There haven’t been a great deal of reviews up on the blog to start the year; apologies! Between working to complete the dissertation, the several conferences I have scheduled this term, and the continuing process of looking for academic employment, I have been kept rather preoccupied. In regards to the later, I have successfully secured a tenure-track position in Medieval and Renaissance literature for the coming year! I feel as if my cup floweth over wth good fortune. In light of that, I thought I might “pay it forward” in some small way by sharing thoughts from my experience for those starting to think about next year’s job search.
A sixth dissertation chapter
Literature dissertations typically (although of course not always) include four body chapters and an introduction. Consider the energy, time, research, and writing that goes into producing one chapter the equivalent of what you will put into your job search. As advisors will tell you, the documents you will produce can help you think about your dissertation and, for example, help crack the code to the last chapter or two you may have left to write. Embracing the job search as an extension of your research agenda and interests rather than as something that takes you away from those endeavors will help you approach the task with less resentment, keep that resentment from leaking into your documents, and positively impact your project. I have been writing my introduction to the dissertation while crafting these documents, and the process has given me a great deal of clarity on the logical order of argumentation for that sub-genre as well as what questions readers ask first about my sub-field.
Start early, revise often
Once you can approach the job search as a research task, as a complex and long-term project in its own right, you set yourself up to prioritize and finesse those job documents to the best of your ability. If they are elements that merely get tacked on to the bottom of a never-ending to-do list, you will again begin to resent them and approach them with less than your best. I first started meeting with my Job Placement Officer last July with initial drafts of documents, which meant I started composing in June for a job I would finalize eight months later. I shared my documents regularly with a variety of kinds of readers in and out of my field as well as in and out of academia. I also capitalized on my weekly writing group meetings (a group I first joined several years ago when starting on my qualifying exam reading) to ask for advice, compare different approaches to different types of documents, and as people to look to for moral support. A willingness to revise (the research version of my job letter went through nine versions) I think made the different in the polish of my documents as well as gave me the ability to approach the market with the sense that I gave it my best shot.
Resist resenting sundry documents
A particularly daunting aspect of going on the job market for the first time (an expression that makes it sound like a debutante ball) is the number of documents you eventually have to produce for the process. Each seem to be their own sub-genre, with different goals and conventions, which can be exhausting. Again, starting early with a plan to produce all of these document types, rather than waiting to see if a school will ask for say a research agenda and then hurriedly composing one, increases the chances you will be proud of it as well as decreases the frustration, panic, and resentment over composing yet another document.
A list of documents I produced for 2015-16 English Literature job market season:
- Curriculum Vitae (a thoughtful creative nonfiction piece here)
- Cover Letter
- Contact information sheet recommenders
- Research Agenda
- Dissertation Abstract
- Writing Sample
- Statement of Teaching
- Statement on Diversity
- Teaching Portfolio
- Transcripts (both graduate and undergraduate)
- Letters of Recommendation (I had four; three at the minimum)
- Statement of Research (for postdocs)
Additionally, developing variations will help you apply meaningfully to a wider pool of jobs. Doing so early as part of your initial drafting of documents also means no deadline will be missed because you didn’t have time to tailor a document to the call. A list of the documents for which I developed variations:
- Curriculum Vitae: research and teaching.
- Cover Letter: research, hybrid, and teaching.
- Writing Sample: article- (25 pages) and essay-length (10-15 pages).
- Statement of Research: 4-, 6-, and 10-page versions with and without a bibliography of relevant scholarship for postdoc positions.
Perfect practice makes perfect
As a girl, I drove my clarinet teacher crazy with the way I practiced. I would learn passages and love to play them vast, feeling proud of what I thought was a virtuoso display of technique. He could still hear the sloppiness producing by that way of practicing, namely, a lack of polish to the details that didn’t get articulated because I didn’t practice slowly, gradually building up speed. It was so much harder to go backwards, to re-learn after I had already got my fingers to memorize a technique with a certain speed and, alas, incorrectly. This is all to say that, just as you take your time and budget time to prepare and polish materials gradually rather than at the last minute, take your time preparing for interviews.
