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What Does It Really Take to Make it in Academia?

The economic downturn has been hard on just about everyone, even those hoping to find work outside of the traditional corporate workplace and carve out a career in academia. Academia, long unscathed by the ups and downs of the larger job market has been especially hard hit as state and federal spending on education has been slashed and schools look for ways to save even more by cutting back the number of new tenure-track positions available. These changes have had serious ramifications for young scholars hoping to forge careers as professors and researchers, and many have been pushed into poor-paying positions that offer little security and hope for advancement.

Yet this isn’t deterring many who have long dreamed of working at colleges and universities. In fact, more students are deciding to stay in school and pursue a Ph.D. than ever before. Science doctorates alone grew by more than 40% between 1998 and 2008, and Ph.D. graduation from all majors combined increased by 2.5% during the same period.

For those who are truly driven to work, research, and expand their areas of study, getting a Ph.D. is not only a smart career choice, it may be the only one that feels truly fulfilling. What’s more, while finding steady work within academia may be hard, it’s certainly not impossible. It’ll just require serious hard work, determination, and more than a little sound advice and preparation to get there.

Deciding to Pursue a Career in Academia

A career in academia can be immensely rewarding. It can also be frustrating and overwhelming, especially to those working their way up the ladder. That’s why it’s essential that students determine whether they really want to work in academia before taking on the often difficult task of finding work within the ivory tower. Here are some critical things to consider.

  • Are you truly passionate about your research?

    Getting a Ph.D. and transitioning into work as a professional in academia requires an enormous amount of passion. You must truly love the field you’re working in and want to commit yourself to pushing it forward through your own research and discoveries.

  • What is the job market like in your field?

    The job prospects for newly minted Ph.D.s in academia can vary quite a bit. Some fields have seen enormous growth in younger professors, while others are top-loaded with those who’ve been in the field for decades. Before committing to an academic life, do your research so you’ll know what challenges you’ll be up against.

  • Do you enjoy teaching?

    While you may be able to take a couple of research-focused sabbaticals during your time in academia, you’ll generally be responsible not only for conducting your own research but also teaching courses. You’re likely to get some experience with this as a Ph.D. student, but not everyone will feel the same way about working with students and creating course content. While you can always work to improve your teaching skills, if you have an intrinsic dislike of it, academia might not be a good choice for you.

  • What matters most to you in a career?

    Before choosing any career, it’s important to sit down and consider what matters most to you in a job. Is it prestige? The chance to make a difference? A healthy paycheck? Like with any career, there are benefits and drawbacks to working in academia, so make sure these pros and cons mesh with your values before diving in.

  • What are you willing to compromise or give up?

    Getting ahead in academia will require some sacrifices. You may make less money, work long hours, or have to make choices that will impact your significant other and family. Consider what you are prepared to do to make this career a reality. Marie Hartwell-Walker, professor of psychology at University of Massachusetts Amherst and writer for PsychCentral.com, shares the advice she gives to Ph.D. students, stating, “If my student has a serious boyfriend or girlfriend, I urge them to talk about this together to make sure they are on the same page about what compromises they are each willing to make for each other’s careers, how much money they want to have, who should make it, and how they each want to balance their careers with other aspects of their lives.”

  • Is it a job you picture yourself in for the long haul?

    Some Ph.D. students know they want to be professors before they even enroll in their first course in college. For them, academia is a dream job. It’s not simply a vocation, but a passion. Others, however, are less certain that academia is a long-term career for them. Make sure you’ve considered how you feel about your future as an academic and have addressed the alternative career opportunities that your degree will afford you after graduation as well.

This is not meant to discourage those working towards a Ph.D. to move away from academia. Rather, it’s to highlight some of the factors that may play into the potential success and job satisfaction that an individual may feel in getting involved in the academic sphere. Not everyone is right for a career in academia, and it’s smart to figure that out sooner rather than waste valuable time on a career path that just isn’t right.

Before You Graduate

Preparing for a career in academia begins while still in school, regardless of the type of degree or field you’re pursuing. In fact, some of the best and most important preparation for your future academic endeavors will take place before you start looking for a job.

Start Smart

The school you attend can matter more when getting a higher-level degree than at any other time in your career. Some schools are simply more prestigious, may provide you with more resources, and can even make you more desirable to future employers, so choosing the best school for your degree program is a smart first step.

