The team from ‘The Professor is In’ visited London to speak to PhD students about academic careers in the US and the messages were hard-hitting. For example 76% of academic staff in the US are on short term contracts; academic departments are shrinking; each vacant position attracts 200-900 applications; there are not enough academic positions to go round, and getting tenure is rare. So what do you do? Here we cover the advice offered by Dr Karen Kelsky and her colleague Dr Kellee Weinhold.

Know the market

Following the Chronicle of Higher Education for background on the US HE sector and Karen Kelsky’s ‘Pearls of Wisdom’ blog will help you prepare. Vacancies are listed in the Chronicle, through academic associations and also on Academic 360. Then there’s learning the terms for different roles: Adjunct, Instructor, Non-tenure Track (NTT), Assistant Professor, Associate Professor and Full Professor; terms for status for example, ABD–all but dissertation; and terms for institutions: R1 (like Russell Group) and SLAC (small liberal arts college). Obviously, it helps to know the vernacular.

Job adverts start appearing in August and September for posts beginning the following academic year but keep looking throughout the year as a few will be posted later as last-minute changes happen. Interviews are usually early spring. Conference based first-round selection happens in some subject areas; check the big conferences in your field to see if this applies to you.

Take control

‘Academia fosters dependency’  but selection panels want to recruit a confident, affable colleague, with enough self-belief to get the job done. This means getting your PhD finished, your publications submitted, being proactive, ignoring the reassurance that everything will be fine, and not waiting for prompts from your supervisor. Ignore the reassurance and look at the statistics. Be confident to state your contribution to your field, how are you moving your discipline forward?

Act early

To get yourself onto a shortlist, Karen’s advice is to have a job focused state of mind: Get a strategy, plan ahead and start plotting your future now. Your supervisor might be focused on the content of your thesis, but you need a wider focus for preparing to make the transition from student to colleague. Typically in the USA PhDs take six years to complete so candidates have simply acquired more work-related experience than for example UK students. This means you need to be even more focused on preparing for your future roles. On the plus side your international perspective might be an advantage particularly if you can make relevant links to the role and discipline area.

Getting shortlisted

Your thesis is not going to get you shortlisted; experience of publishing, getting grants, teaching, and service will. Typically applications require a CV, cover letter, teaching statement and research plan. Understanding the job advert and knowing the department is essential so you can tailor your letter and resume appropriately. It’s not really about you, it’s about them. Don’t expect selectors to be interested in the content of your research, prepare a very short description, a short pitch about why it matters and a defence of your methods. Offer the ‘tip of the iceberg’, not the 80,000-word version. They want to know what you will do for them and that doesn’t include researching and writing the same thesis again.

Adapting your approach

In terms of style, the culture of selection is specific to the USA so candidates schooled in UK humility don’t fare well. Shorter, more direct sentences on applications and at interview, are normal. There is an emotional cost to the US job market too, you are likely to feel fear, anxiety and impostor syndrome. The advice is to get a support team and maintain self-care.

At interview

Presenting yourself as a capable colleague ready to teach the courses they need, able to get on with your research plan without support, contributing to (not draining) the department show your potential in the team. At interview describe how you will add to the department. There is no need to keep describing your previous experience, this is already on your written application, but apply it to the job you want to do to show your readiness to work in this role. Reassure the panel you can do the job and you are not a risk. Explain your 5-year research plan, with outputs and how it fits in this department. Describe a course you can propose in terms of: title, goals, reading list, assignment, outcomes. Have a question ready.

There’s help available

There’s more information on cracking the academic job market on the PhD pages of the LSE Careers website. You might also like to refer to the ‘Hacking the Academic Job Market’ slides for Karen and Kellee’s talks, borrow a copy of ‘The Professor is in’ from the LSE Careers resource Centre and explore our Careers in the US page.

You might be confused about the ending of your PhD and unsure about your next steps, so we have one-to-one careers meetings available throughout the year to support you at every stage of your PhD, book on CareerHub. We’re also open all year and have a programme of PhD events to support your learning about opportunities, career development and how to present yourself.