Thursday, March 20, 2014

Finding an academic job

Finding a job for any profession is difficult, but finding a job in academia can be ridiculously hard. Since I finished my PhD ten years ago, I've had two periods of unemployment, totalling more than six months out of work. Since I was the sole income-earner for my family at the time, those periods were particularly difficult and stressful to get through, but I got through them, as much by luck as by design.

I've come across a collection of articles on finding academic jobs, that I wanted to share and comment on. I tend to agree with what most of them have to say, even though they're not specific to computational intelligence in particular or even computer science or engineering in general.

The first discusses whether you should even go for an academic job. For computer scientists it is probably easier to go into industry with a PhD than it is for other PhD graduates. The tech industry is always strong somewhere, and it is always growing, so there are always jobs to be had. In my own country of New Zealand, at any one time there are usually between two and three thousand vacancies in the IT sector, and that's out of a country of around four million.

The second article discusses ways to improve your chances of getting an academic job. The authors mention engaging with the community, publishing papers and emphasising transferable skills. I've actually had one supervisor tell me that there is nothing more important than publishing papers, while this article argues that too much publishing runs the risk of establishing nothing more than an unfocussed research record, and this article argues that teaching experience, including experience designing and administering courses, is very important for getting an academic job. Even though I was more interested in the research side of things during my Honours year, I still worked as a tutor for a database course, and during my post-grad years I tutored computational intelligence courses. Near the end of my studies, I worked full-time as a teaching fellow (I believe in the USA that would be Teaching Assistant, but I can't be sure) and did re-work and administer courses. I am quite certain that this experience helped me to get the job I have now.

Having decided to stay in academia, and done the ground-work to enter the academic profession, the next step is to find an academic job. When you've identified a job you are interested in, the first thing you must do it get your academic CV in order. There are several common mistakes you must avoid in this document, since one mistake is all it takes for a recruiter (who are not academics) to discard your entire application. The previous two articles have some very good pieces of advice for laying out your CV, and I have applied several of them to improve my own CV.

Things like career objective statements should also be left out of a CV. My current job means that I regularly receive unsolicited emails complete with CV from people wanting a teaching job in my department, and most of them have things like career objective statements that have nothing whatsoever to do with my department or any kind of teaching job. Nothing says "desperate blanket bombing" like failing to do even a minimum of research about the place you are sending your job application to.

The other major component of an application for an academic job is the cover letter. This should also be specific for the position you are applying for, it should cover all of the criteria mentioned in the job advertisement, and it should be short. If you make it too long and detailed, then you run the risk of boring the recruiter before they finish reading, which usually results in your application being thrown away.

If you have a compelling CV, and have written a very good cover letter that shows that you are very well suited to the job, then you might get an interview. This article talks about how to prepare for an interview. One of the points in it that I would emphasise is the need to do your research before the interview. One of the fundamental rules in the Art of War is "Know yourself, and know others, and you shall have one hundred victories in one hundred battles". This applies to interviews as well! Know who is going to be interviewing you: have they published with anyone you know? Is there any other connection? What relationship does their research have to yours? This article also has some tips on how to handle tricky interview questions. Some questions just can't be answered well, like the question I got once about how I demonstrated an awareness of diversity in the classroom (I'm from the whitest district in New Zealand and I married a Chinese, I think that shows a pretty good awareness of diversity). Obviously, some self-confidence is very important, and I've been lucky in that a couple of times some really good people have boosted my self-esteem just before interviews.

Usually, by the end of an interview, I know whether I've gotten the job or not, just by the way the interview went. If I have struggled with any of the questions, then I probably won't get it. If it's gone smoothly, then I know I've got a much better chance. There have been a couple of cases where the interview went well and I still didn't get the job, but those were years ago and for positions that were probably above my skill level at the time.

Job hunting is brutal, and academic positions invariably attract a lot of applications (especially New Zealand positions, as for some reason a lot of people want to move here). The last time I was out of work, I sent off two dozen applications, which resulted in three interviews, which led to two job offers. And that was with a PhD, four years teaching experience, almost five years post-doc experience, and more than forty publications. But, if you stick to it, you will find a job. It might not be the job you first had in mind when you started, but it will be just as good, and any job is good experience if you're clever about how you do it.