Making the Choice

If you are one of the fortunate few with more than one job offer, Eliza Woolf has ideas on how to decide.

May 9, 2011

As the 2010-2011 academic job-market cycle winds down to its inevitable conclusion, questions from job-seekers are still swirling around cyberspace. "What are my chances of landing a tenure-track job in the near future?" "How can I make myself a more competitive candidate for next year’s job market?" "What exactly are search committees looking for?" "How can I rock the on-campus interview?" "If I do get an offer, what’s negotiable?"

It's well known that academic job-seekers are operating in an incredibly competitive, limited market right now, so it’s no surprise that nearly all of our attention is focused on interviewing well and getting an offer. We’ve all got our eyes on the same prize, namely landing the best tenure-track job possible. And for most of us, the best tenure-track job is any tenure-track job.

Indeed, much of the available career advice for job-seeking Ph.D.s is intended to assist junior scholars to navigate the intricacies of the academic job market. Given the difficulty of making it to the on-campus interview stage, let alone of receiving an offer, this is as it should be.

Nonetheless, what if a first-time academic job-seeker, after many anxious months of interviewing, is faced with an embarrassment of riches? What if she or he has more than one tenure-track job offer or two visiting positions to choose between or the choice of a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship on the one hand and a teaching-intensive position at a less-desirable institution on the other? How to choose?

There are, of course, no simple or correct answers to these dilemmas, but I would like to offer the following general guidelines based on tips culled from multiple sources, including conversations with wise senior faculty members and my own job-hunting experience. Because I believe that making a choice between two or more job or fellowship offers is a highly subjective process, sometimes involving great agitation and soul-searching, these guidelines are presented in the form of questions.

1. What is your ultimate career goal?

For some of us, the goal is to produce groundbreaking research for a small group of like-minded peers; for others, it may be to work closely with undergraduates or to find a healthy work-life balance or to bring home a decent, and stable, paycheck. Developing your own personal career goal at an early stage is one of the most important things a junior academic can do. Unless you have a clear sense of what you would ideally like to achieve in your professional life, it will be very difficult to decide where your career should begin. Simply opting in advance to go with the offer from the more prestigious institution, even if it’s not the best fit for you, is not always the wisest course.

Certainly, if your ultimate goal is to publish a large number of books/articles and become a major player in your field, choosing between tenure-track job offers at a state university with a heavy teaching load and minimal support for research and an affluent private university with a light teaching load and ample research support should be a no-brainer. But if you would genuinely prefer to dedicate your career to undergraduate teaching and put down roots, a job at a small liberal arts college with a 4/4 teaching load, rather than a two-year post-doctoral fellowship at a prestigious Ivy or a tenure-track position at a cutthroat research university, might be precisely your cup of tea. Despite the wishes of a well-meaning thesis adviser, moreover, you may find that your true preference is for a position at a community college with no research expectations. Only you can set your academic career goal.

2. Which institution appears to offer conditions most conducive to your professional success?

While many universities pride themselves on excellent undergraduate teaching and cutting-edge faculty research, not all are fully supportive of the latter. In order to produce high-quality research and publications and, most importantly, to attain tenure, junior faculty need time and resources in the form of decent starting salaries, start-up packages, course releases, internal research and travel grants, pre-tenure sabbaticals, and the like. If an institution from which you have received an offer requires — at minimum — a book with a university press for tenure, it’s important to assess carefully whether the institution will help you complete said book. Additionally, if you’re choosing between two contract positions, determine which one will not only pay the bills but also offer you the greatest opportunity for future success and career growth. Take the long view when weighing options and try to think of your career in holistic terms.

3. Where will you have the most useful and pertinent resources — equipment, databases, library holdings, research and travel funds, prominent people, and so on — at your disposal?

Again, the answer to this question depends entirely on one’s career goal. If you are primarily interested in teaching undergraduates, access to specialized equipment, research funds, or well-known scholars may be less important to you than adequate library holdings and proximity to local resources. But a junior scholar seeking to move ultimately to an institution with a very high research-productivity rating may want to consider accepting a position with the greatest number of resources aimed at assisting pre-tenure faculty to research, network, and publish and, consequently, to become more widely known in their fields of expertise. Joining a department of prominent scholars would also be smart, so long as you play nice and follow the chain of command; never underestimate the power and influence of well-connected people.

4. What’s more important to you in the long run: the job or its location?

It took me several rounds on the academic job market before I realized just how important a factor location had become in my own job search. As a new Ph.D., I applied anywhere and everywhere; this year I narrowed my search down to areas of the country in which I would actually be willing to live for any length of time. This may sound presumptuous (who does she think she is refusing to live in Fargo, Las Vegas, or Tulsa?), but I know far too many faculty members who are stuck in locations they detest and would rather leave the academy, if necessary, than remain employed indefinitely in their current location. When weighing offers, it’s also important to take cost of living into consideration: where will you, and perhaps your loved ones, best be able to survive on an assistant professor’s salary?

5. Do you have other people, such as family members, to consider? If so, what are their thoughts on your decision?

In an ideal world, we would all make career choices based on objective factors like fit, teaching load, collegiality, and long-term professional prospects. However, this is not an ideal world and many of us have the needs and desires of partners, spouses, children, and extended family members to consider. This is doubly the case if you are in a challenging “two-body” academic relationship and will have to take into account the job prospects available for your partner or spouse at, or within commuting distance, of your own institution. The presence of one or more children in the family can also pose problems, particularly if one must decide between, for instance, a postdoctoral fellowship or visiting position at NYU or Columbia and a contract position at a much less prestigious small liberal arts college in an affordable, kid-friendly town in the Midwest. Whereas singletons might rejoice if given the opportunity to start their careers in an expensive city with abundant intellectual and cultural resources, cash-strapped members of large families might, for pragmatic reasons, be less thrilled.


"So what?" you may be thinking; I don’t even have one offer on the table. "How does any of this apply to me?" I realize many readers may have a dearth of job options at present, rather than an embarrassment of riches, but these guidelines should come in handy even if your choice is between adjuncting temporarily (you hope) and quitting academe entirely. Besides, as I discovered in my own search for academic employment, you never know when luck may come your way. It’s always smart to be prepared.

Do you have a job-search success story, or job-hunting or negotiation tips, you’d like to share with Inside Higher Ed readers? If so, contact me at [email protected]

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Eliza Woolf

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