself. This requires examining PhD theses several times a year (reading 300 page whoppers each time), and various interim exams before; producing lengthy reports for each of these and then re-reading the corrections.

On top of actual research publications you have to apply for grants (which is huge run up of researching and writing grants, plus dealing with research services, internal evaluations of the application of various kinds, dealing with the finance officer to work on the budget, etc); but then there is also the other side of the story – reviewing other people’s grant applications, reviewing other people’s articles, book proposals, and book manuscripts – and producing detailed reports on these for the editors. And perhaps being an editor for a journal yourself which means at least skim-reading every submission, and (usually with the help of an assistant) being responsible for their review, correction and publication.

And then there is going to conferences, seminars, etc (some of which you run yourself – typically including running your own departmental seminar). And giving invited talks.

And then there is the organisational/ association work – if you run an association or even simply an interest group within a larger disciplinary association (say, the Economic Anthropology group in the American Association of Anthropologists). This will come with all sorts of organisational tasks (like inviting speakers to events, or running a website, or handling the finances, or vetting conference papers submissions to major conferences).

Bob: Below is a list of all of the responsibilities I took on while working as an academic at Oxford University.

  • I was recruited to Oxford’s School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography (SAME) as a departmental lecturer in 2002 and immediately given the task of admissions officer to perform. This also led me to work to some extent with more than one Director of Graduate Studies (DGS), a post I eventually took over as well, in around 2006, and I’ve kept it ever since.
  • Below are the roles the DGS performs ex-officio:
    • Signing forms regarding student progression (everything from temporary suspensions to signing off doctoral vivas)
    • Vetting funding for language and other skills training
  • I’ve been a member of the School Management Board (the highest level body within SAME) as well as a member of School CUREC committee (i.e. its ethics review) and the Chair of Awards Committee (which decides internal funding applications). I was also a member of the Social Science Division (SSD) Teaching Committee (which brings together all SSD DGSs to discuss policy and practice within the Division)
  • Other admin tasks as DGS have included:
    • Listening to and seeking to resolve students’ problems
    • Giving general advice on rules and regulations, best practices, etc. to both students and colleagues
    • Running our ‘Options Fair’, where students listen to colleagues’ presentations of which options are being offered in that particular year
    • Liaising with Divisional officers
    • Getting course regulations formally changed
  • DGS work continues throughout the year, though it is most intense during term time, least intense in the long vacation
  • I have also regularly been involved in examining, both doctoral and taught courses, though never as chair of examiners.
  • I have also acted as course director for both the social anthropology master’s degrees and the doctoral programme, which involves arranging the teaching, writing or revising of the course handbooks, etc.
  • At times I have done all of these simultaneously

How do you deal with work/ life balance?

Niki: It’ll probably be tilted towards ‘work’ for the first few years of your academic career (you have to be prepared to put in evenings and weekends during pressured times). BUT, there are ways of alleviating this. As I said above, don’t allocate too much time to CV fillers. Secondly, don’t be tempted to say ‘yes’ to everything – I think most of us suffer from this problem and it takes a long time to unlearn. If someone asks you to come and speak to a relevant audience, say yes. If someone asks you to take on administrative work or step in to teach extra sessions, or arrange a conference, evaluate whether it is worth it. It might be good to have this particular teaching or administrative assignment on your CV, or it might just be a poorly paid gig someone wants to get rid of.

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