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How Faculty Mentors Can Help in the Job Search

Taken for Granted
Kelly Krause, AAAS

It's a truism of the science career advice scene that graduate students and postdocs going out onto the job market benefit tremendously from good mentoring by their professors and departments—on those rare occasions when they get it. But what exactly does that mean? How can faculty members be concretely helpful to the young scientists that they worked to educate and train?

At Inside Higher Ed, Cheryl Ball, whose sound advice we have recommended before, offers pointers for faculty members who want to help their students and trainees through the rigors of the job search. Ball is a new media studies professor, but the tactics she proposes can easily be adapted to the science job search.

Despite such incentives, Ball's essay argues, faculty members should put a high premium on the future welfare of the young people passing through their labs on the way to their own professional lives.

Inherent in Ball's approach is a recognition that faculty's responsibility for helping students get to the next stage of their work lives does not end with advising them on their dissertations or making sure they have opportunities to share authorship on published papers. That responsibility also extends to providing real information, effective guidance, and personal support to students as they prepare to venture out into the cruel world of a challenging job market.

Ball's practical, compassionate attitude is far from universal in the academic world. It may be especially rare in science, where faculty members—as Paula Stephan's research suggests—have a conflicted interest in keeping able young scientists working in their labs instead of striking out for new opportunities. Despite such incentives, Ball's essay argues, faculty members should put a high premium on the future welfare of the young people passing through their labs on the way to their own professional lives.

Her strategy is based on meeting the needs of job-hunting students, as she has observed them during years of endeavoring to help students. She recommends five main tactics:

 1. Make mentoring part of the program structure.

 2. Create job-market cohorts.

 3. Be a straight-talker.

 4. Offer workshops on job-market materials.

 5. Attend to the emotional.

The first suggestion means having someone in the department—either faculty or a staff member—permanently tasked with keeping up to date on what is happening in the job markets the department's students or trainees are likely to enter. Who is hiring? What types of jobs are available? Which subfields are hot? Staying current on such information takes time, and Ball advises department chairs to make doing so a formal part of someone's job responsibilities. It also means overcoming the reluctance many departments feel about collecting and publishing the job-finding experience of their alumni.

The second suggestion means giving people at similar stages in the job hunt formal and recurrent opportunities to get to know each other, share information and ideas, give each other support, and generally get the comforting and encouraging idea that they are not the only ones going through the process. The members of such a cohort may be competitors for some jobs, but that doesn't mean that they can't also be allies.

The third tactic means that when a faculty member gives advice, it should be based on actual information about today's conditions and not fuzzy memories of what happened in one's distant youth—or, especially relevant in science, rosy projections of what the market is likely to look like in the future, once all those professors finally retire.

The fourth tactic means creating a way for job hunters to get specific, concrete advice on the documents they are sending to prospective employers. In Ball's grad school days, a very junior faculty member fresh from the job market ran weekly sessions to critique CVs, cover letters, and such, to the great benefit of the students.

Finally, take note that job hunting is intimidating and often bruising, and that people undergoing such experiences do best when they have people who can answer questions and offer encouragement—hence the need for the fifth tactic.

Having a formal "mentoring program, or job adviser," Ball writes, has the advantage of "creating a safe space for students to make mistakes in the job-search process without feeling like fools in front of their advisers. And, sometimes, only the job mentor can truthfully answer the student who asks, 'What's the difference between confidence and cockiness?' with, 'Asking the question in the first place' without ruffling disciplinary and professional feathers."

"We all have a stake in making sure our students are employable," Ball continues. "To do otherwise is simply unethical in any economic environment—and providing good structures for job mentoring can form the basis for consistent and sustainable and successful practices in Getting A Job!"

You can read the complete essay here.

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