The Job Search (Outside Academia)
Edited and expanded by Lindsay Bilodeau, PhD Candidate, Victoria University of Wellington and Jenny Ellison, PhD, Curator, Sports and Leisure, Canadian Museum of History with contributions from Gillian Leitch, PhD, CDCI Research and Michael Eamon, PhD, Principal, Catherine Parr Traill College, Trent University
7. University and Research Administration
a. The Field
You can find history MAs and PhDs working in many different roles within university, not only as professors. Candidates with a graduate education are assets in university administration and research administration because they understand the functioning of the institution, internal relationships, and the grant application process. Writing and communication skills honed in grad school are also important in these roles because you will know the lingo, the pressures and opportunities that are part of life inside universities.
Research services roles can include grant preparation, editing and administration during the application process. In these roles, you work collaboratively with faculty to prepare their research applications and act as an institutional expert on grant programs. You can also look for work on a funded research project, where faculty hire research associates, administrators or managers or coordinators to keep their large, collaborative research projects on track. University administration roles can be quite diverse. You will find graduate-prepared staff in communications divisions, career centres, libraries, strategic planning, and policy development.
Here too, there are networks that can help you to understand core issues in the field and gain practical knowledge about the profession. Among these are: the Senior Women Academic Administrators of Canada (http://www.swaac.ca/) and the Canadian Association of Research Administrators (https://cara-acaar.ca/).
b. Job Search Tools
· Canadian Association of Research Administrators (members only): https://cara-acaar.ca/users/login
· There are few centralized resources in this field. Try:
· University job boards for “non-academic” jobs
· Keyword searches on LinkedIn and other job boards
c. Profile: Heather Steel
What is your current role?
My current role is Research Project Administrator for a SSHRC Partnership Grant at York University. I handle a bit of everything: finances and budgeting, human resources, communications, knowledge mobilization and other facets of managing a large, partnership-based research project.
What degree(s) do you have?
BA and MA in History, PhD (ABD)
How did you get your first post-grad school job?
I decided in the last year of my PhD that I didn’t want to go into academia and thus spent that year preparing myself for the job market. Since I had only worked as a TA and course director during my studies, I felt that I needed a lot of help to conduct my non-academic job search. At the time, the career centre at my university (York University) had an individual who specialized in serving graduate students. I received advising from her as well as taking workshops the centre offered on writing resumes, cover letters, and interviewing. At the same time, I was applying for jobs. Lots of jobs. I got my first role outside of academia (a program manager at a non-profit) through volunteering. While I was volunteering for the organization, a maternity leave replacement job came up, and I applied and got it. From that role, I moved into a research management role at the same organization, which led me to my current role.
What skills helped you succeed in your application for your current role?
I believe I got my current job because of the combination of my skills and experience. By then, I had lots of experience managing research, but I think it was my academic background that was attractive to the team. That is to say, not only did I have experience with the practical tasks of research management, but I also understand how universities work, how academic research works, and, as someone with a lot of academic training, I can learn new (often complicated) content quickly. Indeed, one of the things I really like about my job, and what attracted me to the position in the first place, was the ability to keep a foot in academic research (e.g., I read and give feedback on publications), but I don’t do the research myself!
What do you wish you had known about the job search when you finished your graduate studies?
If I had to do the initial job search over again, I would start much earlier (even though I gave myself basically an entire year). Graduate students should be thinking about this when they start their programs, not just at the end: gather bits of non-academic experience (either paid or volunteer) throughout your program, talk to lots of people about possible careers, develop a good resume. Remember that the first role is not the last role. Even if it is not the dream job, it’s just the first step. Graduate students are smart and tend to move up quickly once their foot is in the door.
d. Profile: Victoria Lamb-Drover
What is your current role?
