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Contacting (Future) Prospective Academic Employers (to help with decisions)?


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Hey All. As I work through my decisions and try to navigate the darkness that is the future job market, I'm tempted to just go straight to the source. 

Has anyone ever contacted programs they'd like to work in post-graduation just to find out what they're specifically looking for in potential tenure-track hires? It seems to me like a good tactic for not only planning the next 5 years, but also setting goals, developing specific skills, and (as I'm in the decision phase currently) deciding what schools are best according to whether these specific hiring committees are looking more at program rank, advisor name, or individual success.

Any thoughts?

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Yes and no.

First, yes, it is a good idea to do research into finding out what you need to achieve your career goals. A normal part of deciding to apply to / go to grad school involves things like going to career panels and hearing about your different post-Bachelors options and learning what various types of employers are looking for in general. Another good source for this information is to conduct "informational interviews" and talk to people in the various careers that interest you about how they got to where they are. For example, those interested in academia should be talking to professors in their departments! 

However, that should have been done prior to applying (you may have already done this?). Note also that you can really only get general information. You should not expect to be able to get answers to specific questions like the ones in your post because: 1) every individual hire/search will have different goals and 2) every individual on a search committee may have different perspectives. Therefore, no single person can answer the question you are seeking for a hypothetical job posting that is 5-10 years in the future. In addition, it would reflect rather poorly on you to appear as if you have no idea how to make this decision for yourself and you are seeking their input to guide your life.

If you have already conducted some research/informational interviews into tenure-track positions, then you probably already know that the best answer to your question is "all of the above". Program rank matters. Your advisor matters. Your individual success matters. As I said above, every hiring committee for every single position will be different. But a PhD is more than one singular career goal** and you need to choose what's best for yourself in the long run, considering all of your potential career options.

That said, I'm not saying you shouldn't seek advice. I'm just advising against contacting places you might want to work in 5-10 years and asking them which school they think you should pick (even if you don't phrase it that way, that's what you're ultimately doing, no?). Instead, this is the time to reach out to your existing network of people you already know and bounce ideas off them. Tell them your goals, what schools you're considering, why you're excited about each and what makes you nervous about each school. They can provide their perspective, which will be helpful because they know you, they have wisdom/experience in the field, and they have an outside perspective that you might not have considered since you probably have been thinking about this every day for the last few months. After you hear from those you trust, you will have to eventually decide for yourself. 

(** Note from above: Although tenure-track positions in academia are obviously one potential career outcome of a PhD, my opinion is that if this type of position is the only reason why you are pursuing a PhD, I would strongly urge you to either reconsider your career goals or reconsider your choice to go to grad school. As you might have seen from posts all over these forums, or from talking to people, or from reading articles on the Internet, the tenure-track position is the ultimate goal of many PhD-seekers but very few of us will get a chance at it. There are a lot of other things you can do with a PhD, and I would consider those too, in determining which school to attend (i.e. if you pick the school that best prepares you for a TT-position but nothing else, what will you do if you don't get a TT position?). It's up to you to determine what risks are acceptable, but you might consider a school that will prepare you for a wider breadth of careers over one that prepares you really well for just one track.)

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TakeuK, thanks for the feedback. I might have been unclear about my intentions and posting under "Decisions, Decisions" might not have helped either. What I'm wondering is if it's common practice to contact the "dream job" to help set goals for oneself as they pursue their doctorate, and if not, then why not? Of course, there are other resources (like my current advisors) to help with selecting a program, but I'm curious to know if becoming familiar with prospective employers' ways of engaging the hiring process might be more helpful starting now rather than later.  The questions I offer above are superficial examples. It's more about understanding how to orient myself so that I have a "straight shot" (in the loosest and least deluded sense of the phrase) at these positions.

I like your point about selecting a program that opens many doors, including those outside of academia. Of course, its no surprise to me that there is a dearth of TT positions. I've spent years preparing for doctoral work and debating whether this is the route I wish to go. I'm not so naïve as to think that I can guarantee myself a TT position, and I hope my original post doesn't read as if a guarantee is what I'm looking for. 

I have agonized over my decisions every day for about a month, so my question is rooted very much in an attempt to anticipate what cannot be known. Still, I figure it's better to have some sense than no sense, so I turn to the lovely people of the GC

Edited by ricksanchez
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I guess I might have misunderstood then. Yes, if your dream job is an academic TT position, then you should definitely talk to professors about what factors will help you get you there. From your first post, it sounded like you were thinking of contacting the specific programs where you would like a TT position. My point was that you can't guarantee that whoever you talk to there are actually going to be the people making the decisions later on. And, nothing is a sure thing---that program may not even be hiring when you are looking. A department may have vague plans to hire in 5-10 years but there's not going to be a lot of concrete stuff yet.

So, my point was that I think you are better off talking to a wide range of professors that you already know in order to get the information you want, instead of specifically asking strangers. Of course, if you already know these people at these programs, then yeah, ask them as you would anyone else in your network. But I'd caution against specifically seeking out people you don't know at the programs you'd want to work because 1) it might sound a little presumptuous to them that someone who is just starting grad school is asking about TT job openings at their program and 2) I'd worry that putting more weight on what these specific people say and letting that steer the direction of your research career might not be the best idea. Even if it is true that what they are saying is going to help you get a job at that particular program, I still think one should seek a graduate program that enables a wide variety of options (meaning both TT positions at other places, since a "dream job" now might not be the same in a few years, and non-TT careers). 

