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'Behind the Academic Curtain'

November 20, 2013

The academic job market has been unsteady -- to say the least -- for years now, and more seems to be expected of job candidates with each hiring season. Trying to succeed in academe can be daunting, and no single article or even book can begin to provide the prospective academic with all the information she'll need.

Still, Frank F. Furstenberg gives it his best shot in Behind the Academic Curtain: How to Find Success and Happiness With a Ph.D. (University of Chicago Press). The subtitle may overpromise, but Furstenberg does offer an exceptionally comprehensive guide to an entire academic career, from deciding where to apply to grad school to determining when it's time to retire.

In an email interview, Furstenberg, who is Zellerbach Family Professor of Sociology Emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, offered some tips on navigating the early stages of an academic career. But his book may offer something even for those who've been in academe for years -- and for those who may want to apply their Ph.D.s elsewhere, as well.

Q: What should students be doing relatively early in grad school to lay the groundwork for becoming attractive candidates for academic jobs?

A: Students should begin to think about future jobs aspirations even as they decide which graduate program to enter. If you want an academic career, it is very important to know whether the program that you are entering has a good record of placing students after they complete their Ph.D. For many students seeking an academic job, the next step after graduate school is a postdoc. Increasingly, students will be expected to have some evidence of scholarly accomplishment before they complete their dissertation. This means submitting papers for conferences and publication as you complete your coursework and begin writing your thesis. While this schedule may seem demanding, these days departments recruiting assistant professors are looking for a record of achievement, not just the promise of achievement.

Q: What advice can you offer grad students who may not want to pursue a career in academe?

A: In many disciplines, more students plan to enter nonacademic than academic careers when they complete graduate school. I suggest that if you are considering a nonacademic career, you must establish contacts outside of academia during graduate school. This often happens through summer employment, but typically faculty members know of job prospects and are useful in helping to bridge the academic and nonacademic worlds. Try to pick a mentor (or two) who knows about job prospects. Often the opportunities arise through internships and placements during graduate school.  Know how the job market outside of academia in your discipline works before you start writing your thesis. Picking the right topic will enhance your prospects of getting a good job outside of academia.

Q: What are the most important factors in deciding whether to do a postdoc?

A: In the sciences and social sciences, post-docs are a common stage after completion of the doctorate. Almost all scientists and a substantial minority of social scientists move from grad school to a postdoc. Working with a mentor in a different department provides an opportunity to build on work done during graduate school, get papers out for publication, and widen social contacts within the discipline. Picking a postdoc in which you will have an able and engaged mentor who puts your interests first is highly desirable. Making that happen means doing some careful assessment of how previous postdocs have done in the places that you are considering. Don't be shy about asking for this information!

Q: You write that "going into a holding pattern is a wise strategy for a committed and capable recent Ph.D... ." What actions do you recommend to job-seekers who are unsuccessful in their first year on the job market?

A: Of course, it depends on the candidate, but I advise not giving up if you have a good record of accomplishment and a strong commitment to being an academic. Instead, try to build on that record, even if it means remaining in the department where you have completed your degree as a part-time teacher or researcher. This is what I mean by going into a holding pattern. If you must follow this course, try to use the year to publish and expand your professional contacts, just as you might if you had an official postdoc. You will not be alone in following this strategy. It is risky and requires a reasonable prospect that a second round on the job market will treat you better than the first.

Q: What are some of the most common mistakes that you see job applicants make?

A: I think the most common pattern that I see is avoidance. That is, some students don't sufficiently plan for the next step -- what to do after completing a doctorate -- during graduate school. For some people, it may be difficult to think about the future when they are in the thick of graduate training. My book offers suggestions on how to anticipate what will next and how to position yourself to make a successful transition into the job market. While you cannot make choices before they become available, it is important to think about the choices you might have in advance. Preparing increases the odds that you will indeed have choices after graduate school, whether you want an academic or a nonacademic position.

Q: Many applicants, you write, may not "realize how central the job talk is to the hiring process." What should candidates keep in mind as they prepare?

A: It is difficult to underestimate the importance of the job talk for a candidate's success in getting a good position. In many places, the job talk will be your only introduction to some of the members who will vote on your appointment. Sad to say, faculty may not read your research unless they are on the search committee or your work falls in their field of expertise. You have an hour or so to introduce your work and yourself to these colleagues. Make sure that you construct your talk so that they will understand the importance of the work that you are presenting and how it fits broadly in your future research plans that often go beyond the job talk itself. Never, never do a talk that has not been field-tested in advance. Even if a practice job talk is not part of your department's routine, arrange to give one to your fellow students and willing faculty. Anticipating critical comments on your research and having thoughtful responses to potential criticisms will greatly increase your chances that the job talk will be successful.

Q: When a candidate is offered a job, to what extent, if any, should she try to negotiate the terms of the offer?

A: It is almost always possible to negotiate terms of employment after you get an offer unless otherwise indicated by the employer. You have some latitude to ask for more if you think the offer is insufficient. A little more salary, summer salary for a year or two, a bigger research account, or a course off in the first year are common requests to a chair or dean who is making the offer. But think carefully about what you need and how you can best to respond to a pending offer. I would seek advice from your mentors about whether an offer is reasonable and whether to ask for more. Don't be greedy or get into a contest of wills. Of course if you have alternative offers, then you have a better hand to play. Most of all, don't back yourself into a corner in making demands that your potential employer cannot meet.

Q: You describe "a large disconnect ... in academia between formal career training and doing the job." What do you see as the most difficult aspects of the transition from graduate student to new faculty member?

A: Most beginning assistant professors find the transition daunting because there is no way to prepare fully for it in advance. Of course, if you have taught courses before -- and this is likely in most fields -- you will have a head start. Still, it takes time for most people to become comfortable as an assistant professor. You are getting a lot of new information in a very short time. You must deal with everything from finding your way on campus to figuring out the culture of your new department. Sometimes the process takes weeks, but more often it takes months or even years to get a good grip on reality. How to handle yourself in faculty meetings, whether you must accept invitations to join committees, how to balance teaching and research obligations are just a few of the challenges that you will face. It seems like a lot and, it is, but most first-year assistant professors are so relieved to be "on the other side of the lectern" that the challenges are welcomed.

 

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