What should you be doing now to prepare for your next job search?

June 11, 2009

Question: I am writing for suggestions on how a doctoral student might find a summer job. My original source of income for the summer (teaching) has fallen through, so I am a bit desperate to find a job. Until now, I had been able to find something at my university and, thus, I am quite ignorant about how to find a temporary job that fits my profile outside of the university.

Question: Like most people who will be facing the academic job market this fall, I am terrified I won't find any type of academic position, let alone a tenure-track one. This summer, I'm planning to get my academic job-search materials in order, but wonder if there's anything I should be doing to help me find other types of jobs.

Julie: Since the economic crisis began, we've heard from many, many graduate students and postdocs who've been unable to secure an academic position, on the tenure track or otherwise, and have lost grant support that they had counted on as a source of income. Many of those folks share the problem that our readers have: They are not quite sure how their skills might be put to use outside a campus setting, and don't know where, and how, to look for nonacademic positions that might be a good fit for them.

Jenny: Let's focus on the summer job first. Finding a job quickly in a strained economy can be challenging. Certainly check the usual sources, such as job databases and the student-employment office at your university, and apply for anything that looks appropriate. You should also let friends and family know you're looking for work this summer, as they may have ideas for you as well. Check with the advanced graduate students in your department to see if there are any job opportunities that have been passed down through the department. You might also see if your department maintains any list of student names and contact information to give out to employers looking to hire students for tutoring, translating, research, or other work.

Julie: I would also suggest you do a quick assessment of your skills and think about places that might want to hire someone with your skill set for a short period of time. Employers are often willing to hire a worker for a specific project with a definite stop date. For instance, if you have experience working with archives, approach museums and university archives in your geographic area to see if they need part-time help with any projects that align with your background. Reach out to those places directly with a cover letter that explains in some detail how you would be able to contribute to their mission.

If you haven't gone to the career-services office on your campus, do it now. Or at least check out its Web site and get on a mailing list. Employers contact career offices even in the summer when they need someone because most such offices can reach students and recent graduates quickly. The office may also have listings of summer internships, some of which might be right for you. Most important, counselors there are probably knowledgeable about the employers in the area and can help direct you to ones you might approach. They may also be able to point you toward Internet job sites that are particularly useful in your area.

Jenny: Based on the tone of our first reader's letter, and her use of the word "desperate," we'd guess that she is also considering options like clerical work, waiting tables, and other jobs that might not put into play some of the advanced skills she's developed as a graduate student. Such positions might not be her first choice, but we would propose that, rather than see that work as simply a means to an end, she should also view those jobs as a way to develop contacts in a range of fields outside of academe. As a graduate student, I held a variety positions to earn money —being a coat checker in a local restaurant (a winter job, admittedly), working in a friend's clothing store, and running credit-card transactions for a small nonprofit group. Although none of those jobs were directly related to my graduate work, they provided me with nonacademic contacts who were willing to serve as references, and gave me a stronger sense of what I might do if I were to leave academe (not own a small business, for example).

Julie: If you can, it's great to use the summer to begin building a set of skills —writing, editing, research. That brings us to our second reader's question. If you plan to go on the academic job market in 2009-10, you should indeed get your job-hunting materials together so that they're ready to go when you need them. An article we wrote three years ago talks about the steps you can take in the summer months to prepare for the academic market. We can't predict what the market will be for faculty jobs next year, but it's not likely to be good in many fields. It's crucial that you see what other career options you might have, and that you consider conducting a Plan B search during, or shortly after, your academic search.

Jenny: Most graduate students these days are talking about having a Plan B, and even a Plan C and D. Some questions you might want to ask yourself:

n Should I draw out my time in graduate school (or in a postdoc) and plan to graduate later? Will my department/school/university allow me to delay my departure?

n Is there some other career that I could, and would like to, do?

n If I've had a previous career, would that be something I could continue as an interim job?

n Did a self-assessment tell me anything else that I should pay attention to?

n Should I try to develop some additional skills?

Some graduate students are delaying their graduation date so they can get some/more experience before job hunting. If your program lets you stay on, you should see if you can get some part-time experience in a Plan B area.

Julie: If you are a graduate student, a postdoc, or a full-time faculty member, you are a busy person and mainly reading in your field and talking to people about it. It's important, though, to be aware of the "stories" of peoples' lives, as they can be instructive in how to transform your career by highlighting certain skills. You can find such stories in The Chronicle,, WRK4US, and The New York Times, among other places. If you find yourself attracted to a certain kind of work, do some research about it and see if there is a fit. Try to get a little experience in that area, even if it's just volunteer work or an unpaid internship. You can meet people that way and do that all-important job-hunting, career-building technique —networking (which we last wrote about here).

Jenny: Besides writing, editing and research, think about other areas in which you might build your expertise, such as Web design, graphics applications, computer programming that relates to your discipline, presentation skills, and foreign-language skills. If you've done some of those things, either as part of your graduate program or in a professional position, be sure they are on an updated version of your résumé, and prepare to talk about how you might deploy those skills in different work contexts. For some of your more concrete skills, such as computer programming, it may be fairly easy to think of how you'd talk about those skills to a nonacademic employer. For other skills, such as presentation skills gained through teaching or at academic conferences, you may need to think a bit harder about how you would present that experience to employers outside academe.

Julie: If you're not sure in what context you might apply some of your skills, talk to people working in fields that interest you. Ask them what they think are the most useful skills in their line of work. Some of their answers will be straightforward, others will surprise you. For example, it will come as no shock that a market researcher must have a strong command of statistics. You may not realize, however, that many counselors in career offices such as Jenny's and my own need to have strong presentation skills, as we spend a good deal of our time doing programming for students. If you find there's a skill that you'd like to develop or strengthen, it might be worth taking further training or even a certification course in that area.

Jenny: Be sure that you put together a timeline of the things you'd like to accomplish this summer and into the fall. This summer, you should be doing informational interviews to develop a sense of the career options you might pursue in the coming year. You should be doing a part-time internship, paid or unpaid, that will build your skills. This fall, you will most likely be overwhelmed by the work involved in your academic job search. Even so, be sure that you're continuing to make networking connections, as they will help tremendously if and when you decide to apply for nonacademic positions. You may find that developing a Plan B, and knowing what you need to do to execute it, will give you confidence and peace of mind that will lessen the stress of your academic job search.

Julie: Remember that your first job is never your last job, especially nowadays. If circumstances are such that you end up pursuing a position outside of academe, you might find that your first job offer is not everything you'd hoped it might be. If you're mulling your options, consider taking a job that isn't perfect but that allows you to move closer to your Plan A job. Career tracks outside of academe are rarely as linear as the path from assistant to associate to full professor.

Jenny: Although we don't know what the future will bring, the recession will not last forever. Staying as active as possible in your field or preferred career, even if you are working at something else to provide an income, will serve you well when the job market improves.

Julie Miller Vick is senior associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jennifer S. Furlong is associate director of graduate-student career development at Columbia University's Center for Career Education. They are the authors of "The Academic Job Search Handbook" (University of Pennsylvania Press), reissued in an expanded edition last summer. If you have questions for the Career Talk columnists, send them to