Just as important is choosing an advisor. This person, usually a professor or researcher within the university, will be your source of support, advice, and guidance while you’re completing your degree. Choosing someone who’s interested in your research, who can point you toward resources and opportunities, and who is supportive of your ideas is critical to your success (and your enjoyment) in any upper-level degree program.

But what if you’ve already chosen an advisor and he or she isn’t working out so well? Don’t worry, all isn’t lost. The Academic Job Search Handbook advises turning to other sources of support in your department: “Take advantage of every opportunity to talk to and get to know other faculty members in your department. Ask them for opinions, perspective, and feedback in areas where you genuinely value their expertise.” In fact, some of the best career connections may be the junior faculty on your staff who are much closer to where you are in your career than the older, more senior faculty members.

Build Your Qualifications

In The Chicago Guide to Your Academic Career, economics professor John Komlos recommends that students get started early on getting published. He states:

“It would be extremely useful if you could start publishing while still in graduate school. There is no better way to impress upon the future readers of your CV that you are serious about embarking on a life of scholarship than to show written evidence to that effect.”

Not only will this help you build up a more impressive resume, it’s also a great way to build self-confidence and to help you to stand out as a productive scholar.

It’s not just publication that will help you build your desirability in college; other factors count, too. Sarah Anderson, Assistant Professor at the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder, adds that being a well-rounded student can also do wonders for your career. She says, “I think some of the best things that students can do to stand out are to have a part-time job, be involved in research, and be involved in student organizations. Of course it is important to do well in school and earn good grades, but potential employers and residency programs like seeing well-rounded students. If a student is able to balance school, a part-time job, research responsibilities, and student organization commitments, they make themselves an attractive job and residency candidate.”

You’ll also want to make sure to attend conferences to present your research and network with others in your profession. These events are a great way to meet the major players in your field and to develop connections that have the potential to help you in your job search later on. Even better, you’ll also get a chance to share what you’ve been working on with these, and other leading professionals in your field, who may take an interest in you and prove to be valuable resources in finding job openings and doing well with selection committees.

Start Your Search

Another major question many students face is when to start searching. In the Academic Job Search Handbook, it’s advised that students start early, with the book stating, “It is important to begin to prepare for your job search well before you finish your dissertation; in many fields it is also important to time the actual search to coincide with the completion of your dissertation. Many scientists, on the other hand, are competitive on the tenure-track market only after a few years of post-doctoral research.”

The ideal time to start looking for a job will vary depending on the field you’ve chosen to pursue. Those in the sciences will likely want to pursue post-doctoral research before job-hunting as it’s not only generally required but also a great opportunity to get more experience and to publish more articles. In other fields, timing can be especially important because you don’t want to spend your first year as a new professor working on your doctoral research. You want to be able to focus on things that will count towards tenure and securing your position at a school, so getting your dissertation done before or immediately following securing a job can be critical.

Making Connections

It’s not just research that students feel they miss out on while in grad school. Brett Floyd, a Ph.D. candidate in music, states, “With graduation closer than ever, I wish I had fostered strong relationships with more professors I took classes with. These professors are great for references and letters of recommendation. If I had stayed in contact with more professors after the class was finished, I would have a larger pool of people to gain resources from. It would be strange to email a professor and say, ‘I took your class two years ago… Could you write a letter of recommendation for me?’ That professor really can’t perform that task for me because I did not keep in touch with them. If I had kept them up to date on my projects or progress in school they could be a great reference for my job applications.”

Those still in school can use these insights to their advantage, embracing more research projects, building stronger relationships, and getting as much career preparation out of a degree program as possible.

Finding a Job

While the first few months after graduation from a Ph.D. or professional degree program may leave you feeling giddy and on top of the world, it should quickly become evident that you need to turn your degree into a career. This is often easier said than done, especially in a job market where academic jobs aren’t easy to find or get, especially those that come with prestige or tenure.

If you’re not sure where to begin your search, Professor John Komlos offers this advice:

“The job market starts with advertisements appearing in early autumn, more frequently in the newsletters of professional organizations, some of them on the web and continually updated. The Chronicle of Higher Education also lists job openings throughout the year in all disciplines including some administrative openings for which you might qualify. In addition, you can write or call colleges in your vicinity or in a location for which you have some preference.”

