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Spring 2009

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Landing Your First Faculty Position: A Case Study
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Landing Your First Faculty Position
Sara Rinfret

So, What Did You Do to Get the Job? A Case Study

Landing a tenure-track faculty position in today’s economy, and before finishing the dissertation, is very impressive! We saw several people nod when they heard the news. “Not surprising,” one of them said. ”As a graduate student, Sara did everything right.” So we thank Sara Rinfret, PhD candidate in political science, for sharing her experience in strategic use of time and opportunities as an NAU graduate student and how she prepared for that first faculty interview.

Sara Rinfret

I recently accepted a tenure-track position, and in fall 2009 I will transition from graduate student to assistant professor with the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay’s Department of Public and Environmental Affairs. I am extremely excited to embark on a new part of my professional and academic career, but such an opportunity did not come without struggles; hard work; dedication; and support from my husband, family, friends, colleagues, and mentors.

As I am preparing to depart from Flagstaff, I have been asked to share my story and experiences as a graduate student at NAU as a case study for those who intend to pursue a college teaching career. After applying to several doctoral programs across the country, I decided to attend Northern Arizona University. I chose NAU’s Department of Politics and International Affairs due to its national recognition for environmental policy. I started work on my PhD in fall 2005 with three disciplines: environmental policy, public administration, and public policy.

I vividly remember my first semester in the department: I felt as though I was being swallowed by the hundreds of pages I had to read and countless papers I wrote. My experience improved when I formed strong relationships with my classmates and professors. I highly recommend that new graduate students speak with “seasoned” graduate students within your departments to receive advice on what courses to take, the reading load, and what to expect. I will never forget speaking with Katie Desmond, a student in my program, after the Graduate College’s orientation. She told me during the first week of class, “Make sure you outline all your readings, stay on top of your coursework, and talk to us because we are all here to help one another out.” Her thoughtful and encouraging advice still stays with me today.

In addition, my department has devoted professors that help guide you along the way. I was fortunate to have an advisor and two key professors in my department at the beginning of my graduate program who provided advice on publishing, how to balance schoolwork, and what it means to be an academic in the field of political science. Thus, seeking advice from classmates and professors has been a very useful approach for me because, as many of us know, graduate school is not easy.

After completion of coursework in the political science department, PhD students are required to take comprehensive exams to advance to candidacy. Our exams are a grueling, three-day process where we sit in a room for eight hours with a computer, scratch paper, and a pen. I tested in three primary areas of study and two secondary fields. To prepare for my exams, I studied for five solid months, from May through October, 2007. I went to the library from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. as if it were a standard work week. I strongly encourage other graduate students to meet with faculty members and other graduate students prior to taking any such exam to get a better idea of what each professor is looking for. I am very grateful to fellow graduate students T. Mark Montoya, Brigette Bush-Gibson, and Edythe Weeks for their words of encouragement and advice during this process. I was also extremely fortunate that my advisor and two department faculty members worked with me extensively over the summer. I cannot express how grateful I am to these three individuals as they looked over countless outlines and even held practice exam sessions for me. It is a lot of work, but if you want to do well on your exams I recommend this approach.

The next step in the doctoral program was the completion of a dissertation prospectus. To be honest, I was so burnt out after studying for my exams I was not sure if I could continue, but I knew that I would. Again, many of my colleagues were extremely supportive and kept telling me, “I did it, and so can you!” It took me about a semester to write my prospectus, but it did not come without a struggle. I had an initial topic in mind, but found I did not enjoy it. I knew that writing a dissertation would be my life for another year or so, and I wanted to make sure that I really, really liked the area I would be studying. This set me back a bit, but with the advice and encouragement of my committee members I was able to move forward.

I believe graduate students should be involved in activities outside of coursework. One avenue for me over the last four summers has been to move beyond textbook materials and apply my knowledge in a real-world setting. The department of political science is very fortunate to have Fred Solop, professor and department chair, who previously directed NAU’s Social Research Laboratory (SRL). To enhance my research skills, I worked in the SRL during the summer months. Working for the SRL has been an integral part of my academic life because I was able to write questionnaires, conduct surveys, and even help coordinate focus groups. Some of this work led to publications. I also took every opportunity to turn seminar papers into publications, publish with my advisor, and present research at conferences. Unfortunately, NAU closed the SRL this semester due to budget constraints, which is a setback for students across campus.

