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– Jim Broadway & Tom Redick
It’s springtime, which means that ABD graduate students are constantly checking their email inboxes in hopes of landing an interview, or better yet, a job offer from the numerous schools to which they have applied. While the job search is always competitive and nerve-wracking, our friends that are currently going through the job search process have grumbled about the effects of the current economic state – fewer positions are available, positions that are posted are withdrawn due to lack of funding, etc.
For this edition of the APA Division 3 Newsletter, we contacted several chairs of psychology departments across the country to answer three questions of interest to graduate students. Specifically, all of the questions dealt with aspects related to obtaining an interview and then securing an academic position. In addition, we asked the chairs if there was anything special that applicants should do during the economic uncertainty that many colleges and universities are facing. Here are their answers below.
1. What specific advice in regards to the application and/or interview process do you have for current graduate students who are on the job market?
MA: The best advice I can offer for the interview is to go into it as if it's the only interview you'll have -- make sure you've prepared for it as if it's your only chance, regardless of how many interviews you may actually have. If you do a great job, then you've gotten some good practice, enhanced your reputation, and built some confidence in yourself too. And maybe you'll get the job!
FBF: The biggest advice is for the applicant to do the necessary research about each position before writing the cover letter to the school. Applicants should concentrate on writing a well-constructed CV and a cover letter that displays that they have critically examined how they would fit with the department they are trying to join. A focused cover letter displays professional maturity and makes it easier for the search committee to understand what the applicant would potentially bring to the department. During the interview process, the meeting with chair is extremely important, in addition to the job talk. Applicants need to display via informed questions and thought-out answers that they have considered what will be necessary to be successful at the institution. Chairs hope that the hiring decision is much tougher than tenure decisions, so interaction during the one-on-one meeting is very diagnostic as to whether the individual has the maturity and the appropriate mind-set to be a successful contributing member of the faculty.
DD: Given the likelihood that the academic job market will be tight for some years to come, those who want to work in academia should seek to maximize their chances of obtaining one of the positions that do exist. Some of those positions will be at R1 institutions, but many of them will be at comprehensive institutions or at liberal arts colleges. The training that candidates receive in R1 institution Ph.D. programs does not always prepare them for working at or even interviewing at the latter. To rise above the applicant pool for the latter, your application needs to convince those institutions that you really are interested in working in that environment (if you’re not, then you do yourself and those institutions a disservice by applying). Many liberal arts colleges and comprehensive institutions will care deeply about the research that you do, but also about your ability to teach and mentor their students. Your application has to show that you share this set of values and suggest that you’d be a productive colleague in that setting. If you should be fortunate enough to land an interview, I would suggest several more things regardless of where that interview is. The first is to go with the clear cut goal of getting the job offer. You can decline it afterwards if it really isn’t right for you once you’ve thought everything out, but get the offer first. Don’t send mixed messages about whether you really do want the position. Secondly, academic interviews are prolonged events – almost a marathon in many cases. You’ll be meeting faculty, students, staff, and administrators, and you’ll want to interact positively with all of them. When you meet with faculty, ask about their research in addition to describing your own. When you interact with staff, be considerate. I know of cases where applicants were very personable in interactions with faculty, but much less so in interactions with staff, and it killed their chances. (Remember the old line about who really runs academic departments!).
KTA: I would encourage graduate students to thoroughly research the institutions for which they are applying. Try to identify the department’s needs and the ways that you can contribute uniquely to the program(s). I also tell my students to make it impossible for them to ignore your application (without being overconfident or presumptuous). Although this can be very time-consuming, compared to a mass mailing of a general cover letter and your vita, it can be the difference between being invited to interview or not. I would recommend preparing a series of questions that more fully assess how members of the department view your potential contributions to their program. Have these questions ready so that when you get the call, inviting you to campus, you can ask them. During the interview, identify other ways you can contribute and demonstrate your genuine interest in making such contributions.
2. Is there anything different that would help a graduate student stand out from the pool of applicants during the current economic uncertainty, as opposed to previous years when funds for hiring positions may have been more secure?
MA: I don't think graduate students should do anything differently now during uncertain economic times than they should do during great economic times. Use your grad school years (and post-doc years, if any) to make yourself an attractive candidate, in as many ways as possible, so that the hiring department is delighted to have beaten out the competition and gotten you.
