Penny Bickle

Dr Penny Bickle/credit: Colleen Morgan

Academia was invented for and by monks, and it still has a shockingly long way to go to make it truly family friendly

Senior Lecturer in Archaeology, University of York

Interview originally published in TEA 65

How long did it take you to obtain a permanent academic job from the end of your PhD?

Six years, across which I believe I was unemployed for about eight-nine months in total (mostly straight after my PhD was submitted – in the middle of the 2008 financial crisis). For context, when I got my position about six years ago, this seemed like a long time to be a postdoc (in the UK). However, my impression is that the average number of postdocs and time as a postdoc between PhD and permanent post has since increased.

In the UK, for the most part, a permanent position would start as a Lectureship and then you would be promoted to Senior Lecturer, Reader and then Professor as your career progressed. Some universities in the UK are moving over to the US nomenclature, with assistant, associate, and full professors. The UK does not really have a tenure track system; though there are sometimes fellowships that could lead to a permanent Lectureship, so your first permanent academic position will normally be as “lecturer”. You can be appointed with an ART contract (which is normally 20% admin, 40% research and 40% teaching) or a teaching & scholarship (with no or little allotted time for research). I have an ART contract and am expected to apply for funding for research to cover 40% of my salary. Recruiting PhD and Masters students is also important to bring in tuition fees.

Where did you do your PhD? Have you moved to another institution, country or discipline in order to pursue a career in archaeology?

My PhD was at a UK university. I was then a postdoc at the same institution for about four years, with a break between two contracts. I then moved to another UK institution for nearly two years, before moving to my permanent job. This story belies a lot of failed fellowship (somewhere in the range of about six-eight) and job applications (of which, I think in hindsight probably only two that were realistic). I had three fellowship proposals rejected in the same week, a month away from unemployment. That was the lowest point.

Tell us about your post-doc experience. How many post-doc positions have you held? Do you ever miss being a post-doc?

I held three separate post-doc positions. For context, during all of them I was employed as a research associate rather than being the PI of the project myself, and for one I was named on the grant application.

In the UK context, once a permanent academic your role changes and you need to balance both research and teaching, which can be challenging. It is therefore tempting to look back with rosetinted glasses. I miss the freedom to do most of the things I wanted to (go to conferences, workshops, during term time etc.) and my impression now is that I had more time to read and think as a postdoc. I’d also like to stress that my feeling is that I gained the permanent job at the “right” time for me, which has made for a somewhat easier landing into the role than I have seen others have (though it was still stressful). My varied postdocs were important for growing as a researcher, building experience, and gaining confidence.

Sampling animal bones for isotope analysis (credit: Linda Fibiger)

Do you have any advice for new PhD graduates who wish to pursue a career in academia?

I want to start by saying I do not think I have all the answers, and that I have not seen a particular formula which will guarantee success. These are some of my thoughts and conversations I have with PhD students and postdocs:

1) Get the right network/support system, and seek out the right mentoring for you. I wish I had done this earlier; it would have saved a lot of stress. Only in my final post-doc, I was offered mentoring by a senior female academic outside archaeology and it really was really important in helping me challenge imposter syndrome and some other myths I had let build up about academia. Find people you trust and are neutral to help you talk through your choices.

2) Develop a growth mindset. Sounds like psycho-babble but isn’t – you will never stop learning how to be a better researcher and teacher, and the markers for those will change anyway. When applying for jobs, you need to craft a narrative that shows how where you have come from has prepared you for where you want to go in the future. A lot of the CVs and applications I have read are written along the lines of “this is how brilliant I am” (though you do need to “sell” yourself, watch for under or over selling), rather than here are all the things I’ve achieved and this is how they prepare me for future research I want to complete/teaching I want to do/collaborations I’d like to form.

3) Publish, but with a balance between quality and quantity. Don’t be shy about sending out early drafts for comment or responses. After finishing your PhD, work towards getting a high-profile paper or two, but also some other publications (papers or contributions to edited conference volumes etc.) showing solid and grounded contributions to the discipline. Don’t feel like you need all of this straight out of your PhD. On job descriptions when they say “appropriate to career level” they mean it – it’s about progression above all.

4) Get to know the funding landscape and apply for lots of grants/jobs. Even ones you are not qualified for, but link in with your expertise or could help develop your career. Contact people you might like to work with and see whether you could work up a proposal together, with you as a named postdoc on the proposal. Contact institutions to see if you can apply for a fellowship, but do your homework first – are there people at the institution who you could learn from? What are their current research projects? Could doing a particular project help you to develop new skills? Apply for jobs with the mindset that it’s a way of people getting to know your research, and even if you do not get the job, you may make connections or gain feedback that could help.

5) Try to understand how your research fits into the wider landscape. We can easily become concerned with details but try to learn how to scale “up” and “down” your research. Practice this with the public and your peers. This flexibility will be needed in teaching and demonstrates that you can understand and respond to different audiences.

Is there a typical career path in academia, have you noticed if this has changed over the years?

I would say no, there is no typical path, and, yes, I have noticed some changes. The number of and length of time spent in post-doc positions is definitely increasing, with very few people going straight into a permanent academic position after their PhD, which I think used to happen a lot a few decades ago.

I do not think there is a “right” path, and I’m increasingly seeing people step out of academic roles into the public or commercial sectors, as well as coming the other way. The frequency of job adverts and postdoc positions seem to come in waves and vary with trends. However, speaking to colleagues in academia longer than me, suggests that has always been the case. Flexibility has always been, and will always be, important.

Retrospectively, would you make any different choices in your academic career path?

Not really, along the path I took it never really felt like there were many choices open for me to make in the first place – funders and employers made those decisions! I wish I had got the opportunity to complete an international postdoc, but sadly that was not to be. Most of all, I wish I had just relaxed and enjoyed it more.

Is there anything you want to add?

One thing I’ve been asked about a lot is managing a work-life balance, as well as coping with some of the emotional and mental wellbeing issues academic/postdoc life raises. I think one of the “myths”, and something I believed as a postdoc, was that a permanent position would somehow be more settled and resolve these issues. The challenge of balancing family life and work does not go away once you have a permanent position, and in some ways it can get harder, so do not put your personal life on hold. Academia was invented for and by monks, and it still has a shockingly long way to go to make it truly family friendly (which can effect men as well as women), as well as challenging some of the biases which favour certain masculine behaviours. We can all do what we can in our patches, but I believe there need to be much larger shifts in the funding landscape and career paths. Sadly, I do not think there are quick answers for these problems.