First off, a couple disclaimers: First, this post is not intended to imply that my department did a poor job preparing me for the job search. Without the advice and guidance they provided I probably wouldn’t have gotten the job that I did. But the thing about the job search is that it is such a long, complicated process that it’s just impossible to cover everything that someone would want to know about the search. The purpose of this piece is to discuss those components of the job search that caught me off guard, the things I didn’t expect or that, in hindsight, I realize would have been very useful things to have known going into my own search.
Secondly, some of this advice won’t hold much relevance outside of my own field, but I’ll try to note when that’s the case. All of this advice won’t be useful to everyone, but it’s my hope that some of this advice will be useful to someone.
1.) It’s impossible to start too early.
I thought I was getting on the ball by starting on my job search materials as soon as the Fall semester started, but come mid-October I was still struggling to get my materials together and watching the earliest deadlines slip by. All of your materials need to be top notch and it will take a lot longer than you’d probably guess to get your CVs, cover letters, teaching philosophies and other materials written, updated and revised than you would guess. Getting your materials started or updated should be a summer project so that come Fall semester you can have them revised and ready to go by the time those first early October deadlines come.
But even still, I would have started earlier than that if I had thought to. Every year of my PhD before the year of my job search I would glance through the listings to get a sense of what kind of jobs were out there but I realized during my job search that I should have followed the listings much more closely and checked them much more frequently than I did. I could have gone into my own search with a much better sense of what colleges are looking for and what kind of jobs are out there. So, if it’s not too late for you, spend each year of your PhD really closely following and reading the job listings, because it will give you a very strong sense of what the job market is like and what you can expect when you’re finally ready to go at it for real.
2.) You have no idea how much material you will need to create.
Going into my job search, I knew I would need a CV, teaching philosophy, letters of recommendation and a few variations of my cover letter tailored to the different types of jobs I would apply for. But I didn’t know I would also need to create a statement of administration philosophy, curriculum contribution statement, dissertation summary, research summary, writing samples, sample syllabi, statement of experience with students in research or scholarship (yes, that is a thing) and, while I didn’t apply for any job that needed one, a statement of faith if you want to apply to a Christian college. I had not known that any of these would be necessary (though only a handful of jobs I applied for asked for most of these). One of the things you’re going to have to take into consideration is whether or not you want the job badly enough to have to create these materials because you may decide its not worth the extra effort (I only used the administrative philosophy for three or four jobs and the experience with students etc. was only used at one place). One school I applied for asked for a document describing three dream courses I’d love to teach, but that was quite a pleasurable document to create.
On a side note related to this, be sure to always pay very careful attention to the submission instructions the school asks for. Oftentimes those rules are in place to rule out any application that can’t follow the directions.
3.) You will receive an infuriating amount of conflicting, contradictory advice.
This is one of the most frustrating components of the job search, especially because everyone who gives advice means well and is genuinely trying to help you, but after talking to enough people you won’t know which way is up anymore. I was told to only apply for around ten jobs, to apply for about twenty, to aim for fifty, to apply for as many jobs as I possibly can. I was told that the dissertation is the most important part of your qualifications, I was told that nobody cares about the dissertation and it’s your research agenda that’s most important, I was told that your research agenda isn’t as important as your letters of recommendation, and so on.
I ultimately found that it was most useful to go by my instincts. For example, I saw no value in trying to limit the number of jobs I applied for so I applied for as many as I could and after looking through the sheer variety of jobs out there I think I understand why no one can seem to agree on what the most important part of your qualifications are. For me, it was the variety of my teaching experience as well as my experience with creating curricula that netted me a job, but for many of my friends it was their research, their dissertation or their administrative experience. What you should really be aware of is that it’s hard to say what part of your experience is going to net you a job, which is a good argument for being as balanced as possible in your qualifications.
4.) Create a spreadsheet.
I figured this one out on my own and was glad to have figured it out early on, but I started keeping all the jobs I wanted to apply for in a spreadsheet that included, the college, location, position, duties, course load, minimum and desired qualifications, materials needed and deadlines. It was an absolute godsend for helping me keep track of deadlines and which schools I had and had not applied to. Maybe not a spreadsheet per se, but have some way to keep track of the jobs you want to apply to. A little bit of organization goes a long way.
5.) You will probably have to book MLA without knowing whether you have an interview
It’s an unfortunate truth that many colleges still hold job interviews at MLA every year and won’t give much consideration to contacting you about it a week before the convention. Because of this, don’t be the least bit surprised if you find yourself having to plan to attend MLA without even knowing whether or not you’ll have an interview there.
There’s quite a lot about the job search process that’s frustrating but this is one component of it that desperately needs to be changed. In the age of Skype and so many other means of long-distance communication there’s no need to make anyone travel for a preliminary interview anymore. But even if you are insistent on keeping to the MLA tradition, it is extremely disrespectful to the very tight budgets and schedules of PhD students to make them pay hundreds of dollars for MLA without any guarantee that they could even expect an interview. Any college that insists on clinging to this practice could at least do their prospective candidates the courtesy of notifying them well enough ahead of time that they can plan for MLA knowing that it will be worth their while to show up.
For those of you who are on the receiving end of this system, sorry but there’s not much you can do about it. Hopefully you’ll get at least one interview at MLA.
