Doors in a row, one is yellow

Getting Your First Lecturing Job: Online Careers Panel Event

On Wednesday 27th March 2024 the IAD Careers Team hosted an online panel of academics to share their experiences of transitioning into a lecturing role. James Hutton wasn’t able to make the event but has kindly shared his experiences and top tips in this Guest Blog Post below.

Name  James Hutton

Current employer TU Delft, The Netherlands

Role  Assistant Professor of Ethics and Philosophy of Technology


What first inspired you to have a career in academia?

I was a couple of years into my undergrad when (a) I realized that I really, really liked the life of absorbing and discussing ideas and coming up with ideas of my own, and (b) one of my mentors at the time let me know that he thought I had what it took to make it in academia. When I started getting teaching experience during my PhD, I just loved that part of the profession too – I found teaching very energising, and I found that it often brought new clarity to my ideas and ability to communicate.

Zooming out a bit further, I think philosophy is a kind of unavoidable human enterprise that is valuable for its own sake and that it has the potential to contribute to society’s choosing wise paths rather than unwise ones, so I feel both lucky and inspired that I get to read and write philosophy professionally.

Can you talk us through the steps you took to make the transition from your PhD to your first lecturing job?

I finished my PhD in autumn 2019. In the slightly-more-than a year leading up to that, I applied for tonnes of jobs – postdocs, lectureships, the works – on various different topics. I got many many rejections, but I ended up getting a couple of interviews: one for a postdoc in philosophy of technology in Aachen, and one for a 1-year lectureship at UCL. I was offered the latter, which seemed more appealing, so I withdrew from the former.

I carried on building my teaching and organising experience at UCL and shepherded a couple more things from my PhD project through to publication. Alongside applying for and getting rejected from lots and lots of postdocs, lectureships, etc., I applied for the Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship (ECF) at a few different places, getting shortlisted at Edinburgh, which resulted in my getting the grant.

Covid hit, and I was offered another year in the UCL job, so I delayed my Leverhulme ECF as long as possible. During this time, I managed to get an article into one of the top philosophy journals. One of my mentors encouraged me to start applying for permanent jobs off the back of this publication, so I started with that as soon as I arrived in Edinburgh for my (3-year) ECF.

I applied for basically every permanent job in the UK and Ireland that I was at all a plausible fit for. And I got rejected from all of them that first year. At this point, I started “freaking out” a bit, as my mentor in Edinburgh put it – she kept telling me that everything was going to be fine, but I kept thinking, “if that year on the job market happens two more times, I’m going to have to find another career.”

During this time, I got some great help from Eleanor Hennige, who works for the Institute for Academic Development. She gave me really helpful 1-on-1 feedback on my job documents and helped me to see that it can be a long process to get your documents in good shape.

In the second year of my fellowship, I decided to cast the net a bit wider. I decided to apply for jobs in the Netherlands and Belgium as well as the UK and Ireland – I’d been hearing really good things about the philosophy scene, and also the quality of life and working conditions, in the Netherlands. (Plus, my partner has a family connection to the Netherlands.) I emailed some Dutch and Belgian researchers whose work I admired, and they were very helpful with directing me towards job openings that weren’t necessarily on the standard UK platforms.

I got a job interview for a permanent position at TU Delft, a top university with a lively philosophy department. I did mock interviews with my postdoc mentor, head of department, and with Eleanor (from the Institute for Academic Development). And then the interview went my way, so here I am!

Reflecting back on your career to date, what were two or three things you did that you feel were most helpful to getting your first lecturing role?

