Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Stones: Academic Job Applications

This is my first "Stones" post, and it's on a subject that everyone who works in academia has to deal with at one time or another. Just how can you squash all your passion and ideas onto a few sheets of paper, or into a 1000 word research proposal? How can you express your own brilliance without sounding too cocksure? How many publications is "enough" for the post you are applying for? Sometimes it feels like the answers to these questions are "You can't" or "More than you've got." I meet a lot of fellow early career scholars and postgraduate students who are wrestling with applications, or who have come up against them in the past. The response seems to be generally negative, until suddenly someone gets a position, and is then a source of unbridled joy- until the short term contract runs out, and the process starts all over again.

As you might be able to tell, I have started to submit applications for positions starting after my PhD is completed. So, I thought it would be a good time to think about the positive aspects of academic job applications- what the experience of putting them together over the past few weeks has taught me. Yes, they were sometimes sticky to work on, and the guilt over pestering referees is still lying heavy on my subconscious, but they've actually been a fantastic exercise, for the following reasons.

1) Applications teach you to be concise. Less is often more. If you can't point out the key components of a project which make it uniquely perfect for support in 1000 words, who's to say you can in 2000? I found one application particularly difficult as it asked for 600 words of research proposal. Accustomed to 1000, I struggled, but I did it. And I think the 600 word version is actually better in some ways. Applications are a chance to hone your "elevator pitch," shaping and clarifying your research plan. This type of writing style is also an asset in other areas- who wants to read a 50 page journal article that could have been 30 pages if the waffle was cut out? Playing cat and mouse with delete can be fun, and it's good practice for editing.

2) Research proposals make you full of excitement about your own research! I am planning a post-doctoral project that I can't wait to begin. Each job application reminds me how strong this piece of work could be, and how keen I am to start working on it. The research proposal maps out the next three years of my academic life- what I will be doing each summer, the journal articles and monographs that I want to produce. Writing this down formally and seriously considering how I will spend my time gives me a blueprint for the future, for what I want to do and where I want to be- and that's pretty damn exciting.

3) While filling you with excitement about post-docs, job applications make you feel pretty blimmin strongly about finishing your PhD. It needs to be done before any of these fabulous new projects can start, and in applying for post-doc (clue's in the name) jobs, you need to be certain that that thesis is going to be in on time. I am full of determination to get my PhD done and dusted before my funding runs out, so I can start a new job straight away. When I go back to writing up after a job app hiatus of a couple of days, I find myself writing better, and staying motivated for longer.

4) Motivation isn't just about gritting your teeth and getting on with things. I want to blog about this another day, but for now, I want to focus on the importance of self-esteem. You have to believe in yourself to get anything done in academe or any other job you care to name. Of course, you don't want to be an over-bearing, arrogant twit. But you need to believe in yourself and your research, believe that you honestly are a strong candidate and good researcher. Seeing your achievements written down, publications, awards, presentations and all, is a lovely moment of self-recognition. Yes, you did that. All of it.

5) Finally, the process teaches you who your friends are. The support and companionship of colleagues, the willingness of referees. It's amazing how much people are willing to give of their time and effort to help you earn a crust. To me, at any rate, that's pretty special. Especially when you haven't got any of the posts you apply for after six months and you feel rotten, the people who are there to pick you back up again are those you need in your life. They are wonderful.

If and when the rejection letters come, I'm going to make myself look back at this post. It's full of optimism. I'll probably be grumpy, hurt and frustrated, and the words I wrote will feel stupid and irrelevant. In the meantime, every crossable part of my body is crossed.

How have you approached academic job applications? Any strategies to share? Horror stories to tell? I'd love to hear.

(Apologies for the lack of piccies in this post, but I did NOT want to photocopy my application forms. Look, here's a snapshot of the Acropolis instead. It's made of hard stones put together into something incredible).


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