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CAREER ADVICE

Demystifying the academic job search

Helping graduate philosophy students navigate the job market with relevant workshops.

By CAROLYN STEELE | MAR 28 2012

This may not an ideal time to be graduating into the academic job market, but there is hope, according to Kristen Andrews and Alice MacLachlan, placement coordinators in the philosophy department at York University. In February 2010, they created a program of support and advice to help philosophy students navigate the job market. “We know our students are good,” explains Dr. MacLachlan, “We are trying to make them appear as professionals so their excellence could come across.”

Many faculties and departments are wrestling with the issue of whether and how to provide professional support to MA and PhD students who will be looking for jobs both outside and inside academe. Many experts and faculty members believe that this kind of training should be developed and delivered by the academic department.

At York, the philosophy placement program is a combination of workshops, individualized feedback and support. Participants receive targeted materials and a procedural manual about the how to conduct a philosophy job search, which the two organizers wrote themselves. According to the feedback they’ve received so far, Dr. Andrews says the program effectively demystifies the academic job search, while boosting participants’ self-confidence.

The first workshop of the program focused on alerting PhDs at all stages to what they should be considering while completing their degree. This includes advice on giving conference presentations, and on developing their areas of specialization and competence. The workshop also provides a reality check: PhDs entering the market should apply to as many jobs as possible – sending out 80 CVs is not too many, Dr. Andrews insists. However, last year there weren’t even that many positions available. The current reality is that many very qualified candidates will not find jobs. Having said that, she was delighted that of the handful of grad students who graduated in 2009, one came back with a tenure-track job and another with a very prestigious postdoctoral fellowship.

Other workshops focus on a variety of skills, including getting feedback on CVs and cover letters, working on timelines, how to effectively write research and teaching statements and how to tailor an application to a particular school. Participants are required to provide a list of schools they are applying to, which is shared with the program faculty so they could network on graduates’ behalf.

For one workshop, professors are invited to conduct mock interviews with the participants. The professors are even asked to be difficult in some manner. Dr. MacLachlan wants the candidates to face more difficult interview situations in this context than anything they are likely to face in the actual interview. Candidates get tips and sample interview questions along with feedback on their performance.

Drs. MacLachlan and Andrews also provide a workshop on the non-academic options for philosophy graduates. They rely heavily on the experiences of their own colleagues and on philosophy alumni for case studies and information.

In the interest of smoothing the way for other programs or schools to adapt aspects of the philosophy placement program for their own contexts, Drs. MacLachlan and Andrews offer the following best practice tips:

  1. Two professors should work together to run this type of program. By providing feedback in tandem they could alternate who does the first, more time-consuming draft, and who reviewed the subsequent, more polished draft according to the other demands on their schedules. Participants also benefit when they can get the perspective of a specialist and a non-specialist in their fields.
  2. Coordinating this program requires a lot of effort, and it is very valuable to graduate outcomes. This should be recognized with a course release, perhaps a half-course each year (which each professor would take in alternate years).
  3. It isn’t advisable to give out sample CVs before participants have attempted to construct their own versions. This year, the two professors will be providing a list of guidelines for students to think about even at this stage, in an effort to streamline the revision process.
  4. Faculty leading this program should track all PhD graduates, whether or not they land a job in academe. This not only validates their successes and facilitates networking opportunities, but also it is the most effective way to provide mentoring support to PhDs. There are all also potential benefits in terms of fundraising and during program review processes.

Historically, the placement rates of the program have not reflected the quality of their graduates, say Drs. MacLachlan and Andrews. They are committed to changing this, and if the success of their first year is any indication, they are well on their way to doing just that.

Carolyn Steele is a career development coordinator at York University.

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