ask a scatterbrain: supporting students on the job market.

I am wrapping up my second year as DGS in my department. Over the last couple years I’ve made some small, but significant changes in our grad program and I’m finally beginning to see the results. Now that I’ve found my sea legs (just in time for my term to end next summer), I’m ready to tackle something new: improving our support for students on the market.

I think back to the limited formalized resources for students on the market in my grad program, but I also remember the rich informal support of friends who were going through it with me, others who had been there, and an involved advisor and other faculty mentors who not only guided me through the process but supported me through the highs and lows. Until there is a larger cultural shift in my current department (and, in part, to encourage such a shift) we need to take a more formalized approach. With that in mind, are there other things that we, as a department, can do to help these students?

At this point, we have a collection of example materials from recent grads and hires and I have been on the lookout for job ads to pass along. We’ve also created a series of job market gatherings, meeting to talk about issues our students have faced on the market, the basics of applying and various online resources, and the elevator pitch (for materials and in-person interactions). The students, I’ve heard, have organized a job market support group.

What are additional topics for these regular gatherings of students on the market? Things that your department does/did or that you wish they would/had? Friendly wisdom or advice might you impart? In other words, what can faculty and departments do to make the whole process a little less awful?

12 thoughts on “ask a scatterbrain: supporting students on the job market.”

  1. Probably obvious (but since it was not mentioned), a venue to conduct a mock job talk, with both faculty and students in the audience (the more the better). Some of my friends had substantial changes to their talks after giving it in front of the school (and one gave a practice talk twice). Students who are at an earlier point in the dissertation this is especially needed, as they are often giving a talk on the specific subject material the first time. It is also different than conference presentations in scope, so it can be hard for people to get the right length down.

    (These are besides the obvious point that, at least for me, I could always use the practice for a particular talk.)

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  2. I’d go farther than apwheele and say students should practice their job talks multiple times, and the audience should practice asking tough and unexpected questions. Hopefully the whole program has been creating opportunities for practicing general presentation skills and question responses all along so that at this point we are just discussing the final polish.

    I also think some students are better than others at thinking of themselves as commodities and asking why someone would want to hire them, rather than just what job they want. We senior advisors often don’t really know all the ins and outs of different kinds of jobs, but students who are successful getting jobs will be able to take a cold objective look at themselves as a package presented on paper in comparison with the needs/priorities of different kinds of jobs and figure out what they can do to emphasize or beef up their strengths for particular types of jobs. It’s a matter of figuring out how you look to others, not just how you look to yourself, and how to improve that image. In practice, some people play themselves down too much (have a self-image that is below what employers would think) and some people have too inflated a self-perception. I guess the implication of this is that emotional detachment can help, and maybe the grad advisor can help by being willing to undertake the sometimes-unpleasant task of helping people to calibrate themselves.

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  3. Oh, and also, if they get to the interview stage, they need to realizing that being able to make small talk and to engage in a fluid conversation about something besides themselves and their dissertations is also a very important interview skill.

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  4. We are trying to do some similar things — job market stuff is pretty informal. People give practice talks, but there’s not an organized series; they get scheduled when someone gets an interview, and the audience is often the committee + 2 or 3 friends — there’s no culture of everyone attending. Knowledge about how to do the job market is also passed along very informally. Our grad student group has worked to organize some panels on job market basics, I’ve tried to add more “think long run” to the proseminar (although you can only do so much in the first year before you start to freak people out) and I’m hoping to add some more formal pieces as well, but it all takes a lot of work.

    Questions for us include 1) how to prepare people well for teaching-focused interviews, where the risk of being caught with the clever methodological question during your job talk is not necessarily the main thing to focus on, 2) how to deal with the fact that lots of students are, for various reasons, physically gone by the time they’re on the job market and not in the department day-to-day, 3) the relative diversity of career goals among our PhD students (we send a fair number of people to the Census Bureau and applied jobs, for example; there are some very research-focused students and some teaching-focused — all these have very different needs).

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  5. Remember that the outstanding candidate for a job at an RI, a liberal arts college, a comprehensive college, a community college, and a non-academic job are not all the same candidate. Students can and should apply in more than one of these markets, but they need to tailor their application materials appropriately. Therefore, it is important to ensure that all the advice does not come from faculty who have recently been hired/served on search committees at RI/RII institutions–if you can, bring in alumni or local folks who can speak to the other markets out there, and encourage graduate students at all stages of their doctoral program to attend sessions at ASA or other conferences which focus on their intended job market(s). A session of that sort I attended several years before I went on the job market was vital to my own success.

