Managing Maternity-Related CV Gaps Part I: The ‘ideal fit’

Early career researchers are often applying for a limited number of jobs in a really competitive market. In New Zealand, this is compounded by the fact that universities are partly funded by what is called Performance Based Research Funding (PBRF), a system where every few years, all our ‘outputs’ are entered and ranked and labelled and research funding is dished out in accordance with our performance. Because the PBRF is linked to individual researchers and includes outputs produced elsewhere, universities have a huge incentive to ‘buy up CVs’ — which means hiring people with lots of quality assured publications in the last six years. This is problematic in itself, but it has the potential to be especially problematic for mothers with maternity-related gaps in their outputs.

Fortunately, universities also have equal employment opportunity policies, and selection committees are meant to positively take steps to increase the representation of various minority groups in the institution. I think these policies can be quite helpful when people are inclined to implement them. For example, I recently observed an Academic Promotions Committee meeting in our faculty, and was impressed that the chair specifically pointed out applications for promotion where the applicant was part-time or had gaps in employment due to maternity. She asked the committee to please consider the person’s progress and achievements (ie, publications) in light of the more limited time they had to work on them, and that promotion was meant to continue at an equal rate for fractional academics (ie, someone in a 0.5 position shouldn’t take twice as long to be promoted, but should move along at relatively the same pace as a fulltime staff member). I know, therefore, that for people already in permanent employment, at least the promotions process tries to acknowledge that ‘gaps’ may occur in one’s employment and publications due to part-time status and maternity leave.

But what about those of us teetering on the edge, working the fixed-term contract gig? What about those of us trying to get to the stage where permanent job is a reality? How do we manage gaps in our CVs when we are applying in this competitive environment? I don’t really have the answers to these questions, but we do know that women are more highly represented in fixed-term contracts than men in Australia and New Zealand — possibly because of maternity or other gendered caring duties. For example, in 1998 an Association of University Staff (A US) survey  in New Zealand found that female union members were over three times more likely than male members to be employed on a ‘limited-term’ academic contract (27% versus 8%). In the next two posts, I hope to offer some assistance with some practical strategies for overcoming the gaps in our CVs. In the first post I relate my experience of applying for ‘ideal fit’ jobs even when I know I can’t get them as a strategy of self-promotion and networking. In the second post I get more serious about our difficulties as mothers, thinking about how we might highlight our caring work to selection committees in a way that positively impacts their consideration of our CVs and applications more generally.

My Experiences
Looking over my CV this week, I can identify four clear gaps in my CV where I haven’t published anything, going back to when I first began my PhD studies in 2006 (also the year I had my first child). My gaps in ‘quality assured’ publications are in the years 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2012. I also have a gap in employment in 2013 through 2014, but there are publications for those years. My children were born 2006, 2010 and 2013. I submitted my PhD in 2012 and graduated in 2013. So my gaps are not directly related to the years I had children, rather, there is a slight lag as there are publications already in the system. In fact, the gaps seems most closely related to my fieldwork in China, where the pressures of fieldwork and mothering work to exclude anything else from my schedule. I do have a few magazine articles and book reviews listed in those gap years, and some conference talks, so that employers can see what I have been doing while not publishing or working. And since my youngest was born in 2013, I have no publication gaps — having learned to fill these with co-authored and other types of reflexive papers that I will write about more in the next post.