Garnet sample

A second avenue beyond coursework is teaching. I was able to teach in-person classes within my department during my final year. But I also was able to teach online classes in the Public Agency Service program for four years here because of my master’s work in this area. I took classes myself in e-learning and Vista software to keep my course shells up to speed. As I began to look at position descriptions this fall, I found that my online teaching was a plus: many job ads list online as well as in-person teaching experience in their criteria.

A third avenue beyond coursework is extracurricular activities; they can be valuable learning experiences and career builders. I had a professor once tell me, “Be an activist, not an academic.” I was not sure what she meant at the time, but sometimes I believe that graduate students fall into a “study-only” rut, using the excuse that we do not have enough time to do anything else. We need to remember, however, that as we continue in an environment of economic turmoil and with a state legislature that is not supportive of higher education, we sometimes do need to be activists.

Other than exercise, my extracurricular outlet during my four years at NAU has been to be involved in departmental and university committees such as the University Graduate Committee’s strategic planning committee, the Graduate College judicial review board, and political science faculty search committees. Such experiences help you understand the “faculty” side of things and evaluate what makes one job candidate stand out over another. Additionally, I was able to serve in my department’s graduate student association and with the campus-wide Graduate Student Organization (GSO). Being part of organizations such as these increases recognition and support for graduate students across campus, something that we should not forget.

As I began school this fall, I had completed the first two chapters of my dissertation, and I started teaching in-person courses for my department. Prepping for new classes while writing has not been easy, but I set aside at least a few hours a day to work on my dissertation because the ultimate goal is to finish the degree. Having a rough timeline for completing chapters has helped me stay on track.

I also had been itching to go on the job market or apply for tenure-track assistant professor positions. My advisor suggested that I wait a year. However, he did agree that I could apply for a few jobs that accepted ABDs (all but dissertation). Additionally, I was fortunate that my department offers a professional development seminar where I had already created a teaching philosophy and curriculum vitae. All the universities to which I applied asked for a teaching philosophy, curriculum vitae, and statement of interest. I was unsure of how to write the statement of interest, so I met with a junior faculty member in my department to seek advice. I drafted a general letter which could be tweaked to fit differing criteria and which discussed my dissertation topic, research interests (current and future), teaching approach, and experience. Before sending my application packages, my advisor proofread everything, suggesting changes.

Unfortunately, two of the jobs I applied for were cancelled because of the current economic crisis; for the third, I secured an interview. The interview was with the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, and I was asked to prepare a research presentation and course lecture for the interview. For the research presentation, I chose to discuss one chapter of my dissertation, focusing on the why’s and how’s of my dissertation research. Luckily, my department held a session in which I practiced my presentation and fielded questions while being videotaped!

Interview Tips

Research the institution, department faculty, and course offerings thoroughly.

If preparing a class lecture, talk to the professor with whose class you will work.

Rehearse presentations with an audience, and time them.

From the moment you step off the plane, you are interviewing.

No alcohol at meals, even when it is offered.

Don't ask for favors or special consideration.

Bring your own water to your presentations.

Be yourself.

Be interested and enthusiastic.

Engage the students.

For the course lecture, I worked with two faculty members to prepare a discussion on research methods. I also called the UW-Green Bay professor with whose class I would work to ask for a copy of her syllabus, discover what she would otherwise have discussed that day, and verify that the topic and methods I planned would prove helpful for these students. I also located a copy of her textbook. For both presentations, I used a structure that was part lecture and part group exercises.

Additionally, I met with other NAU faculty members to get ideas about what types of questions I might be asked during the interview and how I should approach each. I highly recommend these strategies to anyone on the job market because your toughest audience is the people with whom you interact on a daily basis.

My job interview was a two-day whirlwind. I arrived on campus and went to dinner with the search and screen committee. The following day, I met with several individuals across campus, presented my research talk, and taught a class. Needless to say, it was a strenuous day, but when you find yourself in this position my best advice is to take a deep breath, be yourself, and engage the students. A few days later, the university’s dean called to offer me the position.

Upon accepting a position, you might be asked, “What did you do to get the job?” To be honest, I do not know how to answer this. The only advice that I can give is to surround yourself with supportive individuals that help you along the way, set realistic goals, and always strive to do your best. As in any endeavor, energy and enthusiasm help. It sounds cliché, but hard work and dedication can lead to success. This has been my experience, and I am extremely grateful to my husband, family, friends, classmates, and department mentors for their continuous support. I could not have made it this far without them.

—Sara Rinfret, PhD candidate, Department of Politics and International Affairs