FBF: There isn’t anything differently that should be done now as opposed to years past. There will always be some uncertainty with the funding for available positions. This may depend somewhat on whether the position is at a state-funded or privately-funded institution. Information is available in the public record in regards to how well each state supports education. In the end, all you can do is go after the job you want – don’t be self-protective because you are unsure whether or not the position is really available, as this will affect your interview and job talk performance.
DD: To help stand out from the pool of applicants in psychology, I would argue that a specific subset of skills such as training in quantitative psychology can help. We always look favorably on applicants with something like a minor in statistics because that gives us confidence that they can teach the quantitative courses in the department. A second way of distinguishing yourself is by demonstrating your potential for bringing in grant dollars. In tight times, those who appear capable of generating research dollars quickly will be seen even more favorably.
KTA: As noted in question 1 “fit” is very important. Marketing your research carefully can also be helpful. Think about your audience and make sure your research description is accessible to those outside of your area. Given that funding agencies have been particularly interested in interdisciplinary, translational, and transformational research, make clear what the practical implications of your research are (even if you are doing “real” basic research) and identify areas in which you might be able to develop collaborations with others in the department and on campus. Describing potential funding sources will catch the eye of those who are most concerned with your ability to contribute to the department’s bottom line. Finally, in terms of research, I would try to demonstrate an ability to generate interest in your research and ultimately attract students. More than ever before, many departments are looking for individuals who will excel in all areas of the academe. Although research is important, do not neglect the other legs of the profession. Demonstrating a commitment to quality instruction and professionally-related service is critical. Finally, faculty members are cognizant they are not just hiring just a developmental psychologist, neuroscientist, and so forth, but also a colleague that they will have to work with on numerous committees over the years. So, give some thought to how you want to come across as a colleague. In small departments, in particular, collegiality can be as important as research area.
3. During a job talk, is it more important for the job applicant to briefly review many different areas of research or instead focus in more detail on one specific line of research?
MA: Of course, the job talk is the single most important sample of your behavior during the interview -- whatever the content is, be sure you've practiced it enough! Beyond that, my own preference is a job talk that mimics a well-written journal article; start with a broad theme, narrow down to one specific line of research, and then conclude by placing that research back into a broader context. People hearing the talk will see your expertise in the specific research you present, and will also be reassured that you know where your own tree fits into the larger forest.
FBF: The job talk should show the breadth of one’s research, but also needs to be focused and illustrate a program of research. A job talk that is all over the place comes across as unplanned, and you don’t want to come across as a research dilettante. You can usually take your dissertation work as the jump-off point for your job talk, and even incorporate previous work that you might not have initially considered as related to your later work. Simply and creatively establish conceptual links to the research projects. Another consideration is that at many R1 schools, the job talk also serves as a sampling of your ability as an instructor, so it is very important to articulate complex ideas and respond to questions intelligently.
DD: Finally, for your job talk, remember that psychologists have a peculiar burden – we have to describe our research and sell it to others who may have very different training and assumptions than we do. Those individuals need to understand what it is that we do and why it’s interesting and important. For example, the clinical psychologist needs to be able to convince the cognitive neuroscientist in the audience about the merits of her work, and vice versa. Therefore, while showing off your theoretical brilliance and methodological ingenuity to those with the same background as yourself, you also need to bring the rest of the audience along for the ride by explaining it to them as you would to an intelligent individual without that background. Also, know who your audience is going to be – the successful talk given to an audience consisting solely of faculty will be quite different from the successful talk given to an audience of faculty and undergraduate students. For your job talk, I also would suggest focusing on your primary programmatic line of research rather than trying to cover all the different projects you might have going on. You’ll have plenty of chances to meet with faculty outside of the job talk, and presumably you can use those as an opportunity to describe your other research interests.
KTA: From my perspective, what is most important during the job talk is to highlight the programmatic nature of your research -- that can be done using a variety of different kinds of research or a more focused approach. At the most successful job talks I have seen, the candidates have shown how their research systematically attacks a series of specific questions or problems, and how their findings are guiding the direction of their research.
There you have it, straight from the mouths of the very people you are trying to impress. Hopefully, students early in their graduate career and those finishing up can use this information to make the job search as hassle-free as possible.
-Tom & Jim