What I wish I’d known: Trying to find a job

VIDA’s What I wish I’d known series continues with advice from Christina Twomey for those ECRs on the academic job market.

The road to hell is paved with comparing yourself to other people. Perhaps advice columns come a close second, because they are often written by people who have the very thing you want the most. These are the folk who have already quit sugar, decluttered, have a great exercise regime and meditate daily.

And now a tenured academic is telling you how to look for, then land, a job. How annoying. Another generation. Ivory tower. Privilege. Please put aside your cynicism, be aware that I know how problematic this exercise is, and keep reading.

Most cookbooks have only one or two recipes that you make with any regularity. Likewise, you may not find the answer to your employment dilemma in this list of suggestions, but you might read one thing that is helpful. I hope you do.

Getting started

Never delay finishing your postgraduate degree because you are scared of what comes next. Being a student can be fun for a while, and then suddenly it isn’t. Timely completion is not just useful for university managers; it demonstrates that you can complete a project in the time available.

Do other things, but not too many, while you study. Take a job as a tutor, a research assistant, project coordinator or volunteer at places like museums. This helps structure your time, gives you extra skills, extends your networks, and might introduce you to work that you like more than academe.

Don’t underestimate other people’s incapacity to realise that you need money. Tell people, and not just your friends, that you are looking for work. Make sure that your supervisor, referees, examiners, former employers and anyone you know with good connections is aware that you are on the market.

In this phase, sign up to every h-net list, job alert service (e.g. THE unijobs), mailing list, Facebook group or follow on twitter the places, centres or people that you might like to work for. There are advertisements and notices for work in these fora all the time. You should also make good use of your University careers service, and pay them a visit to see what they can offer.

Although twitter threads and Facebook groups can be motivational, they can also become an echo chamber where support can sometimes tip over into mutually reinforcing gloom. The line between cohort, compassion and competition can be blurry, and it’s good to be part of those conversations without being over-determined by them.

The last suggestion in this section is awkward. Be respectful, even a bit deferential, to people who might be able to get you work. Avoid being overly casual or arrogant. Begin emails with Dear xxx, not Hey! You don’t have to be sycophantic – that’s off-putting too – but you do need to demonstrate that you are serious. Communication styles are not static, of course, but the people in a position to offer you work are not the same as your friends, and you will be wise to remember that.

Being Persistent

 You never know where something might take you. Don’t accept rubbish conditions, but a short-term job could open doors that you didn’t imagine. Likewise, part-time work can often generate more opportunities, more connections. It might not be ideal, but it’s a start. Very few people walk into the dream job straight away.

It’s also worth knowing your limits. Not many people want, or can afford, to live through the prime of their lives waiting for an opportunity that never arrives. Put a time limit on how long you are prepared to try and make this work. If it doesn’t, move on. There is a law of diminishing returns – the longer you hang on in a precarious state, the less likely it is that you will land something really good.

There are many interesting jobs, only a few of them are in academia. Be open to other possibilities and try them.

Applications and Interviews

What if you do find something worth applying for? My comments here are specifically tailored to academic jobs, because that’s the industry I know best.

Make your application letter interesting and professional. Aim for about 1.5-2 pages. Don’t just list everything you’ve done (that’s in the CV), say why it matters, and how your work is important. Remember the mantra: action-impact-evidence.

If there are selection criteria, address them in a separate document. They can sometimes be repetitive, so to tie yourself in knots responding to them in the cover letter loses an opportunity for your individual voice to be heard.

If you do happen to land an interview, prepare well. I’ve seen too many people go into jobs as front runners, and talk themselves out of an opportunity by being flippant, arrogant, too rigid, boring (e.g. taking 15 minutes to answer one question) or stuck like a rabbit in the spotlight.

Preparing well means thinking in advance about the questions that are routinely asked in academic job interviews. These include having a very concise and compelling account of the the significance of your work – a skill that does require some rehearsal – some indication of what your next project might be, evidence that you’ve done some teaching, have thought about pedagogy and know how to handle tricky situations.

Practice beforehand. Even better, write out responses to the questions you are likely to be asked, because then you will have formed some complete sentences in response to them that will be floating around somewhere in your unconscious during the interview.

You also need a good answer about why you want the job, which shouldn’t include family reasons, the location or the pay. Research the institution and the department, and make clear that you’ve thought about how you can assist with the fulfilment of their strategic vision.

Most interview panels have a format where every member will ask a question. First up is usually the Chair, who will ask you why you want the job. Then others will ask you about your research, teaching, external funding and administration. Address your answers to the person who has asked the question, but keep making eye contact with others around the table. Look out for body language that indicates you are taking too long to answer and adjust.

Since at least the 1980s, when I first entered university, people have been saying that there are no academic jobs. Perhaps they said this earlier too. My approach was: well there are, maybe not that many, someone has to get one, why can’t it be me? If I’m not employed in a good job within five years, which is both satisfying and allows for a reasonable standard of living, I’m going to do something different. You should too.


Christina Twomey is Head of the School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies at Monash University. Her first job after she finished her PhD was working as a sessional tutor and a research assistant at the University of Melbourne, followed by a 10-month teaching contract. Next was a three-year postdoctoral Fellowship at Deakin University. This was followed by two years as a Level A at the University of Adelaide, before moving to Monash University as Level B Lecturer in 2003. She has been there ever since, and has sat on many appointment committees both within the Faculty of Arts and across the University.

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