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On the Job Market

On the Job Market
Newly minted Ph.D. shares her experiences, advice on finding that coveted first academic job.
By Keonya Booker

In these lean economic times, everyone is feeling the pressure to obtain full-time employment and the world of academia is no different. For a new Ph.D., securing a position in academia is becoming increasingly complicated. As both public and private institutions are constrained by budgets, it is not uncommon for new doctorates to feel overwhelmed by the academic job search. In some disciplines, especially the humanities and social sciences, search committees are entertaining upward of 100 applications for a single tenure-track position.
Unfortunately, few professors tell their advisees how to both finish their dissertation and obtain a full-time academic position at the same time. My official venture into the job market began late in my academic year and was purely a matter of trial and error. When applying for academic positions, I resembled somewhat of a “job schizophrenic,” exploring employment opportunities at small liberal arts colleges, large research universities and everything in between. After applying to more than a dozen colleges and universities, I’d like to share how I “fell” into my current position and offer suggestions for obtaining your first academic job.
Like Dorothy lamented in “The Wizard of Oz,” there is “no place like home.” One bit of advice to recent graduates braving the job market for the first time is to return to places at which you had positive professional experiences. While completing my dissertation, I worked as an adjunct professor in a school of education at a small, private, liberal arts college. My experience was quite fulfilling as I worked closely with students and spent valuable time developing my instructional skills. I received high-quality student evaluations and enjoyed working with the department faculty. The school’s dean, also an African American woman, became a mentor and encouraged my professional development at every turn.  
Because of that positive experience, I wanted to continue at that college and hoped for a full-time position. Once I defended my dissertation, I was, in fact, offered a position at the school. It was a disappointing deal, both financially and professionally. I would be required to teach four courses per semester, with little time for research, but paid only two-thirds the salary of a full-time faculty member. One thing I learned from that experience is that private schools are just as plagued by budget cuts and fluctuating student enrollment as public institutions. Frankly, not every private school has seemingly unlimited funds like a Yale or Harvard. I also learned that great student evaluations do not necessarily seal the deal. Unimpressed by their offer, I went back to the drawing board … and the classified ads.
Taking my own advice about applying to previous employers, I then submitted my vita to a medium-sized historically Black college where I also had worked as an adjunct professor. Compared to the private, predominantly White college previously mentioned, this university boasted average class sizes and slightly better pay. Having maintained a
good relationship with the chair of my department, I got a bit of the inside track on the job search. The interview went extremely well, and I left thinking I was a top contender for the position; however, over eight weeks went by and I still had not heard anything regarding the committee’s decision. Despite repeated attempts to find out the status of my application, I was told nothing by the search committee chair, except to “hang in there.” Patience has never been my strong suit, so rather than put all of my proverbial “job” eggs in one basket, I continued my quest for an academic position.
I left no stone unturned when applying for jobs. My last, and probably most encouraging, experience on the job market occurred at a large research university in the southeastern part of the country. Originally, I applied to this institution for the position of  “senior scientist” on a statewide research grant. Truthfully, I did not feel too confident in my ability to obtain the job (the appointment called for several years of experience, of which I had little); however, I thought interviewing for such a high-level position would give me good practice and a chance to network in my field.  
Needless to say, I was not offered the job, yet the strangest turn of events occurred. Less than a week after I interviewed, I received a call from the school. Although they didn’t feel I was a good match for the senior scientist position, they were willing to create a postdoctoral opportunity for me. Apparently, I did so well in my interview, they wanted me on faculty full-time, with many extended options for both teaching and research. Unlike the small private college and the HBCU, this university was willing to pay me what I am worth and act fast about it.
Clearly, I stumbled onto this job in an unorthodox manner, so my experience is not typical. However, I can offer some suggestions for navigating your own personal job search.
First, if you unearth an academic job posting that you find interesting, even those you don’t necessarily feel you specifically qualify for, apply. Sometimes, as in my case, if you manage to get an interview and make a good impression, you could possibly open the door for other opportunities. Also, be persistent in following up on leads before and after you interview. Sending a “thank you” e-mail, or note via postal mail, goes a long way to separate you from the masses that applied for the same job. Finally, do not be discouraged by rejection because, believe me, it’s coming. If you have learned anything from the experience of obtaining a doctoral degree it should be that your level of intellectual endurance is first-rate. Why do you think so many people leave their programs ABD? The mental and physical stamina it takes to complete your degree is a testimony to your ability to get down in the trenches and eventually secure a position in which you will thrive.  

— Dr. Keonya Booker recently completed her doctorate in education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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