If you’ve recently completed a master’s degree or PhD, you might be wondering how to find a job in academia, or how to find a job after grad school. Depending on the field you obtained your degree in, the job market may fluctuate a lot, which can make it difficult to find a suitable position. Rest assured, there are many strategies that can increase your chances of success when searching for a position that fits with your research interest statement and credentials. In this article, we go over these strategies and answer the question “is a job in academia right for you?”
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What Does a Job in Academia Involve?
If you’re reading this article, chances are you’ve already answered the question, “should you pursue a master’s or a PhD?” A job in academia can mean many things, but in this article, we will discuss jobs in academia for people who have graduated from higher-level degree programs. Note that people will often take on a job in academia while pursuing an advanced degree.
Working in academia is contrasted with working in industry. Working in industry refers to research or other work that takes place outside of a university setting. There are several important differences, but the most significant concern the focus and responsibilities. The research that professionals conduct in academia tends to be discovery-focused; research in industry can span multiple projects, and professionals are typically responsible for managing other scientists. People who work in academic research fulfill the following tasks: teaching students in a lecture or tutorial format, providing mentoring or tutoring services, publishing papers, conducting independent research, and participating in departmental projects or services with functions similar to those of graduate school advisors. As teachers, academics must provide extra help for some students, and may provide a grad school letter of recommendation on behalf of some.
There are other jobs that don’t involve research in academia. Many professionals who have higher-level degrees may find their interests align with a more administrative position, like that of a librarian. Keep in mind that librarians don’t necessarily have to work in a university setting, although this might be preferred for some professionals looking for a job in academia. Librarians can specialize in a variety of different areas. Here are a few prevalent types of librarians: primary or secondary school librarians, children’s youth and services, reference librarians, special collections, archivist librarians, electronic resources, and serials librarians. Responsibilities vary by specialty and work environment, but typically, the following duties are expected: organize and maintain library collections, provide advisor services for users, and catalogue digital resources.
Another relevant area of interest in academia is human resource departments. Human resource managers typically have a bachelor’s degree in human resources or psychology. Some may have higher-level degrees, such as a Master of Industrial Relations and Human Resources. Specialties include program coordination, recruitment, training and development consulting, workflow analysis, and career coaching. Human resource professionals must implement and maintain strategies for administering policies, developing programs and services, and managing relations between colleagues and departments. Related areas include student affairs and academic affairs. Broadly speaking, these two divisions focus on delivering resources for students related to health and wellness services, housing, career services, and recreational activities. Academic affairs are directed toward the classroom; the focus is on improving the classroom setting for instructors and students.
Each academic job has its own structure and range of duties; the environments in which you can work aren’t exclusive to colleges or universities. Of course, your educational background will influence what work in academia can involve. You may consider activities inside and outside the classroom to help you decide whether a tenure-track position can fulfill your intellectual and professional interests. If you weren’t as fond of research during your graduate degree, you can explore possibilities in grant writing or administrative roles. The remainder of the article will focus more on research positions but consider the possibilities beyond research and faculty positions as you continue reading.
Tenure-Track vs. Non-Tenure-Track Positions
Tenure-track positions are typically associated with an assistant professorship; the probation period lasts about six years, during which tenure-track faculty are reviewed based on their contributions to research, teaching, and the community. Non-tenure-track positions entail teaching and community involvement, but the research non-tenure-track faculty members complete won’t have an influence on their annual evaluations. There are several pros and cons for each option to consider as you’re applying for jobs.
Is a Job in Academia Right for You?
To have a successful career in academia, ideally you will have a prolific research background. As you’re deciding whether a career in academia is right for you, reflect back on the research you accomplished in graduate school, or as part of your PhD thesis; what were your thesis defense questions? Consider these questions and seek the advice of a research supervisor or someone else currently working in a relevant department to help you make a decision and come up with a plan. At this point, you should also consider your grad school career goals statement to evaluate your progress.
Jobs in academia put more pressure on the researcher to publish their own projects. They may need to build a platform to promote their work and find their own funding opportunities. Applying for a research grant entails many arduous steps: you choose a relevant research topic, identify grant opportunities, and find colleagues to contribute to the project.
Researchers compromise between projects that advance their own career and projects that match the priorities of the funders. Industry projects are, by contrast, more business-driven; these researchers meet deadlines and benchmarks for the business, which typically has more practical interests in mind. In either case, academic researchers will be self-starters, while industry researchers may be more reliant on external factors.
How Important Is It to Be Published?
Participating in research projects and having a significant publication record is more likely to lead to job opportunities. The more publications you have, the more citations you will have, which is a great indicator of your credibility as a researcher. Having a significant publication record also shows employers that you’re committed to your research goals, that you’re actively thinking about new questions to explore, and that you’re a zealous contributor to the relevant literature.
One potential disadvantage of being published is that it can take time for researchers to acquire an impact factor, especially if they are publishing in new or open-access journals. An impact factor is the measure of the frequency of citations a paper had in a particular year; this measure is often used to rate a researcher’s ability to publish high-quality research. Potential employers, but also the people who review your grant applications, look at your citation record.
