I first posted versions of the below in 2010, when I had just arrived at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Most of my observations, therefore, were based on my own experiences on the market, and on some experience on search committees. Since then, I’ve been on more search committees, inevitably had more discussions with applicants and search committee members alike, and importantly I’ve lived the job market pains vicariously each year through our programs’ graduates as they apply. A lot of my advice stands, but I’ve changed my mind on a few things, have more or less to say on some topics, and have a few additional thoughts to add in general. And thus, after my former blog was hacked to death, leaving my original posts inaccessible until I had this new platform, I’m ready to revisit them and update.
Rather than have a comment thread below, I invite people to shoot questions, corrections, and/or additions to me via email (jagray3 at wisc then dot edu). I’ll edit this document accordingly and give attribution when requested and when a point is a separate point not just a correction. If I’m missing things, and/or if you’re shaking your head at how wrong I am, please also reach out and let me know. From the outset, too, let me offer immense thanks to Taylor Cole Miller, who not only made this blog happen, but read through this document, added thoughts, took things out, and made it much better.
(1) These are written with the media studies job market in mind. Friends occasionally tell me what’s different in other fields, not enough to know many details, but enough to know that you should be really, really careful taking advice written for people in one field if you’re in a different field; (2) This is also mostly about the US market – all other countries have their own major and minor differences, so again tread very carefully unless you’re looking for a job in the US; and (3) I’ve written with ABD applicants or people a year or two out in mind.
If you want to know where this is coming from, a few words on my background follow. I was a grad student in England who applied for work in the US without clearly knowing how to do that very well. I got exactly one proper interview (not even another phone interview), which turned into a lecturer job at U of California, Berkeley. Two years later, I got my first tenure-track position at Fordham U. Five years after that I moved to U of Wisconsin, Madison. I probably applied for about 40 jobs up to that point, 20 as a Ph.D. student, 20 after arriving at Berkeley. I got 7 on-campus interviews, with 3 offers, 3 rejections, and 1 case in which I accepted another job before the decision was made.
Since then, I’ve sat on 7 search committees and “advised” in two other cases. In part, therefore, I write from the experience of someone who has had some interviews, some good, some obviously not so much, and I’ve done a fair deal of interviewing on the other side of the table as well. But since arriving at UW, Madison, I’ve also been an advisor and/or committee member to over 30 Ph.D. students when they’ve been on the market, so I’ve also tended to a lot of others on the market (and, I’ll boast, our program has an amazing placement record, so all of those students are employed). Still, I’m not claiming to be an expert. These are simply my opinions, and I sincerely hope that others who’ve applied for jobs and who’ve been on search committees will chime in with their own opinions, even if and especially when they differ from my own. Don’t take anything I say as gospel – it’s just me pontificating.
Three more warnings: (1) These are my opinions, not those of my program or university. If you’re applying to something at Wisconsin, don’t assume my colleagues all think alike; (2) I’m trying to give advice, which means dealing with the system as it is, not envisioning how it could improve or change. Apologies if that at times makes me seem like the rally crew for the job market; (3) I don’t know how to get into “alt-ac” work, and none of my advisees have done so, hence me not dealing with it here. My silence on the topic isn’t intended to stigmatize alt-ac work, but anything I say on the topic would be from a position of radical ignorance, meaning it’s better not to try.
With that behind us, let’s get started:
One of the best sites to see almost everything that’s posted is the Academic Job Wiki (link changes each year, so be sure you’re looking at the right one, in case I didn’t update it), with two main pages dedicated to jobs in our field that are inconveniently split into Film postings and Communication and Media Studies postings. The occasional relevant posting may also appear elsewhere, depending upon your area of expertise (women’s studies, queer studies, area studies, etc.).
The idea is simple: people post jobs when they see them, and when they hear news or rumors about the state of a job search, they post updates. While it is certainy an invaluable tool, be prepared for the evil that can lie within, since many a soul has been lost and/or eaten here. First, it’s addictive, and you should probably set firm boundaries with yourself about how often you’ll check it daily, lest you become like Zuckerberg in the closing scene of The Social Network, refreshing the page every few seconds into eternity. Second, use it for information about the state of a search, but discount all editorializing – I’ve seen so many ill-informed things said on the Wiki, starting with the paranoia about “inside hires” which shows a collective misunderstanding about how often “the insider” gets the job, and ranging to personal attacks, a veritable fatberg of passive aggressiveness, and occasional misinformation that seems to have been circulated precisely to throw competitors off the scent. Most of it’s well-meaning, but is often written by people who’ve never been on a search committee or stopped to think about how they actually work, and who may be posting out of fear, anxiety, or anger. Still the best resource out there, but be careful with it.
Other job sites are less comprehensive than the Wiki, because institutions do not post their jobs across all the various platforms. The Chronicle’s job search / Vitae site is alright, if clunky. SCMS circulates some postings, if you’re a registered member. ICA’s divisions circulate info with varying regularity, as do NCA’s (so be sure to join). And there’s also CRTNET, which you should get on, Higher Ed Jobs, and Higher Education Research Consortium.
For advice, I’d highly recommend Jonathan Sterne, who has a series of really thoughtful, smart, helpful posts here, while also linking to others.
The Professor Is In has occasional posts that help, but honestly I find her very hit-and-miss. This is partly because she wasn’t in media studies, so her frame of reference is another field. It’s partly because the suggestions risk being soulless and programmatic without enough concern for how to be successful in a way that leaves you happy with who you are and still excited by what you’re doing. It’s partly because the advice business is exactly that – her business – and thus I’ve often felt that on one hand she peddles and/or amplifies anxieties to keep demand for her services high, while on the other hand she often posits that there is one right answer (which she’ll offer to you for a price). She can be savvy about many things too, so read on, just with the knowledge that her answer is one of several, and no, she doesn’t know “the Truth.” I don’t mean to be totally snide about her, nor to begrudge her business (part of my annoyance “at her” is actually displaced annoyance at how poor the state of academic mentoring is that her business has any traction), but just as we teach our students to think about how, for instance, Comcast’s business interests affect its programming, you should think about how her business interests may affect hers.
Of course, I don’t have the Truth either. I’m offering some things that may help based on my and my advisees’ experiences. Remember that job searches are conducted by people, none of whom are following a common script – a different job search in a different school with different committee members will be, well, different from others. What motivates one school or committee may be anathema to another. What makes you attractive to one place may be the core of ugliness to another. Read the various posts of advice offered around the Internet, and you’ll get a sense of the equally variable personalities and beliefs of those on search committees.
If you don’t know already, being on the market sucks. There are some fun and exciting parts to it, namely the rush of seeing postings in your precise area, learning that cool schools want people, hopefully meeting other people, finally getting a chance to think beyond your current project and telling people about your next one, the anticipation of getting a real salary or a better one and/or a better living situation, and joining a new cohort of fellow applicants. But it’s also very hard emotionally, mentally, and physically.
It’s really hard on your self-esteem. It’s common for universities to not even bother to let you know you didn’t get a job. Some will do so even when you’ve been shortlisted (and some don’t even tell those who they invited for interviews. The Ninth Ring of Dante’s Hell wouldn’t even allow them, they’re such vile creatures). You’ll see postings from universities that you think are bad, but you’ll suck it up and apply, only to never hear from them, leading to the inevitable neurotic thought, “I’m not even good enough for Laughing Larry’s Online Technical Community College?” You’ll wonder if what you’re working on is stupid as a result, you’ll panic that the work you’re doing does not matter, and you’ll desperately read and reread your cover letter searching for anything that makes you seem like an ass.
It’s really hard on your nerves. Very few other jobs are so patently absurd in delaying and drawing out decisions, meaning that you may well be waiting multiple months to hear even a hint of where your application stands at any given place. Most searches happen at different speeds, too, meaning that if you’re lucky enough to get traction somewhere, you’ll agonize over the likelihood that you’ll need to make a decision before all your options are clear. Indeed, come to terms with that now – it is quite likely that if you get an offer somewhere, it will be when you still don’t know what other (some better) places think about you, and you’ll need to decide before every learning. And worst of all, you’ll spend weeks imagining what life would be like in an assortment of different places, enough to become emotionally attached to some of those possible lives of yours, only for many of them to be killed on the vine, or the Wiki as it were.
This latter process is especially tough if you have a partner and/or kids, since some places will be ideal for your partner or kids, some horrible, and you’ll curse your inability to seal the deal with the former and your selfishness for applying to the latter. Every year when I see our grad students face the job market, one of the hardest things for them to cope with is what’s happening at home, as their partners go through their own emotional and logistical rollercoasters in response to the madness of the academic market. Indeed, it might be worth thinking now about how much you want to share with your partner and/or family – can they cope with the ups and downs? Do you need them with you all the way, or do you want to keep them outside the mayhem?
It’s really hard on productivity. Don’t think that you’re going to be productive while on the market, since the angst will likely drag you down. If you’re reading this early on in your Ph.D. and your current dissertation timeline calls for all of the writing up in your final year, change that to allow for adequate time to marinate in mortal dread. You’ll spend your days waiting for news, clicking refresh on the Wiki and various job search sites, agonizing, etc. When I was finishing my Ph.D. in the UK and applying to jobs in the US, I did my best work before 2pm, since that was 9am Eastern Time, after which I’d be waiting (foolishly, futilely) for phones to ring. Even when you do sit down to work, the self-esteem issues brought on by the market silence could make you second guess what you’re writing.
So, how to cope?
First, don’t go to the dark side and do not engage in “social sorrow.” It is important to have people with whom you can vent (fully and without apology), but limit the list of people to whom you vent, so that you don’t become Mr. or Mrs. Poopy Pants. A friend suggests keeping non-academic partners/loved-ones off this list, because unless they understand the vagaries of the academic market, they could misinterpret venting as hopelessness. The same friend also notes that staying upbeat helps those around you, including your reference writers importantly, to feel more hopeful for you and your possibilities of success. Meanwhile, because they are aiming to hire lifelong faculty member, departments like to hire upbeat, energetic people, not downtrodden, embittered trolls, and ours is a small enough field that word of your attitude may travel far and wide without you knowing it, so you might as well at least benefit from good word of mouth. Think about this before you go on Facebook or Twitter and vent, too, lest you become a public vortex of negativity.
Second, don’t isolate yourself. Keeping your self-esteem up is important. Going to conferences when you’re in your final year is important for networking, but that networking may occur less at the level of you meeting Dr. I-Have-a-Job-For-You, and more at the level of meeting Dr. Wow-I-Love-Your-Work, or Your-Work-Sounds-Awesome-ABD, both of whom may be instrumental in keeping your spirits up. Be sure to talk to others, too, not endlessly about how the market sucks this year, but about what you do, what your diss. is about, etc., so that you retain perspective on why you’re going through all this, and what it is about academia that you love.
Third, think of it like dating. Because at root, the market is a lot like dating. Sometimes you think someone else is awesome, but they don’t even know you exist. Sometimes people dump you and you don’t know why. Sometimes the dumping will make you pine and howl and feel crappy. You may even want to call the person up and ask what you did wrong and how you can change. But it’s likely just a chemistry thing. You might even think the other person just doesn’t see the chemistry that you do. That may be true. But, it takes two: you have to move on. Don’t dwell. Find a way to pick yourself up and get ready for the next one. And keep sight of who you are – some exes may hate one part of you that your eventual lifelong partner will love, so while of course you should be self-aware, don’t overdo the “what did I do wrong?” latenight thoughts, since many decisions ultimately have nothing to do with you.
Indeed, and fourth, this is the key point. Let’s repeat it. Many decisions ultimately have nothing to do with you.
