I knew pretty early on in graduate school that I wanted to pursue a career in academic administration. When I was a second-year Ph.D. student a friend who was the Graduate Student Association representative for our program suggested that I serve on a University-wide committee, since I am “the kind of person who has opinions about things.” I joined the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on the Status of Women. The main benefit of this experience was exposure to all of the different constituencies that make a university run. It is a common experience for graduate students to be isolated within the environment of their individual departments or programs, such that they have no idea what provosts, vice chancellors and the like actually do, or why they should care. Serving on this committee gave me a view into the other side, beyond research and teaching, and I found it really fascinating to see the nuts and bolts of how the administration tries, sometimes unsuccessfully, to serve it’s students, faculty and staff. At about the same time I joined the newly formed Diversity Recruitment Committee for my program, and participated in the diversity recruitment efforts of the Office of Graduate Studies.
My first Ph.D. advisor was not a good match as a mentor, and my research project was languishing as a result, so it was important for me to find avenues outside of the lab where I felt competent and that I was making a contribution. In addition to my committee service, I acted as a mentor for an undergraduate summer program, and did as much informal science outreach as I could. Eventually I got to the point where I found more personal fulfillment out of my “extracurricular” activities than my research, so I tried to find models for how other people had turned these types of interests into a career.
During graduate school I went to every panel discussion on non-academic/non-traditional careers for scientists available to me both on my campus, and at any conference that I attended. My main goal was to identify how people who have successfully moved away from the bench got their start. It was very frustrating to find out that there was no real answer, and that there were no pre-existing models that I could follow.
At first it seemed like most of these folks found their positions by sheer luck. They would say, “well I was doing my post-doc and someone called up and said would you like to do this other thing” and they accepted the offer. Take-home message: stay on the academic path and wait for someone to call you out of the blue. This was not the advice that I was hoping to find. In retrospect I think the answer is that luck favors the prepared, or that if you take the effort to build a broad base of skills, and make sure that a wide spectrum of people know about you and your skills, you will be in the position to create opportunities for yourself. Fortunately I was already doing just that. I didn’t seek these experiences out with a plan that they would help my career, but in the end it worked out to be a tremendous advantage.
The institution where I went to graduate school was approximately 3000 miles away from where my husband and I grew up, so I knew that I wanted to find a job closer to our families. I had a very small and very specific geographic location in mind, and my goal was get a non-faculty job at a university. Consequently there was a very short list of universities that I targeted in my job search. For years I had been searching job listings just to get an idea of what types of positions I could possibly do, and I started getting in touch with contacts at those universities in 2009, about a year before I planned to defend my dissertation. By this time I had a new advisor and a new research project, which was going very well with his guidance. He was not only supportive of my research, but also of my plans to pursue a non-research career.
One contact was a woman I met at a conference in 2007. She let me know that she had left for maternity leave and decided not to come back. Her position had not yet been posted, and had been unfilled for some time, but they were interested in eventually hiring a replacement. As luck would have it, I was going to be in the area for a wedding, so I took the proactive step of sending a resume and cover letter and letting them know the dates that I would be available if they wanted to meet with me. Even though there was no job ad. I knew they needed someone who could recruit and provide support to underrepresented Ph.D. students in STEM fields, so I tailored my document to show that I had those skills.
My CV highlights my research experience and doesn’t mention any of my administrative or outreach activities. In contrast, my resume puts my university service at the forefront, to show that I was familiar with the process of graduate student recruitment and professional development, and that I was comfortable working with students, faculty, and senior academic administrators. I included several bullets points for each item so that it was clear exactly what I had accomplished and what skills I had developed. For example, if I had just listed the names of the committees that I served on, the people reading my resume could think I had just gone to a bunch of on-campus meetings and was not an active participant. It was important to use my resume convey to that I also helped to shape university policy, plan and implement events, and travel to national conferences to recruit students.
