Back to the future – Career planning for those of us who have never been “there”

The ABCs of applying for postdoc and faculty jobs.

As it stands today, I am approaching the end of my first year as a postdoctoral fellow. The purpose of my fellowship is, in part, to prepare me for that elusive faculty position that I may someday be able to obtain. Mentors have talked to me about preparing for “the next step” and I’ve attended seminars on becoming a faculty member. The information and advice from those meetings and seminars and the wisdom I glean from hearing about other faculty member’s experiences are useful (mostly), but there are days when I literally rest my head on my desk and wonder whether it really all comes down to chance. I know there are a lot of things we as emerging scholars can do to prepare ourselves, to figure out where we want to be, and how to get there – and in this blog I will share some things that I find useful. So, out of fairness to those of us who don’t have the luxury of a future self who time-travels to intervene on our behalf, I freely admit that much of this feels pretty haphazard.

Luckily there is some systematic organization that emerges from the randomness of career navigation in our field, right?! For example, where we got accepted to graduate school and the mentors we worked with once we got there occurred somewhat by chance.  Our experiences depended on who was accepting students, whether our mentors stayed or changed institutions, opportunities for teaching and research assistantships across institutions, etc. But what we did to prepare for getting into grad school – volunteering in someone’s lab to get research experience, studying for the GRE, and polishing those applications was under our control. So while we can never guess where exactly we will end up, (and that seems to be a common theme across careers for the mentors I have spoken with) the path from here to a faculty position or a research position or a job in the applied setting does exist, however rugged or non-linear it may be.

I think one of the biggest threats we face as emerging scholars when it comes to career navigation , is to get so focused on the things we need to accomplish in the next day, or week, or month, that we forget to think about what our ultimate career goals are.  We forget to look at the bigger picture. Or at least I do. When I started grad school, I know I talked about wanting to be a faculty member someday. But really, my focus was on getting into grad school, not what exactly I would do when I was done. Then, during grad school, the focus was always on getting through and graduating. The talks about “planning for the next step” were always vague and distant. Fortunately I have experienced two activities that forced me to focus on the larger process, not just the next deadline. Hopefully you will find these strategies useful as well.

The first activity was postdoctoral and faculty applications, which (as those of you starting applications know) require that you describe your research and career goals for the future, beyond your dissertation. As I prepared to start this application process, I was fortunate to have a mentor and a program that encouraged me to avoid the “apply for everything” approach, and instead to think about what I wanted and where I would fit in a department or program. Having been through the process from start to finish (for a postdoc), if I could, I would go back to my slightly younger self with this advice:

A – Think about what you really want to research and/or teach.  There are a lot of projects we get involved in during grad school (which is great!), but we can get caught in a diffuse identity as a researcher or teacher. For example, when I went on the market, I found it tempting to apply for that faculty position wanting someone to teach one developmental course a year along with 5 sections of intro to psych, one section of cognitive, and one section of abnormal. That very well could be the best job for you – the thing you’ve always wanted to do. I initially thought, “I have taught intro and developmental, so I should apply for that job.” But after seriously thinking about what I really wanted for my life, I realized that regardless of how competitive I may or may not be for that ad, I would be miserable teaching that many courses, and I would be less than thrilled with that many sections of intro. The jobs you are qualified for are not all going to be the jobs you should apply for. It may be really tempting to apply for them anyway – the economy is tight, and jobs are hard to come by. But it is worth it to be selective (within reason). So spend time really thinking about what you want. Write it down. Identify what things you are willing to compromise (e.g., region of the country) and what you are not (e.g., time dedicated to research).

B – Consider fit. I heard this more times than I can count, and I didn’t really understood what it meant until I did job interviews. Ultimately, no job is perfect. But (especially when funding is tight) it can be tempting to take a job you normally would not consider due to a legitimate concern that it is that job or nothing. But don’t.  I am of the opinion that fit comes in three forms: types of institutions, types of jobs, and environments. The first two forms of fit can be evaluated (to a certain extent) before starting the job search.  For institutions, two of the most common options considered are liberal arts colleges and state schools, which is a good place to start. Take time to talk to people involved in different types of institutions to learn what those institutions are like. For example, I interacted with faculty at a small liberal arts college in Lincoln, Nebraska while I was at the University of Nebraska. It was a great way for me to realize that my philosophy of education was not aligned with the general views of that liberal arts college. As a result, I learned what questions to ask while interviewing to uncover institutional beliefs to make sure their views aligned with my own (e.g., expectations for faculty to be available to students “after hours”).  While learning about institutions you may or may not be interested in working for might seem time-consuming, it will also help you uncover what to look for in job ads or on university websites that can guide your decisions around what jobs to apply for.