Some committees have unspoken mandates. Some have inside candidates (though, as I’ll discuss later, not as many as you may think). Some are stupid, don’t know what’s good for them, and are bound to pick a loser, a compromise, or simply at random. Some committee members are too busy to bother looking at your file. Maybe they didn’t like that font you used. Maybe they had a bad day when they picked your file up. Maybe they’re in love with their alma mater and automatically pick someone from there. Maybe there are just many other good people in the stack. Or maybe just one. Perhaps that person’s font choice was brilliant. Perhaps that person has secondary skills the department needs. Perhaps they finished their Ph.D. a while back, and are trying to move to a better school, with a lot more experience, publications, etc. under their belt. (although later I’ll explain why this may not always be preferred). Perhaps they are indeed a much better fit for this position than you are. Don’t self-flagellate and automatically assume that you did something “wrong,” since it may just be that the committee did something wrong, or that someone else did more right, or right for that job.
Practically, you will have little choice at first over where you get a job. If you honestly think you will be able to control where you go – even if you publish like Amanda Lotz, Henry Jenkins, and Nick Couldry rolled into one – you’re mistaken. But you’re not without any agency.
It’s not my place to tell you how to decide where to live, what ethical standard to apply when evaluating university missions, and it would be patronizing to assume you didn’t know, for instance, that you might want to consider geography. But I do want to implore you to be open-minded, both about place and about type of insitution. I was guilty here: when I first moved to the US, I told my wife (then girlfriend, and the key reason I was looking in the US) that I’d only consider a job in a state that touched a coast, where the Gulf of Mexico didn’t count. As a non-American, I feared Middle America and the xenophobic redneckery I thought lived there. But, I love Madison. And even Berkeley wasn’t everything one would imagine: the College Republicans were the biggest club when I arrived there, and I became a topic of discussion at one of their monthly meetings (so the Internet later told me) because when asked which news sources to consult, I listed the New York Times, Washington Post, and (notorious liberal rag) Wall Street Journal but didn’t mention Drudge Report or the New York Post. There’s a sad irony that a bunch of media and cultural studies scholars are out there teaching and writing up a storm about the dangers of essentialism, and laboring in their classrooms and research to nuance identity as complex and nuanced … yet they then write off 45 of 50 states as “unlivable” since they assume they know the type of person who lives there.
Similarly, don’t make the mistake of thinking you must be at an R1. That’s a particular disease in academia, in part because you’re almost definitely doing your Ph.D. at an R1, and hence your readily available models for professorship are R1 profs, in part because R1s are idealized as the fount springs of knowledge, in part because they tend to pay better than non-R1s (discounting elite private institutions, that is). I’ll note, though, that many friends who got jobs at non-R1s 10-20 years ago are still there and happily so. Granted, the case for R1s is clear. But realize that R1s have higher expectations, and can often be uncompromising in, for instance, instructing junior faculty to publish at this specific journal, not that one, and to get a book with this press on this topic, not with that one on a different topic. I’ve often been perplexed when I see people griping on social media about being forced to publish, then hearing that they really, really want to be at an R1, since an R1 prof should want to publish not resentpublishing. Top notch grad students, meanqwhile, are great, especially when it means they can also serve as your graders, TAs, and RAs – all roles you may not see outside R1s – and when they become colleagues with whom you can discuss your work. But they can also take up a lot of time. Pretty much everything written here is something I’ve shared in person or on the phone with grad students multiple times over the years; I’ve debriefed job visits on Sunday evenings over text message; I’ve taken dissertation chapters on holidays with me; I’ve written ungodly numbers of reference letters; and I’ve spent a lot of time recruiting and interviewing prospective grads (it’s often about half of my Winter holiday). Grad programs take a lot of time that isn’t accounted for easily by course load. And on top of all this, R1s can be huge structures that may not allow you easily to find your own place, to imprint yourself. I like being at an R1 in spite of all this, but they’re miserable for some, and many find happier lives at teaching colleges. Don’t automatically assume that you should be at an R1, nor that you’ve failed if you’re not.
Another bit of demystification I’d like to conduct is to counsel you away from thinking “course load” tells you all that much. These numbers are so fetishized, with a 2/2 (or better yet, 2/1) seeming like it’s a holy grail. The truth is a lot more complicated. First, behind the idolatry of the 2/2 is the damaging, worrying assumption that teaching less is a good thing, when perhaps you love teaching, perhaps that’s one of the key reasons why you’re in academia, and hence perhaps you’d prefer a chance to teach more classes (especially since course load regularly goes up at places where research expectations are less, meaning you might prefer 3/3 with moderate research expectations, rather than 2/2 with high research expectations).
More to the point, though, not all 2/2s (or 3/3s, or 3/2s, or 4/4s, etc.) are equal. The operative questions when considering true course load are not just “how many classes do I teach?” (course load), but also: (1) how many preps [course preparations / unique classes] will I have each year?, (2) how many new preps will I likely have in subsequent years?, (3) how many of my courses are in my wheelhouse, how many are outside it?, (4) how many students are in these classes?, (5) what kind of grading load will I have?, (6) what undergrad and/or grad mentorship will be expected outside courses?, and (7) what sort of research and service expectations will I have beyond the classroom?
For example, I started at Fordham with a 3/3, though they moved it down to 3/2 eventually. However, I could repeat classes from semester to semester (not just year to year), and I could occasionally teach the same class at Fordham’s two campuses in the same semester. One year, therefore, I had only 3 preps. Classes had about 35 students each. Compare to a few years earlier when my job at Berkeley was 3/3, but one class was waived in lieu of advising (which took a lot of time), one was the senior honors thesis (meaning no class-time per se, but working closely with about 15 students yearly on graduating theses), and then I had 4 unique preps (where two were large lectures with TAs who did the grading, and the other two had about 50 students, and I did all the grading). Or now I’m on a 2/2 and can get a grader for classes over a certain size, and I teach a large lecture with TAs, but much of the grad program exists outside classes, and service and research expectations are about 10 times what Fordham or Berkeley ever asked of me. Which is “better”? I can’t honestly say for myself, but my point for you is to consider more factors than just “course load.”
One key thing to realize when considering where to apply and where not to apply, is that a decision to accept a first job is not a decision to stay there forever. You may decide later to stay, or you may decide to apply elsewhere. You may need to do certain things (publish well, perform certain service, teach certain things) to get a second job. But don’t put the pressure on yourself of thinking you’re deciding / having decided for you where to live your life. You’re just deciding / having decided for you where to start your career. Along with this realization should come the realistic assessment that you may not get everything you want straight away (or ever, but that’s another story), and that you may need to work your way up to it. Don’t refuse to apply for lecturer positions, for instance, because you think you deserve a t-t position, and won’t settle for anything less: many of us had to walk that road to get our t-t jobs. And don’t refuse to apply to non-R1s since you see yourself as a researcher through and through: again, you may have to prove that before the R1 will take you.
A related concern that some people on the market have is that their first job will be read against them by future committees. I do think that liberal arts colleges have a cultish thing going whereby they want to see some evidence that you are tutored in The Ways of the Liberal Arts College, but that could mean an undergrad degree there, too. Otherwise, I’ve never seen a committee hold where a junior candidate is working against them. Where you are working might hurt you indirectly, should you have an exorbitant teaching and/or service load, for instance, thereby precluding you from publishing at a level that would merit another place taking you, or should you be teaching classes on X when you actually want a job teaching Y. But don’t worry that a Lecturer of Media Studies at Never Heard Of It College will hurt Fancy Name University’s interest in you, so long as you do everything Fancy Name University will want to see in a leading candidate.
Try to think about how it all works from the committee’s perspective. In saying this, I’m not asking you to pity the committee; I’m encouraging you to know the system so that you can be smart about your interactions with it.
Let’s begin with this. Of all the committees I’ve been on, the fewest applications we received was 60 for one, while the most was about 250 (and I’ve heard of 400 elsewhere), with the average being around 150. So imagine you’re on the committee, with 150 applications. You have a full teaching load, you need to be publishing things, you have service responsibilities, and nobody will lower their expectations for you just because you’re on this committee. So you’re doing it on your own time, likely looking at files in the evenings or at lunch breaks. If you have a family, though, they’re probably not too sympathetic, and thus you need to squeeze all this looking around them and their needs of you too. How long would you spend with each application?
If you think through this question in earnest, you’ll realize that a committee simply cannot and will not give each application a great deal of time. I’m sure most of us would like to think that a committee spends about 15 mins reading our materials, for instance, but with 150 applicants, that’d be 2250 mins, or roughly a full work week. Instead, committees will work out short cuts. Some will simply cut all ABDs. They may’ve originally been open to ABDs, hence no stipulation to that effect in the posting, but once looking at the depth of applicants, they may realize they don’t need to entertain ABDs anymore, and they may appreciate cutting the stack in half. They may go straight to your publications and see where you’ve published. They may weed out anyone who has silly typos. They’ll almost definitely weed out anyone who doesn’t provide everything requested (indeed, every committee that I’ve been on has attracted a high number of completely unqualified candidates, yet in today’s market, fishing expeditions are pointless).
Beyond simply weeding out, though, the committee is looking for reasons to weed in. Publications in good places means a lot (and not just lots of publications. Publishing a lot isn’t the point: placing work in good places is. Publishing in bad places usually works against you, especially at bigger name institutions, who don’t want their faculty “wasting time” with “lesser” publications). A cover letter that makes you sound interesting means a lot. Having recommendation letters from respected names means a lot. And if any of those big names know people on the committee or in the department, and are willing to write an email to them on your behalf, that can mean a whole heck of a lot (don’t be one of those doofuses who wants to “get the job myself.” Play all cards that you have).
Knowing something about the university, department, and program also means a lot. This one provokes ire from some applicants, who from their perspective don’t want to learn the intricacies of 40 different departments and write a separate letter to each. Tough shit. If there’s an especially ugly attribute to have on the market, it’s a sense of entitlement. Don’t be that way. Yes, you spent these many years of your life studying. Yes, you probably thought the market would be better than it is. And yes, it sucks that you need to learn about all these departments, many of whom will never even bother to let you know they didn’t like you. Many committees behave badly and make all this work seem pointless. But if you conduct your search with the attitude that the system needs to be nice to you before you’re nice back to it, you’ll be miserable, angry, and unemployed. Everywhere likes to feel special, and candidates who communicate that they’re not just applying for a job, but that they really want this job and thisuniversity can leapfrog over others. Remember, too, that if you’re an ABD, you’re likely not just applying against other ABDs – there are likely a bunch of people who don’t like their jobs and are trying to upgrade; these folk don’t need to apply to everything, since they have a job, and so they can afford to get to know a department and make that show. Those folks already have natural advantages (Ph.D. in hand, teaching experience, probably a better network than yours, likely more time to have published more); don’t just roll over and let them take your job.
You’ll need to personalize applications. Think about what are the buzzwords that any given department wants to hear. If the job posting says they want P, Q, and/or R, you should not only be able to tell them that you do P, Q, and/or R (which means you should do them, not that you should stupidly lie and say you do them when you don’t), but you should be able to use those words. If it’s a humanities-ish department, that’ll require a different vocabulary from a social sciences-ish department (for instance, when applying to more Comms departments, I didn’t use the word “textuality” much, but I’d happily use it when talking to humanities-friendly departments). Liberal arts colleges will want to know how your work matters in the classroom; R1s will want to know that your research is good enough to get you tenure down the road, and that you’re ready and able to teach grad students; if you got all your degrees at fancy R1s and you’re applying to a rural, smaller name university, they may want assurance that you want to be there (and don’t patronize them while doing so – if it’s clear you’re deigning to apply, you’re dead on contact); and so on.
But as you personalize, beware. Perhaps the greatest mistake you can make is to assume that the committee or department think as one. Here’s the honest truth: a lot of departments are populated by people who don’t get along. There are often factions fighting for power. Undoubtedly, therefore, several people in the department didn’t want this search to be prioritized in the first place, and wish they could hire someone else in a different area. Some individuals may have a long-term desire to hire a particular person, or to attach their own stipulations to the hire, while others may have competing requirements. Know the department in full, not just the one or two folks you like. You may know the department as the home of Scholar H, and be proud of the fact that you’re pitching yourself as the ideal colleague for H, but maybe everyone else hates H, and will read your application and say, “Oh dear God, not another H!” Don’t just make your pitch to a single person.
