As a new academic year begins, so, too, does another cycle of job-seeking and hiring in academia. Later this week, many of my fellow American Sociological Association conference attendees will be in job market mode. That was me last year. And, I say without hesitation that I am glad that I will be attending this year’s meeting as a (tenure-track) professor.
Some have told me I was lucky, having found a job on my first-round on the academic job market. The role of luck is debatable. I am certainly grateful to have found a job I like at a place I like, and so close to family. And, the best bit of advice I ever heard about the market was that 80% of all that occurs is out of your hands. So, you could be a superstar in your field, still finding yourself going on the market a second time because of things that occur within hiring departments/schools that have nothing to do with you or your qualifications. But, that 20% I did have control over — I tried to work with every bit of it, rather than leaving my job prospects up to “luck.”
Advice For The Job Market (For The Conditionally Accepted)
I am a newly minted PhD, and just officially began my tenure-track job. But, I constantly find myself giving advice to other academics as though I am a veteran scholar. I am not. But, so long as I feel my colleagues are getting advice that is incomplete, inappropriate, or not tailored to their own lives and needs, I won’t fight the urge to to give my perspective. So, here it goes. Note that this is mostly advice for preparing for the job market, including questions that are important to ask yourself before you send that first application.
When To Dive In
Are you ready to begin applying for jobs, assuming you will complete your graduate degree by the end of the year/semester? This is a question that can (and should) be informed by your advisors, especially your chair/primary advisor. But, it may be beneficial to get a second opinion, especially if your advisor(s) do not come from the same background as you. Your decision should also be informed by your family’s needs and interests, as well as your own.
I presented a limited amount of myself to my advisors and department during my graduate training, so they could only base their advice on what little information they knew about me as a whole person. So, they advised me to stick with the pattern that most students followed — go on the market on your 7th or 8th (or, increasingly common, 9th) year. This would have meant asking my partner, who expected to be moving in 12 months, to readjust his life to stay another year beyond that. It would have meant applying for dissertation fellowships and hoping that I would actually have funding (which was no longer guaranteed) for the following year; this, of course, means another year without the more comfortable salary and benefits package of a professor.
Those other factors aside, I also simply felt ready. I could not imagine landing a publication in a journal higher ranked than the one in which I had already published; I did not feel the odds of getting such a publication in a year were worth the risk of having nothing to show for an extra year. I was already dreading the year I had ahead of me, so it was difficult to accept that I would sign up for another miserable year in graduate school. So, per my insistence, and then hard work to demonstrate that I could apply for jobs and start and finish my dissertation in a year, my committee agreed to support my plan. As I assured myself, if I were to fail because I did not follow tradition (i.e., stay for 7+ years instead of 6), I would have myself to blame (which I could live with), rather than being upset with myself for following others’ advice that might not pan out.
The key caveat that I should make, though, is that I had to have my committee’s support; they are the gatekeepers, after all. And, they had to see enough from me (not just at the start of the job market, but throughout my training) to have faith that I would, at a minimum, be okay.
Where To Apply
This one is simple: everywhere. If you are, in any capacity, going on the job market — dive right in. Maybe some have found sticking their toe in the water, applying to a few select jobs, to be a successful approach. But, it seemed that applying to any job should come when you are actually ready, and the amount of work involved made it seem silly not to just apply to everything.
Once you have reflected on whether the time is right to begin applying for jobs, also reflect deeply on where you would like to end up. As we receive our training in research-intensive settings, there is a strong pressure (generally external, that many of us internalize, as well) to only consider jobs at those kinds of schools. Your advisors may (unintentionally or not) steer you toward those kinds of jobs. Be honest about the bias toward research 1 universities, while also being honest with yourself about your needs and desires. Take some time to make a list of what factors are a must-have and those that would be nice to have for you to be productive, happy, healthy, affirmed, and that meets your family’s needs: family-friendly institutional policies; same-gender spouse/domestic partner benefits; racial and ethnic diversity; accessible buildings; gender-neutral bathrooms and locker rooms; inclusive non-discrimination policies; etc.
My advice here is to be honest with what you need and want. I had some great options, at least who were offering to interview me on-campus (I concluded my search early, so I am not certain if I would have received those offers). But, certain locations just did not seem feasible for an interracial gay couple (my partner and me). I understand that prestige matters, but I was unwilling to compromise my safety and happiness (and that of my partner) just for others to give me the time of day at a conference because I am at X University. Also, I struggled long enough with anxiety in graduate school that it seemed masochistic to voluntarily take a job at a place where the expectations for publishing were even higher. In the end, choosing the place that presented a balance of teaching and research, and welcomed service to the department/university/discipline and the community, and that was close to family, and is racially diverse with growing acceptance of LGBT people made the most sense.
