ICA Presents. Welcome to the Growing Up Comm podcast, a production of the ICA Podcast Network. I’m Cecilia Zhou, a PhD student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Communication department and one of your hosts for this podcast series.This series covers topics that are primarily relevant for students and early career scholars. Today on the show we’ll be talking about preparing for and beginning the job search process… from networking at conferences to campus visits to letters and statements. I’m joined by two special guests for this conversation, Regina Ahn and Yvette Wohn. Regina, Yvette, thanks for joining me today. Can you start by introducing yourselves?
Hello, my name is Regina Ahn. I'm an assistant professor at the University of Miami School of Communication. And I do research related to children and advertising, parental mediation, media literacy and media education, especially for children and adolescents. And I'm very happy to join today's ICA podcast.
Hi, my name is Yvette. I'm an associate professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. And my research area is human-computer interaction. Specifically, I look at how people interact in virtual worlds. You might think, “Why is a computing person a part of this podcast?” I actually graduated from Michigan State University from the Department of Media and Information Studies. So I also wanted to bring the perspective of how someone coming from a communication background does not always have to go to a communication department.
Great. Thank you, everyone. So I'd like to just kick things off with the first question. How would you describe your academic job hunting journey in the US with one adjective?
I can think of a lot of adjectives, but well, I will say adventurous. My job hunting journey started in fall 2017. And it was a mind-blowing experience. There are a lot of things to do, starting from job applications and phone interviews and campus visits. And there are a lot of uncertainties. But also I was excited to meet new people there. So I kind of expected good results. But at the same time, even though I fail, I can earn that network and all the experiences, connections, through that opportunity.
That's a very positive take. My experience, not just on the job market, but also hiring is that a lot of the components are outside of your control. And I think that's something that is really important for people who are going to be on the job hunt to understand is that you might do everything you can in your power, but there will still be a lot of things that are completely out of your power. And it gives you a sense of helplessness. But I think it's important to know that it's not your fault. So lack of control would be my adjective.
So when should graduate students start to think about job hunting and how should they actually prepare for it?
I have a very specific take on that. I think that your preparation for the job market comes even before you become a PhD student. And I say that with a little bit of feeling sorry for whoever's listening to this because probably you are already past that point. But the reason why I say that is depending on where you want to end up. If you're trying to be strategic, try choosing, for example, what school you go to, who your advisor is, what kind of topic are you going to do? What kind of method are you going to do? Like, all of these things eventually influence what types of jobs you're able to apply for, to begin with. I mean, whether you're going to a more traditional department, or a place that allows for more applied work. It's very rare for departments that are traditional communication departments, to hire somebody who doesn't have that kind of traditional communication slash psychology training. But I think that, as a new student, it's really hard to think of all these things in advance. And sometimes perhaps not knowing it is also okay, so that you kind of find your own way there by focusing on what you like, and what you think you do well.
Yeah, I was gonna say that it's very hard for students to think about all these things, because they don't even know what kind of things to think about. And students also change during the graduate school years. So even if you have a plan in the beginning, it's hard to stay on that same track, as well. Regina, what's your take on this?
I totally agree with Yvette that the job hunting journey really starts way before students expect. And there are a lot of things that grad students can actually do. I mean, not just the time when they started looking for school, but when they started their PhD. For example, in their first semester or the first year to third year, there are a lot of things that they can prepare for their job hunting journey, I guess. First, I suggest grad students get involved in one or two research projects with other grad students or any faculty members in their school. As a student, I think it's a great opportunity to get involved with other students or other faculty members, like knowing the research ethics, how they organized and how they lead the project. Everything is learning for grad students. By presenting their research, they can also build networks at conferences, and they can showcase their presence to a lot of people there. And my advisor always emphasizes that just presenting your research is not all things about conferences, because if you go to conferences, of course, every conference has a different vibe. But it's like divisions, it's like a family. And you actually can learn a lot from them, there are a lot of mentors that you can meet.
I think the points that you made about the conference and networking are really important. It's one of those things where, of course, people evaluate you by your CV, but by the time they look at your CV, if they already know you, then that's like a huge leg up. A lot of people think that the hiring process is very objective and like whoever has the most publications or whoever does the best research gets hired, but it's not like that. And there are several reasons for that. I think the first thing is kind of fit. Departments, even if they say they're not looking for somebody specific, a lot of times they have a secret agenda of wanting to find someone specific. Most departments have this kind of secret agenda. So the reason why networking is important is that if you're an outsider, you don't know what that secret agenda is. But I think the second point is collegiality. In academic, at least in the US, there's something called shared governance, which means that the faculty actually weigh in kind of similar to how a democracy works in making decisions about the department, the future of the school, etc. And because of that process, there's a lot of instances where the faculty have to discuss with each other and agree with each other and if you are very disagreeable people will probably not want to hire you, even if you do excellent research.