Another note: departments often need to hire people who don’t do what they do, at least not completely. So while in applying for a Ph.D., you would have been wise to focus on places where faculty do what you wanted to do, now that you’re applying for a job, if you’re too close to another department member, there’s likely no reason to hire you. Most programs will usually want someone to cover a research area or to teach a class that others in the department don’t. Your chances of getting the job are low if you’re a clone of a current faculty member, or if you seem like a clone. Thus, for instance, when you look through courses that are currently being taught there, by all means point out a few in their books that you feel you could teach, but beware that those courses may already be spoken for, and be able to offer new courses you might add. And, taking into account the above par. in particular, don’t overplay how much of a BFF you’d be with any department member in particular.
And while we’re at, a final point: be the early bird. Say the due date for an application is December 25 and you’re on the search committee. Do you wait until Dec 25 to start looking at the applications, especially if you expect a couple of hundred to come in? Of course not. These aren’t Christmas presents, and your department isn’t going to wrap them up and put them under a tree. Instead, as they come in, they’re likely made available. So let’s say you’ve looked at 80 applications by Dec 25, and have a shortlist from that group. Since this is before the crunch when a mountain of 70 additional apps all come in on Dec 25, you may have extra time to look at them. You may even, if you’re a keen search committee member, have time to ask around about the candidates whose files appeal to you. You might have discussions with others on the committee, noting excitement about someone’s candidacy. So now let’s shift the “you” here back to being the applicant. I hope you see why getting your application in early is smart. It probably guarantees your file will be looked at with more time. And most importantly, it allows you the chance to get pole position, with subsequent applicants needing to displace you. If the committee’s already found 10 or 15 candidates who look great by the time that last batch come in, yes, they’re meant to look at all files, and yes, they probably will, but you can imagine how easy it would be to do so half-assedly if they’re already happy with their group of 10 or 15. And in today’s market, they’ll definitely be able to find that 10 or 15 without you. Moral of the paragraph? Apply early. Not crazily early, and not at the expense of putting thought into how to personalize your application, but still, don’t wait until the deadline, or you’re playing in a much harder bracket than if you turn up early.
If you decide to run for President of the United States one day, that process will make the academic job application process seem quick and efficient. For all but presidential candidates, though, the academic job market is disgracefully slow. In this post, I’ll discuss some of the reasons why this might be so, while also trying to give a sketch of what to expect. In explaining why why, this isn’t a defense, it’s simply an explanation.
First, you’ll tend to find three waves of postings. The first (and smallest) begins in summer and carries through to about mid- to late-September. These are the departments that likely had approval to get a hire at the end of last year, or whose senior faculty worked in the summer to approve a job posting’s language. The next wave runs from about mid-September to early February. Here, departments either received notice that they have a hire in the summer, but need to wait until everyone’s back for a September meeting before they can officially approve the posting’s language and before the Dean can then sign off on it, or they move quickly to get a job approved starting in September. If a job is tenure-track, it will more commonly be in one of these two waves, and most of the better schools’ tenure-track hires in particular are in these waves.
Why? Because the best schools don’t stay good by picking after everyone else; they like to pick first and make everyone else choose from their leftovers. Some departments may be given a hire in, say, February, and consciously decide to wait to post until the next academic year for this reason.
That leaves the third wave, which takes up much of the Spring semester, and can bleed into Summer, too. Many of these jobs are non-tenure-track, as the department sits down to work out its short-term staffing issues and decides it needs someone for the next year. You also get some knock-on effects of early hires, with a department scrambling to replace someone hired away from them, either with a tenure-track hire or something more temporary. A lot of these temporary jobs don’t appear until the Spring semester, since most departments are smart enough to know that most candidates would prefer a tenure-track job, whereas once Spring arrives, they can bank on the candidates’ chances slimming down. There are of course exceptions, for all sorts of reasons – some great places hire late, some awful jobs go early, etc. This is just a rough sketch.
Okay, so now you’ve applied (early, as I’ve said before and will say again), what can you expect, and why? Some universities will acknowledge receipt of your application, but most won’t. Why, you might ask, won’t these evil turds simply let you know they have your application? It only takes a few seconds to send that email, right? Well, don’t get too mad about this, as frustrating as it is. Basically, the faculty usually don’t get involved with the applications as they’re coming in, since they have classes to teach, students to supervise, projects to work on, etc. Instead, the admin staff often handle applications initially. And your likelihood of getting a response is largely related to how crazily over-worked the department’s front office staff is. When I was at Fordham, for example, we had two campuses, and the lone office administrator at the Bronx campus had to make photocopies of everything sent to her for the second campus. Her job was already insane, without having to do any of this. Other universities have five or six folk in the admin, and might be able to do more. Don’t read too much into this.
Anyways, following the application deadline, the search committee will start laboring through the pile. Telling you that this is hard work may be like complaining about the time it takes to grade papers, as you’re unlikely to feel empathetic. But search committee work is rarely rewarded, so members will need to slot this in and around their regular responsibilities, some of which may be hefty. It’s also a nightmare to schedule meetings for academics, and thus a large amount of time could be wasted simply because someone’s away at a conference, while two other committee members’ schedules clash, and so forth.
If you’re lucky, the committee members started looking at applications as they came in, in which case the process of winnowing down the stack may have begun early; otherwise, it’ll be at least a week, more likely two, before their first meeting. At that meeting, they may cut it down to ten to twenty or so, and if they didn’t ask for a huge amount of materials, they’ll then pause and wait (another week or two) while they contact everyone on their long list for more materials. If they do so, be ready to supply them, or you might miss the boat’s onward progress.
What supplemental materials should you have on hand? Have a teaching philosophy and evidence of teaching effectiveness on hand. Have a research statement. Have copies of published work, or work in progress. ABDs must have copies of a chapter or two of their dissertation. Have a syllabus (or a spec-syllabus) ready. And finally, if you didn’t need to send reference letters, have your referees primed and ready to go in case they need to send one in midstream. Ask your peers and other successful, recent, candidates for copies. Don’t be the one the committee’s waiting on.
Then they’re at it again, and may now be aiming to get a list to phone or Skype interview. But not all universities do this. No, it’s not necessarily a stitch-up when they don’t phone- or Skype-interview: they may just be close readers in other areas. Then it’s on to deciding who to bring to campus. Each step of this process can take a couple of weeks. All in all, then, you should be prepared that it may take two months from application deadline to a decision on campus visits.
But wait! Some universities are forced to delay their search, and may take longer. Sometimes a department has more than one hire, and realizes they simply can’t do both at the same time. Or, occasionally, a university administration freezes a hire, stopping the committee mid-stream.
A frequent complaint of mine when I was on the market was that a university should really contact you and tell you when you’re out of the running. One would hope that at every step of the way with shortlisting and so forth, those cut loose would find out. Alas, while this would be the nice and civil way to do things, it often runs up against university policy. After all, sometimes the shortlist is found to be wanting, and it’s not unheard of for a committee to go back to the pool late in the game. Many departments simply don’t say anything until a person has been offered a contract and put pen to paper. By all means check the Wiki, but remember that some people on the Wiki lie and post updates to ward others away, while some posters are simply wrong (I’ve often seen information on the Wiki that is clearly from a well-meaning grad student in that dept. They hear an offer has gone out, so they read this as “search is over,” without realizing that the offer might be rejected).
Well, let’s assume you’ve had your campus visit and now want to know how long you might be waiting. Here’s the hard part, since you’re agonizingly close, but you may still have to wait. Realistically, assuming there’s been no freeze put in place (and don’t assume they’ll tell you if there is), if you’re the first choice, you should probably hear in no more than two or three weeks after the last candidate has visited. If holidays intervene, add them to the waiting time. But not all departments schedule visits back-to-back. Once I was candidate #1 for a university that had two hires going on. They then, for some unknown reason, had the three candidates out for the second position, before returning to my hire. It was about four weeks until they’d even seen my competition! And the decision itself takes time. It may take a while until the committee meets. Then the department needs to meet, which might also take time to schedule. Then the Dean or Deans need to get involved, and they might be handling other hires or issues.
If three weeks have passed after the last candidate, not including holidays, sadly I’d bet you weren’t the first choice. But check your ego at the door—being picked first isn’t the point, getting the job is. Especially if this hire was open rank, realize that many negotiation processes are long, protracted, and messy. Some candidates need a partner hire, which requires everything to grind to a halt while the Chair tries to negotiate something, and perhaps eventually as the other department brings the spouse out and decides upon their fate. Some senior candidates need to go through the tenure process before officially getting the offer, which could take months. Some candidates and departments enter into other tricky negotiations. In such a situation, you and I could agree that a department should let you know where you stand … but they may not. Some university policies don’t allow them to do so. And some departments won’t want to tell you, since they may have decided that you’re on base, and if they eventually need to offer the position to you, they wouldn’t want you thinking forevermore that you weren’t really their pick.
[An aside: Is it bad to take a job when you weren’t the first pick? Not at all! They’re under no obligation to keep you around just for the heck of it, so if you’re still in the running, they liked you. It may even be a very close call]
If you got the offer, scroll down to that section.
Few things seem to get candidates more irate than the suspicion of an “inside hire.” Nobody likes to be invited to try out for something then realize the competition was over before it began. But because they seem to eat away at so many people’s spleens, I thought I’d dedicate a separate post to discussing them. I also include this since it’s worth considering if you’re offered a non tenure-track position and people tell you they’ll try to convert the position to t-t later.
Do they happen? Yes. But they don’t happen anywhere near as often as the Wiki’s few conspiracy theorists suggest. It is natural to assume that if a department has a tenure-track search, and if they have a non-tenure-track department member who likes the place, that non-tenure-track member will apply. But it’s a very big leap to assume that they’ll get the job.
Here’s some of the ways that the “inside” candidate may be screwed. First, departments often draw a stark line between their tenure-track faculty and their short-term faculty. This line is institutionalized in many ways. An entire department is needed to hire the former, whereas often the Chair or a lone faculty member handles the latter. The latter are rarely invited to department meetings or to sit on other committees (not always out of rudeness, but when you’re not paying someone to do service work, it’s not fair to expect them to do any). And the latter change, so it can be hard to keep up, especially for those profs who are somewhat checked out during any given semester. Short-term faculty often come in, teach their classes, then go. The students see them and may love them; the TAs may know and love them too; but they might elude the tenured or tenure-track department as a whole. None of which helps them especially when they’re applying for a job.
If anything, being “inside” in a situation such as the one described above might actively work against you. Faculty might forget the reasons why the inside candidate didn’t attend meetings, and note, “hmmm…I never see him/her around,” and feel they were therefore pretty insignificant. They’ve likely only seen the inside hire as a teacher, not as an active researcher, as someone on “their” side of the tenure-track / short-term line, which may make it hard to now see them that way.
An “inside” candidate also likely has a crappy teaching load. They might teach 4-4 while everyone else is 3-3, or 3-3 while everyone else is 2-2. They probably teach large lecture classes. They’re probably recently minted Ph.D.s, or not-yet-minted, no less, and thus they might have less experience teaching, meaning in turn that they’re putting long hard hours into their teaching. All that time could come at the expense of research productivity, and thus when one compares them to a tenure-track assistant prof elsewhere, they may compare unfavorably in terms of publications.
“Inside” hires are despised, and many departments know this. Even if they set out wanting to hire the person in question, they may have second thoughts, and start thinking that what they’re doing is wrong. Importantly, too, no search committee is a single-cell organism, and thus in any given search committee, chances are that at least one member is uncomfortable with it. That one person might chip away at the others enough to make the rehire unviable.