  1. Getting LOADS of help with my job application documents and interview answers. Looking back, it was really fortunate that I gave myself a pretty long runway to find a job in the course of my postdoc, as this allowed me to make incremental improvements and get multiple rounds of feedback from different mentors. Looking, for example, at my cover letters from 2021 and 2022, there’s a world of difference in my ability to explain clearly how my experience relates to all the stuff the job advert said they’re looking for.
  2. Keeping focused on research. Consistently blocking out time for working on articles, even at the height of covid madness. I am a big fan of Paul Silva’s lovely sarcastic little book about the process of academic research, How to Write a Lot. (Here’s the “process” he recommends: “(a) scheduling time to write; (b) sitting on a chair, bench, stool, ottoman, toilet, or patch of grass during the scheduled time; and (c) slapping your flippers against the keyboard to generate paragraphs. Let everyone else procrastinate, daydream, and complain—spend your time sitting down and flapping your flippers.”)
  3. A sizable pinch of good luck! I easily could have been passed over for the Leverhulme ECF and had my paper rejected at that top journal; I feel like those early successes were what set me up for getting the permanent job in the end. You obviously have to do everything in your power to make sure you’re a high-quality candidate, but at the end of the day there is an ineliminable element of randomness in all of these decision-processes. As someone on the job market, this is as unsettling as it is undeniable, and you just have to find a way to reconcile yourself to it. Things like mindfulness and having hobbies outside work were helpful for me. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum has argued that pretty much the central challenge of human existence is the task of coming to terms with the fact that most of the important things in life are subject to forces beyond your control. I guess that’s helpful for keeping things in perspective?

How would you describe your job-hunting strategy?

My process was to check the relevant section of a couple of afternoons a week, and occasionally look at a couple of mailing lists in my discipline, and then I’d go with my gut about which things to apply for.

The only non-obvious bit of advice I have about job hunting is to try to find out about all the different nationally funded postdocs available in different European countries (NWO in Netherlands; FWO in Belgium; DAAD, Humboldt & Fritz Thyssen in Germany; etc.). If you start asking around, it turns out there are dozens of these, and many of them have success rates of about 15% (compared to, say, 1 in 300 for an Oxbridge JRF). In effect, you can find a really nice multi-year postdoc, which is getting way less applications per place than the jobs listed on I think of them as a sort of “under-priced” commodity on the job market, due to the fact that lots of people aren’t aware of them. Once you’ve identified one, email potential host researchers whose work looks good, and make sure to email universities’ research offices to find out if there are online trainings for applying for that specific grant. (The applications are, sadly, usually pretty long and idiosyncratic.)

I’m supposed to be talking about getting your first lectureship, but getting 3 or 4 years of time to build a body of excellent research is a very good way to subsequently get your first lectureship!

What were the main challenges, and what steps did you take to overcome them?

Probably the main challenge was the feeling of despair that inevitably sets in as the rejections pile up… My mentors kept on telling me I was a strong candidate, but I found myself thinking, “Maybe they just don’t know what the job market is like these days. Maybe I’m not going to make it.” In the end, they were right and I was wrong.

A nice piece of advice I got from a colleague was this: if you get a flat-out rejection, that gives you very little information about your quality as a candidate, because almost all candidates, high-quality and low-quality, get flat-out rejected. Maybe you’re a hopeless candidate, but maybe it was a near miss and maybe it would have gone your way if the panel had been a bit different or whatever. So, first lesson: resist the urge to see every rejection as evidence that you’re a hopeless candidate, an imposter, etc.

On the other hand, if you get any kind of positive signal – a longlisting that doesn’t go anywhere, an interview but no job offer, etc. – then this actually gives you a lot of information because, again, almost all candidates get flat-out rejected. A longlisting that goes nowhere tells you that you were judged to be in the top nth percentile. So, second lesson: resist the tendency to forget the fact that you were longlisted/interviewed and focus on the rejection. If you’re getting longlisted or interviewed, and you can stay in the game and keep making yourself a stronger candidate (through publishing, etc.), then you have very good odds of getting something eventually.

Reading back over this, it sounds a bit obvious. But I don’t know – I found these thoughts helpful at times!

Who did you involve in getting your first lecturing job for support, information, advice, guidance feedback, etc?

Besides what I’ve mentioned above, I would recommend the chapters on applying for jobs in The Professor is In by Karen Kelsky. (I would recommend skipping the initial chapters, which mainly deal with grim statistics about the number of adjuncts sleeping in their cars in the US, etc. Most of us are already aware of that stuff, and it doesn’t necessarily generalize to job markets in different countries, so this isn’t very helpful in my opinion.)

For someone aspiring to their first lectureship, what is 1 helpful thing they could do right this minute to get started?

Identify two or three people who can give you comments on your most recent cover letter and get in touch with them! (Don’t forget people at the Institute for Academic Development.) In my experience, more senior people almost always have a pay-it-forward mentality about these things and will be more than happy to make time to help you. It’s always good to get multiple fresh pairs of eyes to tell you honestly what is working and what isn’t – what is compelling and what doesn’t really make sense.

(Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay)

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