Question: "I'll be going on the market this year. My dissertation is finally completed, and the job I have is not the job I want. On the other hand, I'm not sure I'm still a competitive candidate, and I wonder whether it's worth the effort to undertake an academic search. What do I need to do?"
Julie: Congratulations on finishing your dissertation, and best wishes for the job search. It sounds as if you know what kind of job you don't want, so you need to decide what you do want. You might want to start by reading job descriptions, both in The Chronicle and in the major publications of your discipline.
At the same time think about your strengths and interests so that you can try to match them with specific openings. Some questions you might ask yourself are:
- Do you have a preference for teaching or research, or do you enjoy them equally?
- Do you want to do cutting-edge research?
- Do you hope eventually to be an academic administrator at a particular kind of institution?
Mary: You also mentioned not being sure about how competitive you'll be for positions. There are easier ways to find out than being rejected time after time. As you think about what you'd ideally like, update your vita and show it to every knowledgeable person you can to get a reading.
Of course you'll ask your adviser and other faculty members at the institution where you received your degree. However, try to consult with a broader network of professional colleagues. A senior person who does a lot of hiring for an institution you won't be applying to can offer a good perspective. Don't take any one opinion as definitive.
Julie: It's essential to understand the job market in your field. Read whatever you can find on hiring in your field. Often your scholarly association will publish factual or anecdotal information about the market that year. Find out where this year's and last year's graduates of your department went. Talk to some of them about their searches and find out what was effective and what wasn't. Judging by the fact that you have another kind of job, you may be older than other recent Ph.D.'s but don't let that age difference put you off. Talk with colleagues and learn from their experiences.
Mary: If you've been working outside of academia, the ease of entry into the faculty ranks will depend a great deal upon whether you're trying to be hired by a professional department, such as one in engineering, architecture, or education, or one associated with an arts and sciences discipline. Professional schools often value related professional experience on the part of faculty members. Departments in schools of arts and sciences may be more suspicious.
Julie: Professional schools also offer the best pay in higher education. Since you've been working in another field you may be concerned about the possibility of taking a significant cut in income if you accept an assistant-professor position. The American Association of University Professors does an annual survey of faculty salaries, which you might want to consult to get a sense of salaries in different kinds of institutions. A story on the 1998-99 figures, with links to salary tables for each state, appeared on April 23 in The Chronicle. Nearly everyone who changes careers will experience some kind of change in salary.
Mary: Now let's assume that you've done both soul-searching and researching, and have decided that your first choice is an academic position, and that you've established a reasonable set of criteria as to what the job must offer and where it must be located. You've had conversations with knowledgeable people and adjusted your goals in light of what you've learned from them, so you're convinced that your goals are realistic. Now your task is to position yourself as well as possible.
Julie: Make sure all of your written materials are in order and up to date. That includes your vita, statement of research interest, teaching philosophy, and dissertation abstract. You need to be able to respond to each job description with a cover letter that shows your strengths, as well as your understanding of the position and institution. While you should never send a form letter, you can begin preparing the parts of the letter that won't change much from one application to another.
Mary: If you've been maintaining a professional résumé, be prepared to revise it considerably as you turn it into a C.V. Give detail only about jobs that are relevant to the academic position you seek. If you've had substantial administrative or managerial experience, refer to it very tersely. Excessive detail about the extent of your responsibilities may raise questions about your interest in a non-managerial position.
Julie: It is also important that letters of recommendation are current, strong, and on file, either in your department or with your career-services office. Keep the people who've written recommendations apprised of your research and teaching, as well as of the jobs you are applying for so that they can answer inquiries with current information. Since you're not currently on campus where you might run into these people informally, stay in frequent touch so that they are fully invested in the outcome of your search.
Mary: It's also important to develop a presence as an active researcher. Find out the dates of scholarly or professional meetings in your field, and the deadlines for program submissions. In some cases there may still be time to get yourself on a program.
Look at regional as well as national meetings. If you're not currently participating in any specialized listservs in your field, subscribe to one or two. After reading carefully for a while to get a sense of the conversation, begin posting occasional, well-thought-out messages.
Julie: At meetings, on listservs, and in other professional forums, you have the opportunity to now portray yourself as a scholar with his or her own expertise. It is important that you no longer think of yourself as a graduate student (or solely in terms of your current job identity), but as a researcher and teacher with contributions to make. You need to cultivate a certain level of authority and to approach other scholars as colleagues, not as superiors.
Mary: If you've been out of the field for a bit, also listen carefully when you are with potential colleagues. How do they talk about the field and their institutions? What sorts of arguments prove persuasive? If you've learned the jargon of one professional environment, be prepared to switch gears as you talk about entering another.
Julie: Find a way to practice interviewing. If you are living close to your graduate institution, see what career services are offered to alumni. Interview practice is a standard service of most university career offices. If you aren't nearby, see if your graduate institution has reciprocity of services with a university near you and contact that career office.
If those are not possibilities, look at the section on interviewing in the Academic Job Search Handbook (University of Pennsylvania Press) and practice answering the sample interview questions at the end of the chapter. Also, talk with any colleagues and friends who were on the job market recently and ask them for interviewing suggestions.
Mary: Particularly practice your responses to questions that imply you're not the standard job candidate:
- "Of course, after the kind of responsibility you've had, an academic position might seem a bit tame."
- "I see it took you a long time to complete your dissertation."
- "Do you feel current in the field?"
Learn to respond positively and non-defensively to questions such as those. A good strategy is to cheerfully acknowledge the questioners' concern and then move on to a positive answer. For example, a response to the first question might be, "I don't think so. The part-time teaching I've been able to do over the last several years has consistently been the most energizing part of my professional experience, and I'm eager to be able to devote more time to it."
Julie: Speaking of time, doing a search while working full time takes a lot of it. Make time for the occasional day at the pool or beach, and don't bring your laptop.
Mary Morris Heiberger and Julia Miller Vick are the authors of The Academic Job Search Handbook (University of Pennsylvania Press). They have provided career services for thousands of graduate and professional students since 1985. Ms. Heiberger is associate director and Ms. Vick is graduate career counselor at the Career Services office of the University of Pennsylvania.