Inside the Hiring Process

By Julie Miller Vick and Jennifer S. Furlong
Chronicle of Higher Education
November 17, 2005

Right now, many Ph.D.'s are in the midst of an academic job search. But some of them are also asking themselves, "If this doesn't work out, what else can I do?" Others may have already decided that an academic career is not for them. We thought it might help to share our firsthand experience on that front.

In this column, Jenny will talk about the job search she embarked on after earning her Ph.D., and why she ultimately decided to leave academe to take her position in career services at the University of Pennsylvania. Julie will comment on what made Jenny a good candidate and why she was hired.

Jenny: In the fall of 2003, I was in the last semester of my Ph.D. program, and I was panicked. I don't think that made me unusual among doctoral students who are finishing their Ph.D.'s. What made me unusual was that I really did not want a faculty position.

More accurately, I only wanted a tenure-track position if it was in a great place -- at a top research university, in a pleasing geographic setting. If I couldn't get that, I was willing, and even happy, to do something else.

My first academic search had met with middling success. At the Modern Language Association convention in New York at the end of 2002, I had had four interviews, two with prestigious universities. Those interviews resulted in one campus visit, to a small liberal-arts college in the West. After that visit, I swore I would never again apply to colleges located in a place where I was not interested in living.

My new resolve meant that I sent applications to far fewer institutions in the fall of 2003. I had one MLA interview that year with another major research university; it was the best job in my field. Several months later, well after I had plunged into my nonacademic job search, the university sent me a polite, beautifully written rejection letter, the nicest I had ever received. I saved it.

When I started graduate school, I knew that I might not become a professor in the end. My faculty mentors had made it clear that the road to the professoriate was extremely difficult. One even suggested I "go to law school so that you can effect real change for women."

I made it through graduate school successfully; I even enjoyed it. I had a smart, supportive adviser who read all of my work, and an equally helpful committee. But seeing academe from the inside made me question whether it was the right fit.

I wasn't sure I was ready to make the personal sacrifices that so many junior faculty members seem to make in order to get tenure. I wanted my weekends. I wanted to be able to relax, and not constantly have an article, or a book, or a class preparation hanging over my head.

I was concerned that landing a tenure-track job would probably mean moving to a place where I didn't really want to live and being geographically limited for an indefinite period. I wanted to stay in Philadelphia, where I have great friends and a fun life. Moreover, I was slowly going broke, and I wanted a job with benefits and security.

In short, I had already grown tired of the vicissitudes of academic life.

Using Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius's book, So What are You Going to Do with That?: A Guide to Career-Changing for M.A.'s and Ph.D.'s as my job-hunting bible, I began my quest for a nonacademic job immediately after sending out my dossiers for academic positions.

I set my sights fairly low at first. As Basalla and Debelius suggest, I simply searched for an "office job" so that I would seem like a more credible candidate to nonacademic employers. I also had my friends in the nonprofit and corporate sectors look at my job materials. I talked to many people about the transition I was contemplating -- including someone whom I tutored in French. He proved to be an invaluable resource, helping me compose a great-looking rsume, and even serving as a reference.

In my current position at Penn, I repeatedly tell students that the best way to find a job is to talk to people. Students often seem to not believe me; I then refer them to an article on this site by Basalla, "Coffee in 2002, a Job Offer in 2004." But my own experience also easily proves that rule.

In January of 2004, I found my first "office job" through an informal networking event organized by a good friend. While we were gathered around the dinner table, I mentioned that I was making the transition out of academe and looking for a part-time office job. Another woman, the executive director for a small nonprofit group, said her organization was looking for seasonal help to process membership and tour registrations. I was hired on the spot.

A few months later, I was having coffee with a friend who worked as a part-time grant writer at a small museum/library. I had planned to do an informational interview about grant writing with her. As it turned out, the curator was looking for research assistants for an upcoming exhibition. I had the pleasure of hearing my friend exclaim (and will probably never hear this again), "That's right, I forgot. You work on the 18th century! We're looking for 18th centurists!"

I also worked in a friend's shop, another job I got by simply saying,"Hey, I'm looking to earn extra money. I'm happy to help out in the store." During the first six months of 2004, I was working six days a week -- teaching at Penn and working two part-time jobs. Keeping track of where I was supposed to be at any given time was tiring, but in many ways a lot of fun. And it led to many nonacademic references and a great rsume.

