From PhD to Professor: Advice for Landing Your First Academic Position

I am living the dream.

At least, my professional dream, that is. I have the perfect job for me. And I’m going to share with you how I got it.

First, a little about me. This August, I started my second year of being a tenure-track assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania in the School of Social Policy & Practice, a program that is consistently ranked in the Top 15 in the country by U.S. News & World Report and one of only two Ivy League social work programs.

As new junior faculty member, I only teach one course each semester so that I have the time to launch my independent program of research. No dumping major course loads on the new assistant professors here! And as with all faculty at my school, I will only ever be required to teach two courses per semester at most, with the option of “buying out” of teaching when I have grant funding.

Additionally, as a new assistant professor, I am given priority selection for the courses I teach, having the school try its best to accommodate my expertise and interest. As soon as I started last year, my dean set up “meet and greets” with key players in my research area in Philadelphia and supported the development and submission of my application for a small, internal grant from the Provost’s Office for the first study in my research portfolio.

I could actually keeping going with why my job is so awesome, but that’s not the point of this article! Instead, I’m going to share what I learned getting to this point—my advice for other PhDs and aspiring professors out there on how to play the academic job search game and win big. Here are five strategies that really boosted my application and helped me land my dream position.

Related: Go to Grad School Guide: PhD Programs

1. Prioritize Publishing

The same publishing rule that echoes through the halls of academia for professors holds true for emerging scholars and newly minted PhDs: “Publish or perish.” A recent article published in The Conversation confirms what I found as true with my own experience: The best predictor of long-term publication success is your early publication record, or the number of papers you’ve published by the time you receive your PhD. And long-term publication success is at the top of the list for what chairs and deans hope their new assistant professors achieve, as this is what ultimately leads to tenure at places like Penn.

In other words, it’s crucial to prioritize publishing now, long before you graduate. I entered my PhD program in 2005, my first two papers came out in 2007, and I published at least two papers per year through my graduation in 2009. When I visited Penn to interview, I had another four papers on my CV, and I know that this early publication success was critical throughout the steps of my candidacy, from the invitation for the conference interview to the campus interview to the job offer.

Of course, a lot of your early publishing success as a PhD student will depend on your research advisor and mentor. I was very fortunate to have a mentor who took great joy in mentoring doctoral students and prioritized getting them involved in paper-writing early on. If you find yourself with someone who is not prioritizing your publication record, however, I recommend having a serious conversation with him or her about your needs and the importance of publishing early—or finding a new mentor. As you probably already know, you have limited time to publish while pursuing your PhD, and the publication process is notorious for taking a very long time to unfold. Prioritize it now.

2. Have a Mission Statement—and Show it Off

My professional mission is to improve the lives for youth who age out of foster care, and I intend to achieve this mission by working to reform the child welfare system so that no youth leaves foster care without a lifetime connection to a caring adult.

Having this mission—and having it spelled out—is what I believe sold my dean during my conference interview. In fact, I provided him and the other two faculty interviewers with a handout of the image below, a visual depiction of the principles and values that guide my mission and a plan for how I intend to achieve it. I think my colleagues were impressed by the fact that I had a visual plan that I could easily explain for how I imagined achieving my professional mission, and also by my creativity. Although a bulleted list could have accomplished the same thing, I believe the packaging made a difference.

Johanna Greeson

Think about how you can explain your own vision and your tactical goals in a compelling way, and be specific about how you’ll make a difference as an assistant professor. For those of us at research-intensive institutions, this will generally take the form of ideas about how you will fund your research mission with grants. If you’re pursuing teaching-oriented places, you can develop a similar vision and mission statement, but make it oriented toward educating, mentoring, and inspiring students.

3. Know the Game

And a game it is. Up until this moment, my experience, probably like many of you, had been that if you work hard, do the right things, and make good choices, you are rewarded—a meritocracy. However, that’s not how the faculty game works (and no one really tells you this)!