Navigating The Market (From The Margins)
Let us be honest about academia. It may be improving with regard to diversity and inclusion. But, problems remain. Admission into graduate school, graduate training, graduating, the job market, tenure and promotion, teaching — every aspect of academia is shaped and constrained by race, gender, sexual orientation, social class, ability, weight, and so forth. Please do not go onto the job market with any notion that being of color, a woman, trans, queer, fat, poor or working-class, an immigrant, disabled, a mother, a single parent, pregnant, or otherwise marginalized will not matter. And, others’ help to prepare for that reality may actually just add to those burdens — either by telling you these identities and statues don’t matter, or that you’ll get a job because of them (wait? in what universe?), or giving unusual advice about being and presenting those identities while on the job market.
So, start by preparing for this reality. Figure out a way to politely handle inappropriate comments and questions during interviews and other job-market related meetings (“oh, our school is super gay-friendly; there are plenty of shows at the theater!”). But, also pay attention to these kinds of signals about your potential colleagues. I was surprised that some were very explicit about discrimination that had occurred within their department. Others conveyed to me that they may deem some of my research (especially that on LGBT communities) as a tolerable side project to the work that really mattered. (That’s a good sign about how they would value me as an LGBT person.) As you receive advice from others, be cognizant of whether it is general or generic job market advice, or whether they are considering you specifically (your background, experiences, needs, and interest).
Another matter for reflection that I had not anticipated was that of “diversity hires.” To the extent that you will know that you have been invited in as a target of opportunity, ask yourself whether you are comfortable being hired in that way. I actually had a tense conversation about this with a good friend, as I absolutely refused to come through the “side door”; either you hire me as you would a white man, or you don’t hire me at all. But, as she pointed out, you still may come through the “front door” per more informal efforts to diversify the department. And, Affirmative Action practices or not, your colleagues may still peg you as the “minority hire” or “woman hire” and assume you are less qualified. Others told me come through the darn window if you have to, and then earn tenure without question. I do not have particular advice here, other than encouraging you to have this conversation with yourself before you start going on interviews. These kinds of special hires happen later, and move quickly (and quietly), so you should know in advance whether you want anything to do with them.
I don’t really have advice here. I had grown so accustomed to keeping private those kinds of politics and activities that were not valued in my department and university (e.g., blogging, community service); and, otherwise presenting myself in a normative (as I view it) way. So, I intended to present myself on the market in the way that seemed obvious: a mainstream sociologist who brought in issues and communities at the margins; a researcher to the core, but a good teacher; someone who may have social justice-informed politics, but is a team player at work and wears a suit everyday. I know the reality. I decided to trade off my desire to dress more comfortably or even in transgressive ways, speak freely about my politics, promote social justice, etc. to minimize the threat to my job prospects.
In the conversation about “what to wear!?”, we fail to consider the ways in which what is considered “beautiful” and what is considered “professional” is inherently shaped by race, ability, gender, sexuality, class, weight, religion, and age. The advice to dress more conservatively — suits on everyone — fails to acknowledge the sexism and cisnormativity that drives this advice; essentially, we ask that all job candidates become cisgender men in their appearance. We tell queer scholars to “tone it down,” thereby asking them to hide any evidence of their non-heterosexuality (but see this). And, though I have not heard anything specifically about the market, I know that there is the question of hair — as in hair that is deemed too “ethnic” and thereby ruled unprofessional. As I said, I wish I had advice on this, but I do not. At a minimum, be aware that some of the same biases in society writ large are at play, and decide for yourself how much of your politics and identity you are willing to compromise or hide to get a job.
Beyond the interpersonal presentation of self is the question of your e-presence. Before you even stick a toe in the water, find out all that there is out there on the internet about yourself. Also, decide what you want to put out there (that you have control over). If you blog, go through all of your years of uncensored posting to ensure that you have not said anything that you do not want a prospective employer to see. Even manage your Facebook, Twitter, etc. profiles, for in the technological age, all of this is fair game (even if it isn’t legal). Someone will search for you. That is the truth. (Unfortunately, I have heard that some searching happens on FB, as well. Nothing is off-limits.) So, it’s best to be on top of what can be found.
I don’t know for certain that it helps, but you might even consider creating a professional website if you do not already have one. This could be a space to present your CV, teaching statement or philosophy, and go a little more into detail about your research. Alternatively, consider creating accounts at Academia.edu and/or ResearchGate.net. I suspect that most people who are searching simply want to put a face to an application; they want to find something else to like about you as a scholar and a person before deciding to bring you in for a face-to-face interview. But, these innocent efforts aside, having something that a search committee member doesn’t like might hurt you. So, maybe you don’t want pictures from college keggers posted on FB, or livejournal posts about a cheating ex-girlfriend, or evidence that you are tweeting all day long (you know, instead of doing work). Maybe you do not have to delete things, but at least be certain they are private and/or unlinked to your professional identity.
