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The Job Search: Dr. Tasos Lazarides

August 29, 2018

The Job Search is a series for international graduate students.

Dr. Tasos LazaridesThere is a massive, commanding rock on the southwestern shores of Cyprus, rising majestically from the Mediterranean Sea’s blue waters. It is said to be Aphrodite’s rock--where she was born, and according to Homer’s Odyssey, where she sought refuge after the affair with Ares.

About 128 kilometers from this spot lies the world’s last divided city-–Nicosia. This ancient metropolis and capital of about 100,000 is split between Greek-Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots-–a result of Turkey’s 1974 invasion of Cyprus. Since then, both communities have made a consistent effort to reunite the island. As yet, such work has not lead to reunification.

This is the place Dr. Tasos Lazarides (’13 PhD, English) was born and raised. From a young age, he had a penchant for reading. "Everyone who knew me growing up says I would always have a book in my hands, even on family vacations," recalls Lazarides. Every Saturday, he would go to the local library to borrow a new book--at first in Greek, and then in English.

When it came time to enter university, Lazarides studied electrical engineering. There was an expectation that he would follow in the footsteps of his father and brothers. But it wasn’t his ultimate academic path. He retook the national university entrance exams and completed a second bachelor’s degree in English Language and Literature at the University of Cyprus.

Through the Cyprus-America Scholarship Program (CASP), Lazarides received funding to attend the University of Maryland. He currently serves as an Academic Innovation Specialist for the Office of Undergraduate Studies at California State University of San Marcos as well as a freelance mobile gaming journalist, and critic.

We sat down with Lazarides to talk about his academic journey, and the ways in which his doctoral training paved the way for his career path.

How do you identify as a professional post graduate work-–writer, educator, administrator?

I would say I identify as a writer, educator, and administrator; I don’t think I could pick just one professional identity, which speaks to the inter-related nature of academic work, although it’s fair to say that recently I have shifted focus from teaching to academic leadership. I see myself as an educator, since I’ve continued teaching after receiving my Ph.D. and also because in my current staff position I work on helping students learn and achieve academic success. Additionally, since I have published numerous articles on mobile gaming over the last three years, I also see myself as a writer.

How did any childhood/young adult interests translate into studying literature (writing)?

Reading fiction was always my number one preoccupation ever since I can remember. The Greek educational system—which is what Cyprus follows—is rightfully quite proud of classical Greek literature, so I grew up enjoying texts such as The Odyssey and The Iliad. While I started with Greek literature, I gradually shifted to reading English-language literature and became hooked with the huge variety of texts, from Stephen King and Edgar Allan Poe to Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath.

When you came wanted to study in U.S. what were your perceptions? Expectations?

When I came to the U.S., I was looking forward to the vastness I knew I would face, which I felt would be a welcome change after living in a very small country. Even though I knew it would be very different, I don’t think I was prepared for the diversity of ideas and views I encountered. I learned about the U.S. through books and movies, and—as one would expect—those only capture a sliver of what the U.S. is really like, and in many cases that sliver is nothing but a fantasy. I knew that the level of education I would receive would be very high and the workload demanding, and I was right on both counts. I did expect to find warm and friendly people, and I’m glad to say that, in that respect, my expectations were definitely met at UMD.

How is your field of research perceived in your home country? Why did you come and study in the US? What are challenges and opportunities here and there?  

When Cypriots think of English literature, they think of English-as-foreign language teachers because that is how everyone in Cyprus first encounters English. The idea that graduate studies in English means something different from grammar, language acquisiton, and composition (i.e. that it’s the study of literature, history of literature, and culture, etc.) isn’t always well understood, as is to be expected. Additionally, there are only a few universities in Cyprus, so graduate studies and academic employment opportunities are limited. It’s very much part of the culture to leave Cyprus for graduate studies, so my decision to come to the U.S. wasn’t a surprise to anyone.

Part of the reason I decided to study in the U.S. is that I’ve always preferred American culture over British culture—partly because my godfather immigrated from Cyprus to the U.S. and my father completed his Master’s at Vanderbilt University—so when I started considering graduate studies, the U.S. was the place that seemed the most appropriate, especially given the reputation of U.S. universities for rigorous and prestigious graduate programs. Graduate work and employment in the U.S. is, of course, more challenging than in Cyprus given the greater competition, but the opportunities provided in the U.S. cannot compare to those back in Cyprus.

How did you prepare for your (faculty) job search? Did you look for non-academic jobs?

To prepare for my job search, I made a list of the kinds of jobs I would be interested in pursuing and made sure I had excellent drafts of various application documents (CV, cover letter draft, etc.) tailored to those kinds of positions. That way, I could apply for openings on short notice, which ended up happening more than once, and still have time to personalize my materials for the position at hand because I had a strong base to pull from. When I started looking for employment, I looked primarily for teaching jobs both in secondary and higher education. My degree and experience better prepared me for higher education jobs, but opportunities are relatively limited when you are unable to move from your current location. I also looked for non-academic jobs such as editing and copy writing positions, especially after I started doing freelance writing, which was a position I found through Twitter of all places.

What experiences as a graduate student (beyond your research) contributed to finding a faculty position?  What did you learn through those experiences (events/conferences/groups/networks)?  How did it help or influence your job search?