6.) About that whole geography thing…
If your experience was anything like mine you were told again and again and again to just accept the fact that, because the academic job market is so small, you really don’t get much choice about where you’re going to live and if you try to limit your job search by geography you’re setting yourself up for failure. If you’re one of those lucky few individuals who doesn’t care about geography (what’s your secret?) then this was never an issue for you to begin with, but for the rest of us, this is a great source of anxiety and despair.
Here’s the thing though: yes, the academic job market is small and yes you are probably going to have to make some compromises on geography (just how many compromises is of course quite dependent on how many jobs there are in your field) but if, for example, you loathe the idea of settling down in one of the plains states you can probably leave them out without much worry. The thing is, most of the jobs are in places that are more desirable to live anyway. I didn’t apply for a single job in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming or Idaho (or a few other places but we’ll leave that aside for now) but during the course of my job search I saw maybe ten job listings in my field pop up in those eight states. To put that in perspective, I applied to that many jobs in New York City alone (not to mention several other jobs in NYC that I skipped over).
Personally, I limited myself geographically to what I call the “W”: all the way down the west coast then across the southwest, with an upturn into Colorado before swinging back down into Texas and through the southeast and then up the east coast into New England. With a few exceptions, I decided I was perfectly willing to live anyplace along this route and the only major population centers it leaves out is the stretch from Ohio to Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota (and I’ll admit that I took quite a risk not applying for any jobs in those states but despite my refusal to do so, I had still managed to apply for 70 jobs by mid-December).
I will certainly grant that if you really don’t care where you live you will have a definite advantage on the job market and I will also certainly agree that if you try to limit your job search too much you’re setting yourself up for failure. But if this has been a source of great stress to you, just know that it probably won’t be quite so bad as you fear.
Also, don’t forget to think globally. While not as abundant, there are absolutely international job opportunities that will pop up for Americans to apply for. They’re much easier if you’re single (being married and/or having children greatly complicates taking a job overseas) but if you have the freedom and ambition to do so, look abroad for more opportunities.
7.) Personality goes a long way
A lot of our job prep guidance focuses on qualifications, job materials and how to present them and without the ability to do so you’re not going to make it past your living room. But I think one of the most overlooked portions of the job search process is presenting yourself as a person. You can have publications and teaching experience out the wazoo but if in an interview you’re incapable of showing some basic grace and social etiquette you’re unlikely to make it very far regardless of how good your other qualifications are. Yes, a department cares about your publications and your teaching and your service but at the end of the day they’re also going to have to work with you on a day to day basis and some assurances that you’re not a nutball will be greatly appreciated.
If, like many scholars, you’re more socially awkward then be aware that this is a shortcoming you’ll need to work to overcome. My dissertation director told me of a candidate who interviewed for a job in the department and spent the entire interview with his hands on his knees staring at the floor, never once making eye contact with anyone. They rejected him outright because of his odd behavior. Making eye contact, smiling, being polite, showing curiosity about the school, the region, the students, etc…all of these are factors that can tip the interview in your favor. Your qualifications got you to the interview in the first place, but your personality will do a lot to get you a job.
8.) You’re going to have to make some tough decisions
Perhaps the reason advice is never given on this matter is probably because there’s not much advice that can be given but be aware that there’s going to have to be a lot of very difficult decisions to make as the process progresses and offers start coming in (or, worse, don’t start coming in).
In a perfect world, all of the interviews would happen around the same time and all the job offers would come on the same day and you would get to leisurely pick which job you like the best with no concerns that maybe you could have gotten a better opportunity. We don’t live in a perfect world though and it’s entirely feasible that you’ll find an offer coming from a less desirable school while you’re still interviewing for your dream job and you’ll have to decide whether to pass on the offer and risk getting shut out of the next one too or accept the less desirable offer and be left wondering whether or not you could have gotten a better job if you’d held out. A friend of mine found herself in that exact position but decided to take a gamble and won. She got a great job at a far better school than where the first offer came from, but I had many conversations with her as she was agonizing over the decision, realizing that her future hinged on what she decided to do.
There’s no easy way to see through these decisions. They take a lot of soul-searching and sleepless nights to get through and ultimately no one can guide you through them but yourself.
9.) Don’t Panic
The whole process is immensely stressful and, even if you’re in a more lucrative field, will leave a constant shadow of doubt hanging over your head as to whether or not you’ll even be employed in a year. One of my professors told me at the beginning of the year that I should be excited about the job search because a new world of opportunity was opening up for me and I wanted to smack him. All I could see was doubt and uncertainty. But now, at the other end of the process, I realize there was something exciting about it. If I hadn’t gotten the job I’d gotten I probably would have gotten one somewhere else and if I had been shut out of academia entirely there were plenty of opportunities in the private sector I would have been perfectly happy to pursue (another pro-tip: no matter how lucrative your field and no matter how dead-set you are on a career in academia, research the private sector so you can be sure of having a viable plan B, C, D, E and F [which, yes, is how many plans I had]).
While it’s definitely a case of easier said than done, perhaps the most useful piece of advice I can pass on is DON’T PANIC (which I have printed in large, reassuring letters for you there). At the very least, undue stress and anxiety does nothing to benefit your search and, at worst, can work to undermine you. This is a piece of advice that I was given but failed to follow but do try to see it as an exciting new opportunity because, when you get that offer, that’s exactly what it’s going to be.