Why is it that your colleagues constantly tell you they are being “head-hunted” by academic recruiters, but no-one has tapped you on the shoulder recently?
Having worked as both a university executive and an academic recruiter (executive search consultant) for senior university roles, this post provides some tips to help you stand out to academic recruitment and search consultants.
- Academic recruiters fill three types of roles
- Six ways to maximise your visibility
- Take home messages
Academic recruiters fill three types of roles
Senior executive / leadership positions
- Vice Chancellor (VC) / President
- Deputy Vice Chancellor (DVC) / Vice President / Provost
- Pro-Vice Chancellor
- Heads of School
Specialised research professors or centre directors
Particularly in niche areas of of specialist research. These include the heads of specialised research institutes and centres that normally require a world leading researcher with some leadership skills or capability.
Non-academic / professional leadership roles
This includes the non-academic, C-suite executives (CFO, COO, CTO etc); directors of specialist institutes; business development and commercialisation roles.
This article will focus on the first two types of roles, that is senior executive roles and specialised research academic roles. People in non-academic, specialised C-suite roles are often drawn from outside the higher education sector and the search criteria are different to those of academic leaders (although a history and understanding of the higher education sector is highly advantageous in these positions).
Six ways to maximise your visibility
- Make sure your job title accurately reflects your role
- Be good at what you do
- Have an up-to-date web presence that states your current role
- Be open about your ambitions
- Develop a relationship with the search / recruitment companies that specialise in academic search
1. Ensure your current job title accurately reflects your role
Academic recruiters develop their search strategy based on the position description for each role. This is easier to explain for a specialised research position, because normally we will be looking for a professor or, at the very least, an associate professor in a highly specific subject area.
To make it easy to be found, you need to have some specificity of your position and some specificity around your subject area. For example, “Professor of Marine Science”, rather than “Professor of Science” or “Applied Science”.
Conversely, if your title is too specific, for example “Professor of Sponge Symbionts”, you may also be missed in an initial trawl for a professor specialising in marine science.
The terms “professor” and “associate professor” do not have international specificity. For example, in many countries, academic lecturers are given the title “assistant professor” (which does not carry the status of “professor); similarly in the UK, “associate professors” are sometimes called “reader”. Academic recruiters will use a wide range of accepted titles to search for a candidate for a specific position.
A further complication arises with different standards of recognition for some roles. For example, someone who is an accomplished senior lecturer at an ivy league university (or equivalent) may meet the requirements for a full professor at another university. I say this with some caution, because different institutions reward and value different attributes. Additionally institutions vary in terms of the disciplines they teach which may have different research traditions.
How do you get around this?
Try to get as much specificity in your job title as possible with widely used and commonly recognised titles. For example, I know of some senior professors who are working in roles with titles like “Director of Special Projects”. What does that mean? We will never find you based on your position title.
If you have an unusual role, somewhere in your online biography or introduction, make it clear that you are Director of Special Projects and Professor of [specific subject area].
Include your adjunct positions (with other universities) in your appropriate academic title and online profile where possible because this gives you another chance to demonstrate your area of expertise.
Promote specific skills or expertise that are unique to you. Once you have reached the level of senior research academic, by definition, you have a specialised knowledge and skill set. If you also have excellent leadership skills, project management, industry or commercial (or commercialisation), clinical, methodological skills, then make sure these are visible and explicit somewhere in your external profile.
Senior leadership roles can be a little easier to find. The hierarchies within universities tend to follow reasonably predictable patterns internationally (at least within English speaking institutions), even if the titles of specific positions change. It is normally quite easy to identify the people who are in senior leadership roles within departments / faculties / schools, the chair of academic boards (or equivalent), and the leaders above those roles up to the VC / President.
Less easy to find are the ambitious “up-and-comers” who haven’t quite cracked a leadership role at their current institution, but would make a great dean or associate dean. This is where networking, mentorship and explicitly reaching out to a search consultant / academic recruiter can be of benefit.
2. Be good at what you do
One of the ways we search for a specialised research professor is to identify the top publications and authors in that field. If you are in a niche field, say cardiovascular biology or Southeast-Asian history we will look at the top authors in a field, their co-authors, and then look for their collaborators both by accessing our own networks and through a systematic process of forward and backward citation searching.
If we have cast the net appropriately and you are good at what you do, you will normally come up in this search… or you should try to ensure that you do.
Depending on the discipline, academic recruiters may search conference proceedings to identify key international speakers and their topics. We will also identify the top international institutes in that field, and systematically search through staff lists to find appropriate people
Senior executive roles tend to be more straightforward to recruit to. Academic recruiters are normally looking for people in similar roles at other institutions and / or ‘feeder’ roles. For example, for the dean of a department, we would search for associate deans in relevant fields. For a VC / President role, we may look at existing VCs / Presidents in other institutions who may want to move; or DVCs / Provosts.
