Finding your next job: Understanding “why”

July 27, 2012, 9:25 am

I’ll be at MathFest next week, and one of the things I’ll be doing is participating in this panel discussion. I’ll be speaking about “Finding Your Second Job” and then leading a breakout group to discuss this issue. It’s a little funny that I’ll be speaking on this, since I’m actually on my third job right now (and I hope it will be my last one!) but I won’t let that get in the way.

Finding “the next job” in academia is a very complex issue on a number of levels. I only have 15 minutes to do my schtick in Madison and so there’s no way I can touch on all the nuances. So I’d like to take this week leading up to MathFest to blog about this issue in detail. There may be some people out there who are planning to go on the market in the fall — or wrestling with the possibility of doing so. If you can make it to MathFest, I encourage you to stop by the panel discussion. But if you can’t, maybe these blog posts can be of some use.

Let’s begin with the most important stage of finding your next job, and that’s figuring out why you want a next job in the first place.

For some people, this is easy, because life forces the issue. Maybe you have been working as an adjunct and for personal or financial reasons want to make the jump to a tenure-track position; or your partner or spouse has been transferred to another city; or you’ve been denied tenure and need to move on. If you’re in this category, you can skip the rest of this article, and I wish you the best as you start the search (see next article).

For others, though, there’s a difficult choice to be made. You’re thinking about moving to a different job but lack a life situation that makes your decision for you. There are any number of reasons why you would be thinking about a next job. Your task for the moment is to be very, very clear about your motivations — because those motivations guide the rest of the process.

When I was looking for my second job in 2000, I was not clear on my reasons for wanting to leave. I had a vague but strong sense of dissatisfaction with my job at the time but didn’t investigate that feeling. I looked for and found another job, and I was happy at it for a while — but in 2008, I found myself with the same sense of dissatisfaction again, even after receiving tenure and promotion. I conducted a limited job search which mostly disintegrated due to the economic crash in 2008, when a lot of small colleges (my main target) cancelled searches midway through the year. In 2010, I started up again, but this time I was intentional about why I was starting. My wife and I had had another child — a surprise baby — and somehow the jump from two to three kids, plus turning 40 in 2010, made me really want to pay attention to what I was doing this time.

What was helpful to me at the time was the following exercise.

  • Set aside 1–2 hours where you have time to yourself. Get some coffee, and a pen and paper (or a text editor), or a voice recorder if you think more freely speaking than writing.
  • Create a list of reasons why you are considering looking for a new job. Be totally honest and do not edit your list. Take the time to unpack your reasoning (maybe with a mind map instead of a list). For example, you might list: “I’m not happy with my work.” OK, but why are you unhappy? Is it poor evaluations? Your living situation? Salary not commensurate with your qualifications and workload? Boredom? Or what?
  • When you feel like you’re done, stop and take a break. Then, try to fill in the blank on the following sentence:

In the upcoming job search, my goal is to find employment that ___________________.

In other words, what role do you want your job to fulfill? What should your job do for you? What kind of job do you want? Once I had done all this, I could look at my fully-unpacked reasons for thinking about leaving my job and what kind of job I would leave it for. It’s critically important not merely to move away from a job but also to move toward one.

And if the exercise above is hard for you, or if you get all your reasons out on the table and you’re mostly unhappy with what you’re thinking, it might be time to make the decision not to look at all. Maybe it’s something else in your life that’s causing dissatisfaction and this is just metastasizing in your work life. Maybe you’re just bored and need a fresh approach. Maybe you need sleep.

But before you begin the job search — a stressful, time-comsuming process — please take time to be clear on your motivations. What’s important is not to declare your reasons for considering a new job “right” or “wrong” right now but just to know what they are. OK? OK.

In the next installment we’ll talk about the next step: How to prepare for the search, and I don’t mean in terms of stocking up on resumé paper.


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