Prepare Today for Tomorrow's Job Market

Published: Tues., July 14, 2015

Cooks on TV make baking a cake look easy. They throw a few ingredients together, stir, and slide the pan into the oven. Almost immediately, a finished cake emerges. But when you make the cake in your own kitchen, it’s a different story. It takes a lot more time and it doesn’t look nearly as nice.

TV chefs have two advantages over the home cook: First, they know the process for making the dish, so they can move quickly through the steps. Second, they measure out the ingredients ahead of time so they can dump each ingredient into the bowl and move on to the next step—a perfect model of efficiency.

Think of applying for jobs as a new, complicated dish you’re learning to make. If you wait to develop your application materials until the semester before you enter the job market, it’ll take much longer to get your materials in good shape. By preparing your job search "ingredients" ahead of time, you'll be more efficient and you'll have polished materials that show you're a great candidate.

Below we’ll tell you how to assess the job application materials you already have. We’ll also tell you help you get started preparing key application elements for academic and non-academic jobs: how to prepare a syllabus for your teaching portfolio (or for next semester) and how to search for funding to build an even stronger and more convincing CV or résumé.

Assess your job application materials

To know where to start, you'll do the equivalent of reading a recipe all the way through and creating a strategy. To evaluate all the materials you’ve already developed, pull the latest copies of all your job application documents (e.g., CV, résumé, and any cover letters you’ve drafted).

Here's what to look for in each document so you can prepare for the next steps:

Leveraging Job Ads

Advanced gradate students who know they’re going on the academic job market or grad students who have an idea about the non-academic jobs they’re interested in will want to pull a few job ads (this is also a good way for grad students early in their careers to get a sense of what employers are looking for, and even what jobs are out there). VersatilePhD, a free to the UNL community, features non-academic job postings. The site also features jobs that PhDs have gotten and the materials they used to get them. See how your materials compare, and get ideas of how to improve them.

Use the job ads and cross-reference the required and preferred qualifications with your CV to identify the skills you have and the skills you need to get to be a great candidate. Then, revisit your Individual Development Plan and decide when you’ll work on each skill and how you’ll develop it.

CV and Résumé

Start with your Curriculum Vitae (CV), which features your research and/or your teaching experience, publications, and awards and honors. Check to see that you’ve included previous work, and add your most recent work. While you might think that you’ll remember the details of that fellowship or that class you taught, chances are good that you’ll have trouble remembering specifics when it’s time to apply for jobs. Plus, waiting to add lines will make updating your CV a daunting task!

If you plan on applying for a non-academic position, it's still good to have a single document where you track all of your experiences. Document key achievements for each position you've held. For example, if you were a research assistant and supervised/mentored undergraduate students, you'll want to keep track of how many. If you wrote and edited lab manuals or protocols, write that down as well. When it comes time to apply to different jobs, you can pull relevant experience, publications, and awards, then edit the highlights so they show why you're a good fit for the job in one, easy-to-read résumé. Remember, you need to tailor your CV or résumé for the position specifics listed in each posting. If you use the “shotgun” approach and send the same résumé to everyone, it becomes obvious to the reader that you didn’t take the time to research their department or company. 

Cover letter

If you have an idea about the types of jobs you’re applying for, find sample job ads (see the box, right) and draft a cover letter for each type of job. Even if you aren’t going on the job market just yet or you aren’t applying for that specific job, a few paragraphs that address your experience and how you’re a good fit can be edited later to address the job qualifications and specific duties.

Recommenders and References

Every job you apply for requires either letters of recommendation or references. Think now about three people you could ask to write letters and what you’d ask each person to address. This could include specific projects you’ve worked on together or skills they've seen you develop and use. If you’re struggling to come up with names, start looking for opportunities to develop relationships and hone skills. This may mean gaining experience as a research assistant, getting a teaching assistantship, or even volunteering for a few hours a week in the community. 

Teaching and Research Portfolios

If you’re preparing for the academic job market, chances are good you’ll need a teaching portfolio (or, at the very least, a teaching statement) and a research statement. Begin drafting those now—even it's still early in your academic career. These statements grow and change as you develop as a teacher and as a researcher. Getting a jump-start on these statements now will make it easier to update them down the road.

