With intense competition for academic jobs, many young scholars worry about how to best position themselves for success. And if the candidate is a newly minted PhD who took a break from publishing or a delay in completing the degree due to childbirth, and perhaps even some time out for full-time parenting, the anxiety increases. One such scholar wrote University Affairs to ask: “How do I explain the gap in my research productivity? Would confessing that I have a young child prejudice a hiring committee against me?”
Bonnie Fox, a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto who has served on many hiring committees, says that during the early vetting stage, “We want to find out what the candidate has done. We are looking at the number of publications, how many peer-reviewed articles and/or whether there’s a book. With that in mind, we pull out the most promising files.”
If there is a gap or a delay, the committee may notice that when it takes a second look at the applications. But it may not be a deal breaker, depending on the type of research, the department or the letters of reference, says Dr. Fox, whose research specialty is gender and family. Nevertheless, she advises taking the initiative to explain, even at this early stage, so that the committee knows it’s not because the candidate has been erratic. “You want to make the case that you can handle all this and show what you can accomplish, even with a child at home.”
An effective cover letter may make the difference, says Jo VanEvery, a career coach who advises academics in the humanities and social sciences on jobs, promotions and grants.
“Think of the resumé as a map that you take on holiday,” she says. “It’s a schematic representation without a lot of detail. You need the map to plan … but you get a guidebook to pick out the highlights and have the tour you want. The cover letter is the guidebook, where you are selecting the key things, telling the story that enables [the committee] to make more sense of the resumé.”
In the letter, “highlight the positive: this has been cited, this has won an award.” Dr. VanEvery says the candidate should convey “what’s in the pipeline and address the gap in the context of that bigger story.”
The most likely venue for explication will be at the interview stage, should the candidate be chosen for this multi-tiered process of committee discussions, one-on-one talks, presentation of their work and events with graduate students. Dr. Fox says committee members will want to know your next research project and what you’d like to teach: “What is your philosophy of teaching? How do you see yourself fitting into this department?”
Nanda Dimitrov, associate director of the Teaching Support Centre at Western University, counsels graduate students to phrase their performances positively, without apologies or negative words such as “gap” or “setback.” Instead, Dr. Dimitrov suggests wording such as: “I had a successful two years with two scholarships, published three articles, and then took a year off to have a baby, when I reflected on the direction of my career. Now I have two articles that I’m about to submit for external review; this is how I can contribute to your department, and I’m excited.”
She notes, “It’s taking the gaze off the gap, and focusing on the successes in the career.”
Like most workplaces, universities want the utmost productivity from an employee “who has no interests or responsibilities other than their jobs,” says Dr. Fox. “There is no place for children or motherhood in careers. But, actually, the academy is better than most places” in this regard.
Definite norms and rules about personal probing come into play for the interview process, advises David Robinson, associate executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.
“A committee has the right to ask a question about the reason for an apparent career interruption, and a candidate is expected to answer. However, the employer does not have the right to know if a candidate plans to have more children in the future,” he explains.
“It can become a bit of a grey area, but the sole criterion an employer must use in judging the candidate is whether or not he or she can do the job.”
Dr. Dimitrov counsels candidates to remember that “it’s not only the department interviewing the candidate; the candidate is interviewing the department, finding out the values of the colleagues and whether [she] wants to be part of that community of scholars.” In the end, “you don’t want to join a department that isn’t supportive of having children. This process is about a match.”
Harriet Eisenkraft writes frequently about balancing an academic career with a home life.