Some of the most common questions with which PhD researchers are concerned focus on how they should set their priorities during their doctoral studies.
What else, and how much of it, should you do next to researching and writing your thesis?
As so often, I can’t answer this for all PhD students in all disciplines, but I wanted to try and give you an overview of some useful starting points if you’re hoping to prepare yourself for the academic job market during your doctoral studies rather than after, particularly in the humanities and social sciences.
So some of this will not apply to postgraduates in other fields, and is directly specifically at those who want to pursue an academic career.
I’ve said, blogged, and tweeted this many times before, but it’s worth reiterating here: doing nothing but researching and writing your thesis for three or four years will put you in a position post-PhD where you can’t even fulfill the essentials in the job and person specifications for an entry-level permanent lectureship (post-docs and early-career fellowships are usually a different kettle of fish altogether, and I want to disregard them for now).
Whether this is a good or bad, right or wrong situation isn’t what I want to focus on on this occasion. So the following notes assume that you need to have done certain things and ticked certain boxes on your CV in order to even be potentially competitive in a job market where each ad for said jobs receives 100+ responses, often from people who have been out of their PhD longer than you and may thus be further ahead when it comes to publishing, teaching, presenting, and grant income.
This may sound like a difficult situation to be in, and it is, but it isn’t a hopeless one. The important thing is that you do whatever lies within your control and ability to prepare yourself.
Presenting & Networking
Starting to present your work at national and international conferences during your PhD allows you not only to gain valuable feedback from specialists in your field but it also enables you to make connections with academics in your area and to build a support network of peers.
Meeting and knowing people will create more opportunities, be it publishing or being part of someone’s grant application as a post-doc or as a research assistant. Generally speaking, though, there is little point in you giving more than three conference papers a year.
Choose your conferences wisely: ask yourself who will be there, are they relevant to your area of study, or are they in a field in which you feel you need to make more connections and establish yourself.
As far as possible, use conference presentations either to gain feedback on and revisit something you’ve already written for your thesis, or propose to speak on something you know you’re going to write next and use the occasion as a motivator to get you reading, researching and writing on this next chapter.
Remember, however, that a paper should never simply be you reading aloud a part of your written. Each presentation takes work because it should be tailored to fit the conference theme and has to be reworked into a piece that can be presented orally to an audience, including any visual aids you may want to use.
So don’t underestimate the work and nerves that go into conference papers and always weight up carefully why you want to present this particular part of your work and where. Make sure it’s worth the time and effort, and the money and travel. If you propose paper that has few or not roots in your doctoral research, this becomes even more time consuming as you’ll be researching and writing from scratch.
This may come in useful towards the end of your studies, when you will want to start thinking of your next project and your research trajectory, but be even more selective and careful then as your time will become more and more precious as your deadline looms (for tips on how to give an effective conference presentation, see this post).
Like conference presentations, publications should derive naturally from your research. While your first monograph will probably have to wait until after you’ve finished your thesis (which you may want to think of as a book, as far as possible), you can begin building a record of publications during your thesis through journal articles and book chapters.
Usually, peer-reviewed articles in established journals are considered more prestigious, but this doesn’t mean being in an edited collection alongside respected scholars in your field is an opportunity you should refuse (see this post for help with beginning publishing).
Again, being deliberate and selective is key. Don’t publish for the sake of publishing, but make sure you have something that is worth publishing (and your supervisor should be happy to help you with determining what that might be).
If you have the opportunity to co-edit a publication (an essay collection or a journal special issue) then I suggest you take it. It will help get your name out there, and it will also increase your awareness of what it takes to author a good essay or article and gain insight into how it will be judged.
However, editing can be a tough job and you will need to make sure in advance what work will be involved and how it will be divided between the co-editors (see this post on how to begin editing publications).
Teaching can be one of the most time consuming things to do next to your thesis work. That’s because next to delivering your seminars or lectures you also have to prepare them, communicate with your students outside of the classroom via email or in office hours, take on marking, and sometimes even some administrative duties related to the module(s) you’re teaching.
There can be two competing issues here: the need for an income vs being selective with the kind of teaching you take on. Remember that teaching three seminars on the same module only equals one line on your CV. That said, you may not be in a position to refuse to those three seminars if your teaching forms a crucial part of your income. Nevertheless, it’s worth thinking about what you need from your teaching as far as you can.
Employers will want to see teaching experience, at the very least in the form of leading seminars or tutorials, and ideally not just in your area of expertise and not just at your own institution (see this post on beginning university teaching).
Preparation and workload increase the more you teach subjects that aren’t very familiar to you, so be aware of this before the module begins and schedule enough time to accommodate for this. As you progress in your studies and as your network grows, it’s likely that more opportunities will come your way - make sure they are worth taking and that they add to your CV, especially when you’re in the closing stages of your doctoral research.
This is something PhDs often aren’t actively encouraged to do, but it can make for an impressive addition on your CV and give you valuable experience in what will become an essential part of your job once you are in a full-time academic post.
Grant applications to external bodies can be for the cost of research visits, to cover conference attendance costs, or they can fund collaborative projects that you create with a few select peers from other institutions.
Make sure that whatever you apply for or propose fits with your current research direction and commitments and benefits your research (this can be in the form of skills development, or in the form of involving researchers with whom you want to make contact and build a relationship).
Successfully securing money from external funders is one of the things that will make you stand when it comes to shortlisting, providing you have all the other requirements in place. Check this post for a guide on how to start applying for external funding.
How to Juggle
As you can probably tell by now, my main message for all these areas of your CV is: be deliberate and think through what benefits each opportunity holds for you. Don’t accept absolutely everything that comes your way, otherwise you’ll inevitably mess up several things at once, perhaps even the most important one, which remains your thesis (without which you’ll certainly not get shortlisted).
If you know in advance what kinds of skills and experience you will have to be able to demonstrate for a job on completion of your doctorate, then you have the chance to create and choose opportunities for yourself which will help you acquire those lines on your CV.
If you see your CV as something that distracts you from your thesis (as the title of this post suggests), then rethink your approach. Your thesis represents your research areas and the foundation of your skill set and your expertise; use this foundation to build and complete your profile.
So, whenever you are offered an opportunity, or whenever you consider taking on a new task (be it authoring a chapter for an edited collection, writing a journal article, or taking on a new teaching commitment), be honest with yourself about what you want and need from that opportunity.
Will this particular task help you achieve what you need? What skills will it help you develop? Does it add something new to your CV? Will it connect you with people that are worth connecting with (for peer support, mentoring, etc.)? How much time can you realistically dedicate to this task and for what period of time? Are the time and effort required commensurate to what you get out of this commitment? How related or applicable to your thesis is it?
Periodically, try to review your existing and upcoming commitments according to how much time your spend on them - and, again, be honest with yourself (see Prof. Mary Eagleton’s tips on academic juggling, too, and Dr Heather Savigny’s thoughts on how to be a productive writer)!
The truth is that we are all tempted to say that research and writing can wait until this or that admin task or semester is out of the way, but that point simply never comes unless you create it by actively managing your task list (and even then there’s a thing called life that always gets in the way). There will always be more than one ball in the air, and the sooner you learn to juggle, learn what balls to add to the mix and which to drop, the more prepared and the more employable you will be in the end.
Nadine is Lecturer in English Literature and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University. Before joining LJMU, gained her PhD on "The Feminist Politics of Neo-Victorian Fiction" at the University of Hull. Nadine's research covers Victorian and neo-Victorian literature and culture, contemporary women’s fiction, and cultural histories of women, gender, and feminism from the nineteenth century through to the present day. She currently works on a monograph on the literary and cultural history of the widow.