On the other hand, yes, the person who is already there has certain advantages. They likely have a much better idea of what’s wanted, not just the two or three buzzwords in the job posting, but a sense of which classes need filling. They may have taught those classes, and in all sorts of other ways they’ll hit the ground running where a new hire will take time to get up to speed. They might not fit the description I give above: they might have good, solid connections; they might attend the occasional meeting; they might otherwise participate in things that let the department know them to be a researcher, not just a teacher. And they might be in a program that really values teaching and loves their evaluation scores.
Indeed, let me say that sometimes an inside hire is a great one. They might be someone who has utterly proven themselves, to the point that you can’t imagine anyone better, or at least to the point that you realize you’d be rolling the dice and risking too much to try and find someone better. They may’ve come to the job with great gusto, thrown themselves into the position and done everything possible to justify being kept around. To devalue all of that is silly. Sometimes it makes sense.
But why don’t they just tell you they’re hiring an insider, you might ask? Believe me, I know this anguish. It was hurled at the heavens many evenings when I lost a job to an insider (the search chair even explained to me an hour before my job talk that it might be sparsely attended since one of the applicants was a current VAP there who’d applied for the same job, and she thought it would be in bad taste to put up posters advertising a job talk by someone else. At which point, I knew I’d wasted a month of my life applying for this one). But they may not know. Going into a situation in which an insider is applying for a job, very few departments know for sure that they will be hiring that person, if for no other reason than they’re aware that the person in question needs to go on the market and hence they might take a different, better job elsewhere. Or if “they” know, “they” might be a small faction of the committee or department, who scheme to get their person in (often a failing strategy, I find, by the way. Nobody on a committee likes being played), and so the department or committee as a whole might not know. Or even if they do all know, they can’t very well tell you. Maybe they are turds, maybe not. Let it go.
As noted above, though, if I bring up the issue of the “insider,” it’s not just to try and convince you to ease the build-up of bile in your spleen. It’s also to remind you that in a year or two you might be the insider. In that case, you’d better believe your moral judgment of hiring insiders will change. But in that situation, you’d also be wise not to believe the hype that you’re a shoe-in, even if someone told you that you are.
The other concern I hear a lot is with regard to open rank hires. It’s easy to see why your average ABD may feel that their chances are nil when competing against a senior prof with multiple books, articles, and courses under their belt, and “profile” in the field.
But I, once again, want to warn you against discounting your chances in such a situation. Granted, this may be an uphill battle; it is, however, by no means an impossible one.
The best thing that an ABD has going for them is potential. I’ve seen committees look at the same file and all extrapolate the person’s career in different ways. If they like you, they’ll all see what they want to see in you. They may also flatter themselves that they can ensure you go in that direction, that with their tutelage and mentorship, you will become the awesome prof they think you could be. Versus this, the senior prof is in trouble, since their CV makes it clear who they already are. Nobody really “projects” with senior profs, and in a diverse department, there’s bound to be someone who doesn’t like their research paradigm, whereas that same person might think the ABD is “cure-able.” You hire senior profs because you know what you’re getting, more or less, not because you see such wonderful potential in them. So as an ABD or recent PhD, your potential is nothing to be sneezed at.
The second best thing that an ABD has going for him or her is hunger. Everyone knows you need a job, and they know you’re going to need to make compromises to get it. A senior prof doesn’t. If they don’t like the deal, they can simply stay wherever they are now, which means a lot of things. First, it means that negotiations with senior profs can drag out, interminably at times. Second, it means that senior profs can afford to push harder for more money, for a partner hire, for that research lab they want, or for green M&M’s in a bowl every Tuesday morning. Senior profs can be a hassle, and sometimes that hassle won’t be judged worth it; at other times, it will be judged worth it, but the hiring attempt will fail, and the committee may need to go to their second or third choice: the hungry, ready ABD.
Third, let’s be honest that some senior profs may not actually want the job. They may simply be applying to get a counter-offer to increase their salary. They may be doing so while up for tenure as security against not getting it. And committees know this. It’s a dangerous game of chicken when you try to hire a senior prof, since they keep telling you they want to come, but you’re never sure of it. By contrast, more people believe ABDs when they say they want to come (lesser schools may have horrific inferiority complexes, but the good schools certainly believe it). And after the committee has played several rounds of Will They, Won’t They with the senior prof, they may simply come to resent it, and may find the ABD’s obvious and unmitigated enthusiasm wonderfully refreshing and attractive.
Finally, don’t assume that an open rank search means the committee wants the highest up the ladder they can get, or at least that everyone in the committee wants that. Sometimes, they’re open to seniority, but may realize that they have an age problem in their department, that they need someone who does the cool new thing, or so forth. Your youth may be exactly what’s wanted and needed, and even if they don’t know it when they publish the posting, they might come around.
Or they might hire the senior prof. But the best thing about losing a job to a senior prof is that it’s so easy to move on from it. If you lose a job to someone whose work is already canonical, it’s hard to begrudge the committee, and it’s easier to move on, actually quite chuffed that you were even in the running with them.
If you are one half of an academic couple, I’d counsel you to learn these rules:
- Living apart is almost definitely going to happen at some point
- Know where one another stands
- Work your living ass off
With more detail, let’s start with the first rule. I’ve known very few academic couples who’ve been together the whole time. Any who have, they either met at their current university, or one of them agreed to be an adjunct or part-timer at some point. Don’t think you’ll be the exception. Instead, plan for it. Early on, refer often to rule (3), which we’ll come back to. But also talk about it with your partner.
If you don’t know where your partner stands, you’re in trouble, personally and professionally. Work out what your dreams and hopes are, and what those of your partner are with regard to work and life. Maybe one of you isn’t really as much into academia as the other one, and doesn’t really care about life as an adjunct or without tenure. Maybe you both love it as much as each other. Maybe one of you has specific institutional needs, or geographic needs, or social ones, that the other doesn’t, which will make it hard for one of you to compromise on certain scores. Work out what’s truly important.
Also know, though, that while there is no sure thing, one of the best ways to increase your chances of being together in the long term are for you to both work and publish. The more you work, and the more that you turn your depression or nerves into raw smarts and hard work, the better your chances become. And here’s a little tip: long distance relationships actually make hard work easy (I speak from experience. My wife and I spent five years apart in various configurations early in our relationship). When you’re not together, you have carte blanche to stay up late working, to work on weekends, to turn into a work machine. You will need to sacrifice if you want a job together, and weekends and evenings were my sacrifice.
See, as an academic couple, your hopes for being together and both employed as academics rest on one of three options: either you get jobs at different universities that are in the same city or region, or one of you sucks it up and takes an adjunct or lecturer position, perhaps with the hope of advancing one day, or a department wants one of you enough to fight to get a partner hire for the other one, who seals the deal. All three situations are made much, much easier by you both being as good as you can be. In the latter case, for instance, it’s not just good enough for Partner A to be a hot-shot; Partner B has to be good enough for the university to play ball and give you a hire. And in general, your chances of getting a job are always better when you’re better. So put down that fifth beer, get your ass home, read, and write.
(Please note: sometimes this is not enough. I don’t mean to imply that hard work will set you free in all cases. Be prepared for suckiness, in other words)
Okay, enough lifestyle counseling for me. Let’s discuss mechanics.
First off, if you’re an ABD, I hate to tell you, but your chances of getting a partner hire are next to nil (though not actually nil: I know of three cases where this worked). See, you’re simply not accomplished enough yet to demand a university go to the effort. Instead, both of you should refer to rule (3) and invest in the future.
When the time comes, you want and need a situation in which the department really wants you. Most of all, though, the Chair must want you. It’s the Chair who is going to be arguing for the hire and be your advocate, so when you have your campus visit, make sure you play real nice with the Chair. The problem is that most people agree that it’s perilous to mention your desire for a partner hire while at the campus visit. Why? Because you immediately label yourself as someone who will be harder to hire, and thus you hurt your case. Note that it may be very hard to avoid such discussions. Nobody is meant to ask you about your marital status, but truth be told, a lot of people will, especially (as I’ll discuss later) if you’re a woman. Some will do so knowingly and in contravention of university policies, but many will do so well-meaningly. They’re trying to get to know you as a person, and asking nice questions about your partner can be a part of that. They might also simply want to present the case for why you should come, and so they hope to spring into reaction by telling you where your kids can go to school, how easy it will be for your partner to find work, etc.
So, you likely bide your time and be awesome until you get the offer. Then what happens? You need to be clear that a partner hire is required, and you need to be honest and open with your Chair. They’re your proxy in this battle, and so they need clear guidance. Don’t be too scared that they’ll go away, not get what you want, and simply revoke their offer to you. If they can’t get what you want, they’ll come back to you … unless they’re a complete douche. Have an open discussion about all the places your partner could work, especially if their work is interdisciplinary. Make sure your partner’s CV and materials are ready to deliver. Do this quickly and early in negotiations, and don’t slot it in as an eleventh hour request.
I’ve heard of more places offering partner hires these days. Tenure-track hires are hard, and non-tenure-track ones more common. But some universities realize, first, that the best way to get a good person is to give them a partner hire; second, that smart people often fall for other smart people, and thus hiring partners isn’t the “trash receptacle” that some imagine it to be; and third, that a happy couple with two good jobs is way less likely or able to go roaming for another job down the line. Partner hires tend to arrive happy with the world, and in love with the university that hired them both, and they can thus make great citizens of the university. Also, be aware that some departments welcome partner hires; they’re not the nasty lepers that some make them out to be. Why? Because a partner hire is sometimes a hire you weren’t going to get anyways. Most departments spend a lot of energy fighting for more hires, and especially these days, those fights often fail. So if a university opens up the coffers to get you a partner hire, it’s likely that a department is getting a “free” hire. (Of course, they may feel that hire is mortgaged against an otherwise future hire, so some resent it. I don’t want to lie about the realities here). Finally, if your partner followed rule (3), who knows, maybe they’re a massive blessing in disguise?
Your Chair’s job will be to find a department that could house your partner, convince that department’s Chair to give you a look, and they’ll hopefully then offer funds from your department’s budget to bring your partner out. They may also pay part of the eventual salary. If it works, and if the Dean gets on board, who knows – you might be happily together in one place.
The other situation is to get the job, get your partner some form of adjunct or lecturer or VAP work, and then hope to make the position better for your partner in the future. In all honesty, I know of more cases where this didn’t happen, but I do know some situations where it has occurred. In the latter, it’s usually because the dept wants the partner with the better job to stay, and is scared they’re going to leave. It may require a competing offer to seal the deal, in other words … which brings us back to rule 3.
Whatever your situation, I wish you luck. And go read Jonathan Sterne’s piece about the same issue.
Now let’s go through the various materials you’re going to send to the committee.
I’ll admit that this is where I start with any package. It’s like the executive summary. And I appreciate when candidates treat it that way. Make it attractive, but don’t go crazy. Really spend some time working out what should go in bold or italics, what font sizes and types to use, where white space is needed, and so forth. The point isn’t to create a work of art, but to facilitate the easy and quick reading of the CV. You want the committee to see that you’re qualified, be interested enough to read the letter, and not slow them down in the process.
Make sure all the important info is there, too. You’d be surprised how many I’ve seen that don’t mention where the PhD is being conducted, the dissertation title, or other salient points. I’m also a fan of a small section near the front that says what your research interests are. Yes, you’ll repeat those in the letter, ideally with context, but for now it could help. All the more so if your publications don’t really indicate the breadth of who you are as a scholar, because without such a section, many people will simply use your publications for a guide. (With that in mind, be aware of what you publish early on and what it might say of who you are.)
Don’t ever bullshit, or even appear to do so. When I read a CV that tries to make a journal submission seem like an actual publication, I’m not at all impressed. Most people I talk to agree that it’s good to list submissions, since it tells the committee the kind of things you’re working on, and what communities you’re aiming it at, but it’s never good to make a submission seem like a bona fide publication. Remember, too, that committee members might be well-connected, so if you’ve gotten a rejection, pull it from your CV straight away – I once read a CV that boasted of a submission to Popular Communication (a journal I co-edited at the time) when we’d rejected it four months prior to the application deadline. In terms of lingo, be clear it’s a submission, or that you have an offer to revise and resubmit, or, if and only if it’s been accepted, that it’s forthcoming.