As a one-time musician, this common piece of advice about interviews drove me crazy: don’t over-prepare or practice rote answers, as you don’t want to come off as robotic/inauthentic/unapproachable. The point of rehearsing is so that you cultivate an polished ease and succinctness to your self-presentation, what Castiglione called sprezzatura: a studied carelessness, or making hard things appear very easy. In every interview there will be a question your can’t anticipate and so there will always be an opportunity to think on your feet and demonstrate your creativity and intellectual agility. There is no point in attempting to cultivate such a demonstration by not practicing what you can anticipate. My advice is to come up with various lengths of the elevator pitch of your project, concise descriptions of classes you’ve taught and/or would like to teach, and ways in which those interests fit into the curriculum of the school as it stands.
A list of generic questions for which I developed answers before I was invited for interviews (serving as a baseline of responses that could be tailored):
- Why do you apply for this job? (Try the four-pronged approach here.)
- Tell us about your dissertation.
- Tell us about your second project. (I was never asked this question, but because I am actually excited about second and third book project ideas I have, they often made it into conversations anyway.)
- How would you teach our Shakespeare course?
- How would you teach our British survey course?
- How would you teach our introduction to literary studies course?
- How would you teach our first-year composition course?
- How would you teach our Studies in Drama [or Theatre History] course?
- Name two courses you would develop for our department.
- You come from an R1 kind of school. How would you adapt to a campus like ours?
- What do you consider to be your greatest weakness?
- Do you have any questions for us?
These are largely drawn from The Professor Is In as well as other handbooks, my own department’s job search handbook, advice from friends and my brother who has a Business degree and is head of HR at his company. (For his job, he came up with a list of over 100 possible interview questions and answers to each of them. When I found that out, it made this list look like a piece of cake.) Perhaps the best piece of preparation advice I got from a friend also on the job market was to prepare an answer to the question: What five things do I want the committee to know about me by the end of the interview?
Use the internet
The Academic Job Search Wiki freaks people out, and rightly so. You can get hooked to it, and watching notifications of interviews and campus visits can be devastating; it can drive you away from the process rather than motivating you to work on it. While mindful that I could not get too emotionally attached to it as a resource, I found the Wiki invaluable in two ways:
- If you are applying widely—meaning to jobs in your specialty, to postdocs, as well as generalist jobs, which I did and recommend (as it provides more opportunities for at least landing and practicing interviews)—the Wiki is the best place to make sure to catch all the job postings. While a few appeared on the MLA Jobs Information List and nowhere else, the Wiki was the best crowd-sourcing resource to catch things on Inside Higher Ed, Indeed, and others in a timely manner.
- My anxiety is tied to a great deal of personal impatience. (See clarinet story above.) The fact that a great deal of schools will not contact you about their job search process (when you have been long-listed, short-listed, invited to campus, or moved out of their pool of candidates) leaves you waiting and wondering. I found it actually comforting to use the wiki to track the search process and cross off things for which I thought I was likely no longer in the running. I could remove myself from any additional thought or possible emotional investment in that particular school.
Relatedly, the second piece of job market advice I hated nearly as much as not practicing for interviews was the blasé approach to developing a professional website. Considering that interest in the Digital Humanities turned up in more than half of the job calls to which I responded this year, having a site as an actual example of digital literacy goes a long way—even if you don’t consider yourself digitally oriented. This can range from simple to complex:
- fill in your home institution’s standing page for you (example),
- use a third-party network with templates like Academia.edu (example) or Vitae (example),
- or use the opportunity to teach yourself from basic design software to build your own page (example using Rapidweaver).
The trade off is that the increase in difficulty allows you to have greater control over the design, elements, organization, and overall story you tell about yourself with a profession website. I have found that there are a lot of great examples of professional academic profiles and blogs you can find just by searching for some of your favorites critics. Twitter (example) is also becoming a good option to provide a simple, efficient, yet effective online profile.