 All in all, I have applied for only seven academic jobs, and made the interview for only one, and got another in a roundabout fill-in way. (So what I am saying is that I am in no way an expert. But I recently presented some of this stuff at the New Zealand Women and Gender Geographies Research Network, and a few people found it helpful.) For the record, I applied at the University of Western Sydney (2 jobs, continuing contracts), National University of Singapore (fixed term), Macquarie University (2 jobs, fixed term contracts), Victoria University of Wellington (continuing contract), and the University of Canterbury (continuing contract) where I am now employed. This is different from what is normal for US colleagues, who may apply for literally hundreds of jobs. In New Zealand and Australia, the number of jobs for your niche area may be really quite small. It often feels that you are waiting for someone to die or retire before a permanent job can come up in your area. In my field of feminist geography, each of the eight New Zealand universities may have only one or two positions, and you may literally wait years for anything to even be advertised. This was one of the reasons I went to Australia to do my PhD, as I noticed that people who had graduated from the Australian National University seemed to be getting jobs more easily back in NZ. Because of this, in New Zealand and Australia, it pays to apply for jobs that you are really a good fit for, and the academic community is small enough that it is quite obvious if  you are trying to cross disciplines or subdisciplines without the appropriate background. I tended to apply for fixed-term and continuing in Sydney, where we were living, but only continuing or contracts of more than three years for international jobs. (Another factor in having a family — you are often less mobile and cannot easily move to accommodate employer’s timeframes.) In each of the seven jobs I have applied for, I have been confident that I could do the job as described in the advertising material. However, in at least four of the jobs I never got, I can see that I was not an ideal fit naturally, and that this was probably quite obvious to the selection committee too.

Ideal Fit
I mentioned that I got a job in a roundabout way, despite not having made it to an interview. In actual fact, I worked at Macquarie University for almost three years in the job I applied for, but I did not get it through the interview or application! This was a case where I was a natural fit for the department and the job as advertised, bar one important factor: I had not submitted my PhD. This means that I was of course culled in the very first sort-through of the applications, since having a PhD is listed as a key requirement and the human resources department would pretty much never approve hiring someone without a key requirement if other applicants have then key requirements. One of my colleagues said to me later, “Oh, we saw your applications and thought ‘If only you had submitted your PhD, she sounds just right'”. I knew I had virtually no chance of getting this job or indeed the other fractional appointment going at the same time, but it was just too perfect for me to ignore. For Sydney-based jobs, my thinking was to just let them know I exist, and am in the city, and perhaps something else might come up later.

And indeed it did. My colleagues at Macquarie went through the time consuming selection process and hired two experienced people with PhDs for the fixed term contracts they had advertised. Within several weeks however, one of those people was offered a continuing contract for one of the other jobs in Sydney, which of course they took up — who wouldn’t prefer a continuing contract over a fixed-term? It did mean, however, that my Macquarie colleagues had to find someone to teach a large first year geography class beginning in less than three weeks. Around the same time, the Institute for Australian Geographers conference came up, and I made a massive effort to get there for just one day to present. I had no money, my scholarship having just that month run out. I couldn’t afford to stay the night, because I was breastfeeding a baby, so I got up at 5am and drove to Wollongong and attended one day of the conference, presenting in a session with a number of Macquarie University colleagues. This was a result of the ‘fit’ of our work, rather than design. But what it meant was that just at the right moment, I appeared in front of them and gave a presentation touching on the very topic that was needing a lecturer so desperately. Within a few days, I received a call from a colleague there and was offered a full-time, fixed-term position with the understanding that I could work on my PhD thesis during my research time (academic jobs are supposed to be split 40%research, 40% teaching and 20% admin).

So what I learned from that experience is that ideal fit and serendipity seem to trump gaps in the CV, including the rather significant gap of not having a PhD. I also found that if a job and/or department is an ideal fit, applying can really just help highlight your interest and availability for other jobs that don’t require a hardcore selection process. The downside was that if you take up a fixed-term contract without going through the interview and selection process, there is no guarantee that your job will be rolled over in to a continuing contract even if one is available. It has to be re-advertised, and you have to use the time to prepare yourself for competing against a set of international applicants. This is basically how I used my time at Macquarie University, following some of the principles I came across in this post in Scientific American to keep me from going insane. I finished my PhD by setting aside two days a week where I worked from home or the University of Western Sydney (I had followed my supervisor there from the ANU when the department we were part of got axed in restructuring). And of course got an additional three years of teaching experience and the opportunity to do teaching certificate, which helped in my later job applications.

In my next few posts, I will discuss two different approaches to managing maternity or care-related gaps, my experiences of applying for a continuing contract in New Zealand and a number of other practical strategies including writing cover letters to explain your gaps without whinging about them, and interviewing while pregnant!

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