A CV can in theory be as long as it needs to be, but think about placement of different sections, and think carefully. If you’re waffling on about everything you’ve ever done, you may be pushing important material lower down, where it may not be seen. Think about the university you’re applying to too, so that you don’t, for instance, put teaching really late in an application to a liberal arts college. And while I like and need some white space, don’t go crazy with it just to make the CV look longer, since in such a situation, it looks shorter not longer.
Also, be selective in terms of what you mention from your life pre-PhD program. You’re likely applying alongside people with more experience, and the more that you tout your Grade 10 public speaking contest award, Grade 12 honors list, or so forth, the younger and greener you sound in comparison. Most departments these days need to fight tooth and nail for a hire, and they need people ready to jump into the trenches when they finally get that hire – the young person with 12 Scout badges isn’t likely going to be entrusted with that job. That said, if you did particularly interesting things, include them. When I’m looking through a huge batch, it can be intriguing to see someone who did Peace Corps, who spent a year in Argentina, who wrote a book of short stories, etc.
And the best advice I could give regarding CVs, as with all elements that you send, is to share with peers and ask for their advice. Don’t be silly and vain and too embarrassed to show your friends your CV – better that they point something out than that you get tossed in the No pile as a result of it.
The Cover Letter
Personally, I hate cover letters that simply reiterate the CV. A fair degree of this is needed, but what the cover letter should do, above all else, is narrativize your achievements and interests. The CV doesn’t allow you to give context, so you should provide that in the letter. Perhaps your publications seem an eclectic, odd mix, but have a through-line that you can explain? Perhaps you can explain how your year in the Peace Corps impacts your teaching? Etc. Maybe this is just me, but when I look to a cover letter, I want to see the meat that surrounds the bones that the CV gave me.
Don’t don’t don’t just repeat the CV. Some repetition is of course necessary: realize that committee members may just look at one or the other in their first screening, and if your cover letter relies on the CV to say everything you’ve done and a committee member is just looking at cover letters in that first round, you’re in trouble. But you’re wasting a great opportunity to go beyond the CV if all you do is repeat.
The cover letter should be either two or three pages. Some love longer ones, some hate them – there is no consensus. It should contain a good hearty paragraph that explains your dissertation, but not just what it does, but also why it does that, and how that speaks to your driving force(s) as a scholar. It should contain a hearty paragraph about teaching. It should get the department, city, and committee member names correct (seriously: proofread. It’s amazing how many people merely print the same one that they sent to University of X when applying to University of Y). It should explain why you want to work at this university in particular, live in this town, and so forth.
Don’t go overboard with an attempt to be witty, but do put something of your personality into the letter if possible. I want to see a human being when I read these letters.
And finally, and this is very hard, so you’ll likely need friends to proofread for you, but try to strike the right balance between being clear about your achievements and not sounding arrogant. You’re selling yourself, so don’t just sit back and hope the committee notices you. Yes, it feels dirty, but it’s required. At the same time, if you come across as a headstrong prick, you’re unlikely to go anywhere.
The Teaching Philosophy
Personally, when I’m asked to write one of these, it feels like I’m being asked which is my favorite healing crystal and why. Don’t get me wrong: I love teaching, and it is the engine that allows me to function. It’s my happy place. But it feels wanky writing my “philosophy.” It also feels dirty, since it makes my personal interactions with students seem somehow staged, pre-scripted, and regimented. But some schools and some committee members love their crystals, I guess. So what to do?
First off, if you’re asked to write one of these, be strategic with division of material between this and the cover letter. The advantage (if you’re a verbose bastard like me) of being asked to write a teaching philosophy is that it gives you carte blanche to say more about yourself, so don’t just cut and paste the paragraph from your cover letter – go beyond it and say more. Don’t just repeat metrics that you’ve included elsewhere (on CV or in a “dossier”): explain why and how your teaching works.
Second, beware that this is a document that might make you look painfully student-y if you indulge the urge to write about teaching from the student’s perspective with too much zeal. Remember to frame your comments as those of one who teaches and wants to teach, not simply as one who receives instruction.
Third, a word about liberal arts colleges – they can be cult-like in that they really like their own. If you didn’t go to a LAC for your undergrad, they may already be dubious about your ability to “fit in.” This document might really matter to them, therefore, so if you’re applying to a LAC, make sure you do an extra fine job of explaining how teaching matters to your work.
As for the rest, well, that’s kind of up to you, but I’d pick two or three central, unifying points and harp on them. These documents are usually a page, maybe a tiny bit more.
A Teaching “Dossier”
“What is this?” I’ve often been asked. It’s a collection, primarily of your teaching evaluations and possibly syllabi. At least as I read it, though others should correct me if wrong.
Don’t include the entire batch of evals – just give the topsheet and a sample of comments. If your university doesn’t create a topsheet that tabulates your scores, do this yourself (if the form asks a bunch of questions, just tabulate the numbers for the general one, the one that sounds like “Overall, how would you evaluate this professor?”), but be honest and label it as your tabulation. And by “sample,” I mean a sample of the good stuff. Include between about 5 and 20, depending upon how long they are. And remember your audience: “Prof Gray is the fucking man” makes me happy but isn’t one to share, nor would a bland “Excellent. 10/10” be worth much – pick the thoughtful, engaged, expansive comments.
As for syllabi, opinions diverge here, and so let’s hope you’re in a position to ask the search committee what they’d like (since dossiers are often asked for later on, not straight away). But personally, I want to see what a person taught as the instructor of record, not as a TA. Some places are interested in how you would teach a course, though, so if you have no syllabi on hand because you’ve never been the instructor of record, you might want to start devising one or two syllabi now that you can share as prospective syllabi. I say now because syllabi are awful when rushed, meaning you might as well have things in hand now. Trust me, the experience of doing this could help, too, since it’s a common question for interviews – “we really need someone who can teach X. How would you do this?” – and it’s the question I’ve seen flubbed most spectacularly by some. A little prep in putting together a syllabus in advance could help you own this question.
A Research Statement
By contrast to the teaching philosophy, I love writing these, partly since they don’t seem calculating when they’re about research rather than people, partly because I find it really hard to sum up what my research is all about in one paragraph for the cover letter.
This is your chance to explain how everything you do as a scholar fits. Bear in mind that when you go up for tenure, your department will need to explain the same thing, so they need to hire someone who they can explain. This is where you do it for them. Explain in terms this department will understand and appreciate. Use the opportunity to elaborate more upon your dissertation, yes (and again, don’t just repeat your cover letter). Explain how any other publications you’ve produced fit into this. If you have interesting life experiences that connect with your research, here’s a great spot to mention them and involve them. But importantly, remember to talk about what’s next and how that fits. As an ABD, maybe you’re so deep into your project that you don’t know, but remember that the committee wants evidence that you’re actually going to finish on time, and an ability to discuss the next step is strong evidence here. Make sure you can deliver.
Again, these are often a page, though I think two, especially for an R1 application, is fine. That may just be me.
Sample of Writing
This may be the only example of your scholarship that a committee reads. If you advance to future levels, it may be circulated to the department. So make sure you think it represents you well, not only in quality, but also in focus.
Here’s where ideally I need to back up and give some advice about publishing. During your Ph.D., try to get at least one article on your topic out to a really solid journal, or placed in another high profile place. This will of course make your CV look better, as will all publications (and ideally it won’t just be one!). But it will be what you can submit. Understandably, you may want to hold onto your diss. material for longer, and hence may be more inclined to send out other papers, perhaps ones that grew out of coursework. It’s okay to send such material out, but remember that if this is all you have published or finished, that may be all you can send to a committee. All of a sudden that eclectic paper you wrote for an elective class, when your diss. is about something completely different, will be your calling card. So be prepared (if it’s not too late to say so!).
As an applicant, I much preferred being able to send something that is typeset and formatted too, not just a Word doc. I felt it looked professional, and was a subtle reminder that, yes, I had been published. Ditto as a committee member. Some of this is Pavlovian: most academics read Word docs with red pen in hand, as graders or reviewers, whereas they read typeset material differently, perhaps with highlighter in hand. Don’t invite the former type of reading if possible.
That said, if your best material, and your most appropriate material, is a Word doc, then that’s what you send. Reformat to 1 or 1.5 spacing, so it seems less classroom-essay-like. Maybe even find a font other than Times to help the cause. And it should be okay – don’t stress too much. But proofread and factcheck really closely.
As a professor in a department with an active graduate program, I thank the heavens that more and more places are digitizing these requests, pinging me for a rec letter rather than requiring me to print one up. Still, all those pings add up. So do your rec letter writers a favor and get on Interfolio, and work out how to use it not just to send letters at the outset, but how to direct later requests from a committee for rec letters to Interfolio. Think about other ways to lighten your rec letter writers’ loads, and talk to them in August about their preferences, then follow those preferences.
Be on top of application due dates, and make sure your rec letter writers know what’s required of them long in advance. They have lives and shouldn’t be rushed. Make sure, too, that your late applications don’t force their hand – some online application systems, for instance, only ping your rec letter writers after you’ve submitted your application, and if you’re submitting two minutes before the deadline, of course they’ll be pinged two minutes before the deadline as well.
How do you choose letter writers? Your dissertation supervisor should obviously be one (and if they aren’t, people will definitely wonder why not). Thereafter, the ideal is people who’ll be known and loved by committee members and who know and love you, though the tie-breaker should always favor those who know and love you (i.e, don’t pick someone who has a big name but will write a totally bland, boring, ineffectual letter). Put a little thought, too, into who else the writer is likely to be writing on behalf of, since you’d better believe that committee members will compare the 8 letters by Professor K if they notice they have 8 letters from Prof. K. Thus, for instance, you may have a connection to a scholar at another grad program who is big stuff, but unless they know you well enough to write a letter that is as comprehensive and glowing as whatever they write for their advisees, think carefully before asking them to write for you too.
If you have more than three people who could write such letters, great: use them all. Put them into rotation, and use the ones that fit each job best, thereby also “resting” others in the process.
Go easy with submitting things that weren’t requested. Usually a committee will request what it wants when it wants it. If you start including all sorts of other shit, you may come across as too intense or as arrogant. Play by the rules they give you, in other words.
That said, if, for instance, you’re applying for a job in a dept that does production, and you’ve produced something spectacular that can be included easily (i.e, on a DVD or digital file), that’s acceptable.
What You Don’t Send
So there’s this incredible thing called Google. And another thing called Twitter. And another thing called Facebook. And Ratemyprofessor.com. And onward. They’re all easy to use. Search committees may use them with ease too. When I visited Madison, a committee member let me use their computer to check my flight status home, and when I shook the computer out of sleep, in the little Google search bar in the top right of the browser I found my name.
Thus, be very aware of your online presence. What’s available to non-friends on Facebook? (often people’s likes are, for instance, so what will it say about your politics, tastes, causes, temperament, etc.?). What pictures of you are available online? Are you an aggressive Tweeter, and if so, what sort of things do you say? If you’re fond of snark, criticism, argument, etc., you might want to temper your online interactions so that a peremptory search doesn’t pose you as a troll. Or more to the point, just be a good person online in the first place, so you don’t have to hide your badness.
And here’s a biggie: what are you saying about the job search online? I know someone who made the shortlist at a major university (not mine), then got cut because the search committee (one of whom told me about this) saw their posting online about the search, and about which universities the candidate liked, didn’t like, etc. Even though the university in question was listed by the candidate as a favored university, the committee felt that the whole thing showed a lack of maturity and professionalism. Above, I noted, and will repeat here, that you should be careful about how much you rage against the machine and complain about the market on social media, not only since it puts you in a spin cycle of negativity, but also because it can and likely will work against you if committee members see it. Why? Because here’s two secrets: (1) we all have deeply dysfunctional universities, and (2) stress only gets worse after grad school. Thus, if you’re seen to be having a miserable time in grad school and on the market, every committee member out there who sees or hears this will likely worry about how much more you will hate life in their department, in their university, and/or in their state.
