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Progressing within academia: tips from a professor

uczjsdd6 September 2021

In the third of our series of interviews with PhDs who graduated during the last recession, we spoke with Professor Shun-Liang Chao, who was awarded a PhD in Comparative Literature from UCL, and is now a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University. He told us about his journey, and offered tips for those graduating in similarly turbulent times.

  • Tell us about your current role and organisation.

I’m currently a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at National Chengchi University, a top research university in Taiwan which just signed a student exchange agreement with UCL in 2020.

  • How did you move from your PhD to your current role?

I’d always wanted to be an academic since I started my PhD because I enjoyed doing research. Therefore, I devoted most of my time as a PhD student to making myself competitive in the future academic job market: I frequently attended public lectures, seminars, and workshops to keep abreast of the recent trends in my field, presented my research findings in international conferences, and, above all, published my research in refereed journals and edited volumes. By the time I entered the job market, I had managed to publish a few journal articles and book chapters, a publication record that was good enough to have myself invited to job interviews for postdoc and tenure-track posts in the UK, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan. In addition to research, I also gained teaching experience by teaching an undergraduate seminar whilst at UCL. As an Asian working on European comparative literature, I found it most challenging to prove that I could be just as competent as, if not better than, PhD students from the West. Therefore, I had to constantly urge myself to work even harder to get my research published. In this aspect, I benefited greatly from the research training (including PhD supervision and examination) I received from UCL and the IAS at the University of London. One year after I completed my PhD, I managed to publish my thesis as a monograph, which was later awarded in Paris the Anna Balakian Prize (Honourable Mention) by the International Comparative Literature Association. This award paved the way for several research grants and collaborative projects.

  • Did graduating into a recession have an impact on your career path?

When I entered the job market, the humanities were already in crisis. I remember I applied for a tenure-track post at a flagship university in the US and later was informed that the advertised post was suspended due to budget cuts. Nevertheless, since I had always wished to stay in academia, such recessions never thwarted my determination. I considered myself very lucky to land a tenure-track post at a top university in Taiwan just a few months after teaching part-time in Taiwan.

  • What does a normal working day look like for you?

Normally, academic life consists of three parts: research, teaching, and service. Service may sound abstract to those outside academia: it involves department admin, serving on department/college/university committees, serving on editorial boards of journals or book series, peer-reviewing articles, books, and grant applications, examining PhD theses and MA dissertations, and so on. During term-time, teaching and service take up most of my time and energy on a daily basis. I can fully concentrate on my research only during summer and winter breaks. Whilst people outside academia may envy that academics don’t have to work a 9 to 5 job, I have to say I find it rather nerve-wracking not to have a clear line between on-duty time and off-duty time in my life because I often have to work at night as well as on weekends and holidays. Fortunately, my wife is also an academic, so we can sympathise with each other.

  • What are the best things about working in your role?

Teaching young minds has helped me constantly to rejuvenate myself psychologically. Also, I find it very rewarding to be able to kindle their passion for literature, particularly when their vision of life has been shaped by neoliberal capitalism.

  • What are the biggest challenges?

Admin-wise, I find cutting through red tape most challenging and frustrating, particularly in the case of intermural/extramural research collaborations. Teaching-wise, under the sway of neoliberalism, university education has become much more conditioned towards a capitalist vision of life, become more about having to look at oneself as an entrepreneur such that students are less willing to ‘invest’ in non-lucrative subjects like literature or, broadly, the humanities. Under such circumstances, the biggest challenge is how to ‘sell’ literature to students. Research-wise, at a research-orientated university, I’m under a lot of pressure to publish or perish whilst also having to satisfy the demands of teaching and service.

  • What skills do you use from your PhD in your current role?

In addition to research skills, the communication skills I learnt from my PhD supervisor have helped me greatly to supervise my students. Also, this is probably not a skill but an attitude that I picked up whilst at UCL and has been motivating me constantly to explore new things (be they academic or not): it wouldn’t hurt to give it a go.

