Career Advice

Establishing an all-round academic profile

Simply delivering an excellent thesis is not enough to compete in the academic job market. Instead, universities look for all-round academics. PhD students, and master’s students who strive for academic careers in the future, benefit from being aware of these expectations. The sooner you know, the better you can prepare!

Why narrow expertise is not good enough

It is a common scenario. After 3, 4 or even more years, a student completes a dissertation. Tears, blood and sweat went into it. And it is surely something to be proud of! Yet, a few weeks later, another job application is rejected. Why?

Doing a PhD is an intense process. You dive into one topic and gain expertise. Unfortunately, many supervisors fail to stress that JUST a good thesis is not good enough anymore. It does not necessarily make you employable.

Universities look for candidates who do well in research and who have teaching and supervision experience. In addition to having a track record of funding applications, strong (international) networks, and proven leadership potential.

All these activities should not take over your life. Or distract you from your actual research. However, try to incorporate them here and there. At the end of your PhD, if you can give one example per topic below, you are on a good track.

Research

Research matters. However, this does not only relate to the final output, which can be either a monograph or a collection of articles. Publications are generally an advantage. So when writing a monograph, maybe you can join one co-authored article with a colleague, or publish one article on your own.

Research also includes research activities such as participation in academic conferences. It can also be participating in a thematic group or expert group within your field. Relationships are crucial, and research offers many entry points into valuable networks.

Teaching

Most academic positions involve a high amount of teaching. Positions that entirely focus on research are rare. Research-only positions might be easier to find in a think tank or a private company.

Being able to showcase your teaching experience can make you stand out from the competition. Maybe you can assist a professor in an existing course. Help with the grading. Or you can design and teach a few guest lectures on your thesis topic?

Keep your eyes open for possibilities. Inform yourself. Talk with your supervisor. Furthermore, check if there is there a certificate or diploma programme for teaching in higher education that you can follow at your institution.

You may also like: Writing a successful academic CV (and a free template)

Supervision

Supervision is a teaching-related activity. Yet, is often listed separately in academic CVs, as it refers to a different skill set than, for example, lecturing. Supervision means one-on-one coaching. It can present a good entryway into teaching.

Bachelor thesis supervision is a good practice for a PhD student. Ask your department if there is a possibility to take over one or two thesis students. Bachelor thesis supervision is fun and can give you new self-confidence as a researcher and educator.

Successful grant proposals

The lack of funding is a big problem in academia. Therefore, a lot of universities rely on staff to write grant proposals. External funding brought to an institution is also often financing temporary junior positions, such as PhD students.

Of course, no one expects you to secure a multi-million dollar project! But maybe there are small grants available for short-term projects. Think of, let’s say,100 dollars to set up an excursion or a panel debate. Or maybe you can apply for a bursary to attend a conference or PhD school for free.

Additionally, if you know that your supervisor or someone in your department is working on a grant proposal, offer your support. It might seem like another case of free academic labour, but learning how to write successful funding applications is a trump card in academia.

Networks

Networks should be fostered both within a PhD student’s current institution and beyond. Starting a PhD begins with a small academic circle. But over time, you will meet more people. For instance at conferences or in seminars. Make sure to stay in touch with them. Check-in from time to time and give updates on your progress.

Be strategic about your networks. Think of your dream university, or your dream city to live in. If you know where you would love to work in the future, reach out to people who are already there.

Networks provide valuable connections. For instance for collaborations or joint funding proposals. Good ‘academic friends’ also make your life easier as you will have someone to talk to other than your supervisor.

Project leadership

As many academics work based on research projects, gaining project leadership experience is a plus. It shows self-initiative, responsibility and your ability to collaborate with and lead a team.

Again, the sky is the limit. But you do not need to reinvent the wheel. Instead, think of something beneficial for your research. And of something feasible.

Ideas could be to organize a one-day seminar together with other PhD students. Or organizing a movie screening related to your research, followed by a discussion. Or a panel debate bringing academics and practitioners working on your thesis topic together for knowledge exchange.

Academic service

Academic service includes all kinds of activities. Think of writing a peer review for an academic journal. To perform editorial tasks for a journal. Or to sit on an examination committee of a bachelor thesis.

Similarly, academic service includes developing conference sessions. If you have connections to a host institution of a conference, you can even help with the planning and smooth execution of a conference or research seminar.

The idea is simple: showcase that you are involved. That you are passionate about your field. And that you are actively engaged in your academic community.

Dissemination

Dissemination of academic research becomes increasingly important. It means that you need to showcase that you are not sitting in your ivory tower, but that your work is societally relevant.

There are various ways to do so. They can range from personal connections to public, private and civil society organizations, to share your findings. It can include public webinars, an active social media presence, or participation in formal advisory bodies. You name it!

Feeling overwhelmed? No need to panic…

This list might seem overwhelming. Especially when you just started your academic journey, still figuring out your research focus. However, think about these tasks in the long-term:

  • Maybe in the first year, you can organize a PhD seminar in your department.
  • Maybe in your second year, you can join a thematic group and be involved in one of the group’s conference sessions.
  • Maybe in your third year, you can support a funding application.
  • And maybe in your fourth year, you can supervise a bachelor’s student and give a guest lecture on your preliminary PhD results.

Doesn’t sound so scary anymore, does it? And I can 100% assure you that you will thank yourself later!

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