The type of job is also important. For example, a research faculty position may look very different than a tenure-track faculty position, and the expectations of one may be more appealing than another. Be honest with yourself – if you don’t want to teach, a research faculty position might be a better option for you. Again, talk to people you know about what their jobs are like, so you know what sounds good (or horrible) based on what you want.  One effective way to accomplish this is through informational interviews via phone, skype, or in person with contacts you or your mentor has – or more informally, by asking someone to meet you for coffee to discuss their experiences and perspective. It is amazing how much you can learn in a short period of time by doing this (for more tips, see Jen’s networking post from last month).

Finally, consideration of environment includes the department politics, the people, and the place (facilities, location, etc.). You likely can’t discern the type of environment from the ad, but when you talk to people on the phone or visit the sites for interviews, you will get a feel for that fit factor. When that happens, follow your gut. This job is where you will spend the majority of your time – if something seems off, don’t discount that feeling. One final comment: with regard to postdocs, even if you have to spend some of your own money to do an on-site visit, do it. This is a huge decision, and phone interviews only provide some information about the people and place you would work in.

C – Be open to the unexpected.  So part of my hang-up in wanting to apply for every faculty position out there was that I truly believed that the only job for me was as a traditional tenure-track faculty member. When that didn’t pan out, I started applying for postdocs. And it turns out that being a postdoc has been a great fit for me! It is true that I had to move for a non-permanent position, but it has helped me to clarify my research, exposed me to new opportunities and environments, and I get to do research ALL DAY EVERY DAY. It is perfect for me. I have heard the same thing from some friends who took invited professor positions – a great move in getting them to the “next step,” and they were happy with the position even though it was temporary.

The second activity I was exposed to occurred as I was transitioning into my fellowship, and I truly wish I had done this my first year of graduate school. Referred to as an individual development plan, the activity requires that you answer four sets of questions.

1: Write down your strengths and “needs.” What have you mastered, and what do you still need to learn? The next step in your career should capitalize on those strengths and simultaneously provide the opportunity for you to address your needs.

2: Identify how you could address those needs you identified in Step 1. Perhaps it is taking a class or writing a paper. Then decide when you will (or when you would like to) address those needs, along with an estimated completion date. For example, you may identify needing to learn a particular methodology (e.g., SEM) as part of your needs assessment. To address that need, you could take a graduate course or register for a course through APA or ICPSR’s summer methodology seminars. Choosing when you are going to complete that, and how that fits into your larger career “timeline” is also important – if you need to learn that method to be competitive for a faculty position, for example, then it would be important to address that need in grad school or early in a postdoc.

3: List what is important to you in a career and the type of work you would like to do. Identify what you need in order to be competitive for that career. Some of those needs may be the same as step 1 (e.g., learning a methodology) but hopefully there are some new needs you identify as well (e.g., if you want to work at a particular university, then meeting the department chair at that institution could be a need). Decide how you will address those needs, with estimated completion dates.

4: Use that information to inform the decisions you make about how you spend your time and what you say yes or no to. Then evaluate and prioritize between steps 2 and 3. Needs that must be accomplished to finish your dissertation or get a fellowship, for example, would get priority over needs for getting tenure at an institution (if you are proposing your dissertation right now). Also important to note is that there may be some needs that you are not sure how to address – those are great things to discuss with mentors, peers, or other faculty. The only person responsible for making sure you meet your needs is you, and you will likely have to seek out or advocate for resources to address your needs. 

The above process doesn’t guarantee that the job you want will be waiting for you when you do your next job search, but it does make the path feel a little less uncertain. And much like our experiences getting into grad school or getting that first position, I have found this exercise to be helpful in figuring out how to best prepare myself to get “there” – at least eventually J. For more information on that exercise, and a template to follow, check out postdoc.unl.edu. And if, as you read this, you thought of your own resources to share, please post that below – or use the post to ask any questions. We all have career advice to share – things we have heard or experienced. And I know I would benefit from hearing more about your ideas.

By Sarah Beal