On Choosing The Right Job

Yes, you read that appropriately.  This post is about the process of choosing a job once one has finished graduate school.

In the years leading up to my job search, I heard all sorts of warnings about how difficult the job market would be.  The scariest, yet most sound advice was to acknowledge that at least 80 percent of what occurs during one’s job search is beyond one’s control.  At the start, even deciding to go on the market is a negotiation with one’s committee and department.  But, I stress that this, and subsequent decisions, should also involve the other committee members in one’s life: family and one’s gut.  And, ultimately, where you take a position should be an informed choice.

Number Of Offers ≠ Number Of Options

Once you are on the market, securing one job offer is a major feat; landing multiple offers is described by many is “luck.”

Say you only land one job offer, and it is something short of perfect or your dream job.  You can choose not to accept it.  Sure, others will probably say you are foolish to give up a job “in this market!?!”  If you have any reason to hesitate in accepting a job at that institution, it is worth really asking yourself — is there a chance you will need to look for a new job within a few years, or even immediately?  I know of some folks who have chosen this route, but I cannot fathom taking a position knowing I will need to go through the stress of a job search again.

So, what other options are there?  There are a number of good reasons not to accept a visiting position.  But, the alternative may be staying in graduate school another year, maybe even two or more if subsequent job searches do not go well.  With another year in hell grad school as an option, I went on the job market with fairly open preferences for a job; you couldn’t pay me (ha!) enough to stay longer than I did.

To be completely honest, the “oh no, I’ll never get a tenure-track job!” fear stayed at a tolerable level because I eventually decided that academic jobs were just one type of job.  Yes, I am make the blasphemous statement that there are jobs outside of academia, as well as some within it other than faculty positions.  I told myself that if I received no offers, I would continue my job search but in applied and non-profit positions.  I know that leaving academia immediately after graduate school would come with the possible feeling that I am better off, but also with other academics’ assumptions that I was less committed.  (Oh, there are so many ways we jump from life decision — get married, have a baby, take something other than an R1 job — to assumptions about one’s commitment to the academy.)  Though I have seen some return to academia after some years working outside of it, the myth is that one will never be able to return (probably because of the aforementioned assumptions about commitment).

All of this is to say that I am troubled by the pressure to accept the sole tenure-track job offer one receives.  It is a job then, but it may mean a few unhappy years.  It is important to think about the long-term consequences of something that seems “better” today.

What if you have two or more offers?  Good for you!  Having one, or even none, is still no signal that one is not competent, or ready, or worthy of a job.  But, for the job search itself, it is nice to have two or more to choose from.  The aforementioned advice about considering alternative careers, or not even accepting a job, still apply here — even if you have 10 offers.  If/when you accept an academic position, it should be because you are absolutely certain that you want it, not because it is the expected outcome of graduate school.

A Few Things To Consider

Below, I offer some tips that may be useful as you weigh your options — even if you only have one offer.

Do Some Soul-Searching

If you have yet to sit down with yourself to make a job wish list — what are your wants and what are your must-haves in a job — do so before you accept an offer.  And, even if you have at earlier stages in the job search, I would encourage doing so again.

During my job search, I experienced great pressure to follow the path that was chosen assumed for me.  During the window I was given to accept the offer with University of Richmond, I went on an interview at a research-intensive university in the Midwest and was called with another interview invitation for a top-ranked program in the South.  I knew in my gut that UR would be a great place for me.  It was an offer I would accept if it was the lone job offer or one of many.  But, I had to revisit the wish list and some personal journaling to ignore all of the external (and internalized) pressure to “go R1.”

Contextualize Advice

When I began receiving advice that was so far afield of my interests, passions, and personal needs, I felt as though I wanted to shut my eyes and close my ears to concentrate on what my internal adviser was telling me.  This is not to say that others’ advice was bad or even malicious.  But, I had to remind myself that much of it was based either on an inaccurate or incomplete picture of who I am, and some is either standard advice (“go R1!”) or self-centered advice.

Unfortunately, so much advice presumes a certain commitment to academia, one that is uncomplicated when you are not disadvantaged in some way.  For example, telling people to take a job in North Dakota, either because it is a great school or one’s only offer, ignores that some people — especially queer people, people of color — may be miserable in such a place.

Do Your Research

While most who will offer advice have good intentions, the onus to make an informed decision falls on you.  The most work I had to do was to figure out what the heck liberal arts jobs really were.  Funny, most of the people telling me to “go R1!” have only been at research-intensive universities.  Thus, they are not really in a position to tell me what liberal arts jobs would be like.  I had to contact friends and colleagues who were actually in faculty positions at liberal arts colleges, and scour the internet for information and personal reflections on the differences from positions at research universities.  One of the most helpful reflections I read was “Are You A SLACer?” over at Memoirs of a SLACer.

