Four Tips for a Non-Teaching Academic Job Search

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It’s currently the high point of the academic job search for many disciplines. The MLA and AHA, for example, have just concluded their annual conventions, where first-round job interviews take place. But not everyone necessarily wants a tenure-track appointment.

To help those who still want to work in higher education but are not interested in the professorial track, the MLA offered a workshop on the nonteaching academic job search run by Brenda Bethman (Director of the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Women’s Center), Shaun Longstreet (Director of Marquette University’s Center for Teaching and Learning), and Lisa Roetzel (Associate Director of the Campuswide Honors Program at UC Irvine). I participated in the workshop and wanted to share some brief highlights for those looking to hack their career.

First, it’s worth remembering—and saying over and over again—that you are not a failure if you get off the tenure track or never get on it. And there are lots of different opportunities for working in higher education: academic affairs, which includes advising, recruitment, and admissions; student affairs, including resident life, Greek life, and career services; development and research, which means grant writing and fund raising; and business affairs, the offices of the bursar, the president, or community affairs. And if you’re still in graduate school, you might think about getting a part-time job in one of these divisions so you get experience for your vita.

Second, the experience on that vita needs to be rethought. The typical academic CV is to list who has vetted you and your work—which degree program and journals have accepted you, for example. When applying to academic jobs off the professorial track, however, you are highlighting particular skills and accomplishments. A typical staff CV will be organized as follows: contact information first; general qualifications, which are 4-6 skills tailored to the position you’re applying for; education; experience; and supplemental information, such as relevant professional associations or development.

Of these sections, experience is the one that is most different from academic CVs. You should list your three most recent positions and then three concrete, measurable responsibilities you had in each position. That’s often harder than it sounds for academics, and we spent time in groups working on articulating our skills and experience to each other. Don’t be surprised if it takes you a long time to reframe your experience. If you think there’s not much to be said beyond “teaching a class,” remember that teaching a class requires lots of “real-world” skills such as quick turn around of assigned work (you are fast at grading, right?), giving public presentations (AKA facilitating discussions), and working within assigned parameters (AKA departmental requirements for a particular course).

Third, read the job ad carefully. This entails identifying words that are repeated throughout the ad, which will help you understand the emphasis for the position. You should also look at which skills are required and which are desired. The workshop leaders emphasized that just because you don’t have every required skill doesn’t mean that you can’t apply for a job; instead, be ready to address these absences in a cover letter and how you will close those gaps. It’s useful, then, to remember that people write ads for ideal candidates and that they do not necessarily expect to get exactly what they are asking for. We workshop participants spent some time with job ads sussing out such details.

Fourth, all of the leaders stressed that the process for getting these jobs is social. It’s vital to call on friends and associates who might know people in the office or institution where you are applying and to ask them to put in a word for you. It’s also not a problem to call and ask questions about the job if it will help you write a better cover letter.

Of course, these four points are just the tip of the three-hour workshop’s iceberg. If you want to know more, Bethman compiled a Storify of resources, which is well worth your perusing. (Don’t know what Storify is? Check out Ryan’s previous post on the social story site.) You’ll want to pay especial attention to Bethany Nowviskie’s piece on negotiating an alternative academic appointment, which just so happened to appear in ProfHacker. And my notes from the workshop are also available in a public Google Doc. It’s of course worth mentioning that any errors there are my own rather than those of the fabulous trio of workshop leaders.

As a parting shot, I’ll paraphrase some advice that Jason Rhody of the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities gave at a panel on alternative academic careers: take your non-teaching academic job search as seriously as you would take a tenure-track job.

Do you have experience looking for non-teaching academic jobs? If so, what one piece of advice would you give others? Let us know in the comments!

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