By Richard Parfitt |
If, like me, you get to the end of your master’s degree and you run out of energy or (probably) money, or you just want to take some time to decide whether to take your academic career further, you might then be taking a year or so off. Don’t feel that you shouldn’t. If anything, if you do the right things in can really strengthen your position going forward.
The first thing I’ll say is that if you want a traditional gap yar, to go and find yourself in the Australian outback, or travel so that you can really get your Instagram account going, this may not be the blog for you. This is more for the practically minded would-be academic, deeply concerned about their credit rating. Rock and roll.
- Have two Plan A’s
Don’t assume you’re going to get onto a PhD course, and don’t think of your backup as a ‘Plan B’. Work for the best, expect the worst. When looking for work and planning your time, therefore, don’t think along the lines that it doesn’t matter what you do because you’re going to be back at Uni next year anyway. Think about what you would *want* to do if not academia, and start working towards that as well.
- Work and Save
Now that you’ve got these two plans in mind, look for work. Your aims here should be income (repair the damage done by your Master’s, and build up a contingency fund for during and after the PhD) and experience. Make a list of the skills and experience you’ll need for your academic career and for your alternative career, and find something that ticks as many boxes from both as possible. Think carefully about who and what you apply to. Not all temporary contracts are bad, but look for employers who are prepared to develop you and don’t get sucked in by the Deliveroos and others who aren’t.
When you’re in work, badger your employer to death about getting training and experience. If in doubt, lean towards getting involved and volunteering for projects. These are all lines on your CV. Start looking at jobs on the next level up before you’re even thinking about applying, and see what experience you’ll need that you haven’t got yet. Seek out those experiences. People will tell you it isn’t a box ticking exercise. That’s partially true in that just because you tick all the boxes doesn’t guarantee you a job, but it’s also true that it helps to tick all the boxes. Get ticking.
- Think about research skills
At this point you’re covering your non-academic career pretty well (good work, keep it up). You should also think about what skills you’ll need for your research. If these are IT skills, you can probably get them at work, the same goes for experience of working in teams. Pursue as many of these opportunities as possible. If you need to look beyond your employer, there’s nothing wrong with doing that. Language classes, music lessons, whatever it might be, you don’t need to be the finished product before you’ve applied, but it will look good if you’ve made a start.
- Write that proposal
Use the odd weekend to make trips to the library (you don’t have to go every night). Get photocopies and PDFs to take hope with you if that helps. Stay in contact with your old supervisor and get their input. If it’s a different person, reach out to the person you’d like to be your supervisor for doctorate and get their input as well. Don’t be afraid to contact as many people as you can. Academics are generally nice people, and happy to encourage young researchers. Get your proposal written up in good time and start applications. You have an advantage over applicants who are in the midst of a Master’s in that you’ve had more time to think about what you want to do and you have more time to write the application. Use that advantage.
- Do some research
You won’t have time to do much, and don’t go overboard, but if you can make a couple of trips to an archive, start doing some reading, or get in touch with people/organisations that you want to work with, it not only looks good on your application but gives you a great head start. Even just looking at catalogues and timetabling your plans could make a big difference. Others are going to spend a lot of time working out what they’re doing at the start of their doctorates, you can get ahead and make a running start.
- Keep in Touch
You don’t need to go into full academic mode, but it doesn’t hurt to throw in the odd seminar and conference. If you can present a paper, even better. If your prospective universities can see that you’ve already started presenting your research, it looks great when you apply. It also means that you can start getting feedback and refine your proposal, ironing out any errors or misconceptions that might otherwise hurt your chances.
I probably sound like a tyrant (I usually am), but you can take these simple steps without eating too dramatically into your free time. These tips apply, I hope, if you’re taking time off after your doctorate, or between postdocs as well. They put you in a great position for whatever scenario, and help you make the most of your time off.