On my interview with UR, my future colleagues were honest, yet positive about faculty life.  But, I supplemented those conversations with some investigative work.  I looked through the student newspaper, documented history of the university, and students’ personal reflections and ratings on the university (e.g., U.S. News & World Report).  I looked for specific things — the campus climate and institutional support for people of color and queer people.  Like any place, I saw a few concerning events in the not-so-distant past, and grumblings about the historical lack of racial and ethnic diversity.  But, I was impressed by the recent, intense shift toward greater inclusion.  For my other options, I saw enough of a concern that I had major reservations about accepting a position there.

Interview Them

It is crucially important in assessing whether a job is right for you that you treat a job interview as as though you are a potential buyer.  As I said, even if you receive one offer, you should think long-term about how the university fits in your life and career.  It is a potential employer’s job to sell the job to you, too.  A place that does not attempt to sell itself is either riding on its prestige (“you know you want me”) and/or may not be a place worth considering.  (Personal aside: I don’t care how big your di… *ahem* I am not status-obsessed enough to be impressed by prestige alone.)

I was particularly impressed with UR because parts of the visit were clearly tailored to my interests — namely meeting with staff/faculty involved with diversity programming on campus, and community-based research and teaching.  Not only were my future colleagues showing me that I could fit (resources, initiatives, climate), but that they also cared and celebrated the unique aspects of my scholarship.  Once I started, and slowly let down my guard, I have found they think quite highly of my blogging.  Hello, perfect job!

Observe And Take Notes

As an academic, you have skills to observe, critique, listen, connect dots, etc.  In your hunger for a job, do not turn off these skills during the interview and negotiation phases.  Observe interactions among faculty, especially across power lines: senior to junior faculty, privileged faculty to marginalized faculty (e.g., whites to colleagues of color), and vice versa.  Observe how faculty and administrators interact, or at least how they seem to talk about one another.  Observe how faculty interact with staff, especially the department’s administrative staff.  Observe how faculty interact, or talk about one another, across departments and colleges.  And, observe student-faculty interaction.

Of course, try to treat how students, staff, faculty, and administrators interact with you as participant observation.  Do not rush to either demonize or justify unusual interactions — at least until once you have enough information to assess the whole university and department.

Red Flags: On one campus interview, there were several red flags for me.  A few off-handed remarks were made by faculty that suggested they thought little of their students.  And, I was told outright community service was for post-tenure.  But, the sirens really went off when faculty either noted first-hand experience, or hearing about others’ experiences, with discrimination and exclusion.  I do not know if they assumed they were doing what is right by being completely honest, or maybe figured I could understand given my own research on discrimination.

In interactions with another school, faculty stressed so hard how diverse and accepting the college is — but it felt as though they were trying to convince themselves more than me.  Via a phone interview for a joint position, it was quite obvious the two departments had different visions of what the job entailed, and there seemed to be little connection across departmental lines.  Whether the departments themselves saw these as problems is important, too; but, that these problems exist was enough for me to be wary of taking job in these departments.

Personal Fit:  I also noticed varying levels of closeness among faculty.  On one visit, there were strong friendships among the faculty, but mostly among junior faculty; it seemed the senior faculty were on the margins of the department.  Ironically, the appeal for UR was that faculty have strong professional relationships, but have their independent lives after hours.  As the chair described it, the department is more like family than friends.  I was surprised that this was appealing to me, but now realize it was the promise of not having colleagues in my personal business.  I am free to make personal connections as I wish, and share the personal aspects of my life I feel comfortable sharing at work.  The supposed collegial, yet high-school-like microcosm that was graduate school has led me to appreciate leaving work at work and home at home.

Also, I took note of how relaxed or stressed faculty seemed.  Some of the most wound-up academics I know can easily dissolve into a monologue rant about all of their upcoming deadlines.  The flip-side is being carefree because one is working at a leisurely pace.  The strength for UR over my other options was that my future colleagues appeared to work hard, but at a pace and within a climate that did not mandate 24/7 stress and anxiety.

Others’ Advice

Remember, this is just a job.  You should chose one that serves your goals.  I am well aware that this is simply my perspective and experience speaking, so you may find others’ advice useful, too.

9 thoughts on “On Choosing The Right Job

  1. Yes, yes, a THOUSAND TIMES YES! Thank you for once again saying the words that SO MANY folks need to hear. We have AGENCY in this process, and being happy and fulfilled at work and at home is possible if you prioritize what you want in a job. Can’t thank you enough for writing this and sharing it.

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