The process as research
It is perhaps impossible to not get emotional about the academic job search. It can feel like an assessment (or indictment) of your life and career choices as well as the quality of your work. Fearing the emotional anxiety this might produce, the mechanism I found for coping was treating the search process like research. Approaching it like a project (a) helped me to cultivate some objective distance between my value as a person and the quality of my applications, and (b) put me in a mindset of exploring the process from various angles that I may not have otherwise. (Here’s how a bio post-doc did it.) Four things that came out of this approach:
- Explore published data from major academic associations on the trends in your job market (for History, for Literature, for the AAUP) and subfields. I personally feel empowered by data—by making analytical interpretations for myself rather than absorbing the media’s vitriol around the job market. One revelation was that job availability varies greatly by sub-discipline. For example, as someone working in early modern English literature, I applied for more than fifty tenure-track and visiting assistant professor jobs across the US, UK, and Canada. On the one hand, there were fewer than a dozen positions to which my English Modernist colleagues could apply. On the other hand, there have been more than 230 job calls for those working in Writing Studies (i.e., Rhetoric/Composition, Writing Centers). Needless to say, data matters.
- Especially at the interview stage, familiarize yourself not just with the school and the region, but also the course catalog. I found this to be the best tool in determining what it was about my application that appealed to the search committee, in diagnosing what they saw that made that suggested I would make a good fit for what already existed, and then capitalizing on it. In interviews, you show that you understand the structure of the curriculum, what your specific teaching responsibilities would be, and that you are genuinely invested in the position on its own merits (and not that it is simply a job to be had).
- Track your applications using an Excel spreadsheet or something similar, especially if you apply widely and/or if you need to manage many different deadlines, submission processes, and websites. The header categories I used in my own spreadsheet included:
- Notable (teaching vs. research; load; topics of interest, e.g., theatre history vs. global Shakespeares)
- Requirements (i.e., application materials)
- Versions (i.e., which cover letter template)
- Method (of submission, i.e., university site, Interfolio, or emailed PDF)
- Links (to submission site or department site)
- Application (date of submission)
- Letters of Recommendation (date of submission)
- Finally, read books, handbooks, guides, blogs and any other materials you can find on the academic job search process. I was fortunate to have a Job Placement Officer specific to my department as well as a department handbook with more than twenty years of advice. I also used the more general webinars and workshops offered by my graduate college (although admittedly these were almost exclusively geared to STEM). Most important was the bevy of books I checked out from the library. The following I found most helpful in terms of illustrating the process and providing a variety of examples of the documents you’ll need to produce:
- Vick, Julia Miller, Jennifer S. Furlong, and Rosanne Lurie. The Academic Job Search Handbook. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.
- Kelsky, Karen. The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide To Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 2015.
Semenza, G. Graduate Study for the Twenty-First Century: How to Build an Academic Career in the Humanities. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
As a final word, I found it useful both emotionally and intellectually to reflect on the process in my research journal. Some days you feel small and terrible, and some days you feel as like you’re a rock star. Giving myself time to write out those feelings and trying to pinpoint why I was feeling that way or what part of the job search process made me feel that way would give me a sense of agency over my emotions. This would then help cultivate a feeling of agency over my documents and by extension the application process. Over time, I think this helped to keep me from a sense that I was at the mercy of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. This is not to say that the job market isn’t terrible, that there are simply too many highly qualified people applying for an ever-shrinking pool of positions, and that my luck this year in securing employment wasn’t to some degree just that, luck. It is simply a fact of the numbers, and reflecting doesn’t change that fact. Reflecting did give me room to consider the moment, a record to which to compare like moments, kept me from dumping all of my capricious emotions on my colleagues and/or romantic partner, and help me make informed decisions not only about my job documents and interviews, but also when to take a break and step away.
Much of the thoughts and advice here are for folks looking for work in English departments and in particular those “pre-modern” (Medieval, Renaissance, Restoration, long 18th-Century) fields. I do hope there is something here of use.
In the spirit of the luck implied by the idiom, break a leg!