For the cover letter I chose to take this idea further by structuring it around three experiences that I had in university service, and describing the skills that I developed in each that would prove valuable in this position. I also made a point of giving a specific example of my contribution to a successful outcome, in this case planning a focus group with the founder of MentorNet. This example allowed me to show that I was able to take action on information that I gained by directly engaging with a university administrator, showing my ability to identify a problem and work with various campus constituents to implement a solution.
As I mentioned, when I contacted them the job had not yet been posted. I sent them my resume and cover letter in May of 2009, and they responded immediately to let me know that they had not yet updated the position description but that they intended to hire someone and would keep me in mind. Within a few weeks they got back to me to schedule an interview in June on one of the dates I had suggested in my letter. I found as much information as I could about the university by searching Google, and went into the interview with a plan to explain to them that I had all of the skills and experience that they were looking for, even if they didn’t yet know what they wanted.
All of the interviewers that I spoke with that day asked the same question, which was why I wanted to do this job when I was in a position to have a successful research career. Because I had been thinking about this for several years at that point, I had a very well crafted answer that called back to all of the experiences that I mentioned in my cover letter and resume. The interview went very well, and they kept me informed as they went through the process of getting the job approved by Human Resources so that they could officially open the search. It was not until August 31, over two months later, that I actually saw the job description. I will let you the reader decide if there were any similarities between what was posted and what I listed on my resume. They interviewed a few additional candidates in October, and I also had phone interviews with members of the search committee that I had not met in June. I don’t remember how long it was until they offered me the position, but I think it was late November or early December. It is a union position so the salary range is fixed, but I negotiated to get the maximum, plus an allowance for moving expenses.
My mentors were very supportive of my decision to pursue this career path, but they were confused as to why I would choose a university that was not in the same tier of prestige as any other institution in my background. I felt that this position provided me with an opportunity to make a real contribution to an effort towards institutional change, which was very exciting. If I had gone to a more elite university I think it would be harder to feel as if I were having an impact, being a little fish in a big pond. It was also a work-life balance decision, since I was planning on starting a family.
Once in the position I was thrilled to be able to use both my administrative and research skills to help recruit a more diverse pool of graduate students. Similar to my volunteer experiences in graduate school, I now travel nationally to recruit prospective students, represent the Graduate School on various university committees, and advise faculty and staff on best practices in recruitment and diversity. My academic background comes in handy when I must collect and analyze data on graduate admissions and enrollment, or give presentations for audiences as diverse as the Council of Deans, or groups of undergraduates thinking about applying graduate school. One of the things that I like most about working on the administrative side of the university is that I get to interact with both students and faculty from a variety of disciplines, rather than remain isolated in a sub-niche of a my chosen field.
Another great benefit of my position is that I get the chance to demystify graduate school for so many people struggling like I did with the fact that there are so many unwritten rules of academia. I tell them that it is important not to ignore all of the networking advice that is out there. My trajectory shows that it works. I never would have known about this position if I hadn’t sent a random email to a woman I’d met at a conference two years prior. Make contacts before you know you need them. Even if you don’t end up going to someone for help, you may be in a position to help them one day, which is just as important. I also tell my students something that I mentioned earlier, which is to make sure your network has contacts that can vouch for your non-research skills. Many students look to their advisors and committee members to serve as references for academic jobs, but if you are looking for a non-traditional career that may not be sufficient. In addition to my advisor, I obtained letters of recommendation from a faculty member that I worked closely with on two committees over the course of four years, and from the coordinator of the mentoring program that I worked with for two summers. They were able to speak to aspects of my character that were relevant to my desired position, but may not have been obvious to my research collaborators because they knew me in a different context.
A final piece of advice is to be open to all possibilities, and to be proactive about finding them. Don’t wait for a job to find you. Many jobs that go to newly minted PhDs never get posted at all, so if you are not out there asking questions, you have already missed out.
Alycia Mosley Austin
Ph.D., Neuroscience, 2010
Director of Graduate Recruitment and Diversity Initiatives at University of Rhode Island