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Careers Café

Setting yourself up for an academic career


We talk a lot about having alternatives and sometimes that can feel like it’s pointless to even consider an academic career.

In fact, I think an academic career can be immensely satisfying for some people. As I’ve said before, it isn’t one or the other and having options makes you less at the mercy of forces outside of your control.

What do you do if you want to maximize your chances of getting an academic position, should some become available in your field?

Establish a scholarly identity

Interdisciplinary work is important and may even make the difference between being hired and not. Learn how to demonstrate your interdisciplinary credentials well. Don’t assume you should apply for every position vaguely related to your work.

However, very few interdisciplinary programs hire tenure-track faculty and when they do, they are often joint appointments with discipline-based programs/departments. If you only have interdisciplinary credentials you are going to have a hard time getting an academic position. Use your publications to establish a disciplinary base. Once you have several publications, think about balance between different areas.

You cannot be all things to all people. It is risky to narrow your focus, but academia values specialization. Refusal to specialize will make you a poor candidate for more jobs thus reducing your chances of academic employment.

Postdoctoral research

For most academic jobs research experience is going to be more important than teaching experience. Consider both fellowships you can apply for, and working as a postdoctoral fellow on a faculty member’s grant. Have professional development goals for your research, and use the postdoc to achieve some of them: extend your methodological toolkit, broaden your empirical reach, etc. This can also be a way to establish a disciplinary identity if your doctoral program was interdisciplinary.


Sometime during your doctoral studies people stopped caring about how you contribute to your own personal store of knowledge. They now care about how your research contributes to knowledge in a more general sense. Most important for academic careers is the contribution you make to the advancement of knowledge in your discipline. The way you make that contribution is by publishing in respected journals or with respected presses. Contributions to interdisciplinary debates, debates in cognate disciplines, and non-academic areas will only be valued as additional to those core contributes to scholarly knowledge in your discipline.


Don’t just think about how a particular activity looks on your CV, think about how it contributes to the advancement of knowledge, what skills it helps you develop, and how it helps you learn more about which opportunities might be a good fit for you and what kind of academic career you want.

Talk to people. Do stuff for people. Build relationships. Present your work. Ask good questions. Review papers.

And remember, no (potential) employer cares how much you know or whether you can pay your rent. They care about what you will contribute to the success of their organization, as they define it.

Jo VanEvery is a career coach who specializes in helping academics. Find her at
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