I am the Manager of Corporate Services for North West College. I am one of five direct reports to the President and CEO of a college with 2600 students and over 100 FTE staff. In my position, I am an out-of-scope executive employed by the Province of Saskatchewan. I am personally responsible for institutional strategic planning, policy development, crisis communication management, government reporting, institutional research, assessment, and analytics. I also write the Multi-Year Business Plan and Annual Report. The department I oversee handles the above-mentioned duties as well as fundraising, scholarships, marketing, communication, graduation, bookstore stock, and the website.
What degree(s) do you have?
BA, MA, and PhD in History
Did you work during your degree(s), if so, were your jobs related to your degree?
During my MA, I had a teaching/research fellowship. The teaching portion required me to work as a teaching assistant for three courses per year. To fulfil the research portion of the fellowship, I coordinated planning for the history department’s centennial celebrations. I also worked in the University of Saskatchewan Office of International Student Services as an International Student liaison. Here, I drew on my inter-degree experience as a Guidance Counsellor for the Nova Scotia Department of Education’s Sino-Canadian Program in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, China. After demonstrating my bilingualism in the department’s required test, I also took on an independent translating contract with a history professor. None of my work directly related to my research or degree as the courses and translation work were pre-confederation while I study post-war history. In addition to this work, I taught two courses each year during spring/summer session as a sessional lecturer.
When did you start applying for after-graduation jobs during your last degree?
I didn’t start applying for jobs until I neared the end of my fourth year when I was nearly done the first draft of my dissertation. I knew there would be down time as my advisor read, and I took advantage of that time. In brief, can you tell us about a search tool or university job support program (if any) that you found useful in your job search? By the end of my fourth year, I had made the decision not to pursue the academic career stream. I used government job banks to look for careers that interested me. I did bring my Resume and Curriculum Vitae to the University Career Centre. While the staff there were very capable of supporting undergraduates, they did not have the training or ability to provide me with feedback for the level of jobs I was looking to pursue.
Can you briefly describe one skill that helped you succeed in your application for your current role?
I am fortunate to have strong interpersonal skills which I developed during the customer service jobs that helped to fund my education.
What skills from your degree do you use in your current role?
Research, synthesis, and writing. I advise the CEO on policy directions, and I also write reports to the government arguing for our funding and demonstrating our adherence to their core values. In effect, I’m engaged persuasive writing and presentations based on thorough and time-sensitive research. My training as an academic easily transferred.
What do you wish you had known about the job search when you finished your graduate studies?
I retained no rose-coloured glasses about academia after seven years in the graduate trenches. I was neither willing nor able to endure another three to five years of indentured servitude in the post-doctoral game. Beyond this, I witnessed good tenure-tracks stressed beyond belief with marriages and health failing. Any lofty idea I once held of the ivory tower peopled with great minds possessing the freedom and time to think and write were long gone by the end of my doctoral studies. But if not academia, then what? I found myself reflecting on my time as a guidance counsellor and I asked myself what made me passionate about history. I found that history fed my desire to reveal and dismantle inequalities within institutions of power. I needed a job that allowed me to do what I love. I am extremely fortunate that I can do that in my current role and am very happy to be on the administrative side of post-secondary education.
Resumes of 1 to 3 pages are required for most of the jobs described above. Academic jobs are the exception. For these roles, you’ll need a CV, which is discussed in chapter eight. Below, we outline general tips and the core differences and strategies for success in preparing a resume. There are a lot of great examples of different approaches to resume writing in the job documents section, to give you a sense of how you can develop your own files.
Resumes and the accompanying cover letters must be adapted to suit the position you are applying for.
It is important to spell out the various tasks within your historical work – and it is work – more understandable to non-academic employers. A history degree is much more than simply completing course work and written assignments. It is the development and implementation of research methodology and planning; it is the critical assessment of primary and secondary sources in traditional and non-traditional repositories. Break down the different tasks that were required to achieve your history degree.
