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Mentoring and advising graduates on the job market

Ask a Candidate | Topics in Higher Education

This post continues our series by a onetime academic job seeker, now academic-at-large, on mentoring and advising graduate students.

In many fields, the academic job market gets worse and worse, year after year. In this climate, where even excellent candidates fail to land tenure-track jobs, faculty members tasked with advising graduate students on job-market matters could be forgiven for feeling like the role is impossible. Here’s some advice on how to be a fair, honest, and supportive advisor to the students who are relying on you. 

Find out what your student really wants. 

In a post about mentoring grad students facing the job market, Jenna Lay writes that students and faculty can gain a lot of clarity from a few honest conversations, conducted very early in the process. “What are your core values?” Lay recommends advisors ask. “How do you see a career relating to those values, if at all? Do you value family? Location? Time? Money? Structure? Freedom? Do you desire a career that provides the central orientation for your life, or are you looking for a career that fits into a certain kind of life?” These kinds of big-picture questions—certainly not ones to be resolved in the course of one conversation, but rather revisited over the years—can help a student understand whether or not they actually want to commit to the academic job market. 

Recognize your own strengths and weaknesses. 

If you haven’t been on the job market for twenty years (or more), understand that you may not have the clearest picture of its vicissitudes. If you’ve never held a non-academic job, or not for decades, know that you may not know how to help your student prepare to apply for something alt-ac or non-traditional. Make sure that you have a true picture of what’s going on, and tap your network when you don’t.

Arm yourself with data—and share it. 

Try not to fall into the trap of guiding your students by anecdote. Tales of the experiences of your friends and former students may or may not be helpful to someone who’s looking at job listings in 2019. Find (and pass on) information about job placement rates and trends in your discipline. And see whether your department maintains records of former students’ placements; if they don’t, you should prod them to start. 

Bring up alt-ac options tactfully

For some students, a very frank conversation about the restrictiveness of the academic job market and its possible future impact on their lives and finances may lead them to explore non-academic options. Be open to this! But consider that (as Lay writes) this kind of conversation about non-academic options may be better to have with a student early on, when advisees are less likely to perceive an advisor bringing up non-academic paths as a vote of “no confidence” in their academic potential. 

Make a master plan together. 

Start advising students who are aiming for the tenure track early—years before they hit the job market—on things like building relationships that can lead to outstanding recommendation letters, picking the right journals for submissions, and selecting conferences worth attending. As Karen Kelsky has written, faculty should realize that landing a tenure-track job is so difficult now that students must “professionalize” much earlier than their forebears. “For those students who wish to try” to get a rare tenure-track job, “the effort requires years of methodical training and calculation of career chances, from the point of arrival in the graduate program through the dissertation defense and beyond.” Advisors can help by demystifying the process, and save students time by flagging which CV lines are worth their investment. 

In all things, aim for honest and supportive.

This is not the time to sugar-coat the prospects of any student who’s looking for a tenure-track job—even the very brightest star, who you hope will reflect on you well. Try not to make promises. “Be rigorously honest with them and with yourself that no matter how good their work is—no matter how good—the academic job market is not a meritocracy,” Lay writes, “and there are not as many jobs as there are good people.” Above all, if a student determines that their family, finances, or mental health can’t weather years of post-docs, VAPs, and cross-country moves, and decides to leave academia, it’s an advisor’s job to support them in their choice. 

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Interfolio’s Dossier enables scholars to collect, curate, polish and send out their materials at all stages throughout their academic professional path. Learn more about Dossier here.