Dr. Richard Schwab, Raymond Neag Endowed Professor of Educational Leadership and former dean of the Neag School of Education, recently published a chapter in Attaining a Academic Appointment entitled, “Do What You Love.” Written at the request of alum Kent Butler, one of the book’s three co-authors, the chapter gives advice to those who aspire for a career in higher education.
As someone extremely passionate about his career choice, Schwab said the chapter was easy for him to write: “I wrote it in two days, but I had been thinking about it for years. It also took several years for the book to get published. However, thanks to the tenacity of the authors, it was finally done this year.”
Dr. Schwab’s chapter starts off with a quote from famed philosopher and physician Albert Scheitzer that states, “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success, and if you do what you love you will be successful.” This quote sets the precedent for Schwab’s entire argument. Throughout the chapter, he stresses that finding a job that fits the individual’s needs is equally, if not more, important as meeting the needs of a specific job.
Schwab leads the reader through six steps for professional success, the first being to “seek the job you really want,” regardless of the pay. He explains that being a professor often means having a lower salary, but the trade-off is an opportunity to be creative and self-direct your career. He also advises applicants to reflect on their strengths, weaknesses, and passions in order to chose the correct university, be it a research or teaching-based one.
Step two is to “begin early in building your network.” Schwab suggests beginning to build a network on the day you start graduate school. Two of the many benefits in having professional contacts are that they help guide you toward an ideal position and, in many cases, advocate either directly or indirectly for you to be considered for a job. As a final word of advice, Schwab says, “Deans are judged both by the quality of their graduates and where those graduates are hired. Helping you is not only the right thing to do; it is in your dean’s best interest.”
The third piece of advice Dr. Schwab offers is to “do some homework before preparing your papers and going to the interview.” Application materials should be tailored to fit the college you are applying to, so be sure to have a clear understanding of both the position and university.
The fourth step is to “attend to details in preparing your papers.” In this section, Dr. Schwab advises how to prepare a vitae—a list of professional experience much more detailed than a typical resume. Unlike a resume, which is limited to a page or two, a vitae can be as long as necessary. Higher education positions usually do not bring in large number of applicants, so each vitae will be thoroughly reviewed by faculty members. “It is vital to be factual and not overstate your accomplishments,” said Dr. Schwab, adding that each detail must be correct since the vitae will be reviewed so carefully.
In this section, Dr. Schwab also discusses the letter of application, which he believes is even more important than the vitae. “A vitae only provides a skeleton; your letter fills in the details,” he explains and warns against standard letters sent to multiple employers. Applicants should work not only from the job advertisement, but from information they gather from the school website’s description, to create a letter as individualized and personalized as possible. Also provide as many concrete examples as possible of how your experiences match the job requirements.
If you earn an interview, step five is to “prepare your responses to frequently asked questions.” The typical interviewee is given roughly 30-60 minutes to make the best possible impression. Among the things a dean will likely look for, Dr. Schwab says, is whether the person a good communicator, a good fit for the school, and likely to accept an offer, if made. It is important to keep this final question in mind and to assure the dean you are interested. The dean is not allowed to ask direct questions about an applicant’s personal life, so it is up to you to decide what details to include in your responses. Personal reasons for taking the job, such as the fact that it is near family, or you enjoy the campus setting, are important to note.
Schwab also mentions two things that could potentially derail the interview. The first is failing to show a realistic understanding of the position. For example, you probably should not talk extensively about your love of research at a heavily teaching-based university. “It is better to be happy and productive at a college or university where your skills are appreciated than to be doing work you don’t enjoy just to be able to say you are a professor at a top-ranked university,” he says.
The second potential mistake is how you respond to “what questions do you have for me?” The safest questions are those that deal with strategic priorities, Schwab says. Avoid asking about contractual issues until the negotiation phase.
The final step is to remember, “you are not finished when the interview is over.” Write and send a thank you note while details of an interview are fresh in your mind. Personalize the note, sharing aspects of the experience that really stuck with you.
Schwab brings the chapter full circle by returning to the initial quote and showing how he “does what he loves.” While the average deans spends just three or four years at an institution, he has spent 12 happy years at the Neag School of Education—because he did the needed research to find the “perfect job.”
“One lesson not in the book is that your career should match your interests at different times in your life,” says Schwab. “For me, it has come full circle from public school teacher, to professor, to department head, to dean and now back to being a professor. At each stage, I have been fortunate enough to do what I love.”