How to Find a Job in Academia
Finding a job in academia can be a long and difficult process, but if you’re patient and strategic, you can land a position that fits your interests and education level. To demonstrate how prospects can change from year to year based on location, discipline, and other factors, consider the market for academic philosophers: according to a recent report by the American Philosophical Association, the number of published job postings for philosophers was 442; the number of PhDs awarded was about 440 in the same year. Roughly 8% of philosophy graduates did not take academic positions. The inference from this dataset is that for philosophy graduates, positions outside of academia are scarce. Moreover, due to the proportion of jobs and graduates being nearly congruent, fixed-term jobs, tenure-track jobs, and contract positions will be more competitive, given that the pool of job applicants will also include philosophy MA holders or those with other related degrees.
Percentage of philosophy graduates who did not pursue academic positions:
Consider your field of expertise as you’re doing your job search. You should talk to your research supervisor or an advisor about research and job trends and about how your original thesis, along with your letters of recommendation, will impact your career prospects.
Know the Job Market
To find a job in academia, knowing the job market is half the battle. There are several important factors to consider when you’re conducting your market research. The first is location. Job prospects are going to depend, in most cases, on where you’re willing to work. Would you be willing to travel across the country? To another state/province/city? Your answers to these questions are going to either narrow or broaden the possibilities.
One of the most effective and convenient ways of finding research opportunities is to talk to members of your department during their office hours and ask if there are any research projects available. You should also look at various university job websites to browse job postings. It’s important to note, however, that not every university will post available positions. In many cases, you will need to talk to professors directly.
One way to understand the market is to browse websites that list positions in your specific field. For example, PhilJobs is a job board for people looking for post-graduate philosophy positions, mainly in academia. The Canadian Psychological Association and American Psychological Association post career ads for psychology graduates; the number of available positions will change but visiting specific job boards frequently can help you gauge the state of the market.
Focus on Publishing and Highlighting Your Work
According to a survey-based analysis of the academic job market, applicants had a median of 13 total publications, which indicates the importance of having a strong research background. To improve your chances of finding a job and receiving an offer of employment, you should have plenty of publications in which you were either a co-author or lead author.
Obtain Credible References
References are an essential aspect of securing a job in academia. Without any, your application and portfolio won’t garner any interest. Remember, your thesis and your references are the two most important factors of initial interest in you as a candidate. Your reference letters should come from professionals who you worked with on a research project. You may also use a professor who you studied with after you submitted your master’s thesis proposal. You want your references to know you personally and professionally; a letter from someone who didn’t know you well won’t suffice. The letter should speak to your qualifications and expertise within your field. If you’re applying to research positions, this is doubly true, because you will be responsible for finding funding opportunities for your research. The people or organizations who fund your research want to know who you are and why they should provide you with the funds to commence a project.
Take a look at this sample request for a letter of recommendation. You can use a similar format for the people you want to request one from:
Dear Prof. Skinner,
I hope this email finds you well.
I wanted to reach out again and touch base with you. Recently, I read your paper titled, “The implications of implicit bias in hiring processes: a revised approach,” and found it both interesting and relevant. In particular, I found the effects of diversity on university students’ implicit bias association scores to be a significant finding for the future of this field.
I’ve been preparing my application materials for my job search, which I will be conducting soon. I was wondering if you would be willing to craft a strong and detailed letter of recommendation on my behalf. If you agree, I will gladly send you any supplemental documents or information about me that you may need, including my resume, portfolio, and cover letter.
Thank you for considering this request.
I look forward to hearing from you,
Identify Institutions Doing the Research You Want to Do
A genuine interest and some background in the research that a school is doing is not only going to make you more qualified for the position, but it’s going to motivate you to apply. Be certain of the details of the school’s activities before submitting any material. Some schools have their own publication database, which you can review to see the most recent publications from faculty members.
Reach Out to Faculty Members
The best way to find out about current research is to look at the faculty research interests in the staff directory. Most schools will have a list of faculty members, what they’re currently working on, and what their research interests are. Some faculty members will have their own websites where you can find a summary of their publication history and contact information.
Identify Positions Available at the School
Identify positions available at the school; some schools will utilize a careers or faculty openings page. Once you find that a school has an opening that you want to apply to, simply go to the school’s website and locate the faculty page; most pages will be divided by department. Find the relevant department and scan through the list of faculty members and their research interests. For example, Michigan State University’s Department of Chemistry lists a variety of current research interests under inorganic, nuclear, and chemical physics faculty, among others.
Write a Research Plan
Your research interests and history are going to dictate what your options are. When you’re applying to research positions, you’re going to need to write a research plan as part of your application. A research plan is a document that outlines your research ideas and strategies to earn funding; you will also discuss how you intend to identify networking opportunities and gain a strong reputation in the field. When you’re developing a research plan, ask a trusted professor in your department to review it. Different professionals will have variations in their research statement formats, so discussing yours with someone active in your field can help you structure it effectively. Your research statement should be one to three pages, depending on whether you include any tables or graphics.
