Advice & News

February 13, 2020

Positioning Yourself for Your Next Job in Academia


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Are you on the path to upward career mobility in higher education? If so, you need a plan, and that plan can't just be tactical for immediate reciprocity. Positioning, in part, is about tactics that feed strategy toward a larger vision for maximum impact. With a deeper understanding of the inner workings of search committees, and knowledge of what can't be said by the recruiter or your workplace mentor, are some truths that will breed a dose of reality coupled with an adequate proportion of hope. That said, always remember, "hope" is not a strategy, so stop wasting time on the long shot vacancies if you won't get serious about the preparation that goes with the positioning to make you a more viable candidate. After twenty-three years in higher education, I've learned a few things from mentors, mentees, and my own experiences with search committees that no human resource office can share, but you should certainly know. I share three of these lived truths below.

The Truth about Transferrable Skills
With low unemployment in many entry and mid-level higher education management positions, institutions are not struggling to find talent. With a very experienced and highly educated pool of available candidates, don't over-rely on the notion that emphasizing transferrable skills over direct experience will get you the interview. For example, if I am looking for a career center director and you have been the associate bursar, you would need to make a strong and compelling case early in your cover letter and at the top of your resume that would convince me that you can make this leap. Making the case will matter because if the search committee receives a pool of thirty applications and ten are from current career center directors looking for a lateral move, and another ten are in associate career center director roles, you should acknowledge that you are a long-shot candidate.

That said, all is not lost, and by this, I mean, do you have other experiences that can be highlighted that might directly align with the role you seek. For example, have you been a board member at a community-based organization that puts people back to work, did you work outside of higher education in a role that had a human resources component like interviewing, hiring, training new staff? In that role, did you do some of the things that are listed in the job posting? If you are passionate, apply anyway because if the pool is not robust and full of experienced career center professionals, your transferrable skills, and the compelling way that you communicate them, may give you the edge you need to land the job.

The Truth about the Doctorate: The Degree Granting Institution Matters
This is not a truth many are willing to tell, and it's also one that is very difficult to hear if you are running into hiring roadblocks and you can't figure out why. The American higher education system was founded by the elite, for the elite, and elitism still permeates some sectors and institutions within the academy today. Dare I say it, we are much more comfortable providing "access and opportunity" to students than we are to job seekers who don't fit our institution's traditional administrative or faculty employee profile. This elitism is beginning to change but not quick enough for those with newly conferred doctorates and limited job prospects. I am not saying that institutions are elitist; what I am saying is that some individuals that are part of hiring processes may be elitist and that can have an effect on the outcome. Elitism can be directed toward modality, with a preference for brick and mortar doctoral-granting programs over online programs. Some forms of elitism differentiate by institutional brand recognition or lack thereof, while others can focus on degree type like whether you earned a Ph.D. versus an Ed.D. or a doctorate through an executive program.

If you have direct experience aligning with the job posting and are confident about the quality of your cover letter, yet can't seem to land an interview at a particular type of institution, it could be related to bias about your doctorate, particularly if it is not gained through a "traditional" path. Don't be discouraged; look at it as an opportunity to expand your search. Do your research and utilize the resources as an alumnus of your institution and find out where their graduates are employed. Switching sectors within the industry is another approach you may consider looking at institutional types that may be more progressive. At some point, as you continue to gain expertise, where you get your degree will matter less, so stay focused on building your experience.

The Truth about Salary Negotiation
You are priceless as a human, but believe me, there is a price on your head as an employee and a willingness by the employer to pay or not pay based on their budget, the role, and your expertise. When negotiating salary, don't overplay your hand. Remember what Kenny Rogers told us in the famous country-western song The Gambler, "Every gambler knows, That the secret to survivin', Is knowin' what to throw away, And knowin' what to keep. Cause every hand's a winner, And every hand's a loser, And the best that you can hope for, Is to die in your sleep." Translation: If you've got the offer, don't throw it away by overestimating your perceived value (perception is reality -- for them at least) and countering with a salary that is not congruent with benchmarking of similar institutions. For example, if you are being offered a director role at a moderately selective private college, don't expect the pay of a director at a highly selective private college, nor expect the pay of a director at a research university. It's not apples to apples.

In these times of fiscal constraint and austerity, when an institution says it's their best offer, it usually is. If they like you enough to offer you the role, they want you, so if you can find other things to negotiate like professional development funds, telecommuting one day per week, etc., do so and play the winning hand. I know that it's your career and not the World Championship of Poker event, but there is wisdom in not starting on a negative note. Negotiate yes, but don't continue to pressure your potential employer with demands that they are unable or unwilling to meet. If you really can't accept the salary, thank them and politely decline. There is great truth in the fact that this is an industry where "people talk" on and off the record, so maintain your professionalism throughout the process.

I will end by saying the fact that I call these three advice topics "truths" does not make them absolutes because there are always exceptions. So often, when we apply for jobs and don't advance through the process, we are left wondering why and never really know the truth behind the rejection. This is especially painful when we spend hours researching the institution, perfecting our cover letters, and updating our resumes all with the hopes of landing the role. When we don't get an interview or an offer, we are left feeling that it was somehow due to a flaw in our candidacy. This is not necessarily the case, there are things we won't know that play out behind the closed doors of search committees. The point of taking an informed approach and positioning oneself for success is to develop a winning strategy to find a position where we bring value and are valued.