Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Academic job applications lessons learned... so far #phd #job

Once a PhD is almost finalized (I am having my PhD defense on Thursday 12 January 2017), the next challenge is finding a new job. Finding a new profession is always a challenge, but... it turns out that I was not that well prepared and I did not know some of the basic steps towards becoming a serious researcher. So, I thought that I would add to the previous PhD posts and accompanying slides (on Life as a PhD student and Is there life post PhD?).

Some elements are easily adaptable for future job applications, and other actions should have been undertaken early in the PhD journey. I learned to mention my experiences explicitly, to read the job applications 10 times over (as well as the information page of the related departments), to illustrate funding explicitly, and highlight teaching experiences. I did ask a Human Resource expert to have a look at my academic resume/CV from the HR point of view, and that improved the overall look of it. But admittedly, no one else but me knows what I actually did, so I had to learn to make my academic leadership/research/philosophy explicit, while staying true to myself (this last element can have a huge effect by the way).
On the other hand, there are some facts that are unavoidably part of the process of becoming a serious researcher, and it seems that I have to find and accept those rules. Here is what I learned so far, all mixed with some personal reflections on each step (reflections of someone who still has to learn the ropes despite (or because of) her age. If you know other points of attention, feel free to share, I still have a lot to learn, I am sure.

What accounts as scientific output: choose high impact journals to publish your research
However much you might be critical of the self-sustaining closed research publishing cycle... it has no use to solely publish in open access journals if you want to be seen as a high class researcher. Publishing in what is called A1 (or high impact) journals is inevitable if you want to be seen as a strong researcher. Even if you have a high h-index and accompanying citations, it just is not valued as strongly as the sometimes less-cited A1 journals.
There is a good, longstanding article on the debate of 'Why the impact factor of journals should not be used for evaluating research' comes from Per O Seglen which goes back to 1997, a more recent article published in Nature written by Ewen Callaway on some of the publishing elite turning its back on the impact factor. And there is of course the risk of being trapped by predatory open access publishers, which needs to be avoided by all of us.

Research versus practice oriented work
Another distinction is made between research articles and practice work and articles. To me writing practice oriented articles increases the public awareness of evidence-based research implementation. I also really like to put theory to practice (what works on paper and in life... is real evidence-based, right?). But, it can be used against you when your profile is compared to others who publish research articles solely, or only work on theoretical research. So, if you want to be considered as a serious researcher, collaborate with other high impact researchers and institutes to built your strong research profile.
This also means to use highly visible (and generally accepted) theoretical frameworks or theoretical grounding for any application which involves research. Share ready-to-be-used research instruments, based on theoretical sound frameworks. This is part of making your assumptions and expertise visible, if you have theoretical knowledge and you are planning to use it, than make those theoretical groundings shine like really bright stars in order to look as serious as the serious investigator you are.
On the other hand, look for practice oriented postdocs if you like putting theory to practice .

Making research assumptions visible
To me, it is very logical what I did professionally, but that is not the case with others reading my resume/CV. This is true from a theoretical research perspective, and from a practical perspective. A sentence like "I developed and rolled out multiple elearning solutions" covers what I did in terms of developing Technology Enhanced Learning tools and instruments. It turned out that such sentences simply get blurred if they are in the middle of a cv. Those types of sentences do not ring any bells, so they do not trigger the brain of whomever is reading the resume. I found that out the hard way, from feedback indicating that the person who was accepted had more experience with authoring tools and virtual learning environments ... I have used multiple authoring tools, each to build online learning that was meaningful for its context, delivery and target population, ... so that made me think about what I had mentioned in my resume, and what was actually understood by it. So, now I adapted my resume, and added a brief list of examples after the sentence: built content using authoring tools, increased social learning experiences by implementing a diverse social learning palet (cohort learning, jigsaw approach), linked indicators to meaningful learning analytics, engaged in expert recording, editing and using mixed media (audio, video, computer assisted animation tools), wrote html5 applications to be used in mobile learning, installed, supported and adapted Moodle for LMS (including basic learning analytics). But these are all very practice oriented deliverable's.

Now, I also understand that if I want to focus on my scientific work, I will have to briefly describe and than possibly offer more detailed accounts of my research work: instruments used, frameworks used, theoretical grounding I am familiar with... Looking as a serious researcher opens the door to becoming (an even more serious) one. Classes I have given (for which levels or groups).
From a personality perspective, listing these accomplishments felt difficult. It felt like bragging (a thing not to be done in my upbringing, but ... very necessary when applying for jobs in competitive fields).

Promote and support your independent research 
From a research perspective, there is a recurring question probing for any independent scientific work you have performed. Again, this is where I used the wrong sort of phrasing: I mentioned my independent scientific work, but I did not specify that it was independent (I set it up, coordinated it, built the instruments and found funding), which made it look like just something I was involved in due to being asked. Okay, I am changing the phrasing on those options as well.
But there is more, if you are writing a research or teaching proposal, make sure you use strong, supported theoretical frameworks for those proposals. Again, show that you know your field-specific research, and that you can use accepted theoretical frameworks as a means for your proposal.
Get affiliated with a major research institute. Not being affiliated with an well-established, recognised research institute might also keep doors closed. So even if you are an independent researcher, try to get a (free, but affiliated) title with one of the major universities. This will help you grow personally, professionally, and will help to open doors in the future.

Built and nurture your professional research network
Even if you cannot sell yourself that well to others you do not know, those researchers who do know you will understand your strengths more easily. This enhances your options of getting a job at their institutions, or

Ask more senior researchers to revue your proposal
Well, this is of course only possible if you write your proposal well in advance, as senior researchers have little spare time. I neglected this option with one of my research proposals, and the feedback made me realize that it could have been stronger, if I had only showed the proposal to more experienced academics in my network and gotten their feedback.

Understanding academic leadership, and making it explicit
Providing a good overview of your academic leadership is very useful. This means that you need to put yourself out there, ready to collaborate with others. Say yes to any research, supervision, funding, teaching opportunities you might be offered or you can attract yourself. This is VERY important. If you support anyone's (research) thesis, whether in a master/PhD track, make note and list it in your resume (preferably with a link to title and person of course).

Language is also a determining factor, being able to communicate in English is quite important in the Northern hemisphere. And although the academic world is seen as being international, you will have to make sure you learn your field-specific jargon and regional focus points (some countries look for international academics, others are more national in their search). And it seems to me that it is better to stay and get a post-doc where you got your PhD, than to immediately go out and move country immediately after having finished your PhD. So, first build up some extra seniority as a researcher.

Personal challenges
Everyone looking for a job has additional personal challenges: for me - or at least how I perceive it - there is my age (admitting that I do have a lot of pre-academic professional experiences). The fact that I come from a background without prior academics (so no common or informal knowledge was passed on). The fact that I belief everyone should be able to have access to any research output (which inevitably brought me to the idea that open journals are always the best choice, which ... they are not if you want to be seen as a serious researcher. My family combination (same sex couple with young child) omits me from some working environments, and omits some professional options.

Of course, these are only small challenges when compared to others in more pressing circumstances, e.g. what to do if you were educated in another country or having had to move from a forced displacement, and your at least one of your degrees is not acknowledged? But for me, it already feels like an uphill battle and sometimes one I had not seen coming.

I will become 50 years old in the year to come, and I must admit I feel a bit beaten by the norm once again. At this point in time it feels like I found my calling too late, or that I am not fully equipped for it, and that the choices made early in life keep weighing on the future steps you take.