Prepare for the Interview
As part of your preparation for an interview, and as you continue to search for jobs to apply to, you should be thinking about the research projects you want to build at the institution to which you’re applying. Generally, you will want to have at least three or four projects outlined. This will show a prospective employer that you are capable of designing a plausible research project. Having more than one research project ready to pitch will also allow you to construct a consistent theme among them. You want to show a smooth progression from past to current and future research endeavors. You can discuss questions you addressed in previous projects and what the results were; you should also mention questions you would like to address in the future and how you plan to answer them. Your goal is to show that your work can have significant implications for the broader field in its current trajectory.
Locate Academic Career Conferences
Attending academic conferences keeps you abreast of current events in your field. Held throughout the year, conferences allow researchers to present their projects and findings, discuss future research endeavors, and answer questions about their most recent publications. If you want to find out what the leading experts in your field are discussing, attending a conference is your best option. Networking opportunities are also abundant at academic conferences. You will meet leading academics in your field and ask questions about their current research, how they began their careers, and if they’re looking for contributors on any active projects.
- If you plan on attending a conference, there are a few things you should know to be prepared for an opportunity if one should arise. First, don’t bother bringing a resume or cover letter. If you meet someone who you connect with, you can advance discussions over email or social media. If there’s an opportunity to apply for a position, you will need time to tailor your materials. Unless you’re scheduled to meet with a recruiter or potential employer, there’s no need to bring a physical copy of your materials. You can bring business cards to make it easier to exchange information.
- Apply to places before you go. First, research the people who are presenting at the conference and the institutions they are affiliated with. If you find any relevant opening at their institution, apply before you go to the conference. This way, if you have a chance to meet with the speaker, you can introduce yourself and mention that you applied for an opening at their institution. This will make it easier for potential employers to find you later. You can think of your discussions with certain presenters as informal interviews. If you decide to go as a presenter, rather than as an attendee, you can add the presentation to your portfolio. Having experience presenting your research looks great on applications, especially peer-reviewed ones. Note that your attendance will not enhance your application materials in any way, as it does not speak to your capabilities as an academic; rather, demonstrating your expertise to a respected audience of academics in your field can show an employer that your research is relevant and has the potential to be an integral aspect of future research.
- Stay in touch after the conference. With conference networking opportunities, you are likely to meet attendees or presenters who you hit it off with. If this is the case, even if they don’t have any information about job prospects or careers, you should exchange contact information via business cards or phone so you can stay in touch. The people you meet might have an opening that they think would fit your interests in the future and think of you; with your information handy, they can contact you to discuss the opportunity.
It takes persistence to find a job in academia. Meeting people, visiting places, and dealing with the shifting market can complicate the process. First, you need to decide whether a job in academia is more appropriate for you compared to a job in industry or elsewhere. Once you establish that a job in academia is right for you, it’s time to strategize. Start by researching the locations where you would like to establish a career. Build your portfolio and advertise your publications and skills. Be prepared for opportunities that may come your way, but also position yourself to meet with colleagues and potential employers. Conferences are one of the best places to network as a job seeker. Continue to explore institutions and faculty research interests to see where you might align; prepare your application materials and tailor them to the places you apply to. With hard work and good preparation, you will eventually find a job in academia.
1. What is the difference between academic and industry research?
Academic research tends to be more for the purposes of discovery and education, while industry research tends to have more practical applications.
2. What responsibilities are involved in an academic career?
You will teach classes, be a mentor, participate in department meetings and services, conduct research, publish research, create your own platform, and find funding opportunities.
3. How do I know how the market is shifting?
The job market is dependent on several factors: location, the number of PhDs awarded, the number of faculty positions available, current research trends, field of expertise, and others. One way you can investigate the state of the market is to look at job boards specific to your field, such as the Canadian Psychological Association or American Psychological Association.
4. Should I have published work before I look for jobs?
Research experience during your graduate degree, PhD, and postdoc is one factor that will determine your chances of getting hired. Recent data show that applicants had a median of 13 total publications.
5. How should I prepare for an interview?
You should prepare for an interview by practicing common and difficult graduate school interview questions. Be prepared to discuss information on your resume, letter of research interest, and portfolio. You should also investigate the publication history of other faculty members so that you can discuss how you will fit into their culture and community.
6. What are informal interviews?
Informal interviews are when someone who has a potential job opening interviews a potential prospect in a casual way without mentioning anything about the position. This discussion will involve the subject’s work history, publication history, potential research interests, and more.
7. What is tenure-track vs. non-tenure track?
Tenure-track faculty members must perform duties in research, teaching, and service. Non-tenured faculty must perform teaching duties and service but aren’t required to do research, though they can if they wish to.
8. What are the best networking opportunities?
Attend conferences to meet people in your field and make connections with like-minded individuals. Be prepared for informal interviews and exchange contact information so that you can stay in touch and informed of any potential job openings in the future.
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