Joining The World Of Academia: Insight From An Associate Professor At York University

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Sometimes, the next step that you take as a student can be the most mysterious – especially if you’re interested in entering academia.

Fortunately, Parissa Safai, an Associate Professor of Kinesiology and Health Science in the Faculty of Health at York University in Toronto, recently led a seminar on navigating careers in the complicated world of academia. The event was sponsored by the Graduate Association of Students in Public Health.

“Assuming you go into the academy, you have to realize that your success won’t depend on your supervisor or your institution, but on your output.” —Parissa Safai, Associate Professor of Kinesiology and Health Science, York University

Parissa is currently the Principal Investigator on two grants: one funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the other by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). She completed her PhD in 2005 at the University of Toronto.

Speaking to an audience of undergraduate and graduate students, Parissa warned about the danger of not marketing themselves from the beginning.

Being strategic is one of the most important mindsets to adapt when you start your career: do not assume that everything will fall into place naturally.

She asked the audience a series of questions:

  • Is the “academy” the right fit for your professional and personal goals?
  • What kind of working environment would work best for you?
  • What are the important things to consider for you, personally, when entering the job market and negotiating offers?

An important consideration for students is whether to pursue a research-intensive career or a teaching-focused one. Research positions in institutions are very competitive and political, and the status and prestige that comes with them may be too much for some to handle. It is vital to consider what kind of stresses would be introduced into your life before choosing a path.

There is also a lot of pressure in academia to publish in peer-reviewed journals. People who cannot (or would rather not) publish research articles consistently may consider a career outside of academia, where there is little or no pressure to publish and where their knowledge can be used more practically.

“Assuming you go into the academy,” says Parissa, “you have to realize that your success won’t depend on your supervisor or your institution, but on your output.”

Her personal experience of being told she was “lucky” for having progressed up the academic ladder so quickly is what drives her to educate students to appreciate their hard work and make calculated choices about their futures.

Parissa recommends the following six tips for when you are ready to go out into the academic job market:

  1. Be active in your search for positions, but consider whether you are willing to relocate and how much you’re willing to adapt your family life to a position across the country, or the world.
  2. Once you are short-listed for a position: research, research, research! Look into the research interests of the search committee, the form of the interview, and the school and departments.
  3. During the interview, interview the committee as much as they interview you: you want to know what kind of environment you’re really going to be working in, instead of just seeing everyone’s “best behaviour.”
  4. Avoid uptalk (ending your sentences with a questioning tone) because it suggests a lack of confidence; don’t act cutesy because it shows your immaturity; and don’t nod your head at everything they say, because it shows all of your cards to the committee.
  5. If there is a social aspect to the interview where you get to interact with faculty or other applicants, it is still the interview and you are being evaluated, so don’t drink or say too much.
  6. If you have been offered a position, you don’t have to take their first offer, and you can barter for things other than salary (start-up funds, teaching workload, office equipment, tenure/promotion timing, etc).

“And unfortunately, what you negotiate at the beginning will follow you for the rest of your career,” she says. Organizations on campus for Teaching Assistants and professional organizations such as the York University Faculty Association (UTFA) or other university-specific faculty associations can provide salary ranking that you can use to estimate your “value.”

Photo credit: uniinnsbruck

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About the author

Arina Kharlamova is a budding writer of mainly poetry, and sometimes things that can be understood at first glance. She is an Assistant Editor-turned-Contributor at TalentEgg and an undergrad at York University, working on a specialized Honours Bachelor's degree in English and Professional writing. She can be found bouncing all over the internet in a tweeterific, face-friendly, blogosized fit of energy.