Reflections on a viva-versary: total transparency regarding the path to a permanent Lectureship

We are launching this new academic year with a thoughtful reflection by Dr James Connolly (UCL) on the Viva process and the trajectory from doctoral research to permanent lecturer.

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I am writing this on 19 September 2018, the six-year anniversary of my PhD viva (i.e. defence or soutenance), which I passed with minor corrections (mainly typos). It is also the first time that I have had a permanent job on my viva-versary – in January 2018 I became Lecturer in Modern French History in the French department at UCL. As such, I thought it could be useful to PhD students and other Early Career Researchers to discuss how I got here, i.e. the overview of job applications and interviews.  I think it is important to be open about our experiences, to help PhD students and possibly other ECRs envisage what they might expect in UK academia; and to show that those of us who have ‘made’ it to the Holy Grail of a permanent job have only done so by overcoming setbacks, rejections, and failures.  I am going to go into a fair bit of detail, so apologies for the length of this post.

I must admit that I was initially somewhat reluctant to write this, to ‘show my working’ as it were, for various reasons:

1) I do not wish the ‘failures’ outlined here to be considered a fair reflection of my abilities as a researcher, teacher, and historian. Other scholars – and hopefully my former and current students and colleagues – probably know that this is not the case.  However, perhaps future students (or anyone else) may interpret this blog in the opposite manner than that which I intend: for the record, the intention is to show how every academic has faced rejection and applied to multiple institutions, not that we’re all merely barely-successful chancers clinging on by the skin of our teeth (let’s put aside the semi-related issue of Imposter Syndrome for now)!

2) I am acutely aware that I can only speak about my own experience, and that others have had (or continue to have) a much tougher time. I know far too many excellent scholars who are still seeking a permanent job, some of whom have been searching for longer than I had to, and many of whom have held shorter or more precarious positions than I had.  For these fellow academics and friends, the statistics I provide below may seem like peanuts compared to their own numbers of job applications, interviews, and positions held.  Conversely, I also have friends who had a much faster trajectory between PhD and a permanent job than I did.  So one person’s experience is not necessarily massively informative or relevant, especially because…

3) … I am aware that various forms of explicit and implicit privilege likely helped me secure a permanent job. These include being a straight, white man; having a PhD from a Golden Triangle university (King’s College London); having a well-known former supervisor and referees who wrote kind references; having taught exclusively in Russell Group universities; having secured funding for my MA, PhD, and write-up year; and coming from London (with less potential for prejudice regarding my accent etc). There are likely more privileges that I am unaware of.  Beyond this, it seems to me that an element of luck is definitely involved – you happen to have the right profile for the right job at the right time, as you will see below.

Despite my reservations, the response to my tweet that inspired this blog post was positive.  So, caveats aside, let’s drill down into the details. First, the positions I had: from September 2012 until now (September 2018), I held six different positions at five different institutions, across two countries (Britain and France) and three cities (London, Paris, and Manchester).  Two of these were limited teaching jobs paid by the hour (a two-term, part-time Temporary Lectureship, and a two-term Visiting Teaching Staff position).  One was a twelve-month teaching-focused Lectureship, two were post-docs, and the final position is my current, permanent job. My life was slightly less nomadic than you might expect: by spending a few days a week in Manchester, I was able to ‘commute’ from London, where my wife and I live(d).  I did, however, spend a lot of time travelling or away from home, and also lived in Paris for 14 months for the related post-doc; commuting was out of the question there!

How did I end up getting these jobs?  Well, from the final year of my PhD (2012) to securing a permanent position in January 2018, I applied for 66 jobs at 36 different institutions, two of which were in France.  You don’t need a degree in Maths to work out that I therefore applied multiple times to the same institution, albeit not always to the same department: as a historian of France, I had the ability to apply to language departments as well.  Of the 66 applications, I received 57 (86%) outright rejections, plus one longlisting for which I did not make it onto the shortlist.  I was only invited to 8 interviews, 7 of which were for temporary positions.  The interview breakdown is as follows:

● 2012: 3 interviews, 1 immediate rejection but reserve candidate for the remaining 2; neither led to a job.  How did I survive financially that year?  Until August I had funding as an Institute of Historical Research Scouloudi Fellow, and in September/October I began a Temporary Lectureship (part-time) at my home institution (KCL, where I had previously taught as a Graduate Teaching Assistant in 2010-11) and also began as a member of Visiting Teaching Staff at Royal Holloway (where I had previously taught in the first term of 2012).  In total, I earned very little indeed across the whole of 2012.

