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Attaining an academic job: Strategies for success

Friday, September 1, 2017
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Attaining an academic job: Strategies for success
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If you are interested in pursuing an advanced degree, especially if it's a PhD, there is a good chance that you may have your eyes set on an academic position upon graduation, either as a post-doctorate researcher or an assistance professor. The reality is, however, that the competition for these positions, particularly tenure-track professor roles, is high. An article from Times Higher Education included a quote from Keith Micoli, postdoctoral program director at New York University School of Medicine and chairman of the US National Postdoctoral Association, who elaborated on the difficulty of obtaining an academic job here in the U.S. "[Here the system is] training seven times more people for the same job than could ever get it," he explained.

Just because the playing field is tough, doesn't mean that it's an impossible goal however. Those looking to land that dream academic position need to take steps to stand out from the crowd, in order to maximize their chances of career success. This article will take a closer look at some of the top strategies that academic job hunters can utilize, to help them increase their chances of landing that coveted first position after graduate school. Read on to learn more:

1. Understand professional goals
Simply wanting a job as a professor isn't enough, professor Johanna Greeson explained, writing for The Muse. Rather, academics today should have a clear goal in mind - a vision, and a purpose, so to speak - in order to impress hiring faculty members. So, for example, a PhD graduate in mechanical engineering may have a professional goal in mind to develop a certain kind of robot or machine, while a graduate in a divergent field, such as English Literature, may wish to use her research to extend public discourse surrounding social justice issues. Put another way, hiring committees want to see that candidates have thought about their work in a larger context, and that they have a clear vision for their academic career going forward.

Greenson explained how she created a hand-out, with her academic goals detailed in illustrations, to provide visual context for her work. She passed the hand-out around during her interview, and the committee were impressed that she had taken the time and initiative to create a document that really highlighted her academic plans. While this tactic may not be necessary in all cases, it is crucial that advanced degree graduates outline their academic goals in some form or another.

2. Avoid generic cover letters
This advice can be extended to job seekers across all industries - do not, under any circumstances, send a generic cover letter to multiple open positions. As argued by Science Magazine, it is important to craft unique cover letters for each opening, which engage with the expectations and details of the role in question. While candidates will likely touch on the same themes in each letter, it is important for individuals to demonstrate that they understand the specific role they are applying to, outlining what drew them to the job. Without this information, it's highly unlikely that recruitment committees will give the application a second glance. 

3. Network extensively
It is a fact of life that having professional contacts can help exponentially when it comes to looking for a job, and academia is no exception to this rule. As advised by Michael Ernst of the University of Washington, networking can take a number of forms, but one of the most effective ways is making the effort to converse with other academics at conferences. Candidates should be constantly ready to promote their work and research, articulating their goals with enthusiasm and a clear vision. Another way to network is to offer to deliver talks at universities regarding your research. This kind of practice is common in academic spheres and it is an effective way for individuals to meet other like minded professionals. Ernst concluded by noting that a final courtesy is a must while networking - having professional business cards.

Candidates shouldn't be discouraged - landing that dream job takes time!Candidates shouldn't be discouraged - landing that dream job takes time!

4. Publish work
This strategy is key - for those looking for an academic job, having published work is essential, Inside Higher Ed stated. The source advised that a minimum of two publications is usually necessary to attract a recruiter's attention. The work should ideally be independent, and published in a reputable journal, although collaborative work is often taken into consideration. Job seekers should begin this process during their advanced degree studies - graduating, especially with a PhD, without having published any work, is incredibly ill-advised. 

5. Keep going
The fact of the matter is that finding a dream academic role can take some time - receiving multiple rejections is not uncommon, Greeson noted. That doesn't mean candidates should give up. It is important to apply to multiple positions and take smaller roles during the search - whether that's as a teaching assistant or adjunct professor. Working these roles can provide experience and necessary funds. Greeson noted that she even applied to the same role more than once, and was eventually successful. So in essence the advice to those hunting for that dream academic job is - keep going and don't give up. Perseverance and hard work, in most cases, will pay off.

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