Congratulations, You’re now a Doctor!

It makes no difference whether one took 3 or 10 years to complete the PhD, round the period of the last year thoughts turn towards what else there is to life after the thesis. With the congratulations usually comes the expectation to put the hard earned knowledge to good use. Those who have had earlier working experience or the advantage of a good supervisor will be gathering intelligence and preparing resumes but either way all grapple with some basic question that typically run something like this:

  • Who is looking to hire?
  • Where do I start?
  • What are the university’s expectations?

 

In the past 10 years or so there has been an increasing awareness of one simple fact: that the current Australian academic workforce largely made up of Baby Boomers is rapidly aging and junior academics are required to fill the impending gap (Hugo, 2005). Unfortunately, the discourse has yet to translate into any meaningful change in hiring policies. There are a few encouraging signs as some Australian universities have begun specific schemes to recruit and train ECRs.[1]

Most also come with generous seed funding for research. However, too few universities seem to grasp that unless offered an opportunity to train and learn with the institutes, many of those holding doctorates are likely to exit the profession before they even begin (Gregg, 2009). That this is also the case in the U.S. makes the situation seem grim (The disposable academic: Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time, 2010). Still, Australian and other universities are hiring. So where does one begin if on the cusp of handing in that masterpiece, the thesis?

i) Gathering Intelligence

The real work should have begun at least half a year ago. In other words as you write your thesis and cite the experts in your field, consider the institutes that house them and whether you might want to be part of that school or faculty. This does not mean you are going to walk into a faculty position the moment you graduate but it does set up some basis for the kind of place you want to work at. That vision of the dream job is important to have because it arms you with the passion and pluck to pursue the objective. Hold on to it.

As a rule, universities work to a schedule and the aspiring academic must understand and observe the seasons and reasons. One method of gaining an understanding of the rhythms of academic hiring is to request an email alert with websites like seek.com.au and other job boards on higher education portals and e-zines like The Chronicle of Higher Education. Choose your keyword wisely or you will be fielding lots of irrelevant advertisements and waste your time but stay open to opportunities.

[Update: chanced across this wikia, which contains a diversity of links to useful information. Check it out.]

[Update 2013: Just came across this new source at AcademicKeys]

For example, an alert could be set to “internet studies” (one of my home disciplines), “new media studies”, “media studies”, “digital media” or “communication studies”. Each set of keywords will yield different results and one of the main tasks you will learn as you read through them is how your field is framed and by which institutes. Experiment until the search coughs up the kind of results you are after. It pays to note that Australian universities also differ in the terms used to describe disciplines. So if you are open to an overseas posting, use different keywords. Take note of what works and what doesn’t as well as when ads come in a bunch as they will.

There’s no doubt you’ve heard your supervisors speak of the need to network but few of us come to it naturally. I know of no better way than to tell others you are looking for work and asking them to keep an eye out for you. Supervisors, thesis examiners and senior colleagues are the best sources of this kind of intelligence.

At this point you should also be speaking to the same people about acting as referees on your applications and seeking testimonials from those who have admired your work in the past. Few of us can afford to think the significance of our research means that offers will come without asking. There is no shame in asking. It’s a good idea as you gather these to scan and convert them into digital files so you have them available whenever you need them. Start a dropbox account or similar online repository and pop these documents there. You never know when opportunities may crop up and having them handy can be, well, handy.

ii) Crafting Applications

There are a few must-haves if you’re applying for teaching positions at Australian universities: an application letter, your curriculum vitae and publication list. You can expect to have to write a statement addressing selection criteria. This is fairly formulaic in that you simply address each of the criterion in the order in which they are listed. As far as possible use examples of what you did in each instance to illustrate your understanding and interpretation of the criterion.

When writing these, take extra care to be clear and error-free. The Human Resources people may not pick up on the little details but on the off chance that they do get to see your application, academics on selection committees can be pretty pedantic. For want of a full stop or two…etc. etc. etc.

