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Leading Higher Ed Stakeholders Offer Advice to Newly-Minted Ph.Ds. Looking for Work

Higher education has been hit with furloughs and layoffs stemming from the economic instability brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The national unemployment rate in April reached a high of 14.7% but dropped to 13.3% in May, the Bureau for Labor Statistics (BLS) reported. 

However, when broken down by education, individuals with a college degree were less likely to be unemployed. Those that held a bachelor’s degree or higher had an unemployment rate of 8.4%. Comparably, the unemployment rate for individuals with only a high school diploma was 17.3% and 15% for those with some college education, according to BLS.  

How will the current graduating class of doctoral students’  job search be affected this summer and onward?

“You know, we all have a point where there are challenges and hurdles that we’ve got to overcome,” says Dr. Jerrilee Mosier, chancellor of Ivy Tech Community College-Northeast. “In this instance, it may divert that path in some ways, but they’ll still be doing something that they’ve determined that they love.” 

Dr. Walter G. BumphusDr. Walter G. Bumphus

Dr. Walter G. Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges, argues that the changes in higher education due to the pandemic could create both hindrances and positive opportunities to the job search process.   

With the shift to remote learning and working over the last few months, it has been difficult to apply and interview for a job position within a traditional setting. To adjust, many institutions have continued to search for potential new employees via Zoom or other modes of technology.

Mosier says enrollment uncertainty and state budgets being cut across the United States could create challenges during the job search process.

The pandemic’s impact 

According to recent research by higher education consulting firm SimpsonScarborough, one-fifth of respondents, who were high school students, reported that it was “likely or highly likely” that they would not attend college in the fall because of the pandemic’s impact on family finances. 

“There’s a lot of ambiguity at this point for a lot of people,” says Mosier.  

Due to the pandemic’s impact on enrollment, higher education leaders are having to reconfigure their strategies and reevaluate certain jobs to better “execute student success measures.” That means some jobs that previously existed might end up being merged. However, more jobs focused on working more personally with students could be established, according to Bumphus. 

“Given all the things that are happening in our country today with the pandemic, with some of the racial and social justice issues, I think you’re going to find more colleges wanting to create more support services for our students,” he adds. “There’s already been a huge emphasis on equity, and I think a lot of our colleges, based on what I’m hearing and reading about, are trying to move in that direction.”

Additionally, more job positions will create opportunities for institutions to become more “aggressive” in their outreach focused on disaggregating students to better assist those who are low-income and first-generation. 

“You’re going to find a lot of colleges trying to put their money where their mouth is on this one and try to make sure that, indeed, they’re reaping the reward of having more of a focus on the individual student,” says Bumphus.   

Mosier also predicts that higher education will see more retirements among baby boomers, leaving potential job openings for newly minted Ph.D. students. 

“With the pandemic and the changes that we will be needing to implement in higher education, [the baby boomers] may not be quite as ready to tackle those things just based upon where they are at in their own career,” she says.

On the other hand, Dr. Suzanne Ortega, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, foresees the pandemic having more of an impact on next year’s graduating class of doctoral students. Prior to the pandemic, many of the tenure-track positions had already been offered to this recent graduation class and she has not yet heard of offers being rescinded.

Dr. Suzanne OrtegaDr. Suzanne Ortega

“We know that many universities, because of budget pressures, have hiring freezes. It is hard to say how long they will last,” she says. “But it’s likely the students whose research progress was slowed will be entering the job market next year and they will have the greatest challenges.” 

In the past, Ivy Tech, like other community colleges, has focused on recruiting doctoral level candidates. While trying to fill positions for the fall, Mosier sees that continuing this year. 

As part of its recruitment strategy, Ivy Tech reaches out to graduate schools and taps its own internal connections and networks. Currently, the majority of Ivy Tech staff and faculty job positions have been filled for the upcoming semester.

The importance of relationship-building  

During the job search, Bumphus recommends that newly minted Ph.D. students be “open” and “aggressive” but also take the time to get to know leaders beyond what is seen or written on paper. 

“To the extent to which you can develop a relationship, albeit the technology, you’re more apt to get the job,” he says. 

According to Bumphus, “experience matters,” and during this time, it is important to consider a wider range of options. For example, rather than looking at only administrative jobs, there might be faculty positions or other types of leadership opportunities that are available. 

“Take the opportunity and look at it as maybe an internship, prove yourself in the position,” he says. “And then that might open the doors for other opportunities at the school.” 

In addition to being more open to other career opportunities, Ortega says graduates should learn and understand the range of available opportunities.  

“And to start thinking about the variety of careers as early as you can, to give you simply more time to explore,” she adds. 

While applying for the job, it should also be evident that graduates will bring a number of new ideas to the institution and have done research upon hire. 

“To get someone who is not so well steeped in their thinking and experience that they are not open to new ideas but rather an individual that comes to the table with some thoughts about how they can incorporate technology in whatever they’re doing,” says Bumphus. “So that’s a benefit.” 

Ortega acknowledges that it is important for students to understand that a “graduate degree is still the best protection [they] have against economic uncertainty, whether it’s related to COVID or anything else.”

For those college graduates with a doctoral degree, the May unemployment rate within the United States was 3.5%, according to BLS. 

Despite the current unknowns, Mosier says she remains optimistic about the future of higher education but acknowledges that structural changes need to be made to adjust. 

More institutions will continue to learn how to utilize technology more effectively. Additionally, the pandemic has created more flexibility in the workplace. 

Mosier also says that the “traditional scheduling of the academic year doesn’t necessarily need to be part of who we are as an organization. 

“So all those things will transform who we are and how we deliver the education to individuals as they come to our campus or stay in their homes and receive the quality education that we hope people will get from us,” she adds.    

This article originally appeared in the July 9, 2020 edition of Diverse. You can find it here.

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