The most important work you do to prepare for the traditional academic job market is done in your first five years of graduate school. It is in these “early” years that you demonstrate mastery of fields and subfields, that you strive to publish and share your work, that you push your self to secure outside funding – in grants and fellowships, small and large. In your first five years, you should be refining a dissertation topic and positioning yourself for what might be a life in academe – and what might also be a life outside of academe.
When you are actually on this job market (as well as other kinds of markets), all you are doing is narrating the work that is already done, and narrating it in very specific ways for very specific audiences. Fiddling with fonts and margins and polishing a cover letter can’t make up for a lackluster CV or for the absence of relevant experience.
Before you apply to anything talk to friends and family, look in the mirror, and make a commitment: don’t apply to a job you won’t take, and recognize that every limit you put on your search (“not the South!” “not in North Dakota!” “I’d never teach in a community college!”) has consequences. The more selective you are, the fewer chances you have.
Sometimes the mere mention of the job market can scar the soul. For those who are having a tough time of it: read Megan Kate Nelson’s extraordinary memoir of disenchantment. If you have to ask: “What Can you Do With a Humanities PhD?” And, then, in case of emergency, you can always click here.
Now, once you’ve looked in the mirror, gathered your courage, and spread-sheeted a list of jobs, you’re ready to go deeper. So go here and join, if you haven’t already. Go there every morning. Read David Perry and old pieces by Stacey Patton. “Advice” sites proliferate like rabbits. Here is one popular example.
Some universities bundle advice on clearinghouse websites. Find them! Here is Brown’s potlatch of advice. Lots and lots of links on the Academic Jobs Wiki. And on the American Historical Association’s site. And here is Stanford’s comprehensive guide to the job market.
Mercenaries (job coaches) are plentiful these days. Another site to consult, then: The Professor Is In. Run by a former department chair and current gun-for-hire. I don’t always agree/often with her (and I continue to believe that if your dissertation director isn’t your primary coach then they’ve spit the bit badly), but Kelsky is a prominent advisor for people going on the job market. Lots of advice here. You can find an interview with her right here.
The basics of a job market dossier are needlessly confusing.
The job letter, for instance: On the job letter: Cheryl Ball. Something here from Columbia on the job letter, too. (I disagree about Times New Roman, though. A job letter should be almost without obvious affect. Hence: Calibri). Chad Black’s awesome piece on the same thing. And Steve Joy’s bit in the Guardian about the broader thematics of the letter.
Basically, though, the job letter has 8 (sometimes 9) key paragraphs of varying length that provide answers these questions. And it should not ever be longer than 2 pages:
- Who are you, where did you come from, why are you writing to me, and where did you hear about the job opening we have?
- What is your research about? Why does it matter? How complete is it?
- Briefly, down the road, where do you think you are headed as a researcher?
- What are your teaching strengths? How do you see those strengths working for us?
- What kinds of challenges to you plan to take up as a teacher in the future?
- Tell me how you conceptualize – and practice – good citizenship on your campus?
- Are you having materials sent to us? What exactly and by what means?
- If anything is missing, would you mind if we contacted you or your letter writers?
One possible “2a” paragraph might address the ways in which you have made your work public. Do you have any online writing? Have you given non academic talks to general audiences? Have you written for a newspaper? Appeared on the radio? In visual media?
If you are lucky, you’ll get to interview at some conference, or via Skype, or on campus. When that happens: read Hester Blum’s excellent suggestions on affect, self-representation, and tone. Attend to this excellent primer on the campus visit from the folks at “Tenure, She Wrote.” (And why not revisit this even better piece on the job market itself. Seriously, this site is amazing). Visit Historiann’s fashion-forward reminder about conference interviews – with some awesome comments.
After the cover letter, there is the CV. Gentle reader, please do not render your life in some florid font, or include images or emoji! CVs should be clear, easy, simple, and straightforward. And their organizational logic should be, well, logical. So put a little thought into how it is laid out, italicized, bold-faced, and so on. Read this and read this, too.
How do you write a job talk? Ask Historiann. Or read a broad-based set of suggestions from Inside Higher Ed. (I do not agree about the elimination of jargon). Or consult, with caution, this piece by Karen Kelsky. (A short vignette is incredibly useful as a heuristic for a broad-audience, because it gives them a story to hang on to while you introduce your project). And follow her rules, which are better.
A better idea: scour the web for formal academic talks of the 40-45 minute variety. Like this one by fan-favorite Denise Cruz! (Sidenote: what the heck am I doing with my hands during the intro??) Or this one by Yale’s Kathryn Lofton. The 45 minute talk has a certain recognizable rythym, formula, and architecture. Study it. Go to talks on campus. Steal this structure.
This guy is not in our field, but he has some excellent advice about the purpose of the talk itself.
Penultimately, there is a lot on negotiating – and this is down the road – but here is one link from “Get A Life, PhD,” worth reading.
And, for those of you who have friends or family who just don’t understand what you are trying to do, here is a little therapy.
Last edited: September 16, 2016