Career Talk: Practical guidance for academic job seekers from professional career counselors

Chronicle of Higher Education
Thursday, May 17, 2007
Mail Call by Jennifer S. Furlong and Julie Miller Vick

Question: I wonder if you have an example of a CV-to-rsume conversion for someone in the humanities. Somehow, I think that deep knowledge of Romantic poets is less easily moved to the "real world" than work in the hard sciences or technology. I know my skills must be transferable in some way. However, my work involves reading periodical literature from the 1820s -- not devising PowerPoint presentations or developing multimillion-dollar grant applications for proton colliders.

Answer: Many graduate students feel that their intensive course of study in a given subject, be it poetry or protons, has left them ill-prepared for life outside of academe.

Although it might come as a surprise to graduate students in the humanities and social sciences, their peers in the sciences often have similar struggles when preparing a rsume and trying to translate the work they've done into a language that people in the nonacademic world can understand. Rebecca Bryant wrote about the way doctoral students undervalue their abilities in an excellent column, "But I Have No Skills."

Whatever your field, here are a few rsume-writing suggestions.

Try to think about your research in broad terms. Your willingness to wade through a stack of British periodicals from 1823 can testify to your ability to process information quickly, and produce written synopses of that information. Completing a dissertation indicates your capacity to independently manage a complicated, long-term project. Your dissertation can also be a testament to your talents in writing, grant-getting, and managing complex relationships (between feuding committee members, for example, or between yourself and the individuals who are the subject of your research).

Don't forget to include all of those other tasks that are part of being a graduate student. You may have presented at international meetings or organized panels, conferences, or speaker series. You may have been active in graduate-student government or on other campus committees. Such experiences can indicate leadership potential, public-speaking skills, initiative, and organizational ability.

Use your teaching experience to your advantage. Many people outside academe do not realize the intense amount of work that goes into college teaching. Be sure that your rsume makes clear that you have gained excellent public-speaking and organizational skills through your teaching. Use numbers to support your claims. For example:

Taught British and American literature twice a week to 2 classes of 25 students each.

Developed and delivered presentations on a variety of topics for audiences ranging from 25 to 150 people.

Built Web site that contained links related to course material and student needs (including help on how to do research and write papers).

If you have a specific nonacademic career in mind, pick up a bit of related experience to put on your rsume. If you are interested in teaching at the high-school level, why not volunteer at a local museum to work with students from that age group? If you would like to put your science skills to work in intellectual-property law, why not seek out an internship with your university's technology-transfer office? Those types of experiences can make your desire to change fields credible to employers.

Read other people's rsumse when you can. Find out how they articulate their skills and accomplishments. Conduct informational interviews to get a sense of what hiring managers in a particular career are looking for.

Finally, look carefully at job postings in the nonacademic fields that interest you. How do employers phrase both the responsibilities of a given job, and the qualifications they are looking for in candidates? Be mindful of that language as you craft your job-search materials.

Question: I have been listed in several Marquis Who's Who volumes, including Who's Who in the World. Should I list those on my CV? Is such a listing really academically respectable or something handed out without much discrimination?

Answer: We would list them only if you have several other awards and honors. And, we would not include a listing for each year, but an entry that looked something like this:

Who's Who in America, (1996-2007)

Who's Who in the World, (1999; 2003-2007)

There are various organizations that will include you in their directory but want you to shell out lots of money for a copy. We would avoid listing such publications.

Question: When I finished my Ph.D. in English literature in 1999, the job market was completely flooded. I had a small 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. I would like to get back into the profession. I have a book chapter and a conference presentation both forthcoming. However, I am not sure how to address my absence from the field in my cover letter. Any advice?

Answer: It is not unusual for job candidates to have gaps on their CV's because of serious health problems, mental-health issues, or life-changing events such as having children. It is important to figure out how to talk about those gaps in a way that acknowledges them, yet doesn't draw unnecessary attention to them. You want search committees to know that your gap was legitimate and you dealt with it responsibly, but that what defines you is your scholarship.

