Notes from the Job Trail

My considerations for playing the academic job market long game from demystifying the process to the campus interview.

There are no shortage of discussion boards, parodies, and horror stories about the academic job market. In these articles, I’ve found good advice, humor, social support, and empathy… as well as some anxiety provocation and fear mongering. After many years of nervous anticipation, I suddenly find myself on the other side of the process (having just finished my last campus visit). Reflecting back over the past few years, here are three insights/tips, from three different phases of the process, which helped me to navigate the job trail this year.

I. BEFORE APPLYING FOR JOBS

As graduate students, we have the opportunity to prepare for the academic job market long before we become candidates. Besides attending job talks and signing up to have lunch with visiting candidates, there are a few other things that can help disillusion the mysterious process…
·         Volunteer to be on a search committee: Many search committees include one graduate student representative, and this gives you a front row seat to the application and interviewing process.
·         Solicit feedback after job talks in your department: Not every student can sit on a search committee, but you could also ask some of your faculty to have a “debriefing session” with graduate students after a few visiting candidates have given job talks. I organized a session like this while I was a student at Northwestern, and it was really helpful to hear constructive feedback from faculty – a great opportunity for our professional development.
·         Practice networking: See if your advisor or other departmental faculty will introduce you to their colleagues from other institutions. Sign up for lunches with the experts or themed happy hour events at conferences. Go up and introduce yourself to a presenter after they finish a talk. Much of a job interview is talking to smart and interesting people that you don’t know (all day, for two days), and this is something that becomes much more natural and comfortable with time and practice.
II. THE TIME IN BETWEEN APPLYING AND INTERVIEWING
It’s hard to get motivated to start prepping for a campus visit before you get an invitation, however, it may pay off to be optimistically prepared. Depending on the school’s timeline, you could be invited out with just a couple weeks notice (although in other cases you may have a month or longer to prepare). Here are a few things to consider in the months/weeks after you submit your job applications…
·         The Wiki: As I’m sure that most of you know, there is a Psychology Job Wiki (http://psychjobsearch.wikidot.com/) that is updated by users “to provide timely information to applicants about the status of academic job searches.” In a lot of ways, this resource is great – in particular, it helps consolidate lots of job ads that may interest you. However, I have two warnings: (1) It really only provides “bad news.” If you are going to get an interview, you will get a call or email from the school directly. So, don’t waste too much energy scouring through the entries on the wiki. (2) It can be misleading. For example, sometimes candidates are notified at different times, or a school decides to bring out additional applicants for a campus visit after the initial group. So, just because you see that someone else got a phone/ Skype/ campus interview at Dream University, doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t have a shot.
·         The Job Talk: The format (i.e., summarizing your research program and future directions) and length (i.e., 45 minutes – 1 hour, plus time for questions) distinguish this talk from class lectures, conference presentations, and other public speaking events. I found that both the talk itself, as well as my own levels of comfort and confidence as a presenter, increased substantially with practice and outside feedback. I started with a “seated” practice with just a couple of academic peers sitting around a conference table pushing through a rough set of slides. Then, I did a couple of “stand-up” practice talks with faculty and peers at my current postdoctoral institution, as well as an e-presentation with my former graduate school lab (using the free version of GoToMeeting, http://www.gotomeeting.com/online/entry). As a final step, I gave my job talk to an outside group, which has the benefit of simulating the real experience, without the high-stakes. Also, I have to confess that I found it really hard to get motivated to practice an hour-long talk to an empty room at home by myself, so these practice talks forced me to practice the presentation start to finish a few times before the real thing!
·         How to be an Assistant Professor: A friend of mine once commented that schools want to hire someone who already talks like and acts like an assistant professor. This may sound obvious, but it made an impression on me, so I thought it was worth mentioning. You should go into an interview with fluent academic lingo (e.g., the difference between an R03 and an R01; the meaning of a 2:3 teaching load), concrete examples of your views and experiences with certain tenure requirements (e.g., grant writing, course development, professional service), and confidence that you can bring something new to enrich the program.
III. THE INTERVIEW DAY(S)
It is well known that the campus interview in a grueling couple of days. On one hand, it’s really invigorating because you are talking about your work and future plans with the people who may become your colleagues and collaborators. On the other hand, it’s really exhausting because as much as you love your work, you may not be used to talking about it for 12 hours straight with a group of new acquaintances. I sought a lot of advice, and after going through the process itself, here are three things that stand out in my mind…
·         Stress reduction: Stress comes with the territory, but there are many things that you can do to cope and reduce anxiety. For example, (1) Talk to some of the new assistant professors that you know (and more senior faculty who serve on search committees). I found that everyone was very willing to share his or her stories (and materials) to give you a good idea about what to expect. (2) Print out a copy of your slides/notes and have them with you, just in case there are major technical difficulties. You probably will not have to use them, but it’s a comfort to know that you could give your talk without slides if necessary. (3) Many people underlined the importance of getting good sleep during the interview, but this may be easier said than done. I was very nervous about oversleeping (especially coming from the West Coast). While I had an alarm on my phone, I make good use of the “wake up call” option at the hotels. I slept much more soundly knowing I had a second line of defense.
·         Mind control: You may feel like your mind is spinning throughout the interview days(s). Even during the job talk, and in those focused one-on-one meetings, I somehow managed to get distracted by some things as minor as a disconcerting facial expression or an off-hand comment/question. I also had a few “out of body” experiences where I caught myself self-assessing my own presentation or mentally comparing opportunities from this school versus the last school I had visited. There are times when it is appropriate to think about those things – but not during the interview itself! One method that turned out to be useful to me was to utilize the notebook I was carrying around. When a distracting thought came up in my mind, I’d write it down to ponder later. If someone asked a hard question, I’d take a few moments to focus, write it down, and compose my thoughts before responding. Even more commonly, faculty brought up extremely interesting/ helpful points, and you definitely want to write those down too, so you don’t forget to look into them later (when you are back home and functioning with full mental capacity).
·         Remember that you are also evaluating them: We spend most of our prep time worrying about ourselves – perfecting a job talk, talking to mentors/colleagues about possible interview questions, packing appropriate professional supplies and attire, etc. However, when you make it to this final stage, it means that your application was very well received and the school is very interested in you. So, remember to prepare questions of your own. (I don’t think I had a single meeting where I was not given plentiful time to ask questions.) This really gives you the opportunity to understand what it would be like to work in that school. What is the departmental culture? Are there any internal funds available for research? How was their transition to the university? What are the expectations for tenure? What are the best and worst things about working there?
By Lindsay Till Hoyt