What I Learned at AHA 2014: A Mentor’s Perspective

Lauren Apter Bairnsfather, May 2014

I was an official participant in two organized activities at the annual meeting in January: Interviewing in the Job Market in the Twenty-First Century, and the Career Fair, a new addition to the annual meeting program. These two events marked a shift in my experience of the annual meeting. In 2013, I was part of a panel about jobs in academic administration that followed a fairly traditional format; in 2014, I was in the trenches as a participant in a workshop, a mock interviewer, and a Career Fair mentor.

Photo by Marc Monaghan.<p> Mentors greet visitors at the AHA’s first Career Fair, held during the annual meeting in Washington, DC.Interviewing in the Job Market in the Twenty-First Century offered PhD candidates an opportunity to converse with ­historians in a variety of jobs, including faculty members at tier-one research ­institutions, small liberal arts colleges, and community colleges; administrators in museums and archives; and researchers in think tanks. I was the lone representative of alternative academic careers in universities. We met in a large, open room, with at least 15 tables, and with one to three interviewers per table. The room was packed! At the start of the event, interviewees filled the seats at the tables for academic jobs. Midway through the session, participants were invited to change tables. Only three people total came to my table, although there were crowds at the tables with museum and archives professionals.

Toward the end of the session, interviewers were invited to share advice with the room. Overwhelmingly, this advice related to interviewing for faculty jobs. As such, it was off-topic for most other kinds of jobs. A faculty interview involves a multiday visit to campus, a job talk, perhaps a teaching demonstration, and discussion of the applicant’s current and future research. An interview for a position like mine in university administration, outside of the professoriate, involves none of these things. More likely it involves one or more interviews with representatives from the human resources office and your potential supervisor.

When it was my turn to share advice, I urged job seekers to remember that they are also interviewing prospective employers and to think about fit. “During an interview,” I said, “ask yourself: Do I want to live in this house?” The silence in the room spoke volumes. The unspoken message was that in the competitive academic job market, you don’t have the luxury of asking such questions. While I understood that, it was clear that I had missed an opportunity to speak honestly about choosing to seek nonfaculty work, one advantage of which is that you can ­prioritize location, work situation, and lifestyle. The feeling of either one career path or the other—faculty or nonfaculty—was strong in the room during the interview workshop. Based on the minimal interest I saw for my type of work, I planned to take reading material with me to the Career Fair, expecting a quiet four hours.

The Career Fair exhibited the diversity of nonfaculty work and gave AHA meeting attendees an opportunity to explore their options, without reservations. Mentors like myself set up along four rows of tables. While the interview workshop had featured historians in various lines of work, the Career Fair featured organizations, ­institutions, and companies that employ historians. And I was in for a surprise—I had a steady stream of visitors to my table during every moment of the fair.

I spoke with early-stage graduate students, PhD candidates under pressure to find a first job, assistant professors dissatisfied with the experience—or facing tenure denial. Some were hoping to expand their career options; others were desperate to escape from an unhappy situation. While conversing with the many visitors to my table, certain questions figured prominently:

How do I find job listings for that kind of job?

There is no comprehensive clearinghouse for careers in academic ­administration. Start by picking a geographical area, and look at websites of colleges and universities there. Get in touch with your mentors and build your professional network through informational interviews and social media. VersatilePhD.com is a fertile online community, with meet-up groups forming in many cities, and it is free to AHA members.

How do I make a compelling ­application for a nonfaculty job?

Apply for a job only if you can imagine yourself in it. It is difficult to write a compelling cover letter when you have not ­convinced yourself that the job is a fit for you. Use your skills in examining documents to read the position description. Does the employer need someone to manage projects? Or perhaps a person who can synthesize large amounts of information and communicate findings to a broad audience? It is more than likely that you can do all these things and many more. Use keywords from position descriptions in your cover letter and resume. Unless your research is directly related to the job, don’t write about it in a cover letter, though of course, if it is relevant, use your research to connect yourself to the job opportunity.

How much should I talk about my research in an interview?

Remember that staff members, not faculty, will be interviewing you, and the most important thing is to demonstrate your ability to do the job. Do your research about the people who will be interviewing you. Be curious, humble, and respectful. Be careful not to give the impression that the job is your second choice or a plan B. That is a good way to ensure that you will not get an offer.

Can I work in academic ­administration and remain active in research and teaching?

When you are offered a position in academic administration, before you accept, negotiate to teach a course, if this is ­important to you. Yes, you can remain active in research—you will do this during your free evenings and weekends. While I have not revised my dissertation for publication, many of the historians I have met through my involvement with the AHA work in university administration and also publish scholarly work.

If I don’t have time to do my own research, will I miss it?

I discovered quickly in my first post-PhD job that I am interested in whatever topic I am researching. But yes, there are things that I miss about scholarly research on topics of my choosing. Yet taking a job outside of the professoriate does not mean giving up life as a scholar. We can all be grateful to the AHA for embracing various career paths and setting a tone of inclusivity.

Could you do your job without having a doctorate?

This question preoccupied many of the visitors to my table. The preferred qualifications for my job included a PhD in a liberal arts field, but this is not true of all jobs in academic administration. I use my doctorate at work when I design research projects. It also helps in my communication with faculty members. It is important to bear in mind that many accomplished staff members do not have advanced degrees, and they likely know more than you about how the university works. Jobs in academic administration are about teamwork. You will work closely with your colleagues. From my perspective, this is a major perk of the job.

The conversations I had at the Career Fair exemplify the professional and personal struggles within our discipline. Perhaps my table at the interview workshop was too public a space for young scholars to reveal an interest in nonfaculty jobs. My experience at the fair demonstrated the need to have outlets for these conversations, free from judgment.

Lauren Apter Bairnsfather (@DrLaurenA) earned her PhD in history from the University of Texas at Austin and now is an institutional research analyst for the university.

Tweet your comments and observations to @DrLaurenA, or join the conversation at the Career Diversity for Historians group (bit.ly/1gfdxYS) on AHA Communities.





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