Your application and CV are your calling cards. Make sure they are faultless, well formatted and represent every single ounce of the brilliance you’ve spent years working to produce. Having said that, don’t try and create a puff piece. Be confident but quietly so and reflect that in your well chosen words.

Additional information that will enhance your application if you are able to include them are materials like testimonials and teaching evaluations. Again, take care that you read the Instructions for Applicants that come with most advertisements. If no extra material is allowed, do not include them but in the event you are selected for an interview bring them along.

It helps to keep in mind that the typical hiring process at Australian universities goes like this: Advertisements—Applications—2 weeks or so—Shortlisted Applicants invited for interviews—Seminar + Interview—2 weeks or so—You’re Hired (or not).

ii) The Call

I know it’s hard to stay calm if you’ve been waiting for what seems an eternity for that one call but you need to keep your wits sharp and make sure of a number of things.

a) That the interview takes place at a time and place that works for you. Now that may sound like asking too much but it is important, especially if you are being flown inter-state to attend the interview. If the flight takes anything longer than 5 hours, try and negotiate to arrive the day before the interview so you get a chance to arrange your thoughts and gather your resources. There is also the possibility that flights may be delayed and hurrying into an interview late is just all kinds of bad for you. Never mind whose fault the delay was. So go ahead and ask, politely. The worst they can say is no.

b) Ask for the names of the people on your selection committee. Many universities have no problem letting candidates know but they do, many times, wait to be asked for the information. It is handy information because then you can do some research and anticipate the kind of questions and directions they are likely to pose to you (as well as the kind of answers they would like to hear). If giving these kinds of answers makes you think you might have to your integrity, then you might have to ask yourself whether you’d suit the hiring department’s needs. After all, the calibre of the people currently working there is as good an indication of the environment as anything else.

c)Ask if there are materials they want you to prepare. The usual instructions are a 20 to 40-minute seminar on your research and how it relates to your teaching or a presentation on how you might run a unit for an undergraduate or postgraduate class in the discipline and sometimes both. This will be followed by a sit-down interview. I’ve heard of candidates being invited to a short tea in between the two sessions, a dinner in between sessions held over 2 days and then, very budget conscious departments where candidates are hustled in and out.

d) Occasionally, universities also host dinners or lunches to which all or each of the prospective candidates are separately invited. This can be nerve wrecking but a chance to observe the social dynamics in the department as well as an opportunity to eye your competition. If nothing else, you will get an indication of who else is considered by universities as your peer.

iii) Preparing for Interviews

Once you receive the call, start preparing for the interview. If you know someone from that university, ask them about the department you’re looking to join. Speak to the people around your home institute to find out what they know of the place. A colleague recently mentioned checking twitter feeds of those who currently work there as part of this exercise. It depends, I think, on the discipline but I thought it worth mentioning.

And did I say it: Have a long hard look at your social media profiles and feeds before you walk into the interview. It may not matter as much in Australia but American universities are fussy about that. Again, this could vary with the disciplines. If you are looking at a new media, internet-related or communication position, this is one area you cannot afford to neglect.

There are plenty of websites out there detailing the kind of questions that wil be asked. Just type in “academic interviews” into a search engine. You should prepare an answer to as many as you can, allowing for differences between Australian and British/American universities.

A good trick is to sit down and remind yourself of the various aspects of teaching from curriculum design and student engagement to learning management systems that you have experience in. If you’ve taught online, don’t discount that as it is increasingly valuable teaching experience. If you’ve taught diverse cohorts of students don’t forget to mention it. Diversity can be in terms of age, socio-economic circumstances, ethnicity, nationality and levels (undergrad, postgrad, etc).

Some interviews start with the question, what I call holy trinity of teaching-research-service as in: tell us about how you can contribute to XYZ university in terms of teaching, research and service. Teaching and research should be fairly easy to answer but I think service stumps many people. Again, nothing beats some good old-fashioned digging for the kind of activities that are particular to the setup of the university interviewing you.

