The Duck of Minerva

Academic job “market” season

29 September 2005

‘Tis the season to be a neurotic mess – if you’re late-stage ABD or newly minted PhD.

Between, on the one hand, emails from students and friends and, on the other, trolling around anonymous academic blogs, I have reached the inescapable conclusion that it is, indeed, the time of darkness and pain known as “the academic job market.”

So, in the spirit of Daniel Drezner’s advice columns for graduate students, let me share my own words of wisdom hard-learned lessons bs thoughts with those hunting for their first academic job.

Before I begin, a few autobiographical points of reference. I have a PhD from one of the top schools in my field. My dissertation advisors have very impressive names, of the type that are recognized outside of their fields and, when I think about it, fill me with the urge to offer costly sacrifices at the altars of their intellects. I published while in graduate school. I managed to land a job I am very, very pleased with. Yet over the years I have:

1) Written at least sixteen applications for post-doctoral fellowships, only two of which were successful;
2) Sent something on the order of a hundred job-application packets to institutions of higher learning, out of which I received a handful of interviews and a miniscule number of offers;
3) Gone mostly bald.

What, then, is my advice?

Let’s start with the obvious. There will always be people who are smarter, better credentialed, and much more attractive than you are. Many of them will be applying for the same jobs as you. But take heart in two facts about the world. One, almost no one can physically occupy the position of assistant professor at two institutions. Two, life is unfair. Between these two laws of nature, you just might get a job offer… or even many, many job offers.

Now, the bad news.

No matter how much a job description looks like it was written for someone just like you, it wasn’t [*]. No matter how much an institution “fits you perfectly”, it doesn’t. If you don’t believe me, I can guarantee there are a lot of other people who also think the job description and/or institution matches them perfectly. Their reasons for doing so are just as good as yours are, but you can’t all be right, can you?

Okay, let’s pretend for a second that the glass slipper Prince Charming is carting around with him does, indeed, fit your foot, and only your foot. Well, remember that Prince Charming’s mind has gone completely numb from looking at far too many feet, he probably doesn’t have the greatest vision in the world anyway (he reads for a living after all), his subjects make a lot of demands on his time, and his mind might just be wandering at the very moment your toes wriggle in front of his face.

Did I mention that those damnable nobles nobles staged a tax revolt a while back? Well, they did. And the peasants got uppity. There was all this talk of “ancient rights and duties.” The Prince couldn’t pay the royal army, one thing led to another…. Now Prince Charming makes decisions by committee.

The academic job “market,” in other words, is nothing of the sort. It is penetrated by informal and formal ties of friendship and influence. Short-lists, interviews, and offers are made on the basis of many collective and individual decisions, including search committees, departments, and various high priests of the academy (e.g., deans and provosts). In aggregate, these decisions can take many surprising and unpredictable directions. Bottom line: it is foolhardy to invest your ego in the process.

Certain things follow.

1) Do not identify a “dream job.” If you already have, try to pretend that you haven’t. What looks like a “dream job” could turn out to be a nightmare, filled with colleagues you don’t get along with, dysfunctional administrators, and students very different from what you imagined. At the same time, identifying a “dream job” is a good way to increase the likelihood that your ego will be crushed by the process.

2) Do not start to build an imaginary life for yourself at Big Research University, Medium-Size State U, Small Liberal Arts College, Tiny Remedial Institute, or whatever. This advice applies even once you have gotten an interview. I recommend not looking at real estate websites, finding out every last detail about the area the institution is located, or doing anything of this sort. You’ll have plenty of time for that when you’re weighing the offer, and it can only make rejection more painful.

3) Do not do the committee’s work for them. In other words, if you’re in the ballpark of a job description, apply. Obviously, if the description asks for a China specialist and you study eighteenth-century Mexico, it isn’t worth your time. But job searches can go in unexpected directions. The marginal cost of sending additional applications is very small, particularly if you don’t make the mistake of agonizing over how to shoehorn yourself into the precise parameters of the job description.

One final piece of advice: many people barely glance at cover letters. They go straight to the CV and the recommendations. It is possible (nay, likely) that you will spend too much time and energy on your cover letter. I don’t have a lot of experience here, so we are definitely in “grain of salt” land, but the main goal of the letter, I think, is to (a) highlight how great you are, (b) to avoid calling attention to trouble spots in your portfolio, and (c) to avoid setting off alarm bells by appearing desperate, deranged, incapable of editing something as short as a cover letter, etc.

I write this knowing full well that you will ignore my advice. Been there, done that. But try to keep my words in mind. It’ll help. Trust me.

*This does not apply to senior job advertisements. In that case, the description may really be tailored to a specific individual. Or it may be completely generic simply because it is nothing more than a formality.