Yeah, I totally agree that that actually influences a lot, especially in the campus visit. The purpose of the campus visit is to know you more personally, right? They already know that you're a good researcher, they've seen your CV, they've seen your publications, they've seen your teaching evaluation, all of that, but they don't know you personally, that's why they are inviting you to campus. They're looking for candidates who may spend more than five years, 10 years or 20 years together in their department.
Also from a candidate perspective, like you're feeling desperate, you just really want the job. But in reality, they're not evaluating you, you are also evaluating them. So if you feel like they're not welcoming, is that a place that you really want to be? So I think that's another thing to think about is that when you're applying for these jobs, you want to find a place that is nurturing for you, where you feel like you can thrive, where you like the people there. It's kind of like a dual evaluation.
Thank you for all of these insights. You said networking is important, I would like to ask you to elaborate on good research, collaborations. These are all things that students should think about in advance before you start applying for jobs. Are there other things that you think students should also think about?
I think that, again, kind of thinking of where you want to go, we think of universities as being kind of a blanket group. But universities are very different. There are R1 universities, R2 universities, teaching universities. And so the things that they're looking for could be very different. For example, if you're applying to a teaching university, your teaching vision and your teaching experience are going to be way more important than what kind of publications you've done. Whereas at a Research 1 university, they're less interested in what you've done already, they're interested more in how are you going to be productive for the next six years before you get tenure. So where you decide you want to go, even if you're sending in the same application, customization makes it more likely for you to get in.
I also think especially when grad students apply for the job, like as a PhD candidate, I think grad students need to show their professional mindset. Grad students spend more than three to four years as a PhD student, including their undergraduates and masters, they're probably spent about 10 years as a student. So probably they have a student mindset that they always follow what the professor say, just do this and that, "Okay, I will do this." So when they're job hunting or in job interviews, some tough questions can come up. They need to answer those questions very professionally, with the mindset of a faculty member. If they're there, they are actually applying for the faculty member position. So they need to show the faculty member mindset, you know, when they're in the interview when they're on a campus visit. But I think it's very hard to make a transition of that, but you need to be like a faculty member.
Riffing off of that, I want to talk about something more practical: letters and statements. So these are the two things that are required for all jobs, they require you to write some kind of statement. If it's a research university it's going to be a research statement. If it's a teaching university, it's going to be teaching statement, and some require both. This statement is really, really hard to write. And so if the job calls start coming out in September, and you start writing this in September, it's not going to work out. So the sooner the better. And I think the nice thing about that is a statement helps you figure out like, "Oh, what is my path?" Because you have to summarize that in the statement. The second thing is letters. Obviously, hopefully, your adviser is going to write you a good letter. But then what about the other two letters? Where are they going to come from? And that's why I think what Regina was talking about earlier about collaboration is really important, because the worst kind of letter that you can get is someone saying, "This student attended my class and was a great student." A mediocre letter in the academic job market is as terrible as saying, "That person is terrible." So you want to get a letter saying, "This person walks on water, like I would totally hire this person." And who's going to say that for you? Not someone that you've just taken a class with someone you've worked with, someone who understands your passion, understands your work ethic, who has seen you, and that requires a good relationship. A good relationship doesn't happen overnight. So if you're in your fourth year, you're on the job market, and you're like reaching out to instructors that you've taken classes with, you're not going to get a really great letter.
It's great advice. I'm gonna go to the next question. Looking back to your journey, what is one piece of advice that you have for students and early career scholars on academic job hunting, especially for students from historically marginalized groups?
Well, I've been through this process, and I mean, students may feel frustrated all the time. And I've seen many students who struggle a lot having mental health issues. I know every day is a challenge, but this is a marathon and they will continue this marathon after they get a job. So this may sound silly or common sense, but their work life balance is the most important thing, even during the PhD journey. And they will have PhD, if they stay healthy and finish their dissertation. So if they are physically mentally ill, then what is the point of getting a PhD? What is the point of getting publications, what is the point of getting a job? I really encourage PhD students and early career scholars to take care of their body and mind. For Junior Scholars and more of the historically marginalized groups, I'm also an Asian woman who's not a native English speaker. And I just want to say you're not alone, and there are many people like you, try to connect with people and make them as an accountability partner. There are a lot of ways that they can reach out and talk to people and don't be shy. Don't give up challenging yourself, that will be my advice for people.