The pedagogical training I received as well as the opportunity to teach during my graduate studies were both invaluable in honing my skills as a teacher and also allowing me to refine my CV to better match the skills faculty positions demand. The opportunity to design my own classes was also valuable since it showed potential employers that I could both teach prepared curriculum and build my own when necessary. I was also part of conference organizing committees, which showed me the value of taking initiative, and I presented at national conferences, which helped with my overall professionalization. Finally, I had the opportunity to serve on a variety of committees while at UMD, and those experiences allowed me to see how universities are structured and how they operate outside of student instruction, which was crucial for navigating the academic job market.  

What does networking mean in your home country? Any comparisons to the U.S.? How did you navigate networking as an international person?

Networking is quite effortless in Cyprus because each of us comes with a network already built, given the island’s small population. In the U.S., networking requires a conscious effort, but UMD, and, more specifically, the dedicated faculty of the English department, ensured there were numerous events that helped graduates better network and become familiar with academic work culture. I never felt that my identity as an international student added to the challenges of networking in academia in the U.S., especially since I was included in the university’s networking efforts alongside U.S. students.

What advice or tool worked well as you searched? What did not work?

Most of the advice we received at UMD was for traditional tenure-track job searches, and since I didn’t complete a traditional tenure-track search, I tailored the advice I received to better fit other opportunities in academic employment. As for tools, I relied greatly on various employment apps, as well as LinkedIn, to filter the overwhelming number of job openings to better match my interests and my location.

Does a writing/literature faculty member and student success administrator have a specialized skill set? If yes, what are they? Were there activities you engaged in at UMD that prepared you for leading academic success at San Marcos?

As a staff member working to promote student success, I need to combine possible curricular improvements with the current realities of higher education—typically budgetary realities that are less than ideal. So, that requires measured moves and the ability to make the best of relatively limited resources. Also, it’s necessary to have an eye on the way technologies and changing demographics are affecting how students learn as well as their overall college experience. My approach to designing academic programs and services has been significantly influenced by my work as a freelance mobile gaming journalist and critic. I have translated principles of engagement used in the latest games and apps to academic approaches that engage students of all ages--approaches I have successfully implemented during my time teaching at CSUSM and my work at OUGS. My participation in the Advisory board to the Dean of Humanities at UMD was also a great preparation for the challenges and opportunities of inter-departmental collaboration. It also helped that I have a proven record of publications on topics such as mobile technologies and user engagement, which I feel helped me when I was interviewing for my current position.
How did you work on your CV? What was the process? Who looked at it?

I started working on my CV the first time I had to present at a graduate conference, since it’s usually part of the application process. From there on, I continued working on it, often using fellow graduate student colleagues’ CVs as models as well as feedback from my dissertation director, Ralph Bauer, and colleagues from other institutions. I worked on my CV throughout my job application process, tinkering with it constantly to add new achievements and, primarily, to better highlight my existing skills. I used job applications as a way to parse out the skills a specific employer valued the most and made sure I highlighted those skills on my CV. I also added each new accomplishment—be that a new class taught or a new job position—to my CV sooner rather than later so as not to lose track of all that should be on the CV but also to have an updated CV ready in case I had to submit an application on short notice.

How is a U.S. work experience or education perceived in your home country?

Because of the great reputation of U.S. universities, people in Cyprus see studying and working at a U.S. university as a feather in your cap.

What do you think the Cypriot culture/mindset/approach can add to your work as an educator in a diverse and changing higher ed environment?  

Cyprus is a small place in the middle of many different countries. So, I grew up with an international rather than national outlook—even if I didn’t realize that until later in my life. I believe that’s a valuable way of seeing the world and one that’s important for my work as an educator given the diversity within higher education, from the student population to the critical approaches and perspectives of wide-ranging degree programs.  

I think a lot of young people are deeply interested in global social issues (equity, social justice and diversity for example) and I wonder if you have those interests as they pertain to your work? If yes, how do you weave these issues into your professional life?

As an international student and now an immigrant to the U.S., I know first-hand the importance of remembering that those around you might think or see the world differently than you do. I always tie my teaching curriculum to current social issues and try to help students see the value of diversity. To do so, I ensure that my classrooms are spaces where all views can be expressed. It is important that students discover diverse viewpoints for themselves, and I work to ensure students do not denigrate identity groups and that they learn to ask constructive questions about viewpoints that differ from their own in respectful and professional ways.

I am also aware of the increased scrutiny on the fairness of algorithms and data universities increasing rely on for class scheduling, budgeting requests, and more; in my staff position, I try to approach current problems or challenges with an awareness to diversity so that changes can lead to increased fairness and equitable outcomes for students. In general, issues of equity are always at the forefront of my academic and professional approaches.  

Any advice to other international graduate students?

Look for any opportunity to learn new skills, add new lines to your CV, and meet people with diverse interests and occupations. I believe we are past the era of straight paths from degree to employment, so it’s crucial that you take the time to consider the various possibilities a Ph.D. can offer in 2018. The competition is quite tough, so it’s important to show any future employers that you have more to offer than your typical graduate. Take chances because you never know what or who will open new doors that might lead you down rewarding professional paths you didn’t initially consider. And remember that your experiences as an international doctoral student are an asset; you have unique perspectives and approaches that can distinguish you from your colleagues and are an example of the importance of diversity.

More information about Dr. Tasos Lazarides can be found here.

(By Anna De Cheke Qualls)(Photo Credit: Blake Schilling, CSUSM)

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