    Also, do not forget the importance of educating advisers and letter-writers. For example, letter-writers should not send letters to teaching-focused institutions that yammer on about how much the applicant wants a job at a research institution (yes, real experience on a search committee) and need to ensure that their letters speak to teaching experience and excellence where relevant.

    One more thought–in my last year in graduate school, some of the first-year students asked me to approach the department chair to ask for a proseminar session on writing a CV, since the students did not know how to do so. They were apparently rightfully scared to ask, since the request was rejected. But why should writing a CV be part of the hidden curriculum? Some students need explicit help learning these types of skills, and I believe it is the responsibility of doctoral programs to provide that help. Advisers and departments should help students–well before they get to the application stage–structure their doctoral experiences so they will be competitive for as many of these markets as they are interested in, and need to stop propping up the myth that teaching-focused institutions will be happy to hire students without substantial teaching experience (including experience with relevant student populations).

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  6. Thanks for all these great ideas and insights. Keep them coming!

    Related to Mikaila’s comments (but also those before hers), I’m realizing how many of the things that I talk about in my Proseminar with first year students are worth revisiting with students on the market. For example, one of the exercises students do in Prosem is look up the CVs of students who got their dream jobs. We not only discuss what those students had to get those particular jobs (e.g., publications, awards, teaching experience, etc.), but also the qualities and format of those CVs and of CVs in general. I thought this might be old hat to the students on the market, but they benefited from a nearly identical exercise. We also cover presentations and types of positions, etc., so I should think about how to reintroduce that material in our job market gatherings.

    Influencing the other faculty is more difficult. There is so much variation in advisors. Some take an active role, others are hands-off. Some have a good sense of the market today, others not-so-much. As excited as I am about the partnership between the ASA and Interfolio (maybe we have @olderwoman to thank for that), I worry that it will reduce the already low rates of personalization of letters of recommendation.

    We can’t afford to bring back graduates, but I did try to get materials from a range of them to share with the students. We also have a number of universities nearby that represent different hiring sectors, so maybe I can invite representatives from them in. We have a similar challenge to Beth in that some of our students are in post-docs or dissertating away from campus. I need to be creative about how to include those students in at least some of these opportunities.

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  7. I’d add “surviving the job market” as a topic. The psychological stress and uncertainty of sending scores of applications into what feels like an abyss is brutal. The few one-percenters (like Michael LaCour) who must navigate a dozen interviews in a few weeks are the outliers. Most of us spend most of the time waiting and worrying. It is worthwhile to discuss ways to stay sane and get work done. A few suggestions:
    1. Stay off the rumor mill and similar sites.
    2. Schedule limited time to do applications each week.
    3. Don’t discuss the logistics of a job you haven’t been offered with a spouse, loved one, or partner.
    4. Eat, exercise, and sleep with as much of a routine as possible.

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  8. SWS has a really great session every year. They call it “Critique Me.” Job candidates bring in their CV and cover letter(s) and established scholars take 10 minutes to read them over and give feedback on the writing, formatting, highlighting the most important work, etc. If there are too many candidates, they gather around and listen to the critiquing session of another student. I think that this could be expanded to serve candidates of non-academic jobs by looking at resumés and cover letters targeted to other sectors, if the right experts were brought in.

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    1. Sounds like a fantastic program, Tina. SWS does great things. We have a graduate career center that helps students who are looking for non-academic jobs (academic, too, but they’re used less often for that). I wonder if they’re tough or fairly easy on the students. Like OW says above, it’s important to be critical, but it can be hard to know how to deliver that most effectively and constructively.

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      1. “it’s important to be critical”: I think it is important to try to be as objective and detached as possible. In some cases, this requires working with a less self-assured student to get them to acknowledge and emphasize their strengths. In other cases, this involves trying to puncture denial. But it is also trying to get people past the idea that there is a unidimensional scale for rating both jobs and people and into a hopefully reasonable assessment of what they do have to offer a potential employer. I think it is possible to be realistic without being unkind.

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      2. Yes, I was thinking more of my department going fairly easy on job candidates during practice job-talks and your comments about that. I completely agree that throughout the entire process we need to help some students recognize their strengths and others their weaknesses. I might be alone, but I can find both challenging. It’s human nature to hear what we want to hear.

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