● 2013: 1 (Skype!) interview, success: a one-year (largely administrative) post-doc position at the Sorbonne, beginning in April, renewable up to three years.  I still had exams and coursework to mark at KCL, so until around June 2013 I technically worked at both KCL and the Sorbonne, even though I lived in Paris.  The Sorbonne postdoc contract was renewed in 2014, but I left for another job a few months into the second year.

● 2014: 1 interview, reserve candidate, finally a success because the first-choice candidate withdrew: a twelve-month teaching-focused Lectureship in Modern European History at the University of Manchester.

● 2015: 2 interviews, one for a three-year Lectureship (rejection), and one for a three-year post-doc at Manchester (success).

● 2017: 1 interview, success: permanent Lectureship in Modern French History at UCL.

Of course, I was extremely grateful for every job I secured, but it always felt like I was just about managing to stay in academia; the sense of precariousness pervaded my life, even when I managed to spend multiple (happy) years in Manchester.  Indeed, as I entered the final year of my three-year postdoc there, I was seriously contemplating alternative careers.  Yet I never had a period of unemployment, and my salary increased from job to job, and I eventually received a job offer after my first interview for a permanent job, all of which I know is rare. Furthermore, I had been particularly lucky that the first-choice candidate withdrew for my 2014 Lectureship at Manchester, which then stood me in good stead for the postdoc I secured there (that said, it was not a foregone conclusion, and the interview panel of c.6 people only contained one member of the History Department).  I continued to teach my own course and supervise dissertation students, but this postdoc still allowed me important breathing space to work on my book and other research, which I believe also increased my chance of securing another job. This was especially the case because the end of the REF cycle was approaching, and anecdotally the ability to be ‘REFable’ in general seems more important than ever these days.  A final word on opportunities and luck: two of the jobs I secured, the Sorbonne postdoc and my Lectureship at UCL, were only possibilities because I speak fluent French (nothing to do with my upbringing, just years of study at high-school and university level!).

However, even considering the above, my overall success rate was rather pathetic: out of 66 applications, I was successful as a first-choice candidate just 4.5% of the time; in other words, I had a job application failure rate of 95.5%!  Perhaps I should not have applied for quite as many jobs; perhaps I was clearly unsuitable for some of them.  My ‘success rate’ did seem to increase as my number of applications went down, suggesting there may be an argument for only applying to jobs for which you feel like you genuinely would be the perfect candidate.  Then again, it also just happened to be the case that there were fewer jobs available in my field from 2015-17, and correlation is not causation in any case.  The truth is, I don’t quite know how or why I got the jobs I did, or why other equally strong candidates did not; I just know that it took me the best part of five-and-a-half years to secure a permanent lectureship.

Finally, it may be useful to outline my teaching and publication experience by January 2018.  Once again, this is just what my CV looked like, and should not be treated as a hard-and-fast benchmark, but it may be useful to have an idea (You’ll also get an idea, if you hadn’t already, of my pedantic penchant for working out career-related statistics).

Since September 2010, I had taught a total of c.300 students in seminars and c.550 students in lectures across 8 undergraduate courses (2 of which I designed) and 1 MA course, and supervised c.30 undergraduate dissertations.

I had published:

● 4 peer-reviewed journal articles.
● 3 peer-reviewed encyclopaedia entries
● 1 book chapter

I had submitted:

● 2 peer-reviewed encyclopaedia entries
● 1 book chapter
● 1 monograph (i.e. contract signed, post peer-review, awaiting proofs)
● 1 edited collection for which I was a co-editor

These were all due to be published the year that the new job started.

This is what it took for me to get a permanent job.  Others will have trodden a different path, and yet more will have trodden a similar path without the outcome I am grateful to have received.  To be clear, I am not claiming that your success as a PhD holder should be judged by your ability to secure a permanent academic job, especially when there seems to be some unfathomable alchemy to doing so.  I know people who chose to leave academia and are extremely happy for it; I am also aware of others who may be forced to leave the field against their wishes.  The truth is that there are more excellent candidates than there are jobs, so in general universities should provide PhD students opportunities for further training, transferrable skills, and advice regarding other career opportunities – which must not be considered inferior.  Yet they should also be upfront about the challenges involved for those who do want to remain in academia, and I hope this post proves informative and helpful in that regard.

James Connolly is Lecturer in Modern French History in the French Department at University College London.  His research focuses on the socio-cultural history of military occupation and war, notably the First World War.   His first book (The Experience of Occupation in the Nord, 1914-18: Living with the Enemy in First World War France) was published in May 2018 by Manchester University Press, and can be accessed for free via Open Access: http://oapen.org/search?identifier=649852′

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