Whether it is for a thesis, a project, a presentation, an article, or a book, the research process requires multiple specific and marketable skills to be successful. These skills are important to highlight for prospective employers. A project requires the ability to conceptualize and devise a clear answerable question and devise a suitable methodology or research strategy. Research requires the ability to do a survey of secondary sources, and the creation of a bibliography. A researcher needs the ability to plan a project – both in terms of what primary sources will be used, where the material is located, and finally making the arrangements to visit the repositories. File review identifying relevant documents, as well as the collection and organization of these documents to include in research reports is a marketable skill.
The ability to present to academic and/or other groups is also an important skill to highlight: the ability to summarize your research and disseminate it to different audiences in a coherent manner within the confines of a limited time. All these skills are inherent in getting your history degree, particularly a graduate degree, and should be mentioned specifically when applying for non-academic jobs.
It is important to emphasize the hard skills you have acquired as a result of your academic work, including the use of various databases you have used such as archive catalogues, excel, Summation, Access, etc., operating systems you are familiar with, and software you have used such as GIS, genealogical software, Endnote, and other types of programs. Real-world skills such as time management, working with deadlines, and working with a team are also important to include when speaking to your experience.
When stating your writing and presentation experience, it is best to summarize the experience in a short paragraph, highlighting only any particularly important publications that you have accomplished. Outline generally your presentation and publications. Space in your resume is limited and you can always produce a list of publications or conferences if asked.
Don’t forget to include the work you did outside of academia, such as the job you held to support your education, and your hobbies. Also include any volunteering posts you held which would demonstrate to your prospective employer that you have varied experiences and are able to work in a non-academic environment.
In this digital age, if your resume and cover letter do not contain the specific “buzz-words” within a job advertisement, electronic filters will weed it out before it is even considered by human eyes. Above all, read the job description, and tailor your resume to fit that description. A concise, well-worded resume will get you into the interview stage of a hiring process, while your varied non-academic experiences will work in conjunction with your academic credentials to make you a successful candidate.
9. Cover Letters
Here again, you’ll find there is a big difference between the types of documents you prepare for most jobs and those for university work. There are lots of great examples of cover letters for different types of jobs in the careers section. Below are some general tips for Cover Letters. We’ve provided some links on Academic job documents (letters and teaching portfolios) in the academic job postings guide above.
1. Do not repeat your C.V. Underline a strength and then encourage the reader to consult your C.V. for more details. Consider your cover letter a text and the C.V. your endnotes that detail the sources.
2. Use the language of the job description. Repeat the exact wording to highlight the fact that you possess the appropriate competencies or requirements for the job. Larger firms and government agencies may have a central HR that will scan cover letters for their own key words (not your summation of the job requirements) before screening your application.
3. Do not exceed 2 pages. Some managers pride themselves on reading only the first page of a cover letter (which is a sign that you may not want to work for them!). At any rate, keep it brief and remember it is always harder to compose a small text over a larger one.
4. Be targeted. Since the employer will have your C.V., focus on what you feel are the key aspects that you can offer to the position.
5. Contextualize. Do not assume that the reader will appreciate what a particular award, or academic experience means. Nothing is self-evident. Offer a small explanation and then encourage the reader to refer to your C.V.
6. Explain. Translate your academic skills instead of listing them. Underscore how doing a thesis and classwork shows critical thinking skills, time management, and the ability to make deadlines.
7. Work well with others. Non-academic and public history positions value and credit teamwork over individual achievements. In some institutions you will not even be recognized publicly for your efforts. Underscore the collaborative aspects of your past academic experiences.
10. Thoughts on the Interview
Job interviews are an opportunity for prospective employers and colleagues to determine if they are compatible with one another. Good interviewing requires significant work on both sides. Unfortunately, some interviewees find that anxiety makes them suppress their natural personalities and appear less interesting, capable, and qualified than they actually are. As strange as it may seem, interviews can be a genuinely good experience for everyone. There are many things you can do to make the interview more positive including research and preparation in ahead of time.
Job interviews take from 45 minutes to 1.5 hours, and you may be called back for further interviews if you progress through the job competition. Before your interview, ask your contact about the nature of the interview process. Who will be in the room, what can you prepare, are there stages to the interview process? The person who schedules your meeting should be able to give you a general idea of what to anticipate. If you require any accommodations in advance of the interview, let the organization know in advance.
