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Eye on Psi Chi: Fall 2017

Pursuing an Academic Career: Exploring Options
During Grad School

Susan E. Becker, PhD, Jacob Jones, PhD, and Jenny Peil, PsyD, Colorado Mesa University; and Megan Wrona, PhD, Fort Lewis College
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Monica, a graduate student in counseling psychology at a large university, is busy completing her dissertation research. She has been panicking since she received her departmental letter wishing her all the best in her career. Monica, along with many of her peers, will be entering the job market, and trying to figure out her options for an academic career and if she even wants to pursue one. Monica’s experience is not unique, and this article presents an opportunity to hear what early career academics in clinical and counseling have to say about their careers and the varied pathways walked to develop those careers.
The map to being an academic in higher education has several pathways, and savvy graduate students start exploring options early in graduate school. The Carnegie classification system for institutions of higher education in the United States differentiates between doctoral degree granting universities, master’s degree granting universities, and baccalaureate institutions (typically colleges). Relevant to an academic career, institutions are designated as R-1, R-2, or R-3, with R-1 having the highest research expectations of their faculty members.
  •  Faculty members who are tenured or tenure track at R-1 universities typically teach one to two classes per semester, solicit grant funding to support their research, and engage in frequent publication, particularly in peer-reviewed journals.
  • Faculty members at R-2 institutions engage in a moderate amount of research, publication and grant funding opportunities, and typically teach three courses per semester on average.
  • Faculty members at R-3 institutions typically teach four courses per semester, and are expected to work within the teacher/scholar model where high-quality teaching is emphasized as well as scholarly work including research, publication, and modest  grant opportunities.
It is vital that graduate students learn about the activities of an academic career by doing: engaging in research, mentoring undergraduate students, developing a lab or research team, writing grants, and teaching. In this way, graduate students build their experiences in directions relevant for their desired career and gain a clearer understanding of what type of future career they might enjoy.
Choosing the right type of academic institution helps new faculty members maintain work-life balance, a critical component of sustaining an academic career over time. A number of considerations can help you make the choices about an academic career that is right for you. First, you should think about where your academic passion lies. If you are motivated and inspired by teaching, your job search should be focused on schools that prioritize teaching (R-2 and R-3). If you know research is what keeps you dedicated and motivated, make sure you find a position that can support your research drive. You should consider this from the beginning of your application process because this influences your cover letters and statements of intent. If you are doing what you care about in your workplace, finding work-life balance is much easier. Second, consider the lifestyle you want and look at jobs that will help you meet your lifestyle goals.
The following are excerpts from a panel of tenured and tenure-track faculty members who were asked to consider the more personal and emotional aspects of engaging in an academic career. The panel responded to five key participant questions.
What are the major rewards and challenges of an academic career? Which are unique to your institution or type of institution?
Jones: “One of the major rewards of an academic career is the flexibility of schedule. There are few set times other than classes, office hours, and meetings. The freedom to mostly make your own schedule is a big benefit. If you are a parent, it makes coordinating with kids’ schedules easier. In addition, the flexibility of an academic schedule makes it possible to do clinical work or other types of work on the side. This can also be seen as a challenge because you need to be able to manage your time and schedule successfully. This requires a degree of self-management and motivation, which can be difficult if you have not had this freedom in the past.”
Jones: “A major reward to working at an R-3 institution is the ability to develop long-term working relationships with students. Having students in multiple classes from first-year students to seniors gives you the ability to shape their development over time. This can also be a big challenge. If you have a student in multiple classes over the years who is not improving, it can be disappointing and frustrating.”
Peil: “The biggest reward for me is the satisfaction I get from helping students become dynamic thinkers who will have a favorable impact on society, in ways both big and small. Another benefit is the opportunity to use both analytical and creative processes. The bigger challenges are more systemic, and probably not unique to an R-3. In the process of working toward tenure, unclear expectations can lead you to take on more than is healthy. The more clarity in the evaluation process for tenure there is, the less this would be an issue for new faculty members.”
Wrona: “One of the biggest rewards of an academic career is the flexibility to use a wide range of my skills and interests. I am able to teach and connect with students but also engage in research. I can work in a clinical capacity, both as a psychologist and as a supervisor. I am able to build a balance of work based on my interests and it never gets boring or routine.”
What are the biggest “turn-ons” and “turn-offs” about job candidates who are applying to your department?
Jones: “A ‘turn-on’ is a candidate who is constantly learning, staying active in the field, and adjusting approaches to teaching and research. Newly published research is constantly changing our understanding of a wide variety of psychology topics, making it important to stay current with the latest research and demonstrate the flexibility to adjust and incorporate new findings into classes and research endeavors.”
Jones: “Another ‘turn-on’ is being able to talk about how you and the classes you teach could fit in with the department and university where you are applying. For example, understanding how the needed classes fit into the program and major, and how you could develop those classes to fit into the program is a big ‘turn on’ and demonstrates that you have knowledge of the academic environment.”
Jones: “One of the biggest ‘turn-offs’ would be badly written applications that are not personalized for the advertised job. Reading ‘stock’ letters or curriculum vitae can be frustrating to a hiring committee. A candidate who tailors application materials to the job announcement and the university stands out at the initial stage of the hiring process and increases the chance of a phone interview.”
Wrona: “One of the biggest ‘turn-offs’ is a poorly written cover letter! A department makes a big commitment and investment when hiring someone so all of your application is taken seriously. Make sure your cover letter is addressed to the correct job listing and is free of typos and poor writing.”
