By: Dr Karen Forbes, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge
When I first started my PhD back in 2012 I wasn’t sure whether I would return to secondary school teaching afterwards or stay in academia, looking back I suppose I didn’t really know what it meant to be an academic. But throughout the three years of my PhD I had the opportunity to contribute to different research projects, to publish, and to teach; although it might seem like a bit of a cliché to say that the experience was an apprenticeship into academia, for me, that’s exactly what it was. It didn’t take long for me to realise that this was what I wanted to do with my life. So here are a few personal reflections on what I feel were the most influential factors in progressing from the PhD, to a postdoc position on the MEITS project, and ultimately into a lectureship.
However, as a caveat I feel I should start by pointing out that it’s easy to get carried away with the ‘other’, with volunteering for a myriad of activities and taking on extra responsibilities just because ‘you can put it on your CV’. Ultimately, you need to prioritise your PhD. Remember that most postdoc or academic positions advertised ask for candidates to have successfully completed their viva, or at the very least submitted their thesis, so without that you will be unlikely to be considered at all. Although if you are careful and strategic about what you take on alongside your PhD, then these additional experiences can actually complement your own work, rather than distract from it.
Opportunities don’t often land in your lap, so you need to be proactive in seeking them out (and sometimes even creating them yourself). Though as mentioned above, for the sake of both your PhD and your sanity you can’t do everything and therefore you need to be selective. So how do you choose what to do? Well, my main piece of advice would be to think ahead. What’s your ‘dream job’? Where would you ultimately like to end up? Why not start looking at job advertisements for similar positions? Websites like jobs.ac.uk, for example, allow you to sign up to daily or weekly emails based on your own criteria, which I found really useful. Looking for a job may seem like a long way off, but this will give you a sense of what’s out there and what sort of skills and experience are being asked for. Then think about what you can do to make yourself a good fit for these sorts of positions. When it comes to finding an academic job (or any job for that matter), there are so many things that you can’t control (such as what and when positions are advertised, who else will apply etc.), so my advice is to focus on what you can control, that is, building up your own profile and relevant experience.
Develop your research experience
The PhD is a great time to develop your research skills. You will have access to a range of research methods courses within your Faculty and within the wider university (e.g. the SSRMC) and perhaps also opportunities to attend summer schools or workshops elsewhere which focus on specific methodologies or approaches. Of course, you will need to prioritise the particular methods you need for your PhD, but developing a working knowledge of other methods will help you stand out when applying for postdoc positions (and may even encourage you to think differently about your PhD).
Another way to develop your research experience is to look out for short-term, part-time research assistant positions. This can be a great way not only to gain a wider range of research experience, but also to have the opportunity to work as part of a larger team of experienced researchers. Throughout the second and third year of my PhD I was a research assistant on a longitudinal project exploring the language development, attainment and social integration of newly arrived migrant students. I learned so much from this experience and it led to co-authored reports and journal articles, conference presentations and even an invitation to speak at an interdisciplinary workshop on migration in Japan! This was a relatively long-term commitment during my PhD, but even though the topic was not directly linked to my own research, it broadened my knowledge in the field and I ended up drawing on some of the research skills and perspectives in my thesis.
I’m not going to say much about publishing here as there are already several excellent FERSA blog posts on this topic (e.g. see those by Kevin and Cora). I will, however, add a few personal reflections. My first academic publication was a paper based on my MEd thesis which I co-authored with my supervisor (Dr Linda Fisher). Aside from actually writing the paper, I learned a lot from being guided through the process: how to choose a journal, what the procedure is, what to include in a cover letter, whether to recommend a potential referee, how to respond to revisions, to name a few. I had a reasonably clear idea of what to focus on and it was relatively straightforward to distil the essence of my MEd thesis into a paper. However, I struggled with this a lot more with my PhD. I had spent a lot of time constructing it as one coherent text and as a thesis, I think this worked well, although it was then more difficult to deconstruct it into discrete journal articles. So, my advice would be to start thinking about possibilities for publication early on as this may influence the way you report the findings of your thesis.
Get some teaching experience
Most permanent academic positions involve both research and teaching, so it’s useful to build up some teaching experience during your PhD. There are often opportunities for graduate students to take on some undergraduate teaching and supervision, and if you are selective about the courses you teach on this can also complement your own research interests. Once again this will more than likely involve being proactive. Look on the website, identify the courses which best suit your area(s) of expertise, contact the course coordinator or director of studies and suggest what you may be able to contribute. However, while teaching is incredibly enjoyable and rewarding, it can also be very time-consuming, especially at the start. So, my advice would be to start by taking on a small number of students and stick to one course. Also take advantage of training opportunities in the university to help develop your skills, for example, look on training.cam.ac.uk for workshops on supervision and small group teaching. For those of you with some experience already, I would highly recommend the Teaching Associates Program (TAP) which is a one-year course accredited by the Higher Education Academy.
Keep a record of what you do
On a very practical note, make sure you keep a record of all the relevant things that you do as you go along. I had (and continue to have) a Word document on my desktop where I make a note of conferences and workshops that I attend, presentations that I give, and other relevant activities. When it comes to putting together or updating your CV, it will save you from the frustration of frantically searching through your computer files trying to find an old presentation with the title of the paper you gave at that conference three years ago!
Learn from others
Sometimes we spend so much time trawling the internet for ‘disembodied’ advice that we forget the people we know who can give us more personal and relevant guidance. An apprenticeship, after all, is about learning from others. Talk to your supervisor – they know you, they know about your project, they may know about relevant research or teaching opportunities. Talk to other PhD students and postdocs, particularly those who are a few years ahead of you – they will know exactly what you’re going through and will be able to offer different insights into the PhD.
And most of all – enjoy it! Yes, it can be challenging and frustrating at times, but it is also a privilege to have the opportunity to create new knowledge and immerse ourselves in the questions that interest us. Believe me when I say that the PhD years go by all too quickly, so instead of wishing the time away, enjoy the journey and make the most of it while you can.
Karen Forbes is a Lecturer in Second Language Education at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. Her main research interests are in the learning and teaching of modern languages and multilingualism in schools. She is currently involved in the Education strand of an AHRC-funded project on multilingualism. Karen teaches and supervises on a range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses including the Masters course in Research in Second Language Education and the PGCE course in Modern Languages. You can follow Karen on Twitter @karen_forbes and Research Gate.