It was May of 2004 when I submitted my application for the opening at Penn's career-services office. I spotted the job on the e-mail discussion list that career services runs for humanities graduate students (a list that I now manage). At the time, I wanted to cut the cord with Penn, so working there was not my first choice. But friends convinced me it would be a great fit. I was very familiar with the career-services office. I had even met with the office's former associate director, Mary Morris Heiberger, (about my academic CV) and with Julie Vick (about my rsume).

So I drafted a very succinct cover letter, printed out my materials, hand-delivered them to career services, and was pleasantly surprised to be called in for an interview.

As a career counselor now, I look back on my interview and laugh. I probably didn't prepare as much as I should have. But I was honest, and I was myself. Moreover, I had given a lot of thought to the career issues we discussed. I ended up getting the job.

There were only two catches. A few weeks before getting the offer, I signed on to do some summer teaching at Penn and began my research work at the museum, so I definitely needed to start much later than Julie had hoped. More significantly, however, accepting the job meant I would not go on the academic job market again.

That upset me for about 30 minutes. Accepting the position meant a new lifestyle (working 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday), and the end of my academic aspirations, but I have no regrets. I have wonderful friends who have stayed in teaching, and they love it, but it wasn't the right fit for me.

Even better, I'm really enjoying being a career counselor to graduate students and postdocs. Every day, I talk to interesting people working in everything from archaeology to zoology. And sometimes, I even get the satisfaction of knowing that I've helped someone find a position that fits, be it academic or nonacademic.

Julie: The director of career services and I met to discuss what qualities and experience we wanted to find in filling the career-counselor position. For nearly two decades, Mary and I had been a team, working together to provide career services to Penn graduate students, graduate alumni, and postdocs, as well as participating nationally in this area. Her death left a huge hole in our office, one we could not expect a new person to fill.

We wanted to find someone who understood the importance of career services for graduate students, and how their needs differed from those of undergraduates. We wanted someone who could learn quickly and work both independently and as part of a team; someone who would bring something new to the office.

We received more than 60 applications. I reviewed the resumes and cover letters with the director and another associate director. As in any search, some applicants were very easy to disqualify because they had no experience in academe or their resumes and cover letters indicated they didn't really understand what our position involved. We had several strong candidates, however, and selected six to interview, each of whom would bring something different to the position. They all had some experience working with graduate students, although not necessarily on career issues.

Jenny's cover letter stood out because it showed how her background and experience were good matches for our position. Her succinct two-paragraph letter included this statement, "My current jobs testify to my ability to prioritize and organize, as well as to my commitment to the belief that Ph.D.'s in all fields can find fulfilling and interesting work outside the university."

Her one-page rsume was well written and interesting. Without going into great detail on the substance of her dissertation, she showed how the skills she developed as a researcher, teaching assistant, and lecturer at Penn, as well as her experience at a nonprofit research center, were directly applicable to what we sought.

And there was something else difficult to define that made her stand out: It was apparent that she "got it" -- she understood what we were looking for in a counselor. Even if she did not have great familiarity with various careers, she was thoughtful, resourceful, and had potential that made us excited. She was able to answer the question, "How do you feel about leaving academe?" in a way that was both believable and displayed her ability to help others wrestling with a similar situation. Her networking ability, and her belief in it, were also impressive.

Our faith in her abilities has more than paid off. As a Ph.D. in the humanities, she has little firsthand experience with business. But she has learned about consulting, finance, and other business careers, partly by visiting companies and talking with recruiters interested in hiring Ph.D.'s, to ensure our graduate students know all their options. She has immersed herself in career options for scientists and engineers.

Her teaching skills are in use all the time. She gives workshops and visits departments, develops resource materials for our students on our Web site, and brings in outside experts to speak.

Jenny's old department asked her to teach a course in her subject this semester. Even though it's during the workday, I was thrilled for her to have the opportunity. In many ways, she has the "best of both worlds" in that she does work that interests her, helps people, and develops new knowledge areas all the time, and she can enjoy teaching without worrying about publishing, committee meetings, and the tenure clock.

Jenny: Every Ph.D. who finds employment outside academe will have a different story to tell, but I think mine provides a few good lessons. First, networking is essential in any job search. Even if you're doing an academic one, you want to be talking to people and establishing yourself in your field. If you're doing a nonacademic job search, the contacts you make will help you find your niche.

Second, persistence pays off. It may take several months, even a year, to find something that's right for you, but even if you get a lot of rejections, you need to keep trying.

Finally, Ph.D.'s might sometimes feel they don't have skills appropriate for jobs outside of the professoriate; however, they have numerous transferable skills. They just need the confidence to communicate those skills to potential employers.

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