Career Planning in Academia: An Interview with Darcey Gillie

Darcey Gillie is a Postgraduate Careers Consultant at The University of Manchester. She holds a PhD in Geosciences from The University of Edinburgh, a PG Dip in Secondary Education, and a Diploma in Careers Education, Information, and Guidance from The University of Warwick. Before coming to Manchester, Darcey worked as a careers adviser at The University of Edinburgh where she developed career management resources and conducted research into networking, widening participation, and study abroad.

Could you talk about the kind of skills sought after in academic posts?

People might want to look at the professional body that I’m a member of, The Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services. They did some research interviewing academics who hired, and asked about the kinds of skills and attitudes that they look for. It’s called ‘Getting the First Lecturing Job’, but it’s equally good for anyone applying for a postdoc.[1] Interestingly one of the things that jumped out was that a lot of people think research, analytical, and funding skills would be the most sought after. But actually what people are talking about are collaborative and team-working skills. It’s often assumed that you have the research and analytical skills. The real valuable ones are teamwork, collaboration, and networking: the ‘soft’ skills.

Academics can be so focussed in on their research, and it is easy to forget the importance of these issues. How should people be preparing themselves for the job market if they want to get into academia?

It is important to start as early as possible. Another piece of research from the AHRC looked at people who had gone into to permanent research posts after their PhD. They tended to be people who started talking about their post-PhD career plans early on. If you talk about your career plans it means that you’re exploring, experimenting, and trying out ideas. If people know what you’re looking for they can give you opportunities that help work towards that plan. As you get closer to finishing, they can actually put real job opportunities your way. I think the best piece of advice I could give is to actually engage with the idea of your career as early as you can. Whether that is the practicalities of your CV and covering letter, but more importantly the idea of managing your career, and developing what you want to get out of it.

Do you think that the has job market has changed in recent years? There is a sense that it has become more competitive. How much can people use change to their advantage?

The job market depends on your subject area. Unlike many other sectors, to some extent available jobs will depend on research strategies and the kinds of areas that get funding. More people are being employed in academic jobs, but also the supply of PhD students has gone up. A difficult subject to tackle is mobility, which is important early on in any career. People who are more mobile tend to be more successful at starting and progressing their career because they have a very large labour market, whereas if you’re stuck in an area for whatever reason then that gives you a very limited labour market. If you are aware of this ahead of time you can start making compromises and planning. But it is important to consider the constraints that might keep you in one place.

Perhaps being more interdisciplinary and engaging with other disciplines can help?

Yes, the way things are going is interdisciplinary. That’s the way of the future, and there’s a definite move towards cross-cutting interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research projects, which comes back to the skills of collaborating. Networking skills are going to be really important.

Many postgraduate students don’t end up in academia. How might they market transferable skills going into different sectors?

Three years after graduating, 66 per cent of humanities postgraduates are still in academia in some form of other. However, we just held a Pathways Event at Manchester University, and there are plenty of PhDs who go into non-academic careers, me included. People can end up working at universities or setting up their own businesses.

The most important thing is looking at the person specification and thinking about what the employer is interested in. The biggest complaint from employers about all job applicants is that they don’t engage with the person spec.

I think for PhD students it can be a challenge moving on. I went through this myself. It can be difficult after spending several years on a project that you’re proud of. A bit of advice that I came upon was that sometimes you have to let go of the things you’re most proud of and think about what employers are most interested in. In terms of marketable skills, employers tell us that things they really appreciate from PhD students are the independence, analytical skills, problem solving skills, and also the soft skills. It is good to think of your PhD as having been in a job. Stop thinking about it as an education, or a vocation, but working for those years, so you have those employability skills.

In a way it’s about not being defined by your PhD?

Yes, it’s a kind of discursive process if you’re applying for a non-academic job, to try and get a feel for what they’re looking for. You have to think about how to present your skills in a way that they will understand, and how you’re going to fit into that role.

What is the most important message that you have for postgraduates planning their careers?

I think it’s the idea of talking to people. In all my years in being involved in research careers, an overlooked resource by postgraduates has been each other. Try to coach each other, have those career conversations, use each other’s networks, and get over the idea that networking is a bad thing! It’s just about making friends, but it’s got all sorts of negative connotations. The more people you get involved in developing your career the easier it becomes. So just delegate!

[1]  AGCAS Research Staff Task Group, Getting the First Lecturing Job  (2014) <> [accessed 28 June 2017].


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