MENTOR Workshop 2018: Six key pieces of career advice for PhDs and ECRs

Hollie Pich and Marama Whyte co-organised Professor Glenda Sluga’s recent MENTOR workshop. They review the event, and give six key pieces of advice from the event for emerging scholars.

Like all industries, academia presents specific challenges to women and gender-diverse scholars. These issues feature frequently in the informal conversations we have with our friends. How do you identify women mentors? Deal with the casual sexism from members of your department? Reconcile the problematic but eternal question of ‘work/life balance’?

Peers can offer a useful perspective, but better still is advice from scholars with a little more experience. Luckily, we found many who had made it through the initial stages of the Early Career Researcher (ECR) period, and many more who had secured permanent positions, who were generous enough to share their stories.

The result was the inaugural MENTOR Workshop, held at the University of Sydney from December 5 – 7, 2018. Over the course of 2018, we were the primary organisers of workshop, which was hosted and funded by Professor Glenda Sluga’s Kathleen Fitzpatrick Laureate Fellowship, and the University of Sydney’s Director, Culture Strategy.

We intended MENTOR to provide career advice to women and gender nonconforming ECRs in the Humanities and Social Sciences, and particularly those who were about to submit their PhD or had submitted in the past year. The workshop brought together 25 participants from the University of Sydney and other universities around Australia, with a program of 10 panels featuring 18 speakers.

There is no way to summarise all of the wisdom shared in a single post. However, these six key points resonated particularly strongly during the workshop.

When applying for postdocs, be ambitious but not unrealistic

While academia continues to change at a rapid pace, postdoctoral positions remain the elusive goal for many ECRs. Drs Alana Piper and Anne Rees, who are on postdocs at UTS and La Trobe respectively, suggested beginning your application at least a few months before the deadline. Remember that application writing is a distinct genre. In addition to responding directly to selection criteria, you must also be able to clearly articulate how your project will contribute to your discipline, the institution, and society writ large.

While the project needs to be original, it should not be so original as to pose a risk to an institution; you want the project to be in a cutting-edge field, but contributing to an existing field. The project you propose must be achievable. Make sure to offer a concrete and detailed plan of what you would do on the postdoc. Be ambitious but not unrealistic. Throughout the process, remember to actively promote yourself and your project—no one else will do this for you!

You are what you write

Grant writing has a reputation for being dull and formulaic but it’s essential to avoid unoriginal structure and prose in your applications; Professor Glenda Sluga told participants that you are what you write. Your application is an example of your work, and the grants process is another form of peer review.

It is important to recognise that grants are a specific genre of writing, and to dedicate the time to develop this skill. And remember, at the heart of every application is the same question: so what? Be prepared to argue for the significance of you and your research, and to do so artfully.

An interview is not a test, but a professional exchange

We all know that interviews are a crucial stage of any application process, and a stage particularly likely to induce dread and severe nerves. Professor Lisa Adkins reminded us that an interview is not a test, but a professional exchange. As with all professional skills, it is important to spend time developing your interviewing technique. Practice, preparation, and self-confidence are key.

An interview is a moment to behave as a peer and colleague, rather than a subordinate and student. Remember, all shortlisted candidates have met the minimum requirements for the advertised job, and are therefore appointable. If you’re being interviewed, you’re in with a shot! Even if you don’t receive the job this doesn’t mean your time was wasted. A good interview can lead to other opportunities, including collaboration.

The “ideal academic” is an imaginary construct

As a scholar, you likely have an image of the “ideal academic” in your mind: someone who produces groundbreaking research, is a dedicated teacher who implements innovative pedagogical practices, serves on committees and boards and has a rich scholarly network to draw on, who does public-facing work, and so on.

Rather than try and meet this unrealistic goal, Dr Rebecca Sheehan advised PhDs and ECRs to figure out where they fall on the spectrum of this “ideal academic.” Ask yourself what your strengths are, and then develop those strengths; recognise your weaknesses, and recognise that it is practically impossible to be equally competent at all parts of the academic job. Bear this in mind when doling out your time.

Find a mentor who understands your specific goals

Multiple speakers underscored the importance of finding an academic and professional mentor. Associate Professors Clare Monagle and Clare Corbould explained that your ideal mentor may not even work directly in your field. Instead, think about your interests—for example, whether you are most interested in research or teaching—and then identify a person who has the type of career you’d like (as opposed to a person with the research connections you need). You can—and should—have different mentors to help you with different areas.

Once you have a mentor it is important to continue to work on that relationship. Inveterate mentor Professor Glenda Sluga reminded us of the responsibilities of mentees: to ensure the relationship is reciprocal and not opportunistic, and to share the joy as well as the labour.

Find your people and build your networks

Finally, the one piece of advice that almost every speaker offered up was the importance of building a network of peers who can support you in a professional environment. This group can celebrate victories, commiserate loses, and remind you of the so-called ‘real world.’

Over the three days of the MENTOR workshop we were delighted to see this kind of community building happen in real-time. Participants split from institutional and disciplinary cliques and forged connections with new colleagues; moving into 2019, our attendees have pledged to stay in touch via email and text, and to help each other finish the dissertation and tackle whatever comes next.

Hollie Pich is a doctoral candidate in history at The University of Sydney, working on a dissertation entitled “Accommodating Jim Crow: Black Memphis and the Color Line, 1900 – 1930.” In 2018 she was a visiting graduate researcher at Duke University. Hollie is the co-editor of ANZASA Online, the official blog of  the Australian and New Zealand American Studies Association.

Follow Hollie on Twitter at @Hollie_Pich.


Marama Whyte is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Sydney, and a 2018-2019 Endeavour Postgraduate Scholar at New York University. Her dissertation is entitled, Women in Print: The Struggle for Equality in the U.S. Media, 1960-1980. Her research has been funded by the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University, the Australian Federation of Graduate Women, and the Australian Department of Education and Training. She has been published in The Washington Post, The Conversation, and Australian Book Review.

Follow Marama on Twitter at @maramawhyte.

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