How to Keep Your Options Open

In the coming months, facing uncertainty head-on and doing what you can to prepare for multiple possible job outcomes is the best thing you can do for your future self, advises Derek Attig.

June 29, 2020
 
 
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“I’m going on the faculty job market this fall. But it’s so competitive. What if I don’t get a job?”

“I thought I always wanted to be a professor, but lately I’m not sure. I’ll probably send out some faculty applications this year, but I’m open to other things, too. But how can I do both?”

“Whatever happens, I want to be done with grad school next May. How do I keep my options open, jobwise?”

These are questions I hear every year from Ph.D. students, but I’ve been hearing them more than ever this year. Facing a wildly uncertain, mid-COVID-19 faculty job market this fall, these students are planning for multiple possible futures. It’s something I wish every grad student interested in pursuing faculty jobs would do. And all the more so this year.

As in so many areas, the coming months are likely to be hard. It may be tempting to focus on only one thing. But facing uncertainty head-on and doing everything you can to prepare for multiple possible outcomes is the best thing you can do for your future self. In this post, I provide some guidance for how to prepare this year for different possibilities, including both faculty and nonfaculty positions.

Balancing both searches logistically. One bit of good news: the timelines for the faculty job search and most other job searches are very different. Faculty jobs can have deadlines as much as a year before the position begins, while the timelines for searches in industry and nonprofits tend to be much, much shorter.

While that means that you probably won’t be applying for both kinds of jobs at the same time, it definitely doesn’t mean you can just forget about other options until 2021. It takes a lot of work to get from “What other kinds of jobs could I do?” to actually submitting applications. So start now and schedule the year ahead carefully to support parallel progress on both searches.

Here’s one way that might look:

  • July-August. You use the rest of the summer to prepare and polish your faculty job search materials so you’re ready to start submitting come fall. While doing that, you take some of your first steps in exploring other possible career paths. You use career exploration tools (like ImaginePhD or MyIDP) and make an appointment with career services on your campus. You also start browsing job databases, to better understand what’s out there and use job ads for career exploration.
  • September-October. During this busy period, you start tailoring the materials you prepared over the summer and applying to faculty positions. But you try to keep your eye outside academe, too. Based on the career exploration work you did over the summer, you start digging deeper to understand whether the paths you identified would be a good fit. You identify people in fields you’re interested in and reach out to schedule informational interviews to get firsthand perspectives on potential career paths and build your network in new directions. To maintain momentum without overwhelming your schedule, you commit to sending at least one request for an informational interview per week.
  • November-December. You continue submitting faculty job applications as deadlines come up. You also continue doing informational interviews as you refine your ideas about other options. You also get started on developing résumés and cover letters for industry, government or nonprofit jobs. You draft, seek feedback and revise. You keep browsing job databases, and if you find something that feels like an incredible fit, you consider applying.
  • January-March. You have some faculty job interviews to prep for, which takes a lot of your time. But you do your best to shift the bulk of your job search energy away from constantly obsessing about the faculty job search. You start actively and widely applying for jobs in the new areas you identified. You check job databases regularly (at least once a week) and start tailoring and submitting materials for any positions that seem interesting. You get in touch with folks you did informational interviews with to let them know you’re searching, so they can connect you with opportunities that may be of interest.
  • April-May. At this point, you have a pretty clear sense of how the faculty job search went for you this year, and you need to make some decisions about your next steps. Do you accept that one-year visiting faculty position or postdoc and start all over again in the fall? Do you accept an interesting (or maybe not-so-interesting) job at a company or nonprofit and call an end to your faculty search? As you ponder these big questions, you continue submitting applications for industry, government and nonprofit jobs. And whichever decision you make, you carry on with informational interviews to keep your options open and your network strong going forward.

Balancing both searches emotionally. The challenges of balancing these parallel job searches aren’t just logistical. They’re emotional, too. Looking for a job involves investing not only time and effort but your identity, as well. And considering very different kinds of jobs at the same time can make you feel scattered and confused.

But this can actually be a valuable opportunity to celebrate your multitudes. You’re not -- and don’t have to be! -- just one thing. I regularly encourage late-stage doctoral students to do informational interviews, and they frequently tell me that talking with people in other walks of life can be a powerfully refreshing reminder that academe’s values and culture are not, in fact, universal.

Remember that you don’t have to do any of this alone. You’ll need mentors who can offer guidance on both kinds of searches, such as faculty members, career services staff and your department’s alumni. But keep in mind that you’ll also need people who can care for you as a person. Nurture friendships and other relationships that can sustain you through this process, and ask for support when you need it.

Ultimately, given the very real possibility that there may not be many faculty job openings this fall, proactively and positively preparing for other options can be an act of hope and faith in yourself.

Bio

Derek Attig is assistant dean for career and professional development at the Graduate College of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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