When you mention the gap in your cover letter, make it a secondary issue to your scholarly qualifications, and put it near the end of the letter. Also, you might ask your letter writers to refer briefly to the gap in the most positive way possible. For example:

"In addition to teaching at XYZ Community College and raising a family, Jane has been an active researcher as evidenced by her forthcoming book chapter on QRS and a scheduled presentation at the next ABC annual meeting."

Be prepared to explain the gap to an interview committee: "I was out of the academic job market for several years because I spent a few years raising my children [or whatever you are comfortable saying], but have since gotten back on track and have a forthcoming book chapter and will be presenting at the ABC Association's annual meeting."

It can be very difficult, though not impossible, to get a tenure-track job if you've been off the market for a few years. Because of that, it might be helpful for you to think about what you might like to do if an academic position does not materialize. Read So What Are You Going to Do With That? Finding Careers Outside Academia by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius. It's a great place to start exploring your nonacademic possibilities, however reluctant you might be about doing so.

And read Part 1 and Part 2 of our series on nonfaculty careers in academe. Many Ph.D.'s decide to remain in the academic world by opting for careers in campus administration, libraries, technology, or other areas.

Question: I am currently on the job market, and have been contacted by the head of the search committee for a tenure-track position that is partly with an ethnic-studies program and partly in a large department in my major field. My tenure would be with the department, and teaching would be split evenly between the program and the department. However, my office and, I suspect, a majority of my service obligations, would be with the program. What are some common pitfalls with a joint appointment?

Answer: Some people view joint-appointment holders as "neither fish nor fowl," with no loyalty to a particular department. However, like almost everything, we think it's what you make of it. Find a few people in each department with whom you have common interests and communicate with them regularly. At least initially, attend meetings of both the department and the program, and speak up occasionally. Have people in both realms see you as an active member.

Be sure you understand if, and how, the requirements for tenure might be different for you than for others on the campus, and plan accordingly. Try to have a senior faculty member in both the department and the program who can guide you and assess how you're doing. As another writer pointed out in a recent column, confusion over tenure requirements can be the most trying aspect of a joint appointment. Don't accept the position without a clear vision of what both sides will expect of you.

Question: I interviewed for a faculty position in a speech and theater department at a community college. Everything was going well, and then, "to shake things up a bit," one of the panelists requested that I perform, by myself, a one-minute improvisation of my life. Afterward, the members of the search committee asked me questions about my life based on that improvisation. I've never experienced that kind of request before in my (albeit short) interview experience.

I guess I can somewhat understand why they chose that approach, but I'm not sure what they hoped to gain, nor am I completely convinced of its effectiveness. I did it, handled the request (it was not my best performance, as performances go) and was confident and unapologetic about it. I have informally polled some of my colleagues in theater, and they have never heard of an approach like that either. In the future, what is the best way to handle a situation like that?

Answer: With a theater position, you should always be prepared to perform, even if performance isn't your specialty. It's hard to know if there was a goal with that exercise or if it was merely the brainchild of a quirky member of the department. It sounds like you handled the situation as well as could be expected.

Sometimes candidates are confronted with the unexpected in an interview. We heard recently from a Ph.D. who, during his campus interview, ate lunch with a well-known faculty member. Because she was unable to attend his job talk that afternoon, she asked him to give the job talk to her at that very moment. Flustered, and without notes or presentation materials, the job candidate did his best, and was eventually offered the job.

In unexpected situations, the most important thing is to keep your cool. Whether or not the other interviewers find their colleague's questions or requests strange, they will certainly admire your ability to be calm and adaptable.


Julie Miller Vick is senior associate director of career services and Jennifer S. Furlong is associate director at the University of Pennsylvania. Vick is co-author of The Academic Job Search Handbook (University of Pennsylvania Press), along with Mary Morris Heiberger, who was associate director of career services at Penn.