Seek Support (Especially From Others Like You)
For the significance of the role of one’s advisors on the job search, I was surprised how often I had to navigate things without them (I guess some would call that hand-holding). The process for applying for jobs is so involved and detailed that I felt uncomfortable asking my advisors for help on every single thing. And, sometimes schools contacted me unexpectedly or asked for things they needed right away, so I did not have time to schedule a meeting with my advisors for feedback.
So, I was fortunate to have alums, a couple of years into their jobs, as a sort of second circle of advisors. They could provide their own materials as models, and give much more extensive feedback, and were available more immediately — including those times I just needed to vent (which I am less inclined to share with gatekeepers). These informal advisors also relayed their recent experiences on the job market as fellow people of color. My official advisors could not speak to this experience, and had gone through the job market so long ago that their memories of the experience weren’t fresh or even relevant (things have changed over the years).
Find support outside of academia, as well. There was a temptation for me to avoid interacting with graduate students who were not on the job market yet, as I was often grouchy, and did not have the energy to answer their many (well-meaning) questions about my job search. I sometimes gravitated toward other students on the market, but my chair strongly discouraged those kinds of interactions because we would tend to stress about the market together. The job-seeking process can take over your life if you let it. (Sure, get your advice on the wiki boards, but do not check daily on the progress of searches. It will slowly eat at your self-esteem and increase your anxiety.) Get out of the house and hang with people who do not care about your job search (searching for jobs in any field is hard!). You will have to be especially good about taking care of yourself because the fear of not securing a job poses a strong temptation to forgo your health; ethically speaking, no job is worth having if it demands illness and misery.
Working While On the Market
Applying for jobs, for some, will become their full-time job. I was fortunate to have some streamlining for rec letters because my department’s graduate secretary had a super organized system for preparing and sending letters. (I imagine smaller departments or those with fewer resources may not have this luxury.) But, spending time to look up schools and tailoring applications easily ate up 2-3 weekdays.
Realistically, you may get little work done while you are on the job market. (I was given this warning, but didn’t believe it until I saw that I had made little progress on my dissertation from October through the new year — and that is early for my discipline.) I would suggest devoting what little time you do actually work to preparing your job talk. Some suggest waiting until you actually have an interview to do so. But, the work that goes into the talk has to be done and polished before that, and then you need to leave time to give two practice job talks to get feedback for the real deal. You should not risk giving a job talk during an on-campus interview having a limited familiarity with your findings.
I would say that you probably should suspend anything else that is going on. As far as I could tell, having a manuscript under review, or even with a revise and resubmit, offered little extra leverage on the market. This could be a good signal that your dissertation is far along enough to prepare some parts for publication. But, working on other papers simply takes away time from the key part of your job market package — your dissertation. A more practical strategy may be to have these other papers as “in progress” on your CV, signaling that you will have your dissertation from which to publish, and then some!
And, you may want to minimize or completely eliminate other kinds of work that take up time and/or energy. (I am not referring to jobs here, those things that you have to do to keep food on the table.) I made the difficult decision to step down from our department’s executive committee (which was hiring — so, that was even more reason to save my emotional energy) and cease volunteering with the local rape crisis shelter. I thrive when I balance research with teaching and advocacy. But, I knew that I had to protect my time. The job market, and then actually finishing the dissertation, was a horribly selfish time. But, being successful demanded my undivided attention. Even in planning to resume these activities, it was a compromise I made to open more doors for me to ultimately pick a job that allowed them.
Think Outside Of The Box
Much of this advice has spoken to applying to tenure-track faculty positions. Ask yourself — is that definitely what you want? And, is that what you want for the rest of your life? Unfortunately, many fields are still slow to the reality that there are other jobs after the PhD. Maybe an applied or non-profit job is best for you. Maybe you want to adjunct, at least for some time. (I would assume that if fewer ambivalent people take tenure-track jobs, it would free up some for those who don’t have a choice but to adjunct for a year or more.) If you aren’t absolutely certain (and even if you are), apply to multiple types of jobs. At a minimum, consider applying to research-intensive and liberal arts jobs, and maybe community colleges, as well. If you can, have a Plan B, C, D…
And, your planning should consider the long-term. If you cannot be as flexible about where you land a job, be it because of personal or family needs, you might consider taking a non-traditional job for a couple of years, and then look for a tenure-track position. Even if you land one, this decision is not necessarily for life. So, it might be okay if you don’t get a faculty position right out of graduate school. Some have said it is harder, but I have wondered what that claim is based on besides fear. (Included in that fear is that once you have a “real” job, you may not want to return to academia — and, is that bad?) At a minimum, I hope to alleviate others’ stress about finding a specific job now.
