Academic Career Preparation Guide

Compared to other jobs, applying for tenure-track faculty positions in academia is a very different process requiring more application documents and longer timelines. This guide is meant to help demystify the process and provide enough perspective and examples to get you started. While applying to academic faculty positions around the world may be somewhat similar, the advice here is focused on U.S. institutions.

On the path toward a faculty job, some students opt for visiting assistant professor or postdoc positions to build their academic credentials. Check out our separate guide to the Postdoc Search.

The Duke Career Center is available to assist you throughout this process. Come talk to us to explore academia as a career, plan your job search, write your application documents, and practice interviewing and negotiating.

For more information about the academic job search, see these other resources:

While your doctoral training at Duke is designed to prepare you for work in academia, it is important to consider other factors and skills that are crucial to being a successful academic. Research, teaching, and service will likely comprise the majority of percent effort in job descriptions, but to learn more about other important skills such as mentorship, writing grant proposals, budgeting, lab management, personnel management, and navigating the peer review process, check out the book You’re Hired! Now What? from Duke Biology Faculty Mohamed Noor, via Amazon or in the Duke Library.

Is Academia for Me?

An important part of preparing for academia is considering whether the field is a good fit for you. Take time to reflect on what is most important to you and see if the expectations and responsibilities of life as an academic align with your personal values. Values can be divided into three categories:

  1. Intrinsic values — intangible rewards related to satisfaction and motivation, such as helping others.

  2. Extrinsic values — tangible rewards, such as job title (prestige), salary or benefits (wealth).

  3. Lifestyle values — these govern how you live your life, such as spending time with family and what you do with your leisure time.

Consider the ways you spend your time in graduate school. Which elements do you like and which would you avoid if you could? If faculty positions focus more on the positive elements for you than the negative, that could be a good sign to apply for academic jobs. If faculty roles sound more like the negative elements, though, you may want to consider other options.

Speak with current faculty at a variety of institutions to hear about their careers and what it took to get there. Compare what they say to your values, skills, and interests. You can do this informally at conferences or through informational interviews.

Not All Institutions are the Same

There are a large variety of colleges and universities in the U.S., more than just R1 and liberal arts. Consider these different aspects of higher education as you explore which institutions fit your skills and interests.

  • Size of the campus

  • Location of the campus: in a large city, the suburbs, rural region, near agricultural land, etc.

  • Student body: how many students are traditional (18- to 22-years-old), non-traditional, underrepresented minorities, international, undergraduate vs. graduate vs. professional, Master’s vs. Doctoral, residential vs. commuter, full-time vs. part-time, in-person vs. online?

  • Ties to religious institutions: though many institutions have a religious history, there will be a wide range in how that religion is practiced on-campus

  • Proximity to other organizations: are there opportunities for collaboration with nearby government agencies, medical schools, national labs, nonprofits, or industry hotbeds?

  • Type of institution: Historically Black College or University (HBCU), Minority Serving Institution (MSI), land-grant university, community college/two-year college, public or private or for-profit

  • Research activity: R1 (highest), R2 (high), R3 (moderate)

  • Campus philosophy: liberal arts, technical, professional

  • Conducting research at a community college

Search the Carnegie Classifications for your institutions of interest, and then search the database for other institutions that have similar qualities. This can give you a target list of institutions in decreasing order of interest that can become the main focus of your academic job search. You can also look through College Factual for data on particular institution’s enrollment demographics.

These additional resources can also help you to get started:

Institutional Values

Not every institution or department is the same. After you have reflected on your own values, you should investigate the values of your departments of interest to determine best fit. It is best to use a variety of sources to conduct research, including talking with faculty and reviewing the department’s website.

  • Networking: conferences or annual meetings are not simply for presenting your most recent research, but can also be an opportunity to determine the character and strengths of different departments. Talk to faculty, postdocs, and students from your institutions of interest to learn more about the departmental culture.

  • Online research: How many people work there? How frequently do they publish? What are the specific areas of study of the current faculty? Have they recently hired an assistant professor who also specializes in your area of research? Would you have collaborators or publishing competitors at that institution? Can you find out what an average teaching load is?

Do I Need a Postdoc or VAP position?

After graduate school, there are opportunities to build your academic credentials for the academic job market through postdoctoral or visiting assistant professor (VAP) positions. In some fields, a postdoc is required to be competitive, whereas in others there may be avenues to obtain tenure-track faculty positions right after grad school. This can also vary by the type of institutions you’re applying to; teaching-focused colleges and universities may be more willing to hire candidates without a postdoc or VAP, depending on your experience.

Read through our Postdoc Search Guide (Coming Soon!) for postdoc and VAPs to see how these opportunities may fit into your career plans.

What If I Don’t Get a Faculty Job?

Whether you’re interested in tenure-track faculty jobs or not, we recommend create separate plans for multiple types of jobs. Since the academic job market is relatively small, you should investigate and prepare for a non-academic job that suits your skills and interests. That way, if your academic job search is not successful, you have other plans in place. Explore potential careers on Versatile PhD, and Imagine PhD.

International Students and Scholars

Not all academic institutions sponsor faculty positions for individuals from outside of the U.S. Especially smaller colleges and universities may not have the ability or resources to sponsor candidates. Contact human resources at institutions of interest to see if they have official policies about hiring international scholars.

Duke Programs and Resources to Support Your Academic Career Search

While at Duke, consider these opportunities to learn more about academia and build the skills that you will need as a professor:

  • Academic Job Search Series – a series of workshops, panels, and presentations presented every 2 years. Co-sponsored by The Graduate School, Office of Postdoctoral Services, and Duke Career Center

  • Bass Instructional Fellowships – provides financial support and experience for high-quality teaching experiences and online college teaching

  • Certificate in College Teaching – combines coursework, teaching experience and observation, and an online teaching portfolio to develop pedogogical training and materials to use when applying to teaching positions

  • Emerging Leaders Institute – an 8 week interdisciplinary program focused on providing a hands-on, project-focus experience to Graduate School students to develop communication, teamwork, and leadership skills

  • Preparing Future Faculty – a year-long program to prepare PhD students and postdocs for multiple roles they may be asked to take as future faculty members

  • Professional Development Series – workshops and events planned by The Graduate School

  • Responsible Conduct of Research – a requirement for every masters and PhD student, covering professional standards and ethical challenges

  • Teaching IDEAS Series – an annual workshop series that addresses topics relevant to classroom teaching, dealing with students, or faculty life and career paths

  • Writing Support – in partnership with the Thompson Writing Program and English for International Students, resources include academic courses, individual writing sessions, and additional support for international students.