Every few months, we like to sift through our virtual bag of mail and answer a few questions that we hope will be interesting to a range of readers. Although we can't respond individually to every reader, we welcome your queries, suggestions, and insights on the academic job search.
Question: When I finished my Ph.D. in English literature in 1999, the job market was completely flooded. I had a baby and my husband, a scientist, was able to get a great job. I taught part-time at a community college for a year and then had another child and stayed home. Now I would like to get back on the job market. I have a forthcoming book chapter and a conference presentation. But I am not sure how to address my absence from the field in a cover letter. Any advice?
Answer: It's wonderful that you've been able to keep your research program going during these years. You'll want to emphasize that (along with your most recent teaching experience) in the CV's and letters that you send out. If your schedule permits, you might seek out part-time teaching again, as a way of building your CV.
Your cover letter should focus on your achievements and your fit with a particular institution and department. The mention of the gap in your employment history should be brief, and placed toward the end of the letter. It might read something like this, "Although I took a hiatus from teaching to raise my children, I am an engaged and enthusiastic scholar of X and look forward to beginning my career as a full-time faculty member."
It will be essential for you to have current letters of recommendation. Encourage your recommenders to testify to your potential as a scholar and mention that you've continued to be a productive researcher. Be sure to ask them for advice on your search.
You'll also want to do some networking at the conferences you attend. Get in touch with former colleagues and talk about your work with new people. The goal here is to make sure people know you are still engaged in your field.
It's important, however, to be realistic in your expectations. The job market in your field is still extremely competitive. It's unfortunate, but many search committees may feel that you've simply been out of the loop for too long to be considered a top candidate for a tenure-track position. You will be up against many recent Ph.D.'s who have been in teaching positions for the past few years, so you'll need to think carefully about how to articulate what makes you stand out.
Question: Are search committees biased against married applicants? Would a candidate be taken more seriously without a wedding band on her finger?
Answer: Search committees are composed of humans with varied human experiences. Many of them are married or partnered and were when they looked for a faculty job; perhaps they look on married candidates with some empathy. Some, on the other hand, may have lost their top candidates in several instances because those candidates took a position where their partners received an offer. Others may be wary of setting their hopes on a candidate who is part of a dual-career search.
While we have heard people say they removed their wedding ring when they interviewed for an academic job, we recommend that you be yourself because we believe that most search committees are looking for the best candidate for the job, regardless of marital status.
Question: I simply cannot afford the high prices of résumé and CV experts, although I value their expertise and input. "Free" sources and the guidance available at my university have been mediocre at best. Any suggestions?
Answer: Dozens of university career offices have Web sites that are geared toward their students but available for viewing by everyone. In fact, it's easy to get good information about preparing CV's and résumés and to even read samples of some good ones. You just have to spend some time looking.
Your graduate and undergraduate institutions undoubtedly have alumni networks. They may offer career guidance in which current students and recent graduates can talk with alumni about job-search issues and ask questions about careers. Find alumni who are professors in your field (or find alumni in nonacademic jobs if that's where your career path lies). Tell them about your job search and ask if they'd be willing to provide feedback on your CV or résumé.
Question: Someone I would have used for a reference has died rather suddenly. I keep thinking about her, and I would like to put something on the page where I list my references: "Susan Doe of the X Department was an important mentor and associate." People at the institutions to which I am applying might have known her as well. Should I do that? Should I drop any reference to her? Or do you have another idea?
Answer: Unfortunately, it sometimes happens that someone who has been an important influence on your intellectual development dies. Whether that person was your official adviser or a colleague with whom you met many times, the significant impact he or she had on you perhaps asks to be acknowledged.
However, we're not sure that the page of references is the place to do it. A brief mention on your CV and/or in your cover letter would be better. In a letter, you might say, "The late Susan Doe was important to me as a teacher and intellectual colleague. She pushed me to look at my work in a different way ..." Or, on your CV, you might mention the deceased scholar in the Education section (or another section if it feels more appropriate).
Question: I'm at the point in my career at which I need to decide whether I want to be an academic or an administrator. I've been lucky enough to do both while working on my dissertation. Going academic means that I might have better opportunities later (provost or president, for example), but I despise much of academic life (the nightmarish job market, the torturous tenure-track process, the tendency to work in isolation on seemingly useless projects). I do love teaching, however, and don't want to forsake my Ph.D., as it were, by working in administrative positions without any academic elements.
On the other hand, I enjoy much of the immediate results of my administrative life -- especially helping students through personal and academic dilemmas -- but hate feeling like a second-class citizen on the campus. I also worry that I'll feel like a failure if I don't go on the academic job market. I'm ready to chuck it all and become a pastry chef.
Answer: Rest assured that your feelings are shared by many doctoral students finishing their programs. It sounds like what you truly love is working with students, be it in a teaching or advising role.
Most of those who pursue a tenure-track career have a strong dislike for certain aspects of academic life -- most commonly, the ones that you mention. However, that doesn't mean that you should not conduct an academic job search. It means you might limit your search to institutions where teaching is a central focus and where faculty members are expected to play a significant role in student life. Pursue positions at institutions where the mission statement corresponds to your own priorities.
As for your administrative search (and, by the way, we see nothing wrong with applying for both types of jobs), you'll also want to pay attention to the mission of the institutions where you are applying. Take the time to do informational interviews. (If you're unfamiliar with the concept, check out this column on networking.)
Seek out administrators in jobs of interest to you and ask, "What is the typical career path for people working in this field?" and "What are the possibilities for advancement?" Be sure to speak with people outside your current institution; you want to make sure that the information you're receiving isn't specific to one place.
Teaching in a private school might also be a good fit for your skills and interests. Many Ph.D.'s whose real love is teaching have found working at private schools to be very fulfilling. That sort of work, besides teaching, involves being very present in the daily lives of a group of young people and advising them in all types of contexts -- drama club, student government, and sports teams, for example.
As for feeling like a "second-class citizen," we can tell you that there are many people working as administrative staff members in colleges and universities all over the country who do not consider themselves second-class. Those people -- and we are two of them -- love doing work that supports the academic mission. Many of us hold Ph.D.'s and research master's degrees and use all the skills we developed during our graduate-student careers. You might want to read some articles we wrote on administrative work in our Switching Sides series. While the occasional faculty member may regard staff members as second-class, most of the ones we know see us as an integral part of the enterprise.
Finally, we also see nothing wrong with "chucking it all to become a pastry chef." We've seen Ph.D.'s go on to do an amazingly wide range of things. We would caution that you shadow a working pastry chef before doing so, and ask a lot of questions. You may find that working in the restaurant industry is just as competitive and demanding as working in academe, perhaps even more so.
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