AccessAdvice: Job Searching
Welcome to “AccessAdvice,” an advice column on accessibility and disability issues written by Elaine Schaertl Short, an AccessComputing co-PI. Before we start, some important disclaimers: everything I say represents only my opinion as an individual, not the opinion of any organization or funder, and I am not a lawyer or medical professional and none of the following should be construed as medical or legal advice. If you’d like to ask a question, email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “AccessAdvice.”
I am about to start a faculty job search; what advice do you have for me? - Job Seeker
Dear Job Seeker,
First of all, congratulations! Even getting to this point is a huge accomplishment: Having a Ph.D. and publication record means that a significant number of senior people in your field have certified that you have something important to contribute – not just your Ph.D. advisor, but also your committee, your postdoc advisor (if you have one), and all of the reviewers and program committee members who have recommended your work for publication. As you prepare to subject yourself to a totally new kind of judgment for what can feel like overwhelming stakes, it can be easy to lose track of how much you’ve done already. I hope you can keep a hold of that thought as you go through the search process; there are no guarantees, but the skills that have brought you to this point will carry you through to good things in the future regardless of how any (or all) of your interviews go.
From a disability perspective, I am not going to lie to you and say that faculty searches are always perfectly fair any more than anything else about the world we live in is fair; there is significant evidence that holding any marginalized identity works against you. That said, my biggest regret from my faculty search was letting ableism and sexism take root in my own head. You may find that it comes in the form of imposter syndrome; in myself, I find it is not that I lack confidence in my own abilities and more that I sometimes despair of ever receiving appropriate credit for those abilities, especially in the case of things like strong leadership and technical expertise that our society says are not characteristic of disabled women. And while these thoughts don’t come from nothing (I have stories, as so many of us do), when you go into your interviews in a mindset of anxiety, apology, or defensiveness, it not only stops you from doing your best or calmly requesting accommodations, it can start to corrode the sense of curiosity, academic freedom, and joy in doing our best work that brings us to academic careers in the first place. While it’s useful to do all the practice and preparation (and clearly in the end it worked, since I did get a faculty job), I wish that I had approached it less from the perspective of anticipating and addressing criticism and more from the perspective of letting my best skills and most interesting ideas shine.
So for your first step, my advice is to get clear for yourself on what you will bring to the table as a faculty member. There are many resources out there on what search committees are looking for; typically it’s a combination of past accomplishments (in most fields, in the form of whatever publications your field most values) and a sense of vision for the future (that will distinguish you from other faculty at the institution and your past mentors). From there, you will have a strong foundation for approaching your search as a two-way process; you are evaluating the department as much as they are evaluating you. In fact, most departments where you interview will be trying to impress you, and most candidates who make it even to the phone interview stage are well-qualified for a faculty position. From this perspective, accommodations become a much easier thing to request; you are giving the department not only the opportunity to live up to their obligations to provide a fair interviewing experience, but also the opportunity to excel in their side of the process. Because of this, while you may have to provide some guidance (which you are probably used to doing at this point in your career, unfair as it is), most departments will jump to accommodate you. In many cases, this is true even if you don’t disclose your disability (or specific condition); when you are making arrangements you can say something like “I will need stair-free routes between locations” or “I will need a 10- or 15-minute break every two hours” and it’s unlikely to be a problem.
In my own search, I explained that I use a cane and have a limited ability to walk long distances but did not specify my disability beyond that (or even that my mobility impairment is a permanent disability rather than a temporary injury). The departments where I interviewed then made sure that my interviews were all in one building (sometimes even in one room) or had someone drive me between meetings and to meals. You might request a translator, additional time between meetings, an additional break of a certain length, someone to meet you at the hotel, that meals accommodate your dietary needs, or that all venues be wheelchair accessible. Your points of contact for this will typically be your host (who is often someone you know or in your field and will be motivated for you to have a good experience) and the department administrators (who are often wonderful and know far more than the faculty about the campus). If you get to your interview and find there is an unexpected barrier (or that a promised accommodation is not available), these are also the people who will help to fix the problem (again, keep in mind that they want to make a good impression even if they don’t make you an offer). At most universities, this combination of advance requests and in-the-moment corrections will be enough to get you through your interview; at the places where this is not the case, you likely would have a miserable experience as a faculty member and you’re better off without them (although I acknowledge that this is easier to say once you have a job).
Once you make it through the interview process, you will find yourself with some number of job offers. If you have interviews but don’t receive any offers, I encourage you to give it at least one more try in the following year; hiring depends on many factors that have nothing to do with your qualifications (such as internal politics around subfields). A different department in a different year is likely to result in a different outcome. Otherwise, if you have at least one offer, you are at the point where you can negotiate. A full overview of the negotiation process is beyond the scope of this article, but as a disabled person you may want to take advantage of this as the time you have the most leverage to get things from both the department and university. While you have the right to accommodations under the ADA, it can sometimes be easier to get exactly the accommodations you want (rather than having to go through the “interactive process”) when they’re written into your startup offer. You might request extra startup funding for converting materials into accessible formats, undergraduate assistants, lab renovations to make your space accessible (for example, my lab and office both have automatic doors), additional course releases, or whatever other support you might need. If you have more than one offer, you are in a particularly strong position; I encourage you to request what you need and take whichever offer provides you with the best opportunities to succeed.
To wrap up, I would love to say that barriers never pop up and that you won’t face rude or thoughtless questions from interviewers; but sadly, it can happen even in well-intentioned departments. If this happens to you I am sorry; it’s unfair and there is a whole community of us working to fix it. I wish you the very best of luck in your search; we need your unique perspective in academia and I would be thrilled to welcome you as a colleague.