Prepare examples that illustrate your skills. Sometimes not everyone will have read your application carefully or they may have forgotten so if there is anything you are proud to have introduced and innovated in your teaching, bring it up again.

I’m assuming you know how to design a unit. If not, go and look for some samples and study them. Think about how you might fit the material you think into 13 weeks or one semester. I remember collecting a stack from various disciplines before I left my alma mater and started drafting my own. Unit outlines should all be logical, progressive and appropriate to the year level for the unit. Have your ex-supervisor or another senior colleague look through it. And if you have no teaching experience as yet, I would try to accumulate some before trying for a position. It’s an effective way to find out if it is the kind of work that suits you.

Teaching philosophy is a phrase that sounds wanker-ish but you should be able to answer it with a straight face. Give serious thought to why you want to teach, why you think it is important and what are the 3 most important skills/bits of knowledge you aim for all your students to leave with. If you cannot answer these questions, sometimes talking it through with a tame academic or friend can help.

Lastly, never forget that as much as you’re being assessed for the position, you are also evaluating the university’s suitability. It’s a loosely used word, vibes, but if you’re not getting positive ones from the people at the interview, pay attention. The first gig is usually the hardest to win but also the most important for all sorts of reasons, choose wisely even if or perhaps more so because you are feeling desperate. I know the feeling and it isn’t nice but listen to your gut, your intuition, your antenna, your whatever-you-call-it.

Finally, if you’re hired. Congratulations! You can stop reading here. Or not.

As the exhilaration wears off, thoughts turn quite quickly to practical matters.

How soon can the move be made? What is best to bring and what is best left behind? If the move involves other family members it gets complicated. If you don’t yet know what the budget for relocation you are entitled to, look it up. Typical costs allowed are movers, airfare for self and immediate family and transport for vehicles. Most Australian universities have websites where information for new staff is available, usually nested within the HR or Staff sections. Many use the ARC approved relocation costs as a guide.

Once you’ve made the decision to move to the job, give yourself ample time to settle in before starting work. As a bare minimum you need at least 2 weeks from start to end to organise a move with family. Most university employers will provide accommodation for the first 2 weeks to allow for house/apartment-hunting. Most important points to consider, assuming the issue of employment for the partner/spouse has been tackled, is schooling for children if any are moving with you. Don’t underestimate the importance of that decision because unsettling your children will only make your first year of full-time teaching more difficult. Think location and proximity to school, safety and transport. This last gets more important the more unknown your new home is to you. Do yourself a favour, if you can afford it enrol your children at a school located close to your place of work and move to a home within walking distance of both.

One final thing, before you take leave of those who’ve you spent the past years working on your doctorate with, make sure you shore up the relationships. The value of these networks is never fully realised until one is deprived of them through sheer distance and has to start anew from scratch. It goes without saying, once at your new home you should make effort to continue these relationships. This, at least for me, is where we finally gave in to social networking.

If you’re not hired this time …you can ask for feedback on how to improve your chances if the selection committee was friendly. Again, it doesn’t hurt even if it shows everyone you’re Dr Keen (I’ve been called that more than once. I’m still alive if slightly frayed at the hems. J) And keep trying, draft and redraft CVs, letters and your response to notions of teaching philosophy and integrity. Good luck.

References

. The disposable academic: Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time. (2010, December 16) Retrieved January 18, 2012, from http://www.economist.com/node/17723223

Gregg, M. (2009, November 24). Why Academia Is No Longer A Smart Choice Retrieved January 18, 2012, from http://newmatilda.com/2009/11/24/academia-no-longer-smart-choice

Hugo, G. (2005). Academia’s Own Demographic Time-Bomb. Australian Humanities Review, 48(1), 16-23.

 


[1][1]UWS, UA and QUT

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