Finding your next job: Variety is the spice of (professional) life

July 31, 2012, 8:00 am

The first two parts of this series (part 1, part 2) on Finding Your Next Job were about coming to terms with the motivations and parameters behind looking for a next job in the first place. These aren’t stressed enough in most discourses on job searching. The last thing you want is to blunder into a job search without a good idea of why you’re doing it, what you hope to accomplish, and who (besides yourself) needs to be involved.

But once you’re done with this kind of soul-searching, you have to begin. This part of the process can be just as varied as the first two parts, so rather than lay down a “how to” list, let me just share some experiences and what’s worked for me and people I know. Here I’m going to focus on one important and often-overlooked point about what sort of job you consider when you search.

For people looking for a second or subsequent job coming out of academia, we tend to default to thinking about jobs that are more or less like the ones we have now. But this need not be the case, particularly for mid-career people or those looking for a new direction. For those with some experience in higher ed, and particularly those with technical skills like mathematicians, there is a wide-open field of interesting work out there to explore through a job search. And since the next job search may well be your last one, it’s important to keep as many options open as possible.

I’ve been on the job market four times in my career: once when I was coming out of graduate school, again four years later, then again in 2008 and once more in 2010 after the 2008 search tanked along with the stock market. The first time, I had the typical carpet-bombing approach of sending out my CV to around 100 different schools. But they were all schools — mostly small liberal arts colleges (SLACs) because my research record wasn’t that strong and because I wanted to teach. In 2000, when I had decided to leave the SLAC where I had been hired in 1997, I had a much smaller search — but it was still all colleges, mostly SLACs. It wasn’t until I decided to think about leaving that second SLAC that it began to dawn on me that maybe I should look at places other than SLACs.

So I did. In that job search, and in the subseqent one in 2010 when the 2008 search fell through due to the economy, among the jobs and careers I investigated were:
- Assistant/associate professor positions at SLACs. Because, why not? I know the territory.
- Professor positions at small- to mid-sized universities (in the 3000–5000 student range). My first two jobs were at schools with 1500 and 1000 students respectively. I felt like schools roughly 3–4 times larger would preserve the small, intimate feel of the campus while providing more in terms of resources.
- Professor positions at large universities that had a clear focus on teaching rather than research. My research background’s not the strongest, and it would be somewhat suicidal to get hired by a place where I can’t support my own bid for tenure. But a position that expected a modicum of scholarship supporting a primary role of teaching sounded great to me. It’s all about knowing your skill set (and your limitations).

These are fairly standard choices, but there were some more that were rather more divergent:
- A department chair position at a local mid-sized university. This was a long shot and I don’t think I was qualified (neither did the university, as it turns out!) but I liked the position and thought it would be worth it to apply. The fact it was local meant that we wouldn’t have to move — something that was appealing to my stakeholders.
- Instructor at a residential gifted/talented school for high school kids. This is a position I think I would really enjoy given the right circumstances. Younger kids have a lot of intellectual energy and enthusiasm — especially if they are highly academically talented and motivated to learn. It turned out this particular job didn’t offer the right circumstances for me, but going down into the high school ranks is something definitely to consider for those teaching in college now.
- Actuarial careers. I didn’t have a specific actuarial job targeted, but I talked to a friend who is an experienced actuary and discussed whether somebody like me, over a decade into an academic career, has a reasonable chance of making it as an entry-level actuary. He seemed to think so, and he put me in touch with another actuary friend of his, who I met one morning for coffee at his office in Indianapolis. We had a wide-ranging conversation that was really informative. After that day, I decided that actuarial work wasn’t for me. But I exercised due diligence — I looked into it and talked to real people and made an informed decision. I also built my network and used my existing network to get things rolling.
- Assistant director for a faculty teaching/learning center at a top-tier research university.
- Instructional designer for the engineering college at a (different) top-tier research university.
- Research mathematician at the National Security Agency.

I leave the descriptions off of those last three because, along with the job at GVSU that I eventually took, it was only those last three positions that went anywhere past the initial interview. All others fell through or the places weren’t interested.

I mention this last bit because not only is it important to consider jobs that are not just the usual teaching positions, it’s essential if you are mid-career because many search committees just may not be willing to consider candidates for faculty positions who have been in other places for some time. The reasons for this are varied. Some schools will consider such people too expensive, and they can get younger people with more research talent for less money**. Some consider a mid-career move to another, similar position to be a red flag. Who knows? The point is, you won’t necessarily be able to rely on your experience as a college professor, even if you have a good track record and brand, to get you another job as a college professor.

So, I encourage you to use the opportunity afforded by a search to explore career options that aren’t the usual ones. You might be surprised at what you find.

In the next article, I’ll discuss some points about preparing application materials — which can look completely different depending on what sort of job you decided to pursue. In the meanwhile, again, what’s your story? Anything to add or share? Use that comment box!

** Yes, research talent matters, even at SLACs these days. It’s inexplicable but very real. I’ll have more to say on that in a separate post.


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