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Career Advice

From PhD to assistant professor: Applications and interviews

Three academics reflect on how they got on the tenure track.


You’ve almost made it: the courses, comps, proposal are all under your belt. You’re polishing your dissertation and practicing your defence. You’re exhausted and excited. It’s a time for celebration. A time for looking back at what you have accomplished and for looking forward into the unknown. This transition phase from grad student to faculty member can be fraught with questions: How will I navigate the transition out of grad school? Should I do a postdoc? Am I cut out for academia? How can I best position myself? What do I really want? Below are three unique perspectives from recently hired assistant professors at Canadian research-intensive universities. Together they have asked these questions and more as they navigated their journey from PhD to applying, interviewing, and finally securing tenure-track academic positions. They share a taste of their experience here to shed a light on the challenges and successes of entering academia.

Making changes to my expectations and strategies

Ee-Seul Yoon, assistant professor, University of Manitoba

In the last year of my PhD, I was probably a typical PhD candidate, looking for job posts on the University Affairs and Academic Keys websites. Once I found a suitable post, I would spend about a week completing my application package with a self-made checklist, and then send it off. After having applied for a dozen jobs, which resulted in two on-campus interviews, I began to realize that having successfully completed a PhD from a research-intensive university and having some teaching experience were insufficient to land a tenure-track assistant professor position in North America – because there were so many other PhD graduates just like me. So, when I graduated and did not have an academic position to move onto, I had to make some changes.

First, I had to face the reality that I may not become an academic after all, and that I may have to look for non-academic jobs. If I were to continue to pursue an academic career, I would have to continue to publish more, even though I had already published a few articles. I could see the value of a postdoctoral position, although I was hesitant about doing one because it was temporary and did not provide a definite job prospect at the end. However, when I received a two-year SSHRC postdoctoral fellowship award, I took it and worked on publishing, starting a new research program, and engaging in exciting international service opportunities. In addition, I looked beyond my city (Vancouver) for a position, which caused my family some anxiety, especially my spouse, who faced the possibility of having to restart his career. Finally, before I was invited for on-campus job interviews, I thoroughly researched how my academic work could benefit the community and the public, which the university is purported to serve. Overall, I learned that being on the academic job market requires being open to changing one’s initial expectations and strategies.

Listening to the small voice within

Judith Walker, assistant professor, University of British Columbia

I hung up the phone and burst into tears. Am I not cut out for academia? Do I not want this job? I questioned, reflecting on my disappointing Skype interview for a faculty position at UBC, the same place I had completed my PhD one year earlier. I had literally gone blank in the face of an onslaught of questions by the same people who had previously been my teachers and mentors. Bound to Vancouver by my partner’s career, I had limited my job search to the two major research universities in BC’s lower mainland, UBC and Simon Fraser University. As an international student who had then been granted a three-year work permit, I was ineligible for tri-council funding and had instead taken a part-time postdoc contingent on multiple grant funding in the faculty of dentistry at UBC, engaging in educational research in new and familiar ways. Throughout my three years there I also taught online for UBC and the University of Calgary, as well as took on other contracts to make up a full-time job.

At the time, I believed I was biding my time until I got a “real” job and could finally enter delayed adulthood. In retrospect, these were real jobs and enriching educational experiences that have informed who I am as a scholar. After the failed Skype interview, I sought the support of a career coach. I allowed myself the time and space to pursue an existential examination of vocation, to “let my life speak” as educator and author Parker Palmer puts it. In other words, to slow down and listen to the call of vocation so to better understand what I wanted to do with my life. Over a year later, I received another interview for a similar job at UBC. This time, I was more secure in who I was and what I wanted, recognizing that I too could belong at the institution.

Looking both ways

Graham W. Lea, assistant professor, University of Manitoba

As I neared the end of my PhD I was fortunate to secure a postdoctoral fellowship. This opportunity became a space for me to transition from my dissertation to engage in exciting and meaningful new research opportunities. I hoped they would prove fertile ground in which I could sow the seeds of my early career research and eventual employment.

During my fellowship, I taught at several universities, including a short intensive stint in a refugee camp in Kenya. The preparations for Kenya were intense: designing courses, planning logistics, and mentally bracing myself for what I knew would be a challenging teaching assignment. About two weeks before I was to leave for Kenya, I received an invitation for an immediate interview at a prestigious European university. Even if I didn’t get the job, it would be great exposure – the external reviewer on the committee was one of the leaders in my field. I tried to rearrange my flights to Kenya, but the short notice meant I would have to fly from Canada to Europe, attend the interview, return to Canada, and then travel back to Europe and on to Kenya all within about a week. Despite seeing exhaustion on the horizon, I packed my bags and flew off to the interview.

Near the end of the grueling day of interviews and presentations I was asked: what are some of your goals for your first year should you secure this position? After listing my prepared remarks my exhausted mind let slip “… and I want to work on developing a positive work-life balance.” One of the interviewers tilted her chair back and laughed saying, “There’s no such thing.” With that, I received an unexpected glimpse into the culture of the university that caused me to question if this was the right place for me. In the end, I wasn’t offered the position; but I did learn that it’s not only the candidate who’s being interviewed on interview day. For my subsequent (and eventually successful) interviews, in addition to my set of anticipated responses, I came prepared with questions for the committee to help me to understand the environment I might be entering.

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