“A big ‘turn-on’ is when you, the applicant, have clearly explored the department and university website and can show that you understand the culture of the department and how being a part of that department fits with your career goals.”
How do you maintain  work-life balance?
Jones: “The flexibility of the academic schedule helps with the ability to achieve work-life balance. However, it can be difficult because most faculty members are expected to contribute in teaching, scholarship, advising, and service. Prioritizing is important. For example, there may be a semester where service takes up more time than usual, which could take away time allotted to research. Being able to prioritize and work on the most time sensitive task is key. I frequently ask myself ‘What needs to be accomplished this week and what can wait until next week?’ This helps prioritize tasks and manage your workload. If that research manuscript gets submitted for publication a month or two later than what was originally planned, that is usually ok, whereas the service project has a specific deadline and cannot wait. This leads into the idea of planning for the unforeseen in your schedule. For example, I try to set deadlines for research and teaching tasks that give me at least a week or two of flexibility so when the unexpected arises, I am not scrambling at the last minute.”
Jones: “The breaks in the academic calendar also help with work-life balance. Making sure that when there is a break that you actually take one is important. However, this is a balancing act because some work needs to be completed during those breaks. I prefer to take the first few days/weeks of breaks off and return to working days or weeks before the break is over. I determine when I return to work by the amount of work I need to complete before the break is over and how long it will take me. This allows you to get back into ‘work mode’ before classes actually start back up.”
Peil: “Boundaries of all types are vitally important. We learn this in clinical practice, and it is important in an academic career as well. The difficult part is that appropriate boundaries between student and professor are flexible, and it can be easy to overrun those boundaries when a student needs a lot of supplemental instruction for example. Openness and flexibility leads to some very powerful mentoring experiences. Work-life balance requires that I manage my time wisely. I allow myself a full day a week to accomplish no academic work, and not feel bad about it. Additionally, I find that it is important to take advantage of breaks by doing things that fulfill my need for adventure.”
Wrona: “One major work-life balance challenge that many early career psychologists experience is about when/if to start a family. For me, this question arose even before accepting an academic position as I navigated a pregnancy while on the job market and completed the on-campus interview for my current position while seven-months pregnant. Starting a tenure-track position with an infant was not easy but, ironically, helped with setting precedence for work-life balance from the very beginning. Because of childcare, I have to leave work by a set time, whether or not my work is finished. As a new faculty member and a new mother, it was impossible to strive for perfection 100% of the time (i.e., finding just the right graphic for a PowerPoint presentation). Learning that my 90% is very good helped me give myself permission to focus on my own life interests and needs in conjunction with my academic responsibilities.”
If a job isn’t forthcoming after graduate school, what sort of jobs might serve as acceptable stop-gaps until an academic job opens?
“If you plan to apply to R-2 or R-3 institutions, adjunct teaching and oneyear teaching positions are always solid. Staying active in teaching is preferable, but if not teaching in some form, then direct experience doing research or clinical work in your field of study is a good opportunity. Post-docs are also good to add to your curriculum vitae. If you plan to pursue an R-1 position, a research postdoc can help improve your publication record, which often trumps teaching experience in this realm.”
Wrona: “If you find yourself in the position of not finding the academic job you hope for, a number of options are still out there! For recent graduates who are clinically focused, this stop-gap can be a good time to focus on licensure. For me, I completed a full-time, clinical postdoc and took the EPPP (Examination for the Professional Practice in Psychology). This allowed me to have an active license as I moved into the academic job market, a valuable asset if you will be supervising students or working within a clinically oriented position. Accumulating clinical hours to meet licensure can be difficult in the first year of tenure-track position, so it is a bonus to have this completed before you start. For recent graduates who are more research focused, postdoc positions abound. Often these research positions can help you refine your research skills, bolster your publications, and strengthen your application for a tenure-track position (see resources below).”
What can I do NOW as a graduate student?
  • Teach a variety of classes with a variety of delivery methods including online and hybrid.
  • Get experience teaching and/or guest lecturing in the more common psychology classes.
  • Develop ideas for specific topical courses you could teach that reflect your academic expertise.
  • Apply for grants and awards for your research and other scholarly activities through Psi Chi and other venues. The more you apply, the more you will learn about what a successful application requires, and the more likely you will be to receive one.
  • Take all reasonable opportunities to present your research.
  • Take all reasonable opportunities to publish your research.
  • Go to conferences and attend careerbuilding sessions.
  • Start writing cover letters and get a LOT of feedback from peers and mentors.
Luckily for Monica, she attended an academic career workshop at a conference while she was updating her CV and looking at possible positions. As she gained a better understanding of the various types of academic paths, she also increased her confidence in her relevant experience and now knows what to do to submit a high quality application for academic and post-doc employment.
Resources for Academic Career Workshop
Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press
Darley, J. M., Zanna, M. P., & Roediger, H. L. (2004). The compleat academic:  A career guide (2nd Edition). Washington DC: American Psychological Association
Kelsky, K. (2011, July 5). Introducing Pearls of Wisdom—The blog. Retrieved from introducing-pearls-of-wisdom-the-blog/
McKeachie, W. J., & Svinicki. M. (2013). McKeachie’s teaching tips (14th edition). New York, NY: Cengage
Miller, R. L., Amsel E., Kowalewski, B. M., Beins, B. C., Keith, K. D., & Peden, B. R. (2011). Promoting student engagement, Volume 1: Programs, techniques, and opportunities. APA-Division 2
The Society for the Teaching of Psychology. (n.d.). Teaching of Psychology: Official journal of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology. Retrieved July 20, 2017:
Post-Doctoral Position Websites
Association for Psychological Science. (n.d.). APS Postdoc exchange. Retrieved July 20, 2017:
American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Postdoctoral fellowships. Retrieved July 20, 2017:

Susan E. Becker, PhD, received her bachelors from Reed College, masters from the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, and PhD from University of Arizona. She is a professor of psychology at Colorado Mesa University and has served as Psi Chi advisor, Psi Chi Rocky Mountain Regional Vice-President, and is currently President of the Rocky Mountain Psychological Association.

Jacob Jones, PhD, received his BS in psychology and criminal justice from Bluefield College, his MS in psychology from Radford University, and his PhD in counseling psychology from Indiana State University. Dr. Jones came straight out of his doctoral internship to a tenure track position at Colorado Mesa University. Taking years off between each degree allowed Dr. Jones to develop clinical and teaching experience that helped him land a tenure track job straight out of internship.

Jenny Peil, PsyD, received her PsyD from the Florida Institute of Technology. Dr. Peil was engaged in clinical work in health psychology and community mental health when an opportunity to pursue her academic dreams came available at then Mesa State College.  Dr. Peil began teaching classes midsemester in 2011 and worked as a lecturer and instructor for five years before attaining her current position of assistant professor at Colorado Mesa University.

Megan Wrona, PhD, earned her doctorate from the University of Utah in counseling psychology and is currently an assistant professor at Fort Lewis College (FLC) in Durango, CO. She found her way to FLC through her love for the mountains and a desire to work with a diverse student population. When not teaching, she can be found on the trail, trying to teach her two-year-old how to hike.



Copyright 2017 (Vol. 22, Iss. 1) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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