How to Strategically Prepare for Your Job Search

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Monday, January 14, 2019
By Eric W. Richtmyer
Photo by iStock
Here are things you can do to maximize your efforts before your academic job search even begins.

Searching for a new job, especially an executive position, is a time-consuming experience. For many job seekers it is also a frustrating experience, in which rejection and the lack of transparency make the process even more challenging. As a search consultant, I am often asked for advice about how job seekers can make their search more effective and more efficient. While every job search involves elements beyond your control, you can take several practical steps before your search even begins to ensure that you maximize your efforts. Because you cannot anticipate the positions that will be available in the future, these steps involve honestly assessing yourself as a professional so you can tailor your search to the positions that match your strengths and profile.

Find Your Fit

Even though you cannot know what positions will be available when you begin your search, you can spend some time determining which kind of positions might be a good fit for you. When thinking about fit at this early stage, it is important to focus on what might be a good professional fit for you as opposed to a good personal fit (which can be better assessed during interviews). Search committees want to be sure that candidates understand the institution to which they are applying and will be ready to take on the challenges and opportunities the institution faces.

To determine what institutions might work for you, begin your search by reviewing the profile of the institutions at which you have worked in your own career. Pay special attention to things like the institutions’ enrollments and their sources of revenue. One place to start may be with your institutions’ Carnegie Classifications, for U.S. schools, but I recommend that you go beyond those initial categories to deeper attributes. Consider the breakdown of undergraduate and graduate student enrollment, the demographic composition of the student population, the number and level of degrees offered, and the array of program offerings.

Similarly, in continuing your previous workplace inventory, pay close attention to the institutions’ sources of revenue. There are certain questions that can be asked about public and private institutions: for instance, is the institution tuition-dependent? What is the endowment? What is the level of sponsored programming and sponsored research? Other questions are specific to private institutions: for instance, what is the discount rate? For public institutions, be sure to determine the amount of funding that comes through state support.

While this is not an exhaustive list of the questions that you should ask when determining an institution’s profile, it is a good starting point. The institutional profile that is right fit for you need not be an exact corollary to your previous institutions’ profiles, but a strong match will allow you to be confident in your readiness to take on a new role at the institution to which you are applying.

Review Your CV

A second way you can maximize your job search is reviewing your CV, or resume. Your CV needs to be crystal clear and provide all readers with a transparent view of your career. The challenge that many candidates face is that the practices and norms governing the presentation of CVs differ not just between academia and non-academic professions, but within academic fields themselves.

Your CV should be clean and chronological, but a successful job search will require more than just good organization. Your CV also needs to be legible to a wide variety of stakeholders, some of whom may not be familiar with the positions you have held or the institutions at which you have worked. An early first step you can take to ensure legibility is to provide a translation of your position titles. One institution’s divisional director is another institution’s department chair. For each position you have held, write a brief description of the position, not exceeding more than a line or two. For leadership positions in particular, it is helpful to identify the number of units and/or individuals you have overseen, and the size and scope of the unit.

Your CV should also include a description of both your responsibilities and your accomplishments in each position. Search committees are looking for candidates who have had the right set of experiences, and who have demonstrated successful leadership in those positions. If you become concerned that your CV is growing to an unmanageable length, ask a trusted colleague to review it to provide you with an outsider’s perspective.

Prepare for Interviews

While it may seem counterintuitive to begin your interview preparation before you have applied for a single position, it can be one of the most helpful things you do before you start your job search. More and more, search committees are asking candidates not about what they would do once they begin their new job but rather about their experiences in previous positions, based on the notion that past performance is a strong predictor of future performance. The last thing a candidate wants is to be asked to recall prior work experiences in an interview and draw a blank.

Therefore, I recommend that you spend some time before your search begins brainstorming 15 or 20 experiences from throughout your career that you can deploy at the appropriate moment during an interview. You can project what kind of experiences to consider by thinking about interview questions you have encountered in the past, either as a candidate or as an interviewer. Certain questions are very common, including the infamous question that asks you for a weakness or a failure. Another common question is about the candidate’s experience making difficult decisions. In your answers, be reflective about what you learned from the experiences, and what you might do differently in the future.

Aside from making your preparation easier in the days before your actual interview, being mentally prepared to answer questions with specific, concrete examples from your own career will allow you to provide search committees with useful, tangible information with which to make their assessment. It is much more helpful to a search committee to answer a question such as, “Tell us about your leadership style,” by describing some of your experiences in a leadership role than by describing your leadership philosophy alone.

Eric W. Richtmyer
Senior Consultant, Academic Search
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