In other words, we academics are naturally information-seeking and info-driven. However, at some point, we really do have all the information we can use, and the rest is just noise. At this point, we should be careful to distinguish useful general information from the noise, or else we may start heading down a less optimal path due to misinformation. 

I don't know all the details of your situation and I don't mean to put down the research efforts you have already undertaken and what you plan to do next. I am just pointing out that your question is getting close to finding more noise than information for most cases. Perhaps in your case, there is still useful stuff to learn, so I am not saying you shouldn't do this, but instead, just a warning that trying to learn more information might not yield correct/useful information. 

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7 hours ago, TakeruK said:

I guess I might have misunderstood then. Yes, if your dream job is an academic TT position, then you should definitely talk to professors about what factors will help you get you there. From your first post, it sounded like you were thinking of contacting the specific programs where you would like a TT position.

No, you didn't misunderstand. He is definitely talking about reaching out to the one school he wants to get hired by 5-10 years from now. Seems like a little bit of red flag to have a "dream job" before even starting a PhD program. 

If you're looking for TT positions in the humanities/social sciences, realize that it isn't uncommon for people to apply to 50+ positions. Other than that, I don't have much else to add to what TakeruK said, whose advice is spot on. 

 

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I see what you're saying, TakeruK. Asking this info of departments would only yield empty responses or "noise" as you put, which makes a lot of sense. Seems I'm looking for something concrete in a process that is too subjective and volatile, or a way to cheat a system that can't be cheated. Thanks for the advice and perspective.

DiscoTech, I'm not sure why having aspirations is a "red flag"? The goal isn't just a TT job. The goal is to have the greatest impact on a student population and do research, while also having health care. If I have specific schools in mind that would give me access to those populations I'm interest in working with, like CUNY for example, then I want to make sure that by the end of my PhD, I am an attractive hiree to these programs. If not, I have no problem looking for work outside of academia. None whatsoever. 

Thanks a ton for the feedback, guys. 

Edited by ricksanchez
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I understand the impulse to start with the best information possible but TakeruK is totally right: it's absolutely impossible to predict these things and will probably not get the results you desire. In my experience, I've gotten the feeling that speaking frankly about these kinds of things, at least with strangers/people who are not your advisors, is considered somewhat gauche. That said, it is completely appropriate to get career advice, network, and to scope out different department cultures and expectations. So, this is what I would suggest:

From your signature it looks like you're from NYC (correct me if this is a wrong assumption!). If your "dream job" is at a CUNY, I might make efforts to get to know some grad students there and stay in the loop: for example, try to attend job talks for searches in your field or attend a grad student conference to get a sense of the department culture. But more importantly, rather than focusing on the school where you'd like a job, I think it might be more helpful to have conversations with recent graduates from your department. For example, I would check to see if there are alumni from the program you attend who have been hired there. Reach out and see if they'd be willing to chat. Don't frame it as a "how do I get a job at CUNY" conversation, because that will not reflect well on you. There's no point in fixating on one school, because the chances that they will open a search in your specialization the year you go on the job market are very, very slim. Instead, ask for best practices / advice about going through graduate school and preparing for the job market. I've had conversations with recent grads of my program who have jobs similar to the ones I'd like to have (we connected at our discipline's annual conference), and I've found their advice very illuminating. 

Hope this helps! Academia (and its cultural aspects) are like a black box so I totally understand the desire for more clarity...

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One thing you can do, OP, is take a look at job ads in your area/field - not just from the institution you'd potentially be interested in working at, but at a variety of institutions of different types, sizes, locations, etc. Start looking at them early.

Job ads can tell you a lot about the individual desires of certain departments as well as which way the wind's blowing in your field. For example, by examining ads in my field I noticed that advanced quantitative skills and the ability to teach research methods and statistics were high-value skills that didn't seem to be going away; job ads over the course of several years exemplified that this was an area of sustained interest. I already had an interest in these areas, so I decided to spend some extra time and energy developing them even more as a strength of mine. For another, I learned that cultural/multicultural research and diversity initiatives were also important in my field, and lots of departments asked for applicants/candidates who had specialties in those areas AND could demonstrate experience with students from diverse groups. Again, this was already a passion of mine, so I made sure I pursued it in ways that would show up on my CV, so I could show and not tell when it came time to write cover letters.

Note that the goal of the exercise is to help shape the way that you develop yourself and present yourself. I'm not suggesting that you look at job ads and decide your research interests and the skills you want to develop on that basis. Rather, take a look at ads and see what they are asking for, and then ask yourself what your own interests are and how you can develop yourself in specific areas to be marketable across positions. It may also simply be a wake-up call or a signaling device. For example, if you're an Americanist and you're finding that the number of ads for Americanists is equivalent to the number for comparative scholars, even though there are ten times as many Americanists, you know that you're facing steep competition. That may make you more inclined to publish earlier and more often; it may impel you to engage in some other professionalization activities like networking and organizing symposia; it may make you develop a secondary specialty in a comparative area, if possible; it may make you develop some portable skills you can take outside of academia. What you do with the information is up to you.

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