  • What’s the progression usually like in academia?

A PhD is an essential for a tenure-track position. These days many PhDs may have to get a postdoc fellowship before landing a tenure-track post. In Taiwan, getting on the tenure track, a PhD typically starts as an assistant professor and is expected to become promoted to associate professorship within six years in order to get tenure. Whilst the tenure review evaluates one’s contribution to research, teaching, and service, research plays a pivotal role in one’s promotion to associate professorship (and to full professorship) at a research university. Even after having tenure, one still has to go through evaluation every five years at my university. I’m lucky enough to be promoted to full professorship in 2020, eleven years after I completed my PhD. Now I can finally pace myself a bit in life instead of constantly chasing one deadline after another.

  • What top tips would you pass on to researchers interested in progressing within academia?

Here’s my two pennies worth: Above all, enjoy what you do; second, try to get published in refereed journals or volumes in order to make yourself competitive in the future job market; third, stay positive when your submissions or applications get rejected; last but not least, network with other PhD students or colleagues to exchange ideas or research experiences and, furthermore, to pave the way for future collaborations.

What do UK PhD graduates do? An updated look.

uczjsdd16 April 2020

Figure: UK PhD destinations 3.5 years after graduation, taken from Dr Sally Hancock’s Hepi blog.

If you’re a UCL PhD student or member of research staff I’m sure you know lots of PhD graduates. At UCL you’re surrounded by them. So of course you know what PhDs do after they graduate, right? Well, not necessarily. Because if your sample consists largely of academic colleagues, it will be heavily skewed towards PhDs who’ve stayed within academia.

Most PhDs we work with at UCL Careers are aware there are options beyond academia, but they often feel the ‘normal’, the ‘expected’, or the ‘logical’ path is to carry on in academic research. But again and again, the stats show us this is far from normal.

A recent look at the career outcomes of PhD graduates comes from the work of Dr Sally Hancock, a Lecturer at the University of York. She investigated what 5,000 UK PhDs who graduated in 2008/9 and 2010/11 were doing 3.5 years after graduation. And as her graph above shows, 70% had already left academic research. Yes, that’s right – the majority of PhDs had left academia only a couple of years after graduating.

We can assume that of those 29.9% of PhDs in Dr Hancock’s sample who were still within academia 3.5 years after graduation (68.4% said they were university researchers, and 31.6% were Higher education Teaching Professionals) many will be on temporary post-doctoral researcher or teaching fellow contracts. And we know from previous studies, like the Royal Society’s 2010 look at STEM PhD destinations, that it’s likely not all of them will still be within academia in another few years.

So what does all this mean for you? Well, if you want to progress within academia you shouldn’t assume it will happen automatically. Get strategic, build networks, and take tips from those who are already succeeding. Look especially for advice amongst your contemporaries, as more progressed academics will have graduated into a very different academic environment. The graph below, taken from Schillebeeckx et al’s 2014 Nature Biotechnology article looking at data from the US, demonstrates just how much things have changed. It shows that over the past few decades, the number of PhDs awarded has risen at a far faster rate than the number of permanent academic jobs available, increasing the amount of competition for said jobs.

Figure taken from Schillebeeckx et al’s 2014 Nature Biotechnology article analysing data from the US.

And if you’re considering leaving academia? Well, go easy on yourself, because moving on to something new is the norm, not the exception. If it still doesn’t feel that way, seek out the stories and company of people who’ve already made the move. We’ve interviewed a few of them for you in our career case studies of PhD grads, and you can use platforms like the UCL alumni mentoring network or LinkedIn to find more.

And whether you’re considering staying or leaving, the UCL Careers Researcher Programme is here to help. You can access one-to-one appointments and our workshop schedule covering academic and non-academic employability skills, as well as job vacancies targeted at researchers, through MyUCLCareers, and you can read more details about our offering on our website. We are currently delivering our programme online, so please check out our summer schedule of webinars and online employer events here.

You can read Dr Sally Hancock’s full article here.