What’s Next as an Early Career Researcher? Five Tips for Recent PhDs

By Maddy Fowler
ACUA Board Member

I completed my doctorate four years ago and I’m currently working part-time and living overseas in a camper van. So, perhaps I am not the best person to be dispensing advice on success as an early career researcher—but, success means different things to different people. Life post-PhD led me to New Zealand as a ranger, the UK as a commercial archaeologist, Australia as a museum curator and now back to the UK as a post-doctoral research fellow at a university. Whether you have it all figured out or—like me—you’re figuring it all out as you go, this convoluted trajectory to becoming an early career researcher has provided some lessons along the way.

1. Apply, apply, apply
Working in academia is notoriously competitive. Combined with the insecurity of short-term jobs, dwindling tenure-track opportunities, high workloads and low pay, it is unsurprising that many PhD graduates struggle to find and maintain jobs in academia. My best advice is to apply for everything and, while it may not be a realistic option for many people (and can be a financial drain), be willing to move anywhere in the world. In the year after completing my PhD, I applied for almost 60 jobs, had an interview for about 20% of these and was successful in the three jobs I mentioned before my current position—I know because I kept a spreadsheet! The reality is that many people will not walk into a post-doc immediately after their PhD. Obviously applying for positions from the security of an existing job (any job) is easiest, but it can take time to get to the workplace you want to be at.

2. Find a mentor/s
The mentorship of my PhD supervisors has been a vital part of my career and has shaped me as a professional, even into my current role. But after transitioning into a career after a PhD, it is important to find mentors other than your PhD supervisor. Create a support team from whom you can seek advice, counsel and perspective. I have approached friends and colleagues to read my CVs, cover letters and answers to selection criteria, arrange mock job interviews over Skype, read a draft of a journal article, listen to a conference presentation, give me work marking or examining theses, invite me to give a lecture at their department, and to discuss research ideas and my career trajectory. These people are either respected academics in senior positions or my peers in early career research. I even asked a colleague to read a draft of this blog! Find your people and lean on them.

Maddy Flowler in just a few of her recent jobs.

3. Maintain your networks
If you take a break between your PhD and post-doc or work part-time or remotely, leaving the academic bubble can be very isolating (although remaining in academia also has significant mental health concerns). The easiest way to negate the impacts of a lower profile after having finished your PhD is to maintain an active professional network. If you serve on an avocational or professional committee, continue this voluntary role, or seek out new opportunities to participate in the community in a meaningful way. Although attending conferences is a financial burden for many early career researchers, speaking at new or international conferences allows you to be as visible as possible and could expand your network and opportunities. It was by attending my first SHA conference in the US that I became aware of the ACUA, eventually leading to me joining the board and writing this blog!

4. Try new things
Academia is rarely for life anymore. Whether you are stepping out of academia temporarily, permanently or on a part-time basis, different opportunities and positions can provide you with experience in areas that you may want to develop. Archaeology can be a portfolio career and it is OK for the areas that interest you to change over time. At a time when even the value of doing a postdoc is in question, your stage as an early career researcher is a period to step outside your area of expertise and explore as much as possible. Try new methods and theories, go to new conferences and field locations and publish in new journals or formats—but more than that, try new jobs and try new hobbies. I found through joining the editing team of a journal and publishing my first book that I have a genuine interest in academic editing and publishing. To find the right career fit you need to remain open to all career paths and may need to do more than move from job to job.

5. Continue to give back
Remember what I wrote above about creating a support team to seek advice, counsel and perspective? Take time to invest in others by offering those things in turn. I have helped students and recent graduates with job applications and mock interviews, reviewing grant applications, providing references, preparing publications and general university advice. Make sure that junior colleagues you meet at conferences or fieldwork are aware that you are willing to listen to their questions, as they may not otherwise think to ask. It came as a surprise to me recently when I found out that a student is using my work as a case study in their dissertation. But it also made me realise that I am no longer a recent PhD and do have skills and experience to offer to the next generation of PhDs joining me in early career research.

May these five points inspire you to take the initiative to manage your own career—whether that be in academia or not!