The challenge comes when position titles are unclear or uncommon. For example, some universities use the title of ‘director’ instead of associate dean. A search for a ‘director’ in a subject area can yield a wide range of irrelevant hits, so unless we are targeting a specific feeder institution, we are less likely to perform that search.
This is also a challenge for people who come from international institutions that may have different career hierarchies and position titles.
3. Have an up to date web presence that includes your current role
We need to be able to find you and, ideally, email you. Some institutional web profiles can make it difficult to find your email address.
If you are a research academic and we are looking at citations, having a Google Scholar profile that links to a current institutional profile is an easy way to be found (example below). Conversely, not having a Google Scholar profile makes it much more difficult to find you.
This is compounded if you have a relatively common name (in which case, try to use your middle initial or name consistently).
We tend to use LinkedIn as a last resort for academic searches, because if you haven’t surfaced in one of our more specific searches, there is a good chance that you lack the skills or expertise for the role we are looking for.
However, if your online presence is heavily fortified behind firewalls, hidden email addresses, and executive officers, we may attempt to find you on LinkedIn.
LinkedIn can also be useful to provide a brief career history – but make sure it is up to date, and completely consistent with your CV.
I strongly recommend being aware of what your web presence says about you and, as far as possible, curating your online content to reflect the messaging you want to give around your expertise. If there are any red flags, you should raise these with your search consultant / academic recruiter before even applying for a role.
This is where the old saying “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” really rings true. Many high-quality applicants for roles come from personal referrals from our existing networks. Chances are that if you’re collaborative, good in your field, and participate in the appropriate conferences and leadership arenas, you will be well known and well connected with people who will support your career ambitions.
I strongly recommend having good mentors. These will be people who will know you, will look out for you, and help identify appropriate roles for you when they come up.
Search consultants have a database of several thousand contacts we can draw on as potential sources for particular roles. We will reach out to our known, relevant sources for specific roles. These people are excellent referrals for people who didn’t know they were looking for a job.
5. Put it out there – be open about your ambitions
This is a slightly delicate one. Erm, doesn’t it risk your current employment to tell people that you are actively looking for another role?
Well, yes it does.
However if you are already in a senior university position, either in a leadership or research / academic role, there is an implicit understanding that you are ambitious.
You are probably also on a five-year contract which means that you are likely to be at least considering your next role towards the latter half of your contract. A sensible employer will be working closely with you at this point to ensure your progress and succession within your current university.
You should have your own career plan – one which is, of course, recognised and supported by your employer. Most people I know who have made it to VC / President were open that they were interested in a VC / President role.
If you have aspirations to be a head of school / Dean / DVC / Provost / Vice President, it is appropriate to let your networks know that is what you are aiming for.
In fact, your progression planning should have started well before the role comes up so that you are prepared for that position either where you currently work, or in your new role.
6. Develop a relationship with academic recruiters / search consultants
By the time you reach a senior leadership position there is a good chance you will already have met, or at least be on the radar of a number of search consultants. In fact, you may be bombarded by emails from potential recruiters. A brief reply and / or discussion with a recruiter will help them understand what you are interested in and, in turn, what you have to offer.
Having your CV in their database with robust search terms and job titles (as outlined above) means that when appropriate roles come up for that search consultant, you will be one of the first people they find.
Search consultants / academic recruiters work for the employer (university), rather than the employee (candidate). This means that they will normally have a small number of recruitment / search jobs on their books at any one time, but they won’t necessary have a job that is suitable for you. You should ‘spread your bets’ and try to have your CV with a range of search consultants, because each one will be given different positions to fill.
This should not be your only strategy to find a job. Not all senior academic / executive / leadership roles are advertised, but if they are, there is a good chance they will be listed in the Times Higher Education advertisements. Other places to look (in Australia) are the Australian Higher Education supplement and individual university websites.
Take home messages
Without a great deal of effort, you can ensure that your online profile presents you in the very best light to attract the right job for you.
Few academics actually enter their academic careers with the explicit goal of taking on a senior leadership position. This means that compared with other professional areas, academics tend to be afraid to express their ambition – or are unaware of the opportunities that might be open to them within the academe.
The higher education sector desperately needs academics who understand the organisational context of higher education but also have well-developed leadership and governance skills. With your niche expertise, some clarity of direction and appropriate training, there are excellent opportunities to progress within the higher education sector that will build on all of your expertise while making a positive contribution to the sector.
If you are tapped on the shoulder and invited to interview, take a look at our 50 academic interview questions – and how not to answer them.