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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Career Coach: Never Getting the Offer
June 21, 2009 - 9:44pm

I am a 55-year-old woman with a Ph.D. in economic history, 6 books and quite a few scholarly articles on international economics and human rights issues. The bulk of my work focuses on current policies. I have procured grants from major foundations and my university as well as corporations. I have worked at two think tanks that went under, and now I work essentially as an adjunct. I have tried for the last 3 years to get a job at a school of international affairs at the associate level, but in the end they never hire me. Any advice? I believe I suffer from two problems: age and that I am truly multidisciplinary. I have a lot of fundraising and project management experience, but I am also not able to get jobs as an administrator. Any suggestions for how I might do a better job marketing myself?


Dear Susan:

It seems to me that your letter covers two issues: ageism and the challenge of marketing multidisciplinary experience.

Ageism can be difficult to address, because it is so seldom overt. A potential employer can openly question your suitability for a particular position based on the diversity of other positions you have held, allowing you to address any reservations head-on. But if a department is looking for a younger person, either you will be immediately eliminated based on the dates on your CV, or you will be called in for a token EEOC-compliant interview at which no one will show much interest in your ideas or accomplishments.

It may be helpful to look at why some employers are reluctant to hire workers who are middle-aged or older. Common perceptions about mature workers include the following:

  • They resist direction from younger deans or department heads.
  • They are technophobic.
  • They are inflexible in their thinking and set in their ways.
  • Their passion for their subject has necessarily waned with age and experience. They may be looking only for a safe haven until retirement.

These stereotypes are unfair, as is the extra work needed to counter them. Presumably, however, as a woman in academia, you are accustomed to combating silly preconceptions. This is no different.

Depending on the specific position you are seeking and your own strengths, you may wish to find ways to stress your adaptability, flexibility, comfort level with technology, and/or openness to direction and new ideas both in your cover letter and in any interviews. You can talk, for example, about exposure to exciting ideas and the wealth of collegial expertise as benefits of working in a university setting. It might be helpful if your letters of recommendation mentioned these qualities as well.

It's insulting to have to think this way, I know, but I don't know what else to tell you. Maybe readers have other suggestions.

Regarding your multidisciplinary background, Cheryl Torok Fleming, assistant dean for teaching and learning of the College of Adult and Professional Studies at the Greenwood Education Center of Indiana Wesleyan University, suggests that you take advantage of the breadth of your experience: "First of all, I think the writer should expand her reach in searching for a job. She states that she has applied at a school of international affairs. Perhaps she should not limit herself in this way, and should look at some private colleges or smaller universities or community colleges. In addition, her skill areas should be quite marketable -- economics! There are never enough econ profs to go around. Also, I wonder if she is able to take advantage of the market for overseas professors and administrators. Finally, some folks from higher ed have found niches in the consulting or research fields in business and industry, although I am not sure of the viability of that market now, given the economic downturn. Maybe she should also check into non-profit organizations."

Fleming also wonders whether your resume and cover letters are up to date and effective marketing tools. If you aren't getting interviews, you may wish to arrange for a professional resume review.

Naturally, you will continue to stay active in your field, attending conferences and serving on committees, where you will give other professionals — who may be hiring or know someone who is — the opportunity to experience your skills and collegiality at first hand.

Have a question for the Career Coach? E-mail her.


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