This isn’t all necessarily bad. After all, perhaps you have a great online presence. You might have a lovely personal webpage that goes beyond the CV on one hand, while illustrating your tech literacy on another (and remember that many search committee members will be quite tech illiterate by comparison, so you can impress them easily here). If you study new media, you probably should have some kind of online presence, in particular, and that can help you, so think about this as you approach the market.
Indeed, and to close this section, let’s add an important coda to the “Think Like a Search Committee” task we engaged in above. Search committees want nice people. They can’t ask you “please send evidence of you being nice,” and thus the things they ask for are tailored towards showing them other things. But if you get the job, get tenure, and stay, and if they stay, you may be colleagues for 30 or so years. Search committees really want nice people. And they’ll go looking for evidence of what kind of a person you are. So be nice and make sure you look nice online.
These are hard. Committees never seem to schedule enough time for them, and they’re often doing a bunch, meaning they need to keep moving, and they can become really robotic. They might just be with one person, but otherwise they’re probably poorly choreographed, with committee members each assigned different questions but tripping over each other, asking the question anyways even if you answered it in the process of answering another question, etc.
They’re also hard since they’re quite often where a committee may be at its most combative. Search committees are rarely composed of an entire department, much less of everyone you’ll meet if you advance to a campus visit, and thus the quality of candidates that make it to the campus visit reflect back on them and how good they are at their job. They might even reflect back on their own little area of the department or university, as a bad slate of candidates can be embarrassing, inviting others on campus to wonder what the heck’s wrong with their area that these are the best three candidates they could find. And thus phone or Skype interviews can at times push and prod you in ways to ascertain your structural integrity as a candidate.
A real challenge with them is knowing how long to talk. Maybe they want short answers, or maybe they want long ones. I recommend adopting a two pronged approach here, first using a journalistic pyramid-style form of answer – whereby you start with the short version but be ready to elaborate – and second checking in with them. It’s not bad form to give an answer then say “would you like me to say more about that?” Perhaps you’ve given a quick overview of your dissertation, and end by asking “is that clear, or would you like me to discuss the chapter breakdown and my major case studies more?” Perhaps they asked you how you’d teach such-and-such a class and you give broad thematics before asking “Would you like more detail?” Indeed, it’s fine to be totally self-reflexive and say, “I don’t want to ramble on, but I also want to ensure you hear the level of detail you want, so please stop me if you want, or ask for more if you want.”
Another challenge is not to sound boring. Or just weird. So make sure you do this somewhere you can speak at a regular volume, without any interruption (pets included!). If you’re on the phone, be somewhere you can walk around and gesticulate, since that might help you sound more engaged and enthused, rather than if you’re lying on your bed like you’re about to take a nap.
Think about framing if you’re on Skype. You might be on a large screen in a meeting room for them, and thus if your laptop is on your lap staring up at you, you might appear as an imposing giant head. Every time you move your head a touch to the left or right, this might be magnified on their large screen. And if you’re poorly backlit (by a window behind you?), it might actually be causing them physical harm to look at you. The laptop should, therefore, never be actually on your lap. Put it at head level at a distance for a nice, medium-range shot – they should be able to see you, your expressions, etc., without you looking like a face of the fallen projected onto the night sky in Hunger Games. At the same time, think about what’s behind you, not just in terms of backlighting, but in terms of what’s there. This may not be the best place to show off your snowglobe collection. Look professional. And turn off everything else on your computer, so your eyes aren’t veering away, so that dings and beeps and cute little songs aren’t announcing all sorts of other happenings on your computer and distracting everyone in the process. Meanwhile, ensure you look into the camera at them, and move the screens around on your computer to ensure it is easy and natural to do so.
If it’s a phone interview, by all means have notes in front of you. If it’s a Skype interview, don’t, since every glance at your notes may either be read as disinterest or social oddity if they don’t realize you’re looking at notes, or as a lack of being able to think on the spot if they do realize. Be sparring with notes in either case, though, since you need to stay in the moment.
What if you’ve never used Skype? Never ever make your first use of Skype an interview. Realize that in media studies, fairly or unfairly so, almost all technical literacies or illiteracies are read as being especially appropriate or inappropriate. If you can’t work out how to turn on your camera, or realize just now that your computer doesn’t have a microphone, someone on the committee is pratically guaranteed to ask the others “how the heck will they handle a class about the media when they can’t even ….” So if this tech is new to you, take it for a test drive with friends, and get to know it well. If your home has spotty wifi (or cell coverage), don’t do it at home. These should be obvious pointers, but they’re frequently overlooked.
What questions will you be asked? Most are predictable. You should be able to discuss your dissertation, and note your progress. You should be able to say what’s next and what your future plans are, both for the dissertation and for next steps. You should be able to discuss classes you’ve taught, and in general should have a very short version of your teaching philosophy ready to discuss. If there are specific classes the posting says you’ll need to teach, be ready to discuss how you’ll teach them – what sections and components will the class have? what book(s) will you assign? how will you grade the class? You should be able to pose classes you’d like to teach, at the undergraduate and (if this exists there) graduate level. You should be able to answer why you’re applying here specifically. If there are special skills or tasks the posting calls for, be ready to elaborate upon your credentials. And have some questions ready for them (see below for questions to ask).
When you’re done, you will likely feel like you bombed. They’re hard, as I said, which means it’s hard to do well in them, much less to feel like you did well. My sense, too, is that many search committees feel as though they need to regulate these interviews, giving everyone the same questions, giving nobody more positive reinforcement than others, etc. What this means, practically, is that their faces may be quite stoic on purpose. And remember that academics are weird beasts anyways: that person sitting in the corner of the screen looking off-screen as though they’re bored or unimpressed may just be bad with this whole social thing. Or they may be letting their colleagues run the show since they already know they love you.
You’re dumb not to reflect on how it went and to consider how you might answer questions like that next time, but don’t overdo the second-guessing and play-by-play analysis: it’s normal to feel as though you did poorly. And focus any reflexivity on the important duo of questions: (1) how could I handle that question better for other committees? and (2) what didn’t I say that I need to remember to add when on campus, should I get that far in this search?
When this is over, it’s entirely fair to ask your point of contact about timeline going forward. Indeed, you should do so. But you needn’t waste time in the interview doing so if time is short.
As an intro to discussing interviews, let me share two stories of interviews – a good one, and a bad one (they’re also the first and the second respectively – I thought my later ones would be less helpful for ABD readers). I’ll list lessons from them at the end. But I want to share the stories, since my sense is that most people hear about “the job talk” and little more, thereby focusing all their energy on a small (albeit vital) part of the visit.
The Good One
My first job interview ever was at Berkeley. I got into Oakland airport late afternoon, got the shuttle to the hotel where Patty Hearst was a hostage, quickly learned what that meant since everyone seemed to care about this, and then was picked up for dinner by a committee member. Nice meal. A bit of work-talk, but mostly a lot of friendly chit chat about all sorts of things. We got along really well, and so I went back to the hotel feeling good. But I also felt terrified: she hadn’t grilled me with hard questions, and I’d been expecting them. Would tomorrow be the day? I didn’t sleep well.
Early the next day (I arose on Eastern time), after sitting fidgeting with my notes for my talk for about an hour, I put on my blazer and went to meet the same committee member for breakfast. I was then shuttled from office to office, meeting different people, working up to the Dean. The Dean was an imposing figure (if by title alone), yet we chatted about English football and comedy, and did a whole lot of laughing.
I had no job talk per se, since this was a lecturer position. Instead, I had to teach one of a committee member’s classes, with the committee in attendance. This is a weird beast, since on one hand, I’m a believer in chemistry in performance, and this audience was new to me, but had expectations of this space. That said, I had tried to tailor my topic to what they were doing in the course, not too much since that wasn’t possible, but at least with some nominal shout-outs, which they seemed to appreciate at the time. On the other hand, there were five committee members sitting in the class, clearly spooking the students a bit, making them self-conscious about their questions to me, and hence somewhat killing the “so, do you have any questions?” component, and making me work that component a little harder. It spooked me too, since I struggled to know which audience to talk to, the professors at the sides of the classroom, or the students. But I think it went well, nevertheless.
I was toured around the campus after, introduced to the media librarian (who, I might note, was an absolute god of his craft), shown the Free Speech Café (nice to see all those sixties radicals got a latte bar named after them, eh?), introduced to a few more people, and then was deposited back at the hotel, where I fidgeted around some more, restless, till I was picked up about an hour or so later for dinner. The committee and I had a lovely meal, and again it was pleasant conversation. As we got up to leave the table, I remember remarking to them that everyone had been so nice, and nobody had been really intense and gruff with questioning. One answered, “well if we treated you that way, why would you want to come?”, which I thought was a lovely answer, and off I went home, with the promise of hearing from the committee when they made their decision.
Maybe two weeks later, I had an answer, and got the job. Wuhoo!
The Bad One
University of Bad Job Interview (Hereafter, BJIU) called me when I was in Berkeley, during my first year, asking me to come to a job interview. The next week. Indeed, the dept head had taken the liberty of reserving me a ticket, which she claimed I could change if I wanted, but made it clear I couldn’t really. President’s Day weekend was in between, and my girlfriend (who was living in New York) and I were going to meet in DC for the weekend. So our trip ended up kind of sucky – with me agonizing over a job talk (my first one, no less!). I also ping-ponged from Berkeley to DC to Berkeley back to the East Coast.
The flight the dept head had booked was awful. I left San Francisco at about 11:30 pm, arrived in Chicago in the early, early hours of the morning, then had a two hour layover there before continuing to an airport an hour’s drive from BJIU. Nervous energy + redeye flights + two hour layover when you can’t sleep for fear of missing second flight = no sleep. The dept chair and the very lovely dept member who she had sent to pick me up both insisted I could sleep in the car, but I knew I couldn’t. Besides, what if I drooled, snored, or talked in my sleep?
We arrived at BJIU, where I’d been told clearly by the dept chair that I’d be allowed a few hours to sleep, then have a late lunch with two dept members, a meeting with the grad and undergrad committees solely to discuss what I could teach, a break, dinner, and then they’d work me harder the next day. Ha.
Instead, the hotel didn’t have my room ready, and the only two chairs in the lobby were taken. The person who picked me up apologized, but needed to leave to teach a class, so I was left alone to wander the area. And it was snowing. Eventually I got into my room, got an hour’s sleep, and then it was lunchtime. Nice people, understanding of my situation. Then off to the meeting. Myself and most of the whole friggin’ department, each of whom had one, pre-arranged question. A few were about teaching, as was promised, but most aimed to grill me on the finer points of my dissertation, subsequent research, and thoughts about theory. With even two hours of sleep in me, maybe I could’ve handled that, but ninety minutes of being beaten around by a team of fifteen or so was sheer abuse on the amount of sleep I’d (not) had, and I’m sure my candidacy was dead in the water by the end of that meeting.
I walked out hoarse, clearly getting a bad cold. Over dinner, I continued to lose my voice even more so. I got about three hours sleep that night, between the cold, the absurdly high temperature in my room which dried me out completely, and the second-guessing of every question. I woke up unable to speak. After tea, I had my voice back, but in a croaky, unpleasant way. And I had an upset stomach now, which haunted me for the rest of my trip.
For my job talk, they were supposed to record it so that others who weren’t there could see it afterwards. Then one of the profs told me he forgot to record it. Nobody seemed all that worried. Over dinner, the same prof asked my age. At the time I was 29, and was self-conscious about not seeming “too young.” Usually my balding did the trick, but not here. A colleague told him he wasn’t allowed to ask. He didn’t care. I had to answer, and all had tell-tale “ahhhhhh” looks to share amongst themselves. Not good.