Update application materials regularly

You’ve invested a lot of time in creating your materials. And because you’re gaining experiences through grad school, you’ll need to update your materials regularly to reflect those changes. At least once a semester, block off a few hours to add new lines to your CV. Make time to reflect on your teaching and your research and revise your research and teaching statements. By working on materials soon after each experience, it'll be easier to remember what you’ve done and document your experience more accurately. Remember: Investing a few hours on a regular basis will take the pressure off when it’s time to apply for jobs!

Develop a new syllabus

In the section above, we mentioned drafting your teaching statement, the cornerstone of the teaching portfolio. A syllabus you’ve created for one of your classes can also be included in the teaching portfolio to show hiring committees you're ready to teach a course. Creating a syllabus can have a number of other benefits as well. A syllabus can help you prepare for a comprehensive exam, since you need to have a good sense of the academic landscape to approach the subject. You can also develop a syllabus you’ll use to teach in the fall.

The syllabus serves as a road map for students who may be learning about the subject for the first time, so it needs to present the topic in a transparently logical and organized way. When you develop the syllabus, consider how new concepts will be introduced to the learner and how to build on the knowledge and skills they might already have. 

As a teaching document, the syllabus communicates your expectations, including participation requirements and grading standards. The syllabus helps students understand their own and your responsibilities, establishes attendance policies, and can create a classroom climate conducive to learning. There's no room for ambiguity in a syllabus! Clearly explain when group work is acceptable and when it isn't, and anticipate questions about late work. When you anticipate possible questions students will have about the course and your expectations, you're able to provide straightforward directions.  

The Office of Graduate Studies provides resources to help you prepare a syllabus (and make sure you're addressing all the parts of the syllabus beyond assignments and homework). You’ll also find a sample syllabus and a syllabus skeleton to guide you through the creation process.

Finding and Tracking Funding Opportunities

The credentials you track and develop to prepare for the job market include awards and funding. Chances are good that you’d like to add a few more lines to the awards section of your CV. Not only do you want the money to pay for school or research, but you also want the recognition that comes with an award or fellowship. If you’re planning to go into academe, you’ll want to demonstrate that you can secure research funding. If you’re looking to work for a non-profit, a travel grant or fellowship shows that you've applied for—and obtained—external funding.

To build a strong funding record, start applying for smaller awards, including travel grants. These small awards make you a better candidate for larger awards, because committees want to see that you’ve used funds well in the past. A proven track record suggests you'll do well with larger sums of money, such as a dissertation fellowship or a research grant. These awards will also make you a good candidate for additional recognition, such as best graduate student article or dissertation, or a university-wide fellowship.

Before you can apply for any of these awards, though, you have to know about them. Doing a little research now and keeping track of opportunities, even if the deadlines are nine months (or several years) away lets you plan ahead. For example, if you research in a health field, it’s worth knowing about the National Institutes of Health’s Ruth Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA), even if you’re in the middle of your master’s program. You can start thinking about your dissertation research topic and, in a few semesters down the road, outline research and personal statements that match with the NIH's mission. This gives more time to invest in writing and revising, so you have a stronger application. And a strong application greatly increases the likelihood of being awarded funding!

Resources for findING funding

In an ideal world, there’d be one database you could search for funding opportunities. Since that’s not the case in the real world, you’ll have to search strategically:

  • Subscribe to disciplinary listservs and check professional organization’s websites (e.g., the Geological Society of America if you’re in geology). Some conferences have small travel grants for first-time presenters.
  • The Office of Graduate Studies maintains an easy to search list of external fellowships. There are also a number of University-wide fellowships. Learn about the Presidential, Fling, and Dean’s Fellowships.
  • The Office of Research curates a weekly email with calls for grant and fellowship applications. Subscribe and visit their website to search for opportunities.
  • Do a regular Google search. Many universities post funding opportunities for their graduate students, and the lists vary. Make use of all the resources available to you!

Because it takes a little extra legwork to find funding opportunities, start a spreadsheet to keep track of them—list URLs, when applications are due, supporting materials required, and any additional notes you have. On a regular basis, you’ll want to look for additional opportunities and review what you’ve already found. When you review your list, update the application deadlines for opportunities you’ve already found. While these dates change, they usually change by just a few weeks. 

While it takes a few hours to update your job application materials and look for funding opportunities, a little work goes a long way. Investing time now will pay off later—you’ll have a good handle on your application materials for fellowships and jobs.