Career Paths

Preparing for a Job in Academia

Joan Sabourin

So, you’re interested in an academic career. Perhaps you were inspired by a professor who taught you. Perhaps a men­tor or confidant suggested that this career would be particularly suited to your strengths. Perhaps you’ve had some experience with teaching, as a TA or a tutor, and feel that this is the direction for you. However you got here, now you are leaning toward a career in postsecondary chemical education. It’s never too early to start investigating your ca­reer choices, but it is also important to be mind­ful of the fact that employment opportunities change constantly, as do life events, and this investigation should be an ongoing activity until you find your dream job. Consider the following strategies to improve your prospects for a career in chemical education. 

Investigate the Job Market 

As early as possible, investigate the job market and employ­ment predictions for postsecondary academic positions. The U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics com­piles a great deal of information in the Occupational Outlook Handbook, which can be accessed at: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/postsecondary-teachers.htm

This site contains data on job projections from 2014 through 2024. It comprises information about careers in post­secondary education, including chemical education. The data provides median pay averages, education requirements and other experience needed at the entry level, the number of ex­pected positions, and the job outlook. A sneak preview gives the good news that the projected number of job openings in higher education is 177,000 between 2014 and 2024. Informa­tion specific to postsecondary chemistry teaching positions can be found at: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes251052.htm

Job Prospects 

You may have a picture in mind of what sort of teaching posi­tion you want. Perhaps you’re envisioning working some­where like the institution you attended as an undergraduate or the one where you are now a graduate student. Try not to limit yourself unnecessarily, though, when searching for post­secondary academic positions. You can find postsecondary positions at state, local, and private universities and four- and two-year colleges. These academic institutions offer a range of teaching positions that emphasize different skills, and one of them might be a good fit for you. You can find out more about this in And Gladly Teach.

The number of full-time tenure-track positions is usually limited, and getting one can be highly competitive. However, part-time positions are often more prevalent. Furthermore, they can potentially lead to full-time jobs at the same or at different institutions. The part-time experience is a resume builder! Two-year, career, and technical colleges usually require a master’s degree as a job qualification. However, a Ph.D. with teaching experience may still be the candidate of choice for such colleges. Recently, two states have instituted free tuition for two-year colleges, and President Obama has proposed that the policy should expand across the nation. That would lead to increased demand for qualified teachers, so two-year colleges should be given seri­ous consideration. 

Using the knowledge you glean from the above sources, as well as any additional information you find, investigate the scope and variety of public and private higher education institutions:

• two-year colleges,

• colleges that combine two- and four-year colleges under the same roof (a growing trend throughout the nation),

• four-year bachelor’s degree–granting institutions, and

• R-1 and RU/VH (very high research activity) research uni­versities.

Visit the websites of institutions that potentially interest you because of their geography or demographics, but don’t limit yourself. Try to get a feel for the culture of any institu­tion you are exploring, as that will be important in determin­ing whether you and it are a good fit for each other. 

Review Job Postings 

Even if you haven’t as yet decided on a chemistry-related career in higher education, begin to review academic job postings early in grad school. Read The Chronicle of Higher and Chemical & Engineer­ing News for full-time or tenure-track chemistry faculty positions. When you find one, proceed to the institution’s Human Resources site and take a care­ful look at the required and the preferred job qualifications for that job posting. That will help you begin to get a feel for institutional hiring expectations.

If a particular institution that interests you is not pres­ently posting a tenure-track posi­tion in chemistry, look for one somewhat related to chemistry, i.e., one in biology, nursing, phys­ics, or engineering.

As previously mentioned, visit the Human Resources Web site at a variety of higher educa­tion institutions for faculty job postings to get a feel for what employers are looking for in a new hire. Hiring advantages increase if you stress skills that match the specific preferred qualifications in the job listing. 

Review Current Research on Teaching and Learning 

Certification, which includes specific educational course requirements, is required for K–12 teaching. The same is not true for teaching in higher education. However, a Philosophy of Teaching statement is frequently requested along with a re­sume, or you may be questioned about it during the interview process.

In recent years there has been considerable research into and emphasis on the teaching and learning of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) related courses. Each edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education includes an insert, The Chronicle Review, which often contains items about teaching. Recent Reviews have included such articles as:

“Substance and Skills,” on teaching and learning using the undergraduate teaching model from professional schools2.

“Tailored Teaching,” on redesigning college education to meet the needs of individual learning styles2.

American Chemical Society (ACS) publications, such as the Journal of Chemical Education, are dedicated to the teaching and learning of chemistry. Other ACS documents that specifically ad­dress chemistry programs at two-year and four-year institu­tions include ACS Guidelines and Evaluation Procedures for Bachelor’s Degree Programs, ACS Guidelines for Chemistry in Two-Year College Programs, and Safety Guidelines. These can all be found at: https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/policies.html

Several education-related topics are presently being re­searched by the higher education community and could be addressed in a Philosophy of Education statement request­ed to accompany a resume, or in an interview. Education forever remains in a state of flux, as educational researchers consider such topics as assessment of teaching and learn­ing, teaching populations that are diverse with regard to ethnicity and age, competency-based programs, individual­ized teaching and institutional collaboration, partnerships, and socioeconomic diversity in both student and faculty populations. 

You can find postsecondary positions at state, local, and private universities and four- and two-year colleges. These academic institutions offer a range of teaching positions that emphasize different skills, and one of them might be a good fit for you.

Strengthen Your Ability To Begin a Career in Higher Education 

Many job descriptions list “teaching experience” in the re­quired or preferred qualifications. If you are even in the early stages of deciding whether or not a teaching career is for you, take steps that will help in the decision process. As early as possible, get into situations that include some aspect of teach­ing. Most institutions hire tutors or laboratory assistants. En­gage in your own research regarding issues related to teaching and learning. Involve high school, or two- or four-year college students in research projects. Lead help sessions. Particularly for two-year colleges, classroom teaching experience is criti­cal. Experience in an adjunct faculty position in chemistry at a two- or four-year college, or even at a senior high school, raises the interest many institutions have in seeing you as a viable candidate. Contacting your local ACS Section can also lead both to opportunities to participate in outreach events and to networking, which in my case led to an opportunity to intern at the Dow Corning Corporation. Don’t be afraid to try new things or take advantage of opportunities as they arise. These experiences work to strengthen your abilities and to fortify your resume.

Submit Your Resume and Job Application 

One size does not fit all. Each job application is individual and must be treated as such. The same application and cover letter must not be sent for every job posting. Read the application and job posting carefully and address each thing they ask for. If you send out bulk mailings, you are simply incurring unnecessary costs. Displaying your special set of skills and showing that they meet the needs of the hiring institution will certainly lead to better results.

Now it’s time make use of your research and experience to prepare for that interview which, by the way, usually in­cludes a teaching demonstration!

I wish you the best and hope that you enjoy teaching chemistry, with all the opportunities that it provides, as much as I did! Just don’t ever allow yourself to stop experimenting and learning!