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Five Tips for Navigating Your Way to a Tenure-Track Position

Five Tips for Navigating Your Way to a Tenure-Track Position

  • Student Tips
Joanna HughesFeb 14, 2017

Tenure-track jobs are often positioned as the “Holy Grail” of the academic world. But while THE Holy Grail is largely regarded as the stuff of legends, tenure-track positions are both very real and very attainable. With the right strategies, that is. Read on for a roundup of tips aimed at helping you achieve a sought-after tenure-track job.

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1. Make sure you really want it.

Before you get on the tenure-track treadmill, there’s one important thing to consider first. Do you really want a tenure-track job? Despite its many allures, the academic life is not right for everyone. The more you know about what life as a tenure-track professor is really like, the more informed a decision you can make about whether it’s a good fit for you.

However, because tenure-track jobs are viewed as the gold standard of academic jobs, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. Wrote one PhD of her journey (and back) to a tenure-track position, “Battling it out on the academic market year after year builds such a momentum, and you become so singularly focused on getting the job, that you lose all perspective. You don’t think about what it will actually be like when you do get it, and whether it will, in fact, satisfy your career needs and desires, not to mention be in the best interest of other people in your life like a partner and dependents. The pursuit itself is so all-consuming that it takes on a dangerous life of its own, everything else be damned.”

In her case, that loss of perspective led to accepting and resigning a tenure-track position in the span of exactly one year. The takeaway? There are other options. Having a realistic picture of both the upsides and downsides of tenure-track jobs can help you go into the job search with fully open eyes.

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2. Apply when you have publications.

While the publish or perish imperative may be on its way out, there’s no denying that publications still matter. According to one source quoted in Science, an applicant "with no publication will get a harder time getting recognition than one that has three or four.” However, it’s also only a “crude measure” of whether a tenure-track job is a possibility. Equal not more valuable than quantity of publications? Quality.

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3. Show that you’re a good fit for the job.

It goes without saying that a strong academic record is crucial to landing a tenure-track job. However, fit is also critical. Rather than taking the “throw everything at the wall and hope something sticks” approach to applying for positions, each application should be tailored to the position for which you’re applying. Skip the generic cover letter and CV and instead think of the process as a matchmaking game. How can your application materials be edited to showcase your offerings as they apply to the position.

Think of it this way: Even the most impressive candidate won’t be considered for a position if they don’t fulfill its basic requirements. This is as applicable in academia as it is in business.

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4. It’s not all about your dissertation.

An excellent dissertation is just the start. While strong research skills are essential, hiring committees are also looking for candidates prepared to take on the rigors of teaching and interdisciplinary scholarship work. And don’t forget about service -- also considered a cornerstone of academia.

Rather than putting all of your efforts into your thesis expecting it to land you the tenure-track job of your dreams, diversify by getting involved in other activities as well. Attending conferences, volunteering for committees and taking on leadership roles all show you’re more than capable of research, but also of being a leader in your field. Presenting at meetings, meanwhile, is also part of the networking process while simultaneously helping you to establish a presence in your field.

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5. Be ready to negotiate.

Not all tenure-track jobs are created equal. Negotiating -- and negotiating well -- not only shows employers what you’re capable of but lays the foundation for your entire career when you consider lifetime earnings. But it’s not just salaries that are negotiable. Everything from administrative duties to startup funds are also in the mix.

Writes academic job search consultant Karen Kelsky, “Most offers have room for negotiation. You should first see what the formal offer is in terms of salary, summer salary, teaching load, leave time, research support, expectations for tenure, graduate student funding, service expectations (particularly if it is a joint appointment), support for a spousal hire, and other matters. Until you have these in writing you cannot make an informed response….Once you receive these, decide what you’re going to come back with in negotiation. Because, you ALWAYS come back asking for more. You are entitled. It is expected. Do not miss this one-time-only opportunity to negotiate greater gain for yourself and your family.”

For many PhDs, tenure-track jobs represent the ultimate prize after years of dedicated work and unparalleled commitment. These five steps can help you maneuver the multifactored process in order to land a fulfilling (and fitting) academic position.

Joanna Hughes

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.