Doctoral candidate Brett Floyd stresses the importance of using connections to get ahead in your careers. He states, “Leverage the relationships you have built over your academic career. These professors and teachers want you to succeed, and they are in the academic field you want to be in. Most professors have a good understanding for their chosen specialization and have many contacts. They can help you find open job positions and through their knowledge, help craft cover letters that will make you stand out.”

Finding a job in a market like this one where the number of applicants far exceeds the number of available positions can be frustrating, and you may not find a job right away. So how long should you keep trying for your dream career in academia?

John Komlos advises, “I would consider two cycles to be appropriate, provided you really put your best foot forward. I mean by that that your dissertation was in hand and you applied to a wide array of institutions and did not limit yourself geographically or any other way. You really have to apply everywhere because you have so little credible information about your abilities relative to other applicants.”

Even then, he says if grads are really committed to finding work in academia then they should keep at it. If you can’t afford to keep searching without a steady income you may want to take on temporary jobs or look outside of academia.

The Curriculum Vitae

Of course, one of the most critical factors in getting an academic job is building an impressive CV, or at least one that you can be proud to call your own. Here are some tips to ensure that you’re not making any major mistakes and are highlighting the right skills and assets to get you the job.

  • Make it results-oriented.

    More and more academic departments are concerned with the value you can bring to them. Showcase the ways you’ve played a key role in your department during your studies, your research or publication numbers, and other things that might help you to stand out as a smart decision.

  • Tailor it to your audience.

    You may have more luck getting the attention of certain schools by tailoring your CV to their needs and values. For example, a small college may like seeing your teaching experience highlighted while a premier research university will want to know all about your research up front.

  • Keep the length reasonable.

    While CVs are generally allowed to be a bit longer than the typical resume because they have to encompass research and publication, try to keep yours around two pages long. If you’re new to the job market, that shouldn’t be hard to do.

  • Use a standard format.

    You need your CV to be clear and easy to read as it highlights the best parts of your career thus far. Check out some examples online or in books to get a better idea of how to construct your own CV.

  • Update regularly.

    Every time you have a new accomplishment under your belt, add it to your CV. This will help in your job search, but can also be useful in other areas of academia where a CV is required including publication, awards, conferences, or even in grant applications.

Letters of recommendation are also important in putting your best foot forward. The best source is usually your advisor, though others from your department can also offer strong support of your work. You can also make it easier on them and ensure they highlight your greatest achievements by giving them a list of your accomplishments as a student.

The best advice for anyone looking to break into academia? Stay positive. It’s not always easy to find a job, especially not one that offers full-time pay and benefits, but the journey can be worth it in the end. Floyd advises students: “Continue to network, grow your resume post-graduation, and don’t be discouraged during the job hunt. Remember, there will be many nos, but all you need is one yes.”

Succeeding in Academia

Dr. Anderson offers some career advice for those just starting out in their careers. She stresses that these are some of the most essential traits to build when new to being a professor to give you a firm foundation for a lifetime of success in academia:

  • Dedication:

    “The life of an academician is rarely (if ever!) 9 to 5. That said, it is also a flexible, customizable job.”

  • Flexibility:

    “No two days are alike, and it’s important to be able to roll with the punches!”

  • Persistence:

    “Ask lots of questions, and don’t give up when things don’t work out as you expect them to.”

  • Collegiality:

    “Whether it be success in the classroom or success on a research project, maintaining positive relationships with co-faculty members and collaborators is a must.”

  • Mentoring:

    “Find that person who helps you to navigate the unknown as there’s a lot to learn as a new faculty member!”

  • Networking:

    “Similar to collegiality, it’s important to know not only your own faculty colleagues but to develop relationships with faculty at other schools and colleges to share ideas, successes, etc. that can provide mutual benefit.”

There’s no doubt that building a career in academia is a challenge these days, but it can be done. Start with preparing in graduate school, find great mentors to guide you, and don’t give up if you don’t succeed right away. Academia may not be the easiest place to find work but once you get a foot in the door you may find that it was well worth the effort, especially if you’ve been dreaming of a career as a professor.