The Dean interview was categorically bizarre. She had a desk on one side of the office, and a round table on the other. She pointed me to the latter, was about to sit down and join me, but then worriedly retreated to the desk, where she picked up a small sushi plate full of tiny porcelain animals. She brought this prop/totem back to the table, placed it down gingerly, and for the rest of our interview, I awaited in horror some silly “so, which animal would you be?” question … though it never came. To this day, I still have no fucking clue what those animals were doing there.
Meeting with the grad students was painful too. It was painfully obvious that one of them didn’t like my research specialty, didn’t see what it would offer them, and thus sat at breakfast with a permanent scowl on their face, asking me stupid questions. It was also simply hard to work out how to play it. I was their age or younger, and only one year out of my Ph.D. Yet I’d need to be a faculty member and advise them. Part of me wanted to just be one of the group, part of me wanted to assert some sense of having something to offer them. Both parts likely failed, especially since Scowly wanted it that way.
Eventually, on the last morning, I woke up with absolutely no voice.
While there, people were nice enough in the meals, but seemed to want to break my limbs in the interviews. A few welcome exceptions. One of them wasn’t on the committee, and as a tenure-track faculty member clearly wasn’t even meant to talk to me (which was bizarre in and of itself). This person was super-excited by my job talk, though, and asked if we could have coffee during my one break. Sure. So we did. Neat discussion, and they were all full of promises to lobby on my behalf, and full of thoughts of potential collaboration. When I emailed them later, they never replied. To this day. Maybe the porcelain animals ate them?
Someone let it slip while I was there that I was the first candidate being interviewed for one position, but that after me the dept was shifting to the three candidates for their second position. Spring Break and three candidate visits intervened, so I knew that by the time the next two people for my position turned up, I’d be long since forgotten. Sure enough, when, about 10 weeks later, the dept head called me to give me the news, she prefaced her comments by apologizing since she knew that I had a spouse at the town/city of BJIU and that I was hoping to be there; I had to tell her I wasn’t even married. Ouch.
Comments and Lessons
1. It’s a marathon. As said, I tell these stories partly to remind candidates that campus visits are marathons. The Berkeley one was quite short, but even then it was much more than just a talk. Your first urge will be to put all your energy into the job talk, thinking that this is the centerpiece of the visit. Granted, it’s very important. But at BJIU my job talk was okay, I think (not great at all, but not bad per se). Yet I was destroyed by not being ready for everything else. I wasn’t ready for the physical endurance test that an interview is. I didn’t have enough hot drinks and cough sweets on hand in between meetings. I let someone take up my sole rest time that I really, really needed. I accepted a shitty flight that dumped me at BJIU in a bad state. And I wasn’t ready for the questions to come my way hard, fast, and furious before the job talk. Realize that you are “on” from the second you step off the plane to the second you’re back on it, with sleep or toilet breaks your only escapes. And realize that you can die just as easily outside of the job talk, so be ready for the whole visit.
2. It’s social. You can also succeed just as easily outside of the job talk if you’re ready for it. Remember that these people want someone they can live with. This isn’t a summer job: everyone involved will really want to hire someone with whom they want to spend time. I like to think that if you’re really nice in an easy-going, genuine way, you can beat at least one of your competitors without even taking intellectual performance into account. All these social encounters that happen before your talk can be especially important, as you can set the frame, with some people therefore wanting you to be good and taking a forgiving approach to the talk, or, if you screw up socially, with others determined to dislike what they hear. But framing for the job talk aside, a lot of a campus visit is eating, chatting, and being a decent human being. If you’re not as prepared for that as for the other parts, you’re dead. Do whatever you need to cheer yourself up, in other words – eat a happy breakfast, play inspirational music your first morning, or whatever. Just be your best self.
3. Everyone matters. My talk at Berkeley went well, and I got compliments from the committee. But the students were apparently especially enthused. They appreciated me catering the class to them, when apparently none of my competitors did, which they later spoke of to their professor as respect. The media librarian and I got along really well, and he too passed on his review to the committee. In other words, I was scoring points with people who certainly didn’t have votes, but who helped those with votes make up their minds. So be nice to everyone. I’ve heard of some candidates who know which are the committee members, or which are the tenured faculty (since non-tenured faculty don’t vote on personnel issues at some universities, fyi) and they treat those who aren’t official voters poorly, or not as well as others; this inevitably backfires, since the committee are told about it, and it makes you look bad. As it should. Don’t be a jerk, to anyone.
4. Interviews are full of “spoilers.” Early on, you’ll realize that a lot of people are going to ask you the same questions. Don’t make the mistake of thinking they’ll all share answers later, so be prepared to repeat central things about yourself. And they’ll often ask you about your research, making you wonder how much of your job talk you should “spoil” by telling them in advance. My personal answer to this issue is to be strategic: assume that unless they tell you they can’t attend your talk, they’ll see it, and thus you should use your scant time with people outside the job talk to discuss your other work, and/or to contextualize the larger project. I only know of a few departments in which everyone reads the candidate’s CV and writing sample; usually, by contrast, a small group (the committee) know the full you, and everyone else will only know what you tell them in the job talk or in the one-on-one interviews. Make sure you tell them more in those interviews. As for the incessant repetition of the same answers, so be it, and be prepared for it. Or, prove that you know a bit about the dept, and try to answer in ways that make sense for the person asking you.
5. You have planning rights. You are always within your right to say that a specific time is bad for a campus interview. You should try to be accommodating, yes, but committees nearly always have other slots, or should. If it’s really bad timing, you can say so.
6. Rest and sleep. Benadryl: use it. Perhaps every night. You can’t afford not to sleep. Make yourself sleep. Similarly, look at your schedule, know when you’ll have a break, and be ready to use it. These things can be remarkably tiring. They can at times be physically taxing, with lots of walking around, and with your larynx always at work. But they are also psychologically taxing, as you’re not only trying to read the reactions of everyone you’re talking to; you’re also trying to decide if you actually like the place yourself. In 2010, when I wrote the first version of this post, I wrote, “I know of nothing more absolutely tiring than the academic job interview”; I’ve since had a kid and thus found that sentence cute, but outside of childcare, the statement stands. Your mind moves at about ten times normal pace, which takes its toll quickly, and those little 15 minute segments when you’re allowed to sit alone in between meetings are golden, so take them. Any time you can go to the toilet, do, even if only to sit and breathe slowly, or to munch a granola or protein bar (bring one or two) in case they underfeed you.
7. Know your schedule. Get a schedule of the visit beforehand. Some places are really bad about this, but gently pushing them is wise. You shouldn’t be blindsided as was I in BJIU; you should know what’s coming up. If you’re a vegetarian, let the committee know beforehand (they may forget or be too oblivious to ask), rather than end up in a chop house for dinner eating the side salad. Etc. They may also ask if there are other things you want to do while there. Always ask for a little time to explore the town if you can. They will only be impressed by this, and it’s wise for you. You’ll likely be so swept up by “do they like me? Do they like me?” thoughts for most of the interview, along with the stress that goes with that, but an hour to look at neighborhoods, the main street, or whatever can help shift you to “do I like this place?” which in turn will make you feel a little less under the microscope for a while. (Don’t overdo this, though: the committee isn’t likely to be fond of paying for your holiday, so don’t ask for a full day or anything like that).
8. Give a fantastic job talk, and nail the questions. As a corollary of the above point, make sure you know the parameters for the talk. Know exactly how long you should speak, and how long you’ll have for questions. Ask around, if possible, to find out what the department’s job talk culture is like – some don’t ask many questions, some come alive during the questions, etc.
As for the talk itself, first off, prepare. Really know it. The department use this to see how you’ll perform at conferences, how you’ll do in front of students, and how you hold up under pressure, so a bad performance is decimating. By contrast, a good performance can send shockwaves around the department. Don’t take it lightly, and don’t be a fool and prepare it last minute. Start early, so that it’s second nature when you go. Don’t wait till you get the invitation, either: know what you’ll talk about now, plan out some details, and then adapt to time length later. That preparation is all the more important if you’re an ABD: departments will be keen to see signs of confidence in your academic skin.
Ensure you put meat on the bone – don’t waste all your time giving an overview, and resist the urge to tell them everything you can do. Focus. You’ll almost definitely have non-specialists in the room, and empiricism mixed with authoritative, impressive delivery is what will impress them. It’s fine (or even preferable) to start and/or end with a bit more of the big picture, whereby you show how this talk fits into your broader goals as a scholar, and/or whereby you situate your talk within the existing literature. But don’t get lost there – make sure that the bulk of your talk (unless you’ve been told very clearly to do otherwise) picks a specific case and nails it.
Never go over time. My experience is that most departments want to ask questions. When you go over, you deny them their question time. And thus whoever doesn’t get to ask you a question will be especially peeved that you rambled on. Be prepared to cut five minutes off, too, since you’ll likely begin late for one reason or another, but the dept may not factor that in when timing you.
And be ready for questions. It’s common for candidates to feel great relief after the talk is over, but the talk is only part of what’s going on. You’re also being tested for how you act on your feet. Know that the question period after a job talk is often one of the very few spaces in which dept members see each other at work as intellectuals, so it can at times be a space for proving their mettle to one another, and for intellectual posturing and chest-beating. Questions can be hard, and since you’re likely delivering to an audience that’s much wider than your own sub-field, questions may come from odd (to you) directions. Do a practice job talk if your current dept lets you, and ask people to fire tough questions at you. Be ready to discuss methods, since someone always asks about methods. Know what research paradigms will be represented in the room, and hence what kinds of questions to expect.
Be ready physically, too. When you finish, drink something. Reset yourself quickly. Don’t slack off. Stay standing and alert. And the more you practiced your talk, the more you’ll be ready for what comes next too. Don’t just be scared, either: realize that questions allow you to discuss aspects of the project that you couldn’t fit into the narrow time given to you for your talk. Don’t be a politician and answer a question against itself, but do have material up your sleeve. Also, don’t jump out of the gates – have a pen and paper, write notes as a faculty member questions you, don’t cut them off, and don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. If they only get one question each, and you cut someone’s question off, misinterpret it, or mess it up, you’re obviously not helping yourself. Stay upbeat, though, and even if you’re feeling like a punching bag, don’t show it.
9. Deans are odd. Not all of them, granted. But bear in mind that most deans go through a huge number of applicants in a year. And they have many other things to do. So deans are often the chit-chatters. One of my dean interviews began with the Dean’s impassioned defense of Family Guy as wonderful. I describe two others above. Another was all about how crappy the market is. My wife was once asked about horse-racing for 15 mins when she noted she was from Kentucky. And yet these folk matter. So humor the crazy talk, be ready for the ride, and be ready to sound smart about what you do when the crazy talk inevitably ends for a minute or two of sobriety.
10. Be ready with your own questions. My wife once noted to me that she preferred one-on-one meetings with older faculty members, since they tended overwhelmingly to ask questions, whereas younger folk overwhelmingly tend to offer you the chance to ask them questions. It’s likely because the younger ones remember the experience of newness, and the terror of interviews, so they want to help you be at ease. However, being asked a question is often easier than being asked for the 25th time in a day if you have any questions. Believe me, you will get that question a lot. So be prepared with some questions, but know that your questions will be read and interpreted just as answers would be.
- Don’t ask about the salary – you discuss that with the Chair only if you get the offer. But you can ask how and if salaries rise in the dept. Some universities have great merit pay systems, some give an automatic incremental each year, some have nothing.
- Ask about summer teaching – are you expected to do it? are you able to do it?
- Ask young faculty about their experiences of the tenure system, though watch your tone – you don’t want them reporting back that you seemed terrified of the system.
- Ask younger faculty about inclusion in the dept, service responsibilities, etc.
- Be very, very careful asking about partner hiring, as that’s usually for the Chair after you get the offer. Such a question risks translating as “Hi, I might be very hard to hire, and your dept might end up failing the hire because of me,” so it’s best to avoid it completely.
