Thoughts from the UK and Denmark

Kellee and I are heading into the final week of our month in the UK and Europe!  We’ve had an absolutely amazing journey so far.   We visited the Universities of Aberdeen (thank you, Amy Bryzgel), where I did a talk on the US job market, and an interactive talk on women’s leadership for female faculty, and Kellee did an Interview workshop.

Kellee at Aberdeen (with a little help from the sea captain)

Kellee at Aberdeen (with a little help from the sea captain)

Then (as I told you last time) we went on to St. Andrews, where I did a keynote at a Ph.D. careers conference (thank you, Catherine Spencer and Laura Goddard!).  We then traveled to Edinburgh, where I did a workshop to an audience of more than 100! (thank you, Carol MacDonald!)

I’m glad to say we got to fit in some excellent sightseeing in Scotland, and I am now determined to move there – it stole my heart.  But we had to move on to London.  I spoke to a big crowd at Kings College London (Thank you, Kate Murray!)

That went great.  The food poisoning following the dinner afterward, not so much…

Kellee at London School of Economics

Kellee at London School of Economics

So, Kellee took over my talk at London School of Economics, to great acclaim! (of course) (Thank you, Catherine Reynolds, especially for your flexibility with that last minute adjustment!)

We then moved on to Oxford,

Karen at Oxford

Karen at Oxford

where I gave two events: a talk to about 50 on hacking the academic job market in what is surely the loveliest space for a talk I will ever encounter (a restored 18th century chapel),

and a breakout workshop on job documents for a smaller group, while Kellee did a great event on Interviewing.  (Thank you, John Miles!)


Kellee at Oxford

And then on to Cambridge, and a packed and very friendly house of over 200 for the big talk, and another breakout session on job documents. (Thank you, Steve Joy and team!)


At Cambridge


At Warwick

The very next day, it was on to University of Warwick, for an evening talk to about 100 (Thank you, Becky Kaner!)

And after a day of travel to Denmark, we traveled to University of Roskilde, where for the first time I got to work for a full day with a small and intimate group of students and faculty,

Karen at Roskilde

Karen at Roskilde

on the US job market, the post-academic job search, and grant-writing (Thank you, Lisa Ann Richey!)

In my last post, I made the observation that we are all in the same boat, trying to use our Ph.D.s in a time of severely contracting budgets.  No, the UK doesn’t have quite the adjunct situation that we do in the United States, but they do have the breathtakingly quantified rubric of academic productivity represented by the REF.  No Denmark doesn’t have anything like the level of Ph.D. debt that we have in the States (their grad students are generously funded, albeit only for a brisk three-year total program), but they have seen federal grand funding evaporate entirely (I mean, entirely), forcing them to compete for EU grants against a multi-national population of competitors.   On no campus could a majority of Ph.D.s expect to find secure academic work.

The specific pressures we confront are different, but the big picture is the same.  The world has turned sharply in an anti-intellectual direction, and funding for scholarly work has drastically fallen (that is, outside of Oxford and Cambridge, which did seem, as far as I could discern, stunningly insulated from these trends.  But insulated only for those ON the faculty!  When I spoke with my faculty host at High Table dinner, the phrase that most struck me was “So that’s definitely a problem… but we don’t have to worry about it at Oxford.”)  This was of course not the case for the Oxford and Cambridge Ph.D. students and postdocs themselves, who have to seek out work in more prosaic circumstances.

I wondered how my message would be received, and I was relieved to find it was received very well.  Ph.D. students and postdocs at each campus needed the core Professor Is In reminders:

  • Recall this is a job, not a calling
  • Prepare for your career from your earliest days in the program
  • Recognize the ways you “act like a grad student,” and jettison them
  • Claim authority and expertise in your field
  • Make your case for yourself on facts, not on saccharine feelings
  • Recognize that your project doesn’t speak for itself–it requires a careful disciplining of writing and speaking
  • Know that the tenure-line (secure academic) job is the exception, and be open to the non-academic track
  • Cultivate multiple mentors who can provide concrete, reality-based, denial-resistant career advising

I happened to hear President Obama’s commencement address to Howard University while staying in Oxford, and I was struck by a line:  “I want you to have passion, but you have to have a strategy. ”  He was speaking of changing the world through activism and political organization, of course. He went on to say “Not just awareness, but action.  Not just hashtags, but votes.” But I, of course, thought how the thought applies to careers as well.  People who go into the Ph.D. tend to be passionate about their subjects.  And passion fuels you through your many years of study.  But passion alone doesn’t yield jobs in this economy–that requires the discipline, forethought, and calculation of strategy.

It continues to be countercultural to state this so baldly in the academy.  Even more so in the UK and Europe, it seems, where the ivory tower ideal is perhaps more intact than it is in the States.  But I saw my audiences take it in, grapple with it, and engage with it, just like audiences do in the States.  In a world where governments have withdrawn support for scholarly work (particularly in the humanities), we must all become strategists of our careers.

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Thoughts from the UK and Denmark — 6 Comments

  1. Why in the world are so many people trying to teach in America? Don’t they realize it’s already drowning in grads who can’t get jobs? Just curious.

    • The same reason so many are trying to get jobs in writing, music, art, dance, etc. even though the market is dim. Passion for something happens to be very important ya know.

      • Don’t have to specifically go to the U.S. to pursue your passion. I don’t think a lot of people understand how difficult it is to find a job and get tenure in the U.S.

        • I would also like to point out that many in these sessions would be US citizens who are looking to potentially come back to the US. The academic job market is hard in all locations, and trying to figure out where to apply is knowledge needed no matter the country you come from.

    • Because depending on the field, the European job market can be even worse than the US – in terms of the quantity of tenure-track positions.

  2. It is certainly not easy to find an academic job in the US, but US universities continue to attract applicants from around the world. The salary/benefits at top US institutions compare favorably to universities in many other parts of the world, and their resources/facilities/libraries are outstanding. US institutions tend to dominate rankings of world universities — 18 out of the top 50 world universities are in the US (QS rankings 2015). So for a PhD seeking an academic job from, say, the developing world, or even somewhere like Western Europe or Australia, the idea of a US job at a well-known institution is often attractive, even if the competition is fierce.

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