Are You Ready to go on the Market?
Friday, September 14, 2001
by Mary Morris Heiberger and Julia Miller Vick

Practical guidance for academic job seekers from professional career counselors

It's September, and the big question if you are a new Ph.D., or about to be one, is whether you are ready to go on the academic job market this year.

Your answer to that big question will depend on how you answer a lot of little questions. Certain states of unreadiness -- such as not having polished your C.V. -- can be quickly remedied. Others -- like being far from completing a dissertation -- may mean that it would be best to defer a major job search for another year.

To help you decide, we've devised a quiz. We'll not only pose a few questions, we'll even give you the answers. See how you fare.

Question: If this will be your first time on the market, when will your dissertation be completed?

A. I have my Ph.D. already.

B. My adviser thinks I might be done this August, but I'm sure I can finish by May.

C. I don't know.

If you answered A, you're probably ready. If you're in a scientific discipline, however, and want a job at a research institution, we also need to ask whether you have at least a few years of postdoctoral experience and are prepared to write a major grant proposal to set up your own lab.

If you answered B, talk with your adviser immediately. A hiring committee is most impressed by a Ph.D. in hand. Short of that, the next-best thing is a convincing statement from your adviser about your expected date of completion. An August completion date is probably going to be pushing your luck with many hiring committees, unless you're applying for a job at a two-year school that doesn't require Ph.D.'s.

If you answered C, and intend to complete your degree, don't waste your energy in the Ph.D. job market this year. Sit down with your adviser and work out the steps toward the completion of your degree and target dates for reaching them. We realize that sometimes paying one's bills takes priority over a dissertation. Think carefully about what combination of work, loans, and concentrated time finishing your dissertation seems most likely to serve your long-term goals.

Question: Have you made a presentation at a conference or convention?

A. I have done a few poster sessions.

B. I spoke on technology and teaching at a regional meeting. Does that count?

C. What kind of convention are you talking about?

If you answered A, you are certainly on the way to participating in scholarly exchange. Evidence of contributions to one's field through presentations or publications is critical in evaluating your strength as a candidate for a faculty position.

If your answer was B, you may be of interest to departments that aren't using technology in teaching and want to, as well as to liberal-arts colleges where the emphasis is more on excellent teaching than on research.

If you answered C, you probably are not ready to go on the market. Get out of your cave and start participating.

Question: Have you lined up your letters of recommendation?

A. I have four faculty members who are my recommenders. Three are at my institution, including my adviser, of course, and the fourth is someone at another institution with whom I have done some work. That person is very enthusiastic about my work and is well-respected in our field. I know that three letters have been filed with my university career office and the fourth should be arriving soon.

B. I have two people who I know will write me strong recommendations. I've been on the "outs" with the third person for a while and I'm not sure whether I can count on a good recommendation from that person. It will look strange to not have that person as one of my recommenders.

C. Should I use the same people who wrote my graduate-school recommendations?

If answer A is yours, you are ready to go. It is terrific to have four recommenders who know you well. And it can be quite advantageous to have a recommendation from someone outside your institution.

If your answer is B, you may be able to apply this year but you have some work to do first. See a couple of our previous columns -- "Getting ready to go on the market" and "How important are letters of recommendation?" -- for some suggestions on how to mend relationships.

If you answered C, you are probably not far enough along with your dissertation to think about applying for jobs. Perhaps you should spend this year writing, trying to publish or make a presentation, and building scholarly rapport with your adviser and other recommenders. Stop thinking of yourself as a graduate student and conduct yourself as an academic.

Question: Do you know where to find announcements of faculty positions in your field?

A. I regularly check the job-listings newsletter of my scholarly association as well as that of an association in a related field. I look at the job announcements in The Chronicle. The two e-mail discussion groups I subscribe to sometimes include openings, as does the e-mail from my career office. My adviser has sent me announcements of some openings for which she thinks I would be particularly appropriate. I also look at the Web sites of my scholarly association and the departmental Web sites of institutions that interest me.

B. I look at the bulletin board in our department and I check the position announcements in The Chronicle.

C. Do you mean the want ads of the Sunday paper?

If you answered A, you have pretty much covered your bases. Both departmental and institutional Web sites are becoming good places to look for openings.

If you answered B, you're skimming the surface but you're getting there. Talk with the person who answered A.

If you answered C, you're not ready. While some faculty jobs may be listed in the Sunday classifieds, most national searches are advertised in national publications and Web sites.

Question: Have you prepared all the materials you'll need for the search?

A. I think so. I have a couple different versions of my vita, because I'm in an interdisciplinary field and will apply to more than one kind of department. I've written a few cover letters, tailored to specific openings. I've written a statement of teaching philosophy, a reasonably interesting dissertation abstract, and an exciting statement of my future research plans. I've polished up my Web site and removed some corny stuff I put on it before a family reunion. Am I ready to roll?

B. I've revised my vita carefully.

C. You mean I don't just fill out an application online?

If you answered A, you're in great shape. You may or may not be asked to submit the teaching philosophy, dissertation abstract, or statement of your research plans. But you won't be sorry you prepared them, because thinking about them is also great interview preparation. The Web site will be a convenience to employers. The only thing you might be missing is a portfolio, if you're in a visual field, or a teaching portfolio if you're
in education or applying to some teaching-intensive schools. However, in our experience, you probably won't be asked much for teaching portfolios and we suspect it's because hiring committees already have more than enough to read. However, do save materials that attest to the quality of your teaching, everything from syllabuses, handouts, and Web menus, to student evaluations. Then if you're asked to submit "evidence of successful teaching," you have a collection to draw on.

If you answered B, you've completed the single most important job-market document. Consider the possibility of slightly revising it if different jobs seem to call for different items to stand out. And get to work on the materials mentioned in answer A.

If you answered C, we suspect that you're either not in a doctoral program or never talk to anybody. If you're not getting a Ph.D., be sure to apply only for faculty positions that don't require one, or you'll waste a lot of energy. If you are in a doctoral program and don't realize you need to submit a vita for academic positions, as they say in Philadelphia when it's hard to get someone's attention, "Yo!"

Question: If you're part of a dual-career couple, have you and your spouse or partner agreed on a strategy and geographic limits, if any, for your search?

A. Yes, we continue to talk about it. It's a difficult issue, but we've worked out an approach that works for us. It might not be everybody's first choice, but it's something we think we can both live with.

B. We're talking about it, but I can't say we're making any progress, except that we have more fights than we used to.

C. No.

If you answered A, you're in good shape to begin looking. Make sure that the people who will recommend you know what you've decided to do, so they can support you. Even though they "shouldn't" be, they may well be asked about your personal situation. Although you both may decide to adjust your strategy as you get market feedback, the key thing is to talk about it and plan it together.

If you answered B, you're on the right track, although it may be hard to believe right now. These are tough issues. If you don't feel you're making progress soon, consider bringing an objective third party, such as a marriage counselor, or someone else you both respect, into the discussion to help keep you both on track.

If you answered C, it's possible that by the end of your job search you will no longer be part of a dual-career couple. If this outcome wouldn't be a problem for you, fine. If it might be, then start talking.

Our little quiz doesn't end with any score. The only one that counts is your own evaluation of where you are and where you need to be.