Rather, academic hiring decisions are based on “fit,” and if you’re not the right fit, for whatever reason, you won’t receive the offer no matter how impressive your CV is. “Fit” can mean everything from your area of research to what you teach to what a given school may need with respect to faculty demographics and diversity to such mercurial things as faculty personality. Although job postings do tend to detail the research or teaching areas a given school may be looking for, these are often broad, and there can be more than one in a given announcement.

You might think the answer here is to try to be what any particular program wants you to be in order to “fit” in, but I think the real lesson is to take the game for what it is: It’s about them—not about you. Although demonstrating how you see yourself fitting in to a particular program—for example, by showing how your research would complement or add value to a department—is very important to do, in the end, you can’t make a square peg fit a round hole. All you can do is to apply, give it your best shot, and realize that in the end, it’s about them.

4. Have a Plan B

The first time I went on the job market, despite several conference interviews with an array of schools and a successful campus visit and job talk at Michigan, I received no offers. My colleague and fellow new assistant professor Antonio Garcia identified with my experience: “I, too, completed several successful interviews, but to no avail. I did not receive any offers for a tenure track position during my last year of dissertation work.”

So what happened? We both fell back on Plan B: post-doc positions. Although I didn’t want to do a post-doc, it bought me some time and allowed me to further build my CV and professional identity. I went on the market a second time following the first year of my two-year post-doc and was then in an even stronger position than the first time. Professor Garcia also landed his tenure track position following the first year of his post-doc. “Although my first choice was not to delay the tenure clock, it has since worked to my advantage,” he explains. “I benefitted from having time to a meticulously develop my research agenda, publish manuscripts, and develop and maintain long-lasting inter-disciplinary relationships. I strongly believe the two-year post-doc will ultimately provide me with better odds of receiving tenure.”

Fact is, you may not land the assistant professor job of your dreams—or even an assistant professor job—the first time you try. So, it’s incredibly important to have a Plan B, whether that’s a post-doc or a job with a private research firm that still allows you to build your publication record and gain other worthwhile experience that can translate to academia, like presenting your work at professional conferences.

Related: 3 Steps to Turn Any Setback Into a Success

5. Swallow Your Pride

I actually applied to Penn twice—the first time I went on the market I was unsuccessful, but after the first year of my post-doc, I saw another job posting and as best I could tell, I was a good “fit.” I had a bit of a pride issue about knocking on Penn’s door again, but I also realized that if I didn’t, only one thing was certain: I would never work there. So I swallowed my pride, I knocked again, and I landed the job of my dreams. In fact, as I was leaving the hotel suite where I had my conference interview, one of the faculty interviewers said, “I’m so glad you decided to apply again.”

Finding your first professorship isn’t an easy road, but it’s important to persevere and to stay focused on your long-term goals. Penn psychology professor and recently named MacArthur “genius” Fellow Angela Duckworth defines this philosophy as “grit.”

I liken it to surfing. In fact, during my job talk at Penn, while sharing my vision with the hiring committee, I also shared this: “When considering a research-oriented career, a particular quote comes to mind, ‘You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.’ If we think of a research career as the surface of a lake or ocean, there are always waves, sometimes big, sometimes small. Nothing we do can stop the waves, but we can learn to surf.”

There are no guarantees that, even if you do all these things, you will land your dream faculty job. But I hope these tips will help you feel perhaps a little more in control while the waves splash over. Try to have fun with this process, at least as much as you can, and may you, too, soon find yourself living the dream.

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About the Author:

photo of woman with reddish-brown hair braided to the side and hair falling at her shoulders, smiling, wearing a black blazer and floral shirt underneath

Johanna Greeson of The University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy & Practice

Johanna K.P. Greeson, PhD, MSS, MLSP, is an Assistant Professor at Penn. She is passionate about reforming the child welfare system, using research to build better futures for youth who age out of foster care, and realizing the power of connections to caring adults for all vulnerable youth. Her research agenda is resiliency-focused and based in the strengths and virtues that enable foster youth to not only survive, but thrive.

By Johanna K.P. Greeson, PhD, MSS, MLSP
Johanna K.P. Greeson, PhD, MSS, MLSP