I think that's really great advice, especially the mental health part. Because like Regina said, when you're a student, all you need to do is research. And that is perhaps the most enjoyable part. When you become a faculty, you have to teach, you have to beg the government for money, you have to do all this other administrative work. If anything, being a student, you have the least amount of responsibilities. So if you already find that really super overwhelming, then the question is, do you really want to become a faculty when you're gonna have all these other extra things? And I think that there's some stigma around leaving academia, especially if you're in a very traditional communication department. And I feel like that needs to go away as soon as possible. Academia has some merits. There's a little bit more freedom in terms of what kind of topics you do, you have a little bit more autonomy, etc, but also industry, also government, there's different kinds of impact that you can make in those spaces. If you go into academia, that's great. But even if not, don't feel like that's the lesser option. In regards to like the marginalized community. And I'm also a minority and a woman. It's really interesting because in the communication department, women are not a minority. But in a computing world, women are the minority. I was the only female junior faculty in my entire college for several years until recently, they had more diversity hiring initiatives, I'm not going to lie and say that there is no bias, I'm not going to lie and say there's no racism, no sexism. That exists. And I think navigating your way around that could of course be very difficult. If you go to an environment and you feel racism or sexism, you have two choices: one, you go in there and you fight or two, you don't go there. I think that's a choice that you need to make about how much you want to invest in that kind of effort or not. I also want to add, don't be ashamed of diversity initiatives or diversity, hiring positions or things like that. From the university's perspective, the diversity hire is just another way we're trying to pay for another person, they're not going to hire somebody who they think is unskilled just because they have diversity. So I think that there should not be a stigma around those kind of positions. Because, there's a reason why they're there. It's because there's been a lot of discrimination in the past. And so you are totally entitled to apply for those positions.
This is a follow up question. Because communication itself is a very interdisciplinary subject, can you talk a little bit more about how you diversify or go to a different department,
I don't know if my journey is the best journey. But when I was a first year student, I went to computing conferences, like some interdisciplinary computing conferences, where I was the social scientist among computer scientists. And then, when I went to communication conferences, I found that I was the technology person among the social scientists. So what I did was I basically doubled by publications by having enough publications in computing to apply for the computing jobs and enough publications in communication. And thus, I had no life outside of work. I don't know if my strategy is something that I would necessarily recommend. But I think the thing that I do recommend is, in those very early days, trying to figure out who I am, and who appreciates me, like that effort, I think, is really worthwhile. You might want to try out a couple of different conferences just to see if I'm talking about this topic whose eyes light up when I talk about this. And in terms of my own research, I felt like when I went to communication conferences, it was a mediocre response. Whereas when I was among the computer scientists they were like, "Wow, you're bringing this like theory, and like you're using these methods, and you're thinking about humans," and they were really excited with what I do. So I just felt more excited being with them, because they appreciated me.
Thank you for sharing. I'm gonna wrap up the conversation by asking one last question, I was wondering, because you talk about the importance of networking in conferences, what kind of advice would you give to students coming to the conference in person or through Zoom, who are going to try to find jobs? Is there anything that they can do to network?
They need to find their division, like the main division they want to be in. I strongly encourage them to attend a business meeting, they have their own business meeting, and you will see who's actually the chair, who are the officers, and you will see representative people there. And that's a great way to start talking with them, and what research you're doing and what research you want to do and then you can also do networking by just attending the sessions. So I don't know how it will work on Zoom. But if you're attending the conference in person, there are a lot of ways that you can connect with the presenters. After you've taken the sessions, you can share your feedback, you can get their names. If you're going with your advisor to the conference, follow your advisor, because your advisor may be very social person, and they may introduce some of the people to you.
I think that's really great advice. I mean, I love my advisor, but he is not a social person. And he tries to avoid social functions as much as possible. So I did not have the luxury of having someone introduce me around and I remember being very jealous of the students whose advisors did that. But that said, the person who kind of helps you navigate the conference does not necessarily have to be your advisor. It could be a senior student, it could be a different professor. I think preparation for a conference should come before you go to the conference. The program is going to be available online, look at the program, figure out what are the talks that you want to go to, if there's somebody who's giving a talk that you're like, "Wow, this is somebody I really want to talk to," you want to kind of make an appointment with them before the conference because if they're a junior person, then they might be available. But once you're like a senior student, usually your time at the conference is booked. So if there's anyone you want to meet, try to do that, coordinate that before the conference.
Thank you for all the answers and insights from both of you. This episode of the Growing Up Comm podcast series is a production of the International Communication Association Podcast Network. This episode was produced by Christian Elliott and Sharlene Burgos.Our production consultant is Nick Song. Our executive producer is Aldo Diaz Caballero. The theme music is by Will Van De Crommert. And if you'd like to hear more about the participants on this episode, please check the show notes in the episode description. Thanks for listening.