- Ask what they’re working on. This might give your voice a rest, or it might offer you chances to connect with them on side interests, or simply for you to prove that you’re able to think meaningfully about other people’s topics too.
- Ask questions about the town, housing prices, etc. Be careful not to sound arrogant, as though you assume you already have the job, or haughty as though you’re evaluating whether or not to take it, but if you give the impression of really being interested in the town, this might allay fears that you don’t really want to come (which many schools have), and they’re questions that will really help you if you get two or more offers.
- Ask about the types of students, demographics, etc.
- Ask what conference, travel, and research funding is like.
11. Don’t Play Favorites. You may bond really closely to someone while there, which is great, but don’t overdo it. Remember that this person may not be well liked in the dept, may belong to a faction, etc., and all of a sudden you’ll be seen as someone who is going to fall into “that” camp/group/faction/way of being. Keep level-headed too. Some dept members may love you but have very little to do with the decision making process. Others may be absolutely charming, but may merely be giving you the same charm they give every candidate. Don’t let any of it go to your head, in other words, but also don’t let yourself think that one vote has you the job, and be sure to talk to everyone you can.
12. The Grad Student Meeting. As noted above, this can be really hard for younger faculty. If you simply try to fit in, they might balk at the idea that “one of them” would be their prof. Instead, then, you might try to build some distance between you and them. But then you risk coming off as a jerk. With age and profile, this is less of a problem. In the meantime, think about how you react as a grad student to visiting faculty – what do you want from them, how do you expect them to act, and what works for you? In point of fact, grad students rarely factor into decision making in a direct fashion, but positive buzz is your friend, so I refer you back to #3.
13. Dress and Behave Properly. Try and find out what the dept’s dress code is like and fit in, or shoot slightly above that. If nobody wears ties, though, be aware that you might be overdoing it with the tie. If makeup is sparse on the first day, be prepared to put on less the next day. Cut down on any fidgety behavior. Don’t drink more than one glass of wine or beer at dinner (this can be hard. Often the table will be keen to drink on the university’s dime, but especially with the mental state you’re likely in, you may be a really cheap drunk, and that is not the look you want to convey!). But a friend recommends you should order a dessert: the table may not do so if you’re not, so the sugarholics will either be denied by your virtuousness or rewarded by your indulgence. Have comfortable shoes in which you can walk around the campus in whatever weather is there. Job season is Winter, so have warm clothing for cold places. Be practical yet professional.
14. Don’t Sink into the Woodwork. Here’s a situation – a bunch of colleagues who like each other but don’t get many chances to socialize are given a free meal and drinks. They have inside jokes that they tell. Familiarity upon which they build stories. Things on which to update one another. You’re thrown into this situation with most job dinners. Be prepared that conversation may have a motor without you. It’s fine to let this happen for a while, but don’t enjoy the break too much, and don’t sit back for too long. Realize instead that failure to jump in here will make you seem boring and/or distant, whereas a successful job of fitting in will make you seem like part of the department team.
15. Know the Department. You may be looking at your job search in terms of just wanting somewhere to want you. But the hiring department wants someone who really wants to be there. So don’t treat all visits the same. Before going somewhere, I liked to read something by everyone in the department, for instance. I also liked to read everything on the department’s website, ask people about the department, and get as much info as I could before going. Not only did that give me a better sense of what to expect, but it gave me a better sense of where I would fit in, and of how to discuss my interests in ways that might connect meaningfully with the other department members. If you’re lucky enough to get a lot of interviews, you might skip this stage, but I’m-Hot-Shit-itis is a bad affliction to suffer from while on the market, and if you catch it, your competition will likely walk away with the jobs. Departments like the people who are enthusiastic to join them.
16. Everyone is Tired. A friend writes, “the committee members themselves are tired. They are exhausted from the interview process, trying to make conversation with strangers, trying to pick the person who will live next door to them forever. I did what I could to personalize meetings with faculty and individualize them so they would remember me personally. I turned the conversation back to them and got them to talk about themselves. They seemed to appreciate this, and it gave my voice some rest, and I think I got some friends early on.” What goes with this is not to take brusqueness personally: maybe that faculty member who seems to have blown you off has a crazy busy day.
17. Discussing your Search. Departments will often ask about your search as a whole. This is rarely an innocent question, since they’ll want to know how competitive it’s going to be to get you, and they might be keen to hear validation of their choice. Therein lies the problem, though, since the two key motivating factors for asking you that question conflict with one another – if you’ve got other interviews, that may worry them, but it also might bring out their competitiveness, and functionally it may speed the search up (most searches are painfully slow, so there’s always room to speed it up. Once a department knows that time matters, it’s sometimes amazing how quickly they can make things happen). The two rules I’d go by are:
(1) Be free with info regarding your competitiveness at rival/similar institutions, but careful with info regarding your candidacy at much better or worse institutions. On one hand, knowing that you’re up for jobs at R1s can bring out inferiority complexes in middle-rank schools, and they might lose faith in their ability to get you. On the other hand, knowing that you’re a finalist at the University of Somewhere Odd Sounding isn’t going to impress a committee all that much nor will it make them feel that they need to rush this search. However, knowing that you’re being considered at a rival institution validates their choice and makes you a hot commodity that they feel they can snatch.
(2) No matter what, make sure you still make the present department feel loved and first in your heart. If you make them feel like they’re simply one in the mix, or worse yet that they’re a backup, you’ll never get that offer.
If you have no outside interest, it’s up to you whether to broadcast that fact. You could, of course, be honest and use it to show the department how committed you are to them. You could be vague, using selective truth to tell them you’ve applied to several places. Just don’t sound rejected and dejected.
If you actually have an offer on the plate, I’ll discuss that below.
Most of all, go into the interview with a healthy dose of perspective. At the time of the BJIU interview, I had convinced myself I really wanted the job. Then when a year later I got the Fordham job, which put me in the same city as my wife, I realized how utterly miserable life might have been in the town/city of BJIU. It was a bad interview. They probably joke about me still. I think they were cruel to me. But the person who got the job is great. I’m happy. I believe that person is happy and the department is happy with that person. And next time I had an interview, I was ready for the long, grueling journey ahead. No lasting harm done.
My own job search was surrounded mostly by an aura of privilege. As a middle-class straight white cis man, there’s a lot of crap I didn’t face that sadly some of you will. Be prepared for this and think through how you’d deal with some situations. In particular, remember that while media and cultural studies is a pretty lefty, feminist, woke field as far as things go, a lot of jobs you’ll apply for will be in departments and/or institutions that don’t share those politics or approach, even superficially.
The one genre of crap I did become familiar with was crap directed towards non-Americans, since I wasn’t American when applying. I was often asked how I’d teach American media when I didn’t grow up watching it, and how I’d connect with American students since I came from such a different background. I was warned by one committee member on a campus interview that I wouldn’t be able to run a class on Canadian Media (although I’d never proposed doing so). Someone at a liberal arts college explained the winter teaching session to me, then asked worriedly whether I was expecting to “go home to Canada” in the Winter. Admittedly, each of these was easy enough to deflect, and I mention them not to claim my teeny tiny piece of the “treated with bias” pie, but rather because they feel to me like the barely visible, barely above water part of a huge iceberg of bias that others face. And other things aren’t so submerged: the other thing about being a straight white cis man is that other “dudes” rarely feel they need to hide their shit from you, as with the Chair of one department where I interviewed who, in briefing me on what to expect that day, repeatedly called one of his colleagues “a bitch.”
I don’t want to overstate, and to have everyone reading this thinking they’ll be assaulted verbally at every step of the way. But you should be ready for some dumb crap.
One that I noted above briefly is that women get asked about their partners way, way more often than men do. I’ve been asked once, whereas my wife has been asked at every interview. In talking to others, too, a pattern emerges wherein the question is usually pretty innocent and the answer irrelevant to straight guys, whereas the question is asked with evident concern to others. I suspect that a bunch of people out there think that of course a straight man’s partner will follow him wherever he may go, thereby meaning that straight men’s partners pose no threat to a search, while everyone else’s partner is imagined to have greater veto powers.
However, lest this section become Straight White Dude Explains Oppression, I asked a few friends to offer brief accounts of their own experiences dealing with various forms of bias. I gave them the option to write under their names or not. Perhaps tellingly, some didn’t want to do so for fear that my readers will guess who they are. Some asked me to come back later. I’ll try to live up to this and create a future post. Meantime, though, I got this wonderfully detailed post from one friend that deals with various forms of bias and bullshit. I’ll italicize it all to make it clear that till the next section break, this is her writing not me:
I’ve been offered anonymity for this, and I’m more than happy to take it; that said, if you know me in ‘real life’, it probably won’t take much to figure out who I am. I’m writing as an older, female, academically late-blooming ex-job applicant in a heterosexual marriage with two kids of elementary and middle school age – an amalgam of identities that might make my experiences seem too specific to be useful to others. However, there are a lot of women who fall into at least one of these categories, and hopefully my experiences as each will help illuminate some of the biases and bullshit women in similar situations may encounter on the way to academic employment.
But before I get into that, I want to say a few words about my academic reputation, lest my criticisms come off as little more than the experiences of someone who wasn’t ‘good enough’, as women in particular are often all too willing to believe of ourselves, and some academics are satisfied to believe. Obviously, I can only go by what people have told me, but suffice it to say that I continue to enjoy the support and encouragement of two grad school mentors, both of whom have quite high profiles in my field(s). I’ve been asked to contribute to anthologies edited by some of the best-known scholars in my field, and citations of my scholarship are – at least according to Google Scholar – growing steadily.
Yet, when I was standing in a line of nearly newly-minted PhDs waiting to enter the auditorium where our graduation ceremony was to be held, at the end of a doctoral student career that ended with a 3.96 gpa and submitted dissertation, I was stunned when a member of my committee who was standing near me turned and said something to the effect of, “To be honest, I didn’t expect your dissertation to be as good as it was. I thought we would have to give you a pity pass after all this time.” In fairness, I got my defense in just under the wire, with only a month to spare before my clock ran out. And I still like and respect this professor. Nonetheless, that phrase – “pity pass” – got under my skin like almost nothing has before or since, even though I was being praised for managing to avoid it. The possibility that my work might not have been held to the highest standard felt like a bit of a slap in the face to my scholarly integrity, and it planted doubts that I still have to prune from time to time (when good metaphors go bad).
If I had it to do again, given the specific confluence of factors that led to my kind of falling into marriage and motherhood while I was preparing to write my dissertation, I’d probably do it all over again. But, as an erstwhile job applicant, it seems to me that hiring committees faced with hundreds of applications will look for any reason to put an application in the reject pile, and my CV is positively riddled with excuses to do so. I graduated from college in the late 1980s, and the date is right there on the front page, practically screaming my age without me ever having to be asked about it. More than one person has told me that hiring committees aren’t legally allowed to consider age as a factor in job applications, but who’s going to know if it was? The job market is abysmal enough that being rejected is par for the course, so there’s nothing stopping a committee from looking for something else that might equally – and legitimately – disqualify an older, decidedly unsexy applicant.
And my CV is happy to oblige. There’s a hole academic productivity that I like to call the Great 2008-9 Void, which was pretty much courtesy of my second child’s inability to go more than three hours without nursing, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s certainly possible to have children during the dissertation process and still complete it in a timely manner, but it’s largely a matter of luck and circumstance. You do not know what kind of baby you will have, and only some of them are conducive to thinking, much less writing. You have to have help with the baby – it’s pretty much impossible to think/write/sleep if you’re doing the bulk of childcare (even more so if there’s also a toddler in play). For this reason, were I advising someone, I’d strongly recommend holding off on children until the dissertation is complete. Although resources for mothers in academia are scarce on a good day, there are more accommodations in place for faculty than graduate students, and you may be less likely to, say, have a male professor who once asked if you wanted to be his advisee encounter you in the mailroom, look down at your