While tenure-track jobs are in decline, colleges are enrolling more students than ever, and psychology remains a popular major. That means there are still academic jobs for flexible and qualified candidates. The sooner you figure out the type of academic job that most appeals to you, the sooner you can start gaining the experience you need for your ideal career.
At one end of the academic spectrum lie universities that put a heavy emphasis on research. At such institutions, says Carolyn Cutrona, PhD, chair of the psychology department at Iowa State University, "There's the expectation people will actively publish, do innovative, groundbreaking new research, supervise doctoral students and probably be able to get external funding for their research."
Because the research expectations are so great, the teaching load is on the low side, she says — perhaps three or four courses a year. To advance along the tenure track, professors at such universities must publish frequently and bring in grants to fund their studies.
At the other end of the spectrum are four-year colleges and community colleges where the focus is on teaching. In community-college settings, you may not be expected to conduct any research at all. At many four-year colleges, psychology professors often conduct small studies that don't require much outside funding, often designed to introduce undergraduates to the process, Cutrona says. At such schools, professors teach six to eight classes per year. "You're evaluated for promotion on the quality of your teaching," she adds, "and your research is primarily a vehicle for educating students."
If you crave stability and plan to spend your career at one institution, a tenure-track job is likely your best bet. But if you don't want to be stifled by the pressure to publish, a non-tenure-track position might be a better fit. And while full-time positions appeal to many people, others thrive in part-time jobs that allow them the time and freedom to pursue a clinical practice on the side.
When choosing what kind of position to go for, honestly assess your interests and put aside issues of prestige, says Robyn Mallett, PhD, a psychology professor at Loyola University in Chicago. "If you get trained at a [research-intensive university], you're basically trained to think that's the only type of job worth having. That's just not true," she says. "There are plenty of people for whom that's not a good fit, or it doesn't speak to their talents."
Some people don't have the interest or skills needed to chase external research dollars or spend long hours in the lab. Others crave the chance to interact with students. How do you figure out which approach is right for you? "Try and get as much breadth of experience as you can to find out what you enjoy doing," Mallett says.
Virtually all graduate students get research experience, says Mallett; it simply comes with the territory. But schools vary widely when it comes to teaching practice. Some require grad students to teach courses, while others don't allow students to head their own classes at all. Even if your school falls in the latter category, you can still get in front of a classroom. Ask your professors if you can give a guest lecture, Cutrona suggests. Or inquire at local community colleges about teaching a night class.
Just don't expect to get a full understanding by being a teaching assistant, adds Eric Jones, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. "It's a whole different experience when it's your own course," he says. "You get a more complete picture of the preparation time, rewards and challenges."
If you decide to go for a research-focused career, "stay in grad school an extra year or do a postdoc so you can get more publications and strengthen your resume," says Cutrona.
Even if you find a job with the perfect mix of teaching and research, it might not be a good fit for you in other ways. If, for example, you're most happy as part of a supportive research community, seek out schools with formal faculty mentoring programs. When on interviews, ask about department collegiality. "If you collaborate and like to work with others, you want to be in a place with a lot of open doors," Jones says.
It also pays to be open-minded. "You probably won't get your dream job the first time around," Jones says.
That's OK, Cutrona adds. "I wouldn't take a job where you think you'll be miserable, but you don't have to spend your whole career at your first job," she says.
Kirsten Weir is a writer in Minneapolis.
Letters to the Editor
- Write Us