Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Post-PhD job hunt:(not) a bed of roses


I wrote this post for the OCIS PhD blog as the first in a series of posts on doctoral students’ experiences during and after finalizing their PhD. As it nicely sums up some of the obstacles I encountered during my PhD, in lieu of a much-needed blog update, here it is.

“Post-PhD job hunt:(not) a bed of roses”
OCIS asked me to share my experiences of post-PhD job hunting, to encourage others in the long and often frustrating trials and tribulations of completing a PhD. Well, let me warn you in advance: it wasn’t all a bed of roses, unless of course you consider that roses come with really hard and painful thorns. Nonetheless, my story does show that if you persevere, it is possible to secure a great position, in my case as Assistant Professor in a department that befits my research interests perfectly (and with nice colleagues, too).

So, first back to the beginnings. After working several years as a consultant, and later as project coordinator in international development aid, I embarked on PhD research at Royal Holloway University of London. I wanted to analyze how knowledge sharing occurred in view of the many dispersed, unequal partners and diverging interests involved in development cooperation. At Royal Holloway, I looked at this question through a development perspective. However, it soon turned out that what was actually needed was an organizational perspective. While working in development, I had established a vast network, among whom a professor at the VU University Amsterdam, and with her support, I was fortunate to secure a fully funded position for my research proposal, in the department of Business Administration.

In the research group where I was based, PhDs are encouraged to write their dissertation based on papers, rather than a book or monograph. The risk in this approach is that getting a paper ready for submission to a good journal, let alone getting it published, takes a very, very long time:1,5 years for my first paper before submission, followed by 5 (!) individual (and of course conflicting) reviews to process and respond to; finally published after 3 years of work. Another paper,1 year before submission, followed by 2 rounds of reviews; almost three years later:final editorial decision pending. A third paper,1.5 years before submission, followed by 9 months of waiting – and then:rejection.

So, feeling encouraged yet?

It gets better. Well, actually, first it gets worse. Because doing the actual research and writing, rewriting, rewriting and rewriting papers apparently didn’t keep me adequately occupied (not to mention my husband, 2 kids, and house renovation), I initiated several research proposals, in partnership with various partners in research and public institutes, and with full support of my supervisor. Two were rejected, a third, the largest one (a 1 million euro research project) was awarded. Hooray! What a boost to my future career!

And then: it was cancelled, due to financial cutbacks. Yep.

Well. Was all this a waste of time? Unsurprisingly, as we researchers love to conclude, the answer is yes on the one hand, and no on the other. Yes it was a waste of time, because I spent years working on things that are still not even out there, and I don’t have a nice satchel full of papers and grants to catapult me into success. No it was not a waste of time, because the inputs I received from the reviewers and senior editors helped me ultimately provide a much stronger contribution (which I am convinced will be published in a good journal within, oh let’s be optimistic, and say within the next three years). :/

When it was time to start thinking about “what’s next”, I was armed to enter the competitive academic market, with one, almost two articles published, two others presented at among others the Academy of Management and a few more well on their way to journal submission. I wrote to three research groups, and secured three job interviews. All three with partners I had worked with toward those project proposals.

Remember? Those three failed proposals? Turned out not to be such a waste of time after all.

So,what’s the bottom line? Well, no surprise to anyone doing a PhD: persevere, persevere, persevere. And make yourself vulnerable, dare to take a thrashing. In fact, go and seek out that thrashing! Because if at first (or second, or third, or fourth) you don’t succeed, well, the next time: you may. Yes, I am still waiting for the grants to be awarded, still waiting for the redeeming email telling me the paper is finally accepted, and oh my goodness, not even ready to finally resubmit that danged other paper to a different good journal. But I was able to convince heads of departments that I had what it took to become Assistant Professor, because I could write, multi-task, go out there and seek funding, and maybe most importantly:establish a good network.

So go out there and grab those top scholars at the AoM conference, send your papers in to top journals, and dazzle them all with your unique contributions and oh so interesting projects. And if at first you don’t succeed with what you were aiming for, well: try, try and try again. I mean, look at my track record. Didn’t sound so hot, did it? But no matter how bleak things may seem sometimes, they’re probably not actually all that bad. Despite my setbacks (and trust me, this isn’t even the tip of the iceberg), I did finish my research in time, even got a bonus for it. I did secure a position in a good research department before even getting my title and was recently nominated as ‘promising young researcher’.

Hey, if I can do it,and after all that,then why shouldn’t you?


Julie E. Ferguson is an Assistant Professor of Organization Sciences at the VU University Faculty of Social Sciences. She recently defended her PhD dissertation entitled ‘Perspectives on aid. Accommodating heterogeneity in knowledge management for development’,and had a good ole’ party to celebrate its completion.