Another matter is whether to look outside of your discipline. There may be jobs out there in other disciplines, or even that are interdisciplinary for which you are qualified. But, if you are going to apply outside of the field in which you are trained, take the time to make your application appropriate. It is kind of a waste to send, for example, the same application you’ve written for a job in sociology to a women’s studies program, which is interdisciplinary by design. (It is a waste of your time and the search committee’s and your letter writers’!) If you are serious about these jobs, think about whether you will still need to maintain ties to your field (e.g., publishing, conferences, networking) and, if so, how to ensure you are meeting the tenure and promotion requirements for your job. I am not sure, for example, whether publishing work on gender solely in disciplinary journals will fly well in a gender studies program.
Oh, and a note about joint appointments and other special hires — don’t do it? I say this particularly for marginalized scholars who do work on marginalized issues and communities. Navigating tenure and promotion requirements are hard enough for one department. I was warned that being split between two departments sets a faculty member up to be overburdened with the demands from each. If there is a long history of such appointments, and the departments have been good about respecting the time and needs of these faculty, that may be a different story. But, I would be particularly cautious if you would be alone in being jointly appointed, and especially for two departments who have little formal ties to one another. And, I am skeptical about positions where a new (junior) faculty member would be charged with running a center (in addition to teaching and research) or starting a new program. Keep in mind you will be new to the university (and maybe even new to the professoriate), so you will not yet know the expectations and the politics of the university. I am not experienced enough on these matters to give advice, but I would at least advise some caution about these jobs that may leave marginalized academics particularly vulnerable to burn-out, isolation, and negative evaluation.
As stressful as the job-seeking process is, a friend told me, “enjoy it.” Enjoy what? Now having been through it, I see what he meant. Yes, you are searching for a job, and lying awake at night trying to figure out whether you’ll be employed next year and when you’ll find time to actually work on your dissertation. But, you have to remember that you are showcasing yourself and your scholarship. Hundreds of people will be seeing your name and your work. With interviews, someone has devoted time to find out more about you. As much as you can, try to see things from this positive angle.
And, the other thing to consider is that you are stepping onto the national scene. Though you’ll (hopefully) take one job, you can make many connections with scholars throughout the country. Some who hoped to see more of you may reach out to you once the job market dust has settled. Some, who think highly of you, may keep an eye to see where you end up and how your career unfolds. Again, this is something to think about long-term. If you did end up changing jobs later on, you might have already impressed some who will be even more willing to hire you the second time around.
I hate to end on a sour note, but what comes after will really make you appreciate (some) of the job market process. I thought that was hard and demanding and stressful. I found having to sit in my home office for 12-hour days from January to June to finish the dissertation the hardest thing I have experienced in my life. When I was physically exhausted and experiencing a mental fogginess, I still had to scrape together some motivation and determination to keep working. That may have been particularly worse for me, having started and finished my dissertation in a year. But, I doubt that there is anyone who isn’t depleted mentally, physically, socially, and spiritually by the time they are done.
Again, all of this is from my perspective — largely reflecting on my experiences on the job market last year. I have served as a graduate student representative on my graduate department’s executive meeting, and was privvy to (some of) the hiring process. So, I know somethin’, but I do not proclaim expertise. So, I offer a list of others’ advice below for further reading.
Other Advice and Resources
- “First Time on the Market?” from the Chronicle
- EVERYTHING on The Professor is In Pearls of Wisdom including negotiating an offer, behaving like a professor (not a grad student), surviving the first year on the tenure-track (and beyond), spousal and partner hires.
- “Useful Resources for the Academic Job Market” from the Chronicle
- General Resource for the Academic Job Market from the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning
- Job Market Advice and Resources (Memoirs of a SLACer)
- “Academic Job Market Advice” by Chris Blattman
- “Preparing for the Job Market Maze” from GradHacker
- “Academic job search pointers” by wicked anomie
- “Your First Academic Job” from Inside Higher Ed
- “PhD Interview Preparation Guide for Positions in Academia” by Trina Sego and Jef I. Richards
- “Questions for the job search” by Nancy Baym
- “Negotiating Tactics for Women” from the Chronicle
- “Navigating the couple’s job search” from GradHacker
- HigherEd Jobs listing
- Inside Higher Ed Jobs listing
- The Chronicle of Higher Education Jobs listing
- Find A Postdoc listing
- The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure — Without Losing Your Soul
- “From Grad Student To Prof” (making the transition) by Jonathan Sterne
- The Grad School Rulz: Everything You Need to Know About Academia from Admissions to Tenure by Fabio Rojas
- From ABD to the Job Market: Advice for the Grad School Endgame by Timothy Burke