Do as much research about the organization and the staff as you can before you do an interview. Organizational websites or LinkedIn can help you understand who-is-who and the structure of your prospective employer and to learn about recent projects and get a sense of how you fit in. Use this information to prepare questions to ask at the end of your interview. If you’re keen on the job, demonstrating an understanding of an organization and asking thoughtful questions can help to show your interest.
It is a good idea to plan your clothing and shoe choices in advance of your interview. Make sure you are comfortable, not too warm, and able to move with relative ease. Professional attire is the general standard for job interviews, but this can vary widely depending on the culture of an organization. If you’re feel you need new clothes and are on a tight budget, you can borrow, shop consignment, or get a referral to programs like Dress for Success (dressforsuccess.org) that offer free assistance. In almost every case, comfort and confidence will be more important than wearing an expensive blazer.
Your interview might be with a panel or a single person. It will depend on the size of the organization and stage of the job competition. Keep in mind that the person you’re speaking to might not have read your CV in great depth. Don’t assume they know what you’re about. Make sure to tell your story and highlight your qualifications during these conversations. You can bring extra copies of your CV in case this situation arises. It is also a good idea to bring a notebook to write down names of people in the room and any questions that arise during the interview.
Use plain language in a job interview. Jargon and slang aren’t helpful. You might not be talking to someone who shares your interests in speciality or speaks the same first language. You can practice common interview questions in advance to ensure clarity.
Interview processes for public sector jobs, museums, galleries, libraries, and archives may require a pre-interview questionnaire/exam and language testing. The questionnaire/exam is an intermediary step, which will include questions and scenarios related to the job. These are a chance for you to demonstrate your skills, writing ability, and/or to give your potential employer a sense of the ideas you would bring to the job. Answer the questions directly and follow instructions on word length carefully.
If your job posting lists a second language requirement, tests will be administered to determine where you are on the Public Service Commission’s scale (BBB, CBC, CCC etc.). These tests will evaluate your oral, written and reading comprehension. Sometimes they are administered online or over the phone, at other times you may be asked to visit a language school or testing centre. This can be an intimidating process, especially if you believe you are not at the required level. Many jobs will provide language training if you do not meet the posted language requirements, so apply and do the test if you are otherwise qualified for a job! You can prepare in advance using practice questions and the self-assessment tool on the Public Service Commission of Canada website: https://www.canada.ca/en/public-service-commission/services/second-language-testing-public-service.html.
Types of interview questions
There are three broad types of common interview questions: situational, skills-based, and behavioural. Each type of question gives the interviewers the opportunity to assess you on different levels, and to get to know you better. It can be useful to be able to recognize which type of question you’re being asked to give a well thought out response.
Situational questions give interviewers an idea of how you act/react in different scenarios. They might be phrased like “How would you react to [insert scenario]?” or “If you were presented with [insert scenario] how would you manage that?” They help the interviewers get to know both your working style but also a bit more about your personality.
Skills-based questions are how the interviewers gauge your harder knowledge and other skills. Sometimes these are simple questions, along the lines of “Tell us about three of your strengths and three of your weaknesses.” Or more in depth, asking about the organization or specific knowledge/abilities that are essential for the job. This may also be a section in the interview where they assess whether you can answer in French (or English, if your interview has been in French for the rest of the time), if that is relevant to the job. This is not usually an official evaluation of your language skills, especially when the interview is for a government position, where usually you will be sent for separate language evaluation.
The third type of questions are behaviour questions. These questions are often phrased like “tell us about a time when you had to deal with a difficult client or customer, how did you deal with that situation,” or “Describe a time when you had to manage a number of deadlines. How did you approach this situation, and what did you learn from it?” These are how the interviewers gauge your previous experiences with certain situations. They can be like situational questions, but generally are about real times you have dealt with certain scenarios in the past, rather than potential or hypothetical future scenarios.