The U.S. job market can be quite overwhelming at times, especially if you’re applying from outside the U.S as I was in 2013-14. And I still found it overwhelming two years later when I was in the U.S.! Coming from Australia, I found the U.S. and Australian systems to differ in several ways. There are systemic differences such as undergraduate programming, terminological differences, and cultural differences such as the acceptability of self-promotion. Having lived in the U.S. for 3 years now, and being about to embark on my second academic position post-Ph.D., I have made a lot of my own mistakes in applying for jobs, and have learned much in the process. Below, I share some of the knowledge I’ve gained over the years for those of you entering the job market.
Ketchup or Tomato Sauce?
Terminological issues are ever present in academia, and this is especially the case for those of us relatively unfamiliar with the U.S. system. To begin, there is no such thing as “postgraduate” in the U.S. Instead, after undergrad Americans say “Grad school”, which includes both Masters and the Ph.D. Masters is typically 2 years, and the Ph.D. 4 years. The Masters component is very similar to the 4th-year Honors component common in Australian psych undergraduate degrees – students are required to conduct research and write a thesis, but are also required to complete coursework. Moreover, students complete comprehensive exams (“Comps”), which can consist of two back-to-back days of 16 hours total closed-book examination (usually short essay questions), and a critical review of a published article. This sounds like a lot more than what is done in the Australian postgrad, so don’t undersell your Honors year! Try to equate it to the U.S. Masters, and try to demonstrate the breadth of psychology coursework under your belt. My impression is that, although wherever you go it’s always important to carve out your own area of expertise, psychology programs in the U.S. really value breadth of knowledge in addition to focal expertise.
“Thesis” usually refers only to the Masters thesis in the U.S., so talk about your Ph.D. “dissertation”. You don’t want the prospective employer to suspect you’ve never written anything longer than 10,000 words! “Supervisor” is not the standard term here; use “advisor” instead. In the U.S., students “defend” their thesis/dissertation: They submit it to a panel of knowledgeable scholars (who are usually in the same department), and later on the student has to give a ~30 minute presentation in front of this panel and then face a lengthy round of questions and critiques. The system in Australia is more akin to the actual journal submission process, which in some ways can make you look better. So it can help to make a point of this – i.e., that your years of work underwent rigorous criticism by a handful of anonymous reviewers, who are experts in your field. But it can also help to mention that you had a “dissertation defense” of sorts, insofar as one of your graduate school requirements was to present your dissertation research to a critical academic audience (if this was the case for you). Finally, theses and dissertations in the U.S. tend to be shorter than what I was exposed to in Australia (probably because the U.S. programs have more coursework to balance this out), so it might help to explain how many studies you reported, or the length, etc. This could make you look like a stronger candidate insofar as you have conducted lengthier literature reviews and/or more studies than the typical U.S. job candidate has.
Teaching experience is important, but be careful with terminology. “Tutor”, and even “Senior Tutor”, don’t align well with the terminology in the U.S. If anything, these can sound like “Teacher’s Assistant” (“TA”), which isn’t a particularly important position. Try to clarify and detail your role as tutor and the activities you did in this role. For example, I described how, as senior tutor, I was responsible for (a) managing the class tutors, (b) coordinating labs (c) constructing class materials and assessments, (d) overseeing blackboard online, and (e) meeting with students weekly. I also detailed some of the activities I coordinated such as class discussions and class debates, and I described my experience in grading “over one thousand 2000-word essays over 5 years”. In my observations, the grading my U.S. colleagues have to do usually just consists of grading multiple-choice or short-answer questions, and I haven’t seen the type of daunting workload I used to face when grading ~100 lab 2000-word lab reports within a month! Although I could be missing something here (maybe teachers in other U.S. schools do grade 2000-word assignments), the point is that you should detail the relatively impressive aspects of your teaching experience, whatever they may be. Don’t assume that readers will know what your teaching experience entailed, so it’s up to you to highlight the important things.
Also describe what you have taught. In hindsight, I really wish I had taught Intro to Psych and/or Research Methods, even if just once. These are often the courses most in need of being filled, so having this under your belt could strengthen your candidacy. Moreover, these courses imply a breadth of knowledge, which is very valuable for teaching.
Australians suffer from “tall poppy syndrome”, which is both a blessing and a curse. In the U.S., it is definitely a curse! In a country of 330 million people, competitiveness and meritocracy are key values. In your CV, mention all relevant awards, achievements, grants, scholarships, popular press articles, conference experience, presentations you’ve given, experience as a reviewer, and so on. Remember: The squeaky wheel gets the grease!
