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Essay on issues of fit in academic job searches

Get a Job!
Finding Fit
September 23, 2013

For some fields, the job search season has already begun: Political science has had preliminary interviews during its annual Labor Day conference, and business schools are already planning on-campus interviews for next year’s new faculty members. In the humanities, the season is just ramping up.

Ten years ago, in what now seems like the Middle Ages in terms of job-application processes, I began my slog through the print-based job lists and the relatively new online job databases. I was doing a limited search in writing studies, but printed nearly 80 ads that seemed applicable to me, filed them each in a manila folder, labeled them with the institution name and due date, and assigned a rating (star, check plus, check, check minus, or none) in accordance with my interest in the job and my assumptions on whether I was a good fit for it. Thinking I was saving my adviser time, I only showed her the check-pluses and stars, about 30 ads. In a humbling moment, she suggested I discard about half of those ads because I wouldn’t be a good fit at those colleges. This was the moment I learned what the "fit" factor was and how it played out in the job market.

The fit factor can be wrongly assumed to refer to demographics of a candidate (age, race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.) but what I learned that day is that the fit factor is the intersection between a job-seeker’s academic identity and the academic identities of the college/department that a job seeker is applying to. The identities of a job-seeker and a department are found in their provenances. My own was of an electronic literature scholar turned digital composition teacher-scholar, with a strong bent toward interdisciplinary praxis. My specialty was not in being a theory-head, as I called them, but in the researched practice of teaching people (students, teachers) to read and write in new media.

So it shouldn’t have been a surprise that colleges and universities focusing on critical theory (institutions, for instance, where graduate students don’t regularly teach) may not be amenable to hiring someone whose focus doesn’t match theirs. I knew at the time about the Carnegie designations, which were then still known for their classifications according to research-based work (e.g., R-I was research-intensive, later as Doctoral/Research Extensive and -Intensive, etc.). The more an institution was known for its research productivity, the higher the Carnegie classification. These classifications seem to change every few years (e.g., now we have Very High Research Activity, High Research Activity, etc.).

The point here is that those of us getting Ph.D.s are, most often, coming from universities with high research activity, not from teaching-intensive colleges and universities formerly known as R2s or SLACs (small liberal arts colleges), and so it’s difficult to see ourselves outside of the sector within which we got our degrees. But those kinds of institutions are not necessarily the place where we will fit the best, or be the happiest.

You have a lot of options when it comes to getting an academic job. You might be looking for an academic job with any of the following characteristics:

  • No teaching/all research: very high research activity, requires the equivalent of two books before tenure, teaching 0-0 or 0-1 teaching load, self-funded by grants (in the sciences) or through endowed chairs, usually a well-known private institution or a large public land-grant institution, rare in the humanities except at senior levels.
  • Teaching Ph.D. students/doing LOTS of research: very high or high research activity university, usually 1.5 books or equivalent before tenure, 1-1 or 2-2 teaching load supplemented by lots of (often unsupported) time mentoring Ph.D. students in writing their dissertations.
  • Teaching undergrads and master’s students/significant research: research activity usually includes a book or equivalent (4-6 articles) before tenure, 2-3 or 3-3 teaching load (or more).
  • Teaching undergraduates/some research: research activity varies dramatically, from a few conference presentations expected to a few peer-reviewed articles or their equivalent, usually at a small/private liberal arts college or a branch campus of a state university. Teaching load may be 3-3, 4-4, or even 5-5. One avenue of a teaching-intensive job is to teach predominantly underrepresented students at a community college, tribal school, or historically black college. Service in the form of academic advising is heavy since students are the focus.
  • Staff position/possibly no research: might take a myriad of forms from running a center or lab, where mentoring and teaching is implicit, research may or may not be required, administrative and managerial skills are top priority.

Of course there are variations to all of these options, and we are all good at different things.

You shouldn’t be embarrassed to apply for a job in a different realm from that of your Ph.D.-granting institution. Several programs I’m familiar with are constantly berating their students for applying to teaching-intensive jobs, for instance. But some people really want to be master teacher-scholars, and your university should be happy if you get a job! The key to academic happiness is playing to your strengths and doing it better than anyone else, which requires a decent amount of reflection during your pre-job-market preparations.

Who are you? What do you want to do with your life (within your Ph.D. field)? Where do you see yourself in six years (post tenure)? Teaching at a community college is just as important and rewarding professionally and personally as teaching at a research-intensive, Ph.D.-teaching job, depending on what your academic identity is. (And if your academic identity is research-intensive and you apply for a community college job, trust me, they will see you a mile away and throw out your application.)

In the decade of job mentoring I’ve done with Ph.D. students, I always start by asking them what kind of institution they think they want to teach at. Most say they want to be at the kind of university at which they earned their Ph.D. Because that’s all they know, I try to explain. And there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that. It’s not surprising that students who choose to attend a Ph.D. program that focuses on research want to later work for a research-intensive institution. And students who choose a Ph.D. program that focuses on pedagogy want to work for a college that values teaching.

The problem occurs when job-seekers don’t understand the differences between the kinds of institutions I’ve outlined above. Another problem occurs when students undercut themselves -- the perpetual academic impostor syndrome. I often hear students say they don’t want to teach graduate students because, as a graduate student, they can’t ever imagine having that kind of authority in the classroom. How do you think your professors learned how to teach grad students? I doubt any of us were perfect the first time in a grad class.

More often, I hear Ph.D. students in the throes of completing their dissertations say that they don’t want to research once they get a faculty job, so they’ll focus on jobs with high teaching loads. I remind them that, if they feel like they’re struggling to perform the academic identity of "researcher," their dissertation is usually the first time they’ve had to do that, and it won’t always be a brand new, learning-to-write scenario like the dissertation. And that once the diss is complete, they can research whatever they want to, and (depending on the institution and its tenure requirements) write articles, get grants, write reports, blog, or create project-based works, if they want. So, don’t dismiss research or teaching whole-hog, and you can always switch the kind of school you work at, if you’ve prepped yourself for that change.

Your Ph.D. prepares you for certain kinds of these jobs (and not for others), and sometimes your adviser is the best person to ask if you are unsure what kinds of jobs you will be ready for. That one conversation with my adviser, early in the job search, helped me realize that I was not -- and had no interest in being -- a faculty member who focuses primarily on research. Although I’ve done plenty of research in my career, I like to think it’s because I’ve chosen to be at the kinds of universities that have allowed me to blossom on my own terms, in research, teaching, and professional service.

Not everyone will be happy working at a research-intensive, or teaching-intensive college or university, so before you apply for that job because it’s close to home, or you’ve heard of the university, or you know someone who works there, ask yourself whether your academic identity -- at the basic level of a scholar or pedagogue or some combination thereof -- makes you a fit. If you can see your full professional life taking shape before your eyes, then you should definitely apply.

Bio

Cheryl E. Ball is editor of the scholarly journal, Kairos: Rhetoric, Technology, Pedagogy. When she's not mentoring authors in digital media publishing, she's mentoring grad students in Getting Things Done. She teaches multimodal composition, digital publishing, technical editing, grant writing, and composition pedagogy courses and is currently a Fulbright scholar in Oslo, Norway. She has published several collections on new media and textbooks on multimodal literacies, including Writer/Designer: A Guide To Making Multimodal Projects (Bedford/St. Martin's, 2013), and frequently gives talks and workshops on evaluating digital scholarship, teaching multimodal writing, and creating digital portfolios. More of her work can be found at ceball.com.

 

 

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