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CAREER ADVICE

Women academics: Five strategies for success

What female scholars need to know to get a faculty job in academia

By MARLENE POMRENKE | OCT 24 2008

Having explored the “challenging landscape” facing women in doctoral programs, it’s time to examine some strategies that will help women succeed in their pursuit of an academic position.

Female PhD graduates who continue in business, government or non-profit sectors are often able to move into higher-level management positions, or gain more credibility within their field, as a result of their advanced degree. Yet women looking for jobs in academia face a unique set of gender-specific obstacles to achieving their career goals.

The better understanding that women have of these issues ahead of time, the better equipped they will be to overcome them. So if you’re a woman academic starting an advanced degree or are already well into your PhD, consider these five strategies to succeed in academia and find jobs as you pursue your career goals.

Establish your geographic flexibility

  • The secret to success in the academic job hunt is relocation, relocation, relocation

Women, particularly those coming late to academe as a career change, are often limited by their geographic circumstances. Their lives and families are established, and moving for work is often not an option. Yet many women considering academic careers do not realize how much this puts them at a disadvantage.

In academe, your willingness to relocate directly affects your chances of finding employment, so take some time to consider whether you’d be willing to move for a job. As one woman said, “I didn’t realize how competitive it was to gain entry into the academic world. If I had, I may have reconsidered this career change.”

The difficult truth is that a woman who is younger, not navigating childcare responsibilities, and whose partner is willing to relocate to accommodate her career needs is at an advantage over a woman who is older, with children for whom she has taken a significant caregiving role, and whose spouse is already established in a non-mobile career.

The more flexible you are geographically, the more opportunities you will have access to. This obstacle is the one that’s the most likely to make you abandon the academic career path.

Be realistic about your prospects

  • If you can’t move, be prepared to be flexible

It is important to be realistic about your chances of finding employment in academe if you can only look for jobs in your city. The best strategy is to research the job market you are targeting before you pick your field of specialization. Try to position yourself in an area where there will be jobs waiting for you at the end of your degree.

If you are trying for a job at the institution where you are studying, find out what your university’s written and unwritten policies are regarding hiring its own graduates. As a general rule, universities rarely hire their own.

Meanwhile, if you are thinking of applying for a job at another institution in your city, find out what positions in your field may be opening up in the time frame that you will be on the academic job market, since these are likely to be very limited. This can often be difficult information to acquire and may require some inside knowledge of the department you are hoping to join. Talk to people you know in the department and carefully assess whether your dream job will be waiting for you or not. If it won’t be there, you may need to consider another career path or field of specialization.

Adapt to your role as academic

  • Manage competing responsibilities effectively

When a woman is responsible for caregiving in her family – either for children or elderly parents, as is often the case – taking on new academic responsibilities can mean balancing roles as a caregiver and scholar. As one woman we spoke to put it, “Can one be a successful academic as well as a successful mother?”

The answer can be yes, but you have to be realistic about what you can manage. If you have caregiving responsibilities, it may take longer to complete your doctoral studies. Juggling your studies along with your caregiving tasks will be an ongoing time management issue, so do not be discouraged; be organized!

Meanwhile, discuss sharing caregiving and household tasks with your partner and children as well as other members of your support system. You may also want to incorporate other supports in the form of homemakers for elderly parents, or a cleaning person for your household, if your family can afford it.

Establish a committed support network

  • It takes a village to launch an academic career

Building on the support of your immediate family, a strong support system, including friends and extended family, collegial support at your workplace, and financial support through bursaries, will increase the likelihood of completing your studies in a timely manner.

Talk to your friends and family members prior to beginning your studies to tell them that your relationship needs may change or that you may rely on them more heavily as you begin your new academic career. They likely will be more than happy to help.

If you are working, you may want to speak with your supervisor or HR department about restructuring your position or reducing your number of paid work hours. This will give you much needed time and energy to focus on your studies.

Finally, you should research what financial support, such as scholarships for doctoral students, is available to you through your institution as well through other funding organizations.

Find an academic mentor

  • Follow the lead of academics who have been there before

Strong academic mentors are often key collaborators in the journey through doctoral studies and the academic job search.

In order to find the right mentor, ask yourself what type of guidance and support you need most. For example, do you want assistance learning how to research, and publish from that research? Do you need help navigating the structural processes needed to complete your doctorate? Seek out academics who seem well poised to help you in these areas.

Some graduate studies departments match mentors with “mentees” and provide other help in setting up mentoring relationships. If this is not the case in your department, it is never too early to network with others who are already established in the academic community. The best mentorship relationships are struck naturally as a result of shared academic interests and goals, whether this relationship develops with your supervisor or with someone you meet at a conference.

If you are not connecting with someone who can play this role for you, you may need to rely more heavily on your peers in the department. Your fellow students are an important source of support and knowledge as each of you is working hard to overcome the same obstacles. Learn from each others’ experience and help each other succeed.

From strategies to success

Changing your career direction is an exciting and challenging experience for both you and those close to you. Employing these strategies will help smooth the road ahead as you work toward your ultimate goal of a permanent tenured position within academe. With a little luck, and an effective plan you will succeed.

Dr. Marlene Pomrenke has her doctorate in social work and is a professor and counselor at the Student Counselling and Career Centre at the University of Manitoba. Carolyn Peters and Rose Barg co-produced the study referenced in this article. Funding for this research was partially provided by the Social Work Endowment Fund at the University of Manitoba.

Do you have other success strategies or experiences that you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments forum below!

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  1. Esete Lulseged Teferi / December 2, 2008 at 10:04 am

    Dear Dr Marlene Pomrenke,

    Your article on Women academics: Five strategies for success has been insightful. I am a women who is trying to pursue my post doctoral studies in Ethiopia. Unfortunately, I have been confused as to what I need to do to further this education. As I was browsing for advice on career opportunities in academia, I encoutered your article.

    I wanted to thank you for the advice I have received and would apply the five strategies recommended for success. It has really given me insight on things I needed to change and adapt to the realities of academia career and life.

    Thank you.

    Esete (Ethiopia)

  2. Pamela Robinson / January 4, 2010 at 8:46 pm

    Dear Dr Marlene Pomrenke,

    I would like to add a sixth point to your series of strategies for women academics: as you progress through your career seize opportunities to demonstrate leadership in making the academy more humane for younger colleagues.

    Tenure and promotion can be gruelling processes. It is incumbent upon all of us to advocate for and implement processes that are more transparent and fair once we are through the other side.

    Dr. Pamela Robinson, MCIP RPP

    Associate Professor, School of Urban and Regional Planning

    Ryerson University

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