Australia doesn’t come up on the U.S. radar much, partly because there are literally over 1000 U.S. universities, and partly because Australia is small and so far away. There’s a good chance that the people reading your application haven’t actually heard of your university, no matter how well it ranks among Australian institutions. So it could help to very briefly note the prestige of the institution or department where you study, if applicable. Moreover, mention your advisors (i.e., supervisors). Don’t just mention your Ph.D. advisor; also mention your Honors advisor, as well as the members of your thesis committee (“dissertation panel”). The more names you throw out, the more likely it is that a name will resonate with someone on the search committee. Academics here might not be familiar with Australian institutions, but there’s a good chance they’ll be familiar with Australian scholars.
Some of this might seem slightly pedantic or unimportant. But here’s the problem: You are only one of possibly over 100 applicants, and the search committee is looking for reasons to throw your application in the bin to make their job easier. And everything I have suggested so far is exactly what U.S. applicants are already doing.
For you, as an Australian applicant, there’s an additional hurdle: Like it or not, hiring you, or even considering you as an applicant, is a slightly more arduous task for the search committee than is considering someone else. They have to consider the fact that they might not be able to invite you to campus to present your work, or if they do, they’ll have to foot the bill. And hiring you will require the department to pay for your visa (which can cost around $5000 and can take months to arrange).
In short, the lesson I learned from the academic job market is that it’s tough, but you can get through if you’re conscientious and persistent. Let the job search committee see the best candidate you have to offer, and don’t be shy to promote yourself. It would be a shame to be rejected because you undersold yourself.
Finally – don’t be shy to apply for assistant professor positions! Many Ph.D. students go straight to assistant professor after grad school, so definitely don’t assume that a postdoc position is all that you can hope for (and often you will find there just aren’t that many postdocs being advertised). Some positions are simply visiting assistant-professor positions, but don’t be dissuaded from these either. They are arguably less competitive (as they are less desirable for most candidates), and can be a great way for you to get your foot in the door.
Coda: And then there are the nitty-gritty details of actually applying…
Most importantly, you need to polish all of your application materials and apply broadly. Academia is extremely competitive, so not only do you need to try to stand out (and avoid standing out for the wrong reasons, like typos), but you also might have to settle for a location or school that is below your ideal. So, find templates from trusted colleagues/superiors, put all your materials together asap, have them proof-read, and apply to as many jobs as possible. These materials will usually consist of:
- Cover letter (most important; ~ 1-2 single-spaced pages). Include this even if they don’t ask for it (it’s implied). This will include info about all of the below (research; teaching; teacher evals), in a summary format
- CV (most important). Again, include this even if they don’t ask for it
- Research statement (~2-4 pages)
- Teaching statement (~2-3 pages)
- Statement of contributions to diversity (~1-2 pages; not all positions request this). Basically, this is where you wax lyrical about amazingly progressive and tolerant you are
- Teacher evaluations (i.e., how students evaluated you when you were a teacher). If your university doesn’t offer these to teachers – as was the case with mine – then (a) come up with teacher evaluations of your own and give them to your students, and (b) see what you can get from your university regarding your teaching record
- The employer might also request:
- List of publications
- List of academic referees
- Academic transcript (i.e., your transcript as a student in undergrad/Masters/ Ph.D.)
- Copies of some of your peer-reviewed articles (published/in press articles ideal; noteworthy unpublished/in prep. work also acceptable)
Use these materials as your own templates, and edit them for each job you apply to. For each position, you will want to edit your cover letter with regard to date, the school/position applying to, why you’re interested in the position, and whether the emphasis on teaching, research, or both.
What to emphasize
Publications are paramount, so try to emphasize these. But people will understand that most of your work is for now still in the pipeline and not published yet. Hence, list papers that are under review (in a separate section), and also list work in progress (also in a separate section).
That said, in some respects teaching experience might be more valuable. Most schools seem to prioritize teaching over research, and there are many teaching-only positions but few research-only positions. Hence, try to gain a breadth of teaching experience and emphasize this in your cover letter.
On your CV, also list any grants or funding opportunities you’ve received, talks you’ve given, conferences you’ve attended, and so on. Don’t go into much detail about anything that happened before postgrad, but mention prizes/awards if they’re noteworthy.