Job Market Challenges for Tenure-Track Academics

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I’m sure you’ve heard the Indian parable about several blind men who each touched a different part of an elephant and disagreed dramatically on what they perceived. The moral of the story: Often in life our personal…

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I'm sure you've heard the Indian parable about several blind men who each touched a different part of an elephant and disagreed dramatically on what they perceived. The moral of the story: Often in life our personal experience is limited and thus we fail to understand the total, complex, reality. That is certainly true of the academic job market.

Most of us participate in that market only a handful of times as a job candidate, and even if we serve on search committees regularly, that experience tends to be limited to certain fields and to our own institutions.

To get a broader view of the academic job market, I consulted someone who gets to see it through the experiences of many people. Rena Seltzer is a career coach who specializes in counseling professors and academic administrators. In addition to one-on-one counseling through her firm Leader Academic, she has conducted workshops at Yale, Cornell, the University of Virginia, and the University of Michigan. In 2015 she published The Coach's Guide for Women Professors Who Want a Successful Career and a Well-Balanced Life.

Full disclosure: I regularly confer with Rena about my own career. This column was initiated at my request, and neither she nor I are receiving any benefits from the other in exchange for this interview.

At what point should a faculty member go back on the job market? Should anyone ever go on the market with the sole intention of getting a better deal at their current institution — that is, when they are not sincere about moving?

Seltzer: The ethics and etiquette of going on the market when you don't plan to move are complicated. On the one hand, it seems unfair to participate in another department's search if you never intend to move. At the same time, when you go on the market, you give other departments the opportunity to woo you, and there is always the chance that they will win you over. Some of my clients have been able to obtain raises by comparing their contributions to those of colleagues who have gone on the market and received generous counteroffers, or based on expressed interest rather than on actual offers. Other people have been told that, in order to receive a retention agreement, they must have an offer in hand.

I would always advise against telling your colleagues that you would never move, as that puts you in a poor negotiating position. At the same time, academic circles are small and you need to treat the people within your circle with respect because — regardless of whether you move — you are likely to encounter each other over and over throughout your career. Since the norms are often different depending on the field and type of institution, I encourage people to consult with trusted advisers and colleagues before deciding how to proceed.

In several parts of your book you write about issues of bias with respect to gender, race, and/or ethnicity. Based on your conversations with academic clients, what is the prevalence of such bias on the academic job market? What forms does it take?

Seltzer: I often hear about women being asked their marital or parental status, and most candidates don't want to risk offending the interviewer by pointing out that the question was inappropriate. One way to answer is to sidestep the question by saying something like, "Thanks for asking. Right now I'd like to focus on the professional aspects of the position." Another possible reply: "I'm assuming that you are wondering if I am free to accept the position and give it the dedication it requires. I can assure you that the answer is yes."

Sometimes I hear about bias not from the candidates themselves but from members of the hiring committees who are frustrated that their colleagues are ruling out well-qualified academics from underrepresented groups in favor of candidates who look or think more like themselves. A 2014 study showed that academics were less open to working with female and minority students than with white males, and that this was true even in fields with greater gender and racial diversity. Based on the anecdotal reports I hear, I would not be surprised if similar results were found in faculty hiring. Research on implicit bias makes clear that just because people espouse egalitarianism does not prevent them from reacting in a biased manner.

What can search committees do to avoid bias in hiring?

Seltzer: First, they can educate their faculty members about the benefits of a diverse faculty. Research on high-performing teams shows that diverse ways of thinking and solving problems trumps individual intelligence in producing the best results. Broadening the applicant pool is one step to creating a fair process. The research shows that if there is just one member from an underrepresented group in a candidate pool, that person is more likely to be judged according to stereotypes, but if there are several members from that group, they are more likely to be evaluated based on individual qualifications.

Bias is greater where there is ambiguity, and so determining very clear standards by which all candidates will be evaluated is helpful. For example a search committee may inadvertently evaluate male candidates by their potential while evaluating female candidates based on what they have actually accomplished. The risk of bias is reduced if the hiring standards specify that every candidate be evaluated in both domains.

Your book quotes an assistant professor whose initial job negotiations came back to haunt that candidate. A request for a course release was interpreted by the assistant professor's future employer (a liberal-arts college) as a bad sign that the candidate was "trying to get out of teaching." What is your advice for negotiating the best deal for yourself while avoiding doing long-term harm?

Seltzer: Mistakes are often made when well-meaning mentors give advice that is appropriate for the major research universities where they work but does not apply at teaching-focused institutions. So talk with people who are familiar with the specific type of institution where you're applying, and even better, talk with people who work at that particular campus.

Learn as much as you can about salaries and norms. At public institutions salaries are part of the public record. At U.S. institutions, is not appropriate to ask people how much they earn, but you can ask what range they think is appropriate for someone with your skills and level of experience.

Negotiating by telephone — rather than by email — allows you to adjust your requests based on the feedback you are getting. People who research gender and negotiation suggest that women are more successful when they use a social style and when they give a communal reason for what they are asking. I talk about these strategies in more detail in a chapter of my book on negotiation.

How can dual-career-academic couples best navigate the job market? When should you notify a potential employer that you are part of a dual-academic-career couple?

Seltzer: This is a hard call. Many people wait to bring up dual-career issues until after an offer has been made because they fear losing the offer to an unencumbered rival. However, dual-career hires take time to arrange, and the earlier the chair is aware that this is on the table, the greater the chance that the institution will be able to work something out.

In your book you write: "Women have to find a way to convey authority and competence without coming across as arrogant or bragging." Can you expand on that?

Seltzer: Women professionals walk a tightrope to convey both competence and likability. Culturally, our gender schemas for women include being nurturing and communally focused, and our schemas for men include being ambitious and assertive. Both women and men react less favorably to women who act outside of gender norms. One possible solution might be for women to discuss their successes in ways that show communal interest. For example, "I am gratified that my paper was the mostly highly cited work in our field this year. We now know what works, but it will only help the public if practitioners understand the research."

This is a sensitive issue, and a very personal call, because women certainly should not have to modify our communication to make others more comfortable.

There is a book called Women Don't Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation. It argues that, to some extent, the gender gap in pay is due to women not negotiating as frequently or as hard as men. In your experience, is that true?

Seltzer: More of my female clients express a dislike of negotiation, although many of them are skilled negotiators. The research shows that men's negotiation attempts are more likely to be favorably received, so there is certainly a basis for female negotiators' feelings. When asking for a raise or negotiating a package:

  • Know the norms at similar institutions as well as the institution with whom you are negotiating. That includes salary ranges but also start-up funds, lab space, and other resources you will need to be successful.
  • Use a social style. Rather than, "I'll leave if you don't match the offer," women seem to be more successful when they say, "We have a great group and I'd love to be able to stay here, so I very much hope that our institution will exceed or at least match the offer."
  • Set high (but realistic) targets that consider what you would be excited to get — not just the least you could live with.
  • Know your BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement). Those with great alternatives are in a much stronger position.
  • Prepare for the negotiation by brainstorming the variety of reactions you might receive and rehearsing your responses.

Throughout your book, the need for high-quality mentoring is a recurring theme. In the absence of a formal mentoring program, how do you ask to be mentored? And who should you ask?

Seltzer: The most successful people I know have more than one person to whom they turn for information and advice. I suggest looking for a number of lower-case "m" mentors rather than one Mentor, since one person will not know everything about the politics within your own department, how to navigate the larger college or university, how to manage work-life balance, what funders are looking for, and how to have a voice in your professional association. A robust professional network always includes people both within and outside of your own institution.

Successful relationships are built over time. A scholar might invite a senior member of the department to coffee and ask for advice on a paper or a grant application — and then continue to touch base from time to time.

Mentoring can also come from peers and even those junior to you who happen to be knowledgeable in a specific area. It is important to think about what you can offer as well as what you can get from people in your network. Introduce people who share common interests, offer to provide feedback on others' work, or congratulate them when they have a success. Think of it as being part of an interdependent network of support, rather than a one-way relationship.

People in your network can champion your candidacy, warn you off of scholars who are known to write negative letters, fill you in on the level of collegiality in a particular department, and advise you on the best strategy for negotiating your offer.

You note that in order to maintain research productivity, it is necessary to learn to say "no" to some requests for service. However, members of groups that have historically been underrepresented in academia may get a lot of requests to serve on committees or as advisors and mentors. These requests may be painful to refuse. When and how should faculty exercise their "no" muscle in these situations?

Seltzer: One way to say no is by explaining that you can't let down another group to whom you have already made a commitment. If "no" is not a safe option, an alternative might be, "I'd love to do that but I already have too much on my plate. Which of my existing service commitments should I give up to make room for that?"

Mentoring underrepresented students can be energizing but if you don't set limits you will not do justice to the students you are already supporting. Also, achieving tenure will put you in a more powerful position to support those students over the long run.

Some of my clients partner with other academics to form a "nos" club. When they are wavering on a decision but realize it might be too much, they run it by the other members for support.

What does it say about the academic work environment that there is demand for your services as a coach, as a workshop organizer, and for the book you have written? Are junior faculty not getting the mentoring they need from colleagues?

Seltzer: There are people who have never had good mentoring, who work in subfields different from their adviser's, who had a falling out with their adviser, or who had the misfortune of having a great mentor who has since passed away. In fact, many of my clients have very supportive advisers, colleagues, friends, and family members, but none of those people can offer the neutrality of an outside coach. Even with the most supportive mentors, academics are conscious of the need to manage their image at the same time that they are seeking advice. I offer professors a safe place to express their ambitions and concerns without having to worry about stressing their spouse, letting down their adviser, or triggering feelings of competition with colleagues.

This is the seventh installment of Job Market Mentor, a regular feature on Vitae. Send your questions to JobMarketMentor@gmail.com. Contributors will be kept anonymous. You can also follow this column on Twitter: @JobMarketMentor.


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