Professors at public research universities help UChicago graduate students plan next move

University of Chicago graduate students looking for a teaching position at a public research university recently got an insider’s look into that hiring process and work environment. Almost 100 students gathered in Ida Noyes Hall last month to hear the advice of UChicago graduate alumni who now work as professors in public universities. They shared what it takes to land a job and how to develop the teaching, research, and other professional skills necessary to succeed at that job.

“UChicago graduate students are well-suited to taking on faculty roles at these institutions, demonstrated by the number of alumni who currently work in such positions,” said Deborah Nelson, Deputy Provost for Graduate Education. “Our alumni who have lived through the hiring process are excellent guides to help students navigate this environment,” she said.

The offices of Graduate Student Affairs and Career Advancement sponsored the conference and invited graduate alumni from large public universities—including Texas A&M, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the University of California-Riverside—to encourage current students in their career paths and to answer their questions.

“Our alumni are in a unique position to share relevant testimonials of their own experiences,” said Patrick Houlihan, Assistant Director for Student Preparation in Career Advancement. “They give our students a good mix of realism and idealism on the mission of teaching in a public research setting,” he said.

The students asked the alumni panelists a wide range of questions, from their near-term concerns—Who should we ask for reference letters when we want a post-doc or faculty position?—to the enduring struggles of life in academia—How do you balance a teaching load with publishing papers, writing grant proposals, helping your students, and spending time with your loved ones? Each discussion topic was met with nods of understanding; there are similarities in the work environments for university faculty in fields as diverse as biological sciences and ethnomusicology.

“To a large extent, being a professor at Louisiana State University or Ohio State University is the same,” said Kip Matthews, PhD ’97, who is on the medical physics faculty at LSU. “We’re expected to have scholarly productivity, to teach a lot of students, and to participate in the governance of the university.”

Matthews said he was happy to come back to UChicago to help students with their career paths, especially since he’d recently been in their shoes. “A graduate student sometimes views their own professor as their boss, so discussions with someone from outside the university allows them to be candid with their questions and concerns,” he said.

Matthews, who now lives in Baton Rouge, shared one piece of advice about life at a public university that he said could have spared him from a shock: “Learn a little about college football,” he told the crowd.

While Mary Adekoya, a Cinema and Media Studies PhD candidate, is currently focused on writing an excellent dissertation, she appreciated the chance to think through her approach to the job market. “From the perspective of a graduate student, it seems like the dissertation is the most important thing to get you in the door, but I also think being conscious of how you put your application together is just as important for making it through the interviewing process,” she said.

Adekoya said she welcomed the chance to think through her approach to a job search. “While it may seem overwhelming, navigating a competitive job market isn’t divorced from your research and discipline,” she said.

Graduate students have opportunities throughout the year to benefit from the experiences of UChicago alumni, including the upcoming Alumni Weekend from June 6-9, at which current graduate students can talk about their research with alumni and discuss career opportunities in and out of the academy.