Mastering the Move from PhD to Postdoc/Junior Lecturer: A How-To Guide | Lex Academic Blog

The last year of a PhD can be a hectic one. There’s the final push to complete your thesis draft, which can take months. There’s the need to defend, correct, and print out final copies of the work. There are papers to compile, circulate, revise, polish, and submit. And then there are conferences to attend, jobs to apply for, interviews to complete, and a series of life-changing decisions to make.

Not surprisingly, all of this can quickly prove overwhelming. But as with any period of change, the transition can be made smoother by looking ahead. Of course, looking ahead requires some guidance. So, here is some advice to help students navigate the transition from the final year of a PhD to a postdoc/junior lecturer position.

Think ahead as early as possible

Rather than wait until the final year of your PhD to begin surveying the postdoc/junior lecturer landscape, begin even earlier. Get a sense of what positions are available both in your own field and adjacent ones. Postdoc positions, in particular, can vary in nature. A position could involve the creation of a new research project from scratch, for instance, or simply assuming a role in an existing project. These kinds of differences can impact the lead time on a project as well as how long it takes to receive notification of an award (and actually receive it!). Meanwhile, junior lecturer positions vary across universities. Some may involve teaching only, but most will involve some combination of teaching and research.

Become familiar with the landscape of academic jobs as early as possible. Having a sense of what positions are out there will help you map out the specifics of the application process well in advance. Don’t be afraid to ask more senior colleagues about available positions and the details of their transition through the end of their PhD and beyond. Operate under the assumption that you will submit your thesis on time and begin mapping out a timeline to a post-PhD position.

Finally, ask your advisors, supervisors, and mentors about specific people at the institution you are interested in as they may be able to provide an introduction or forward your CV. After all, a field is a relatively small world. Those who have worked in it for some length of time have probably come across each other at one point or another.

Abandon perfection

Looming large over the final year of a PhD is the task of completing your thesis. As the final draft begins to crystallise, it is not uncommon for advisors to suddenly request rewrites or identify new issues. As the writing demands pile up, a sense of panic can set in while the possibility of not meeting a benchmark seems to grow ever more likely. You have deadlines to meet and plans to adhere to: failing to submit your thesis on time could wreak havoc on your income, your personal life, and your ability to continue working in academia.

At this point, it may help to know that a good thesis is a finished thesis. If you can justify not doing a rewrite, do so. If your draft describes a complete research project, submit it – even if it isn’t the ideal you initially imagined. Above all, aim to submit your thesis on time as this is what will allow you to move forward to the next stage of your career.

Once a position as a postdoc or junior lecturer has been secured and uncertainty has abated, what should a new PhD do?

Practise pitching your work

With a major research project (your PhD) under your belt, now is the time to figure out how to introduce yourself to the new network of contacts you are building post-PhD. Practice an elevator pitch that describes what you do and why it is important. This will help you solidify your new identity as an academic not only to yourself, but also to others. Having a brief self-introduction on recall makes it easier to spontaneously tell people what you do, opening the door to any number of subsequent interactions and opportunities.

Begin with lessons learnt in mind

As you start to work more independently, don’t forget to take time to enjoy your new-found freedom. Make decisions about how you are going to run your projects, design your course, and so on. What methods worked for you as a PhD? What didn’t? Exploit your independence by getting organised in the ways that suit you best before the work takes off.

Are you embarking on a new research project or role? You’ve just learnt how to create and complete one from scratch. So, set out on your new project or role with these lessons in mind. Avoid having to go back and revise by being clear about what you are researching and why from the outset. As you progress, create a folder where you put any research findings or open questions that could lead to new ideas and subsequent projects. Working more sustainably (as opposed to focusing on a single achievement or project) will help set you up for a career in academia.

Rediscover forgotten interests and cultivate new ones

The new postdoc or junior lecturer may find themselves with a work schedule that is remarkably more forgiving than the one experienced during the final year of a PhD. Make use of this unexpected availability by actually leaving work on time. This will allow you to rediscover the interests you likely abandoned as an overwhelmed postgraduate student. You may even find yourself discovering new ones that are entirely unrelated to work. A rich personal life is key to avoiding the burnout that can follow prolonged periods of job stress.

Cultivating an identity outside of work can also help counterbalance the weight of professional demands. Academia is a difficult industry where being paid for one’s expertise with some degree of stability is a challenge. Many postgraduate students find themselves drowning in the demands of the final year of a PhD and simply trying to survive on multiple fronts. Part of the transition into postdoc life is shifting gears into a more sustainable phase of work. Managing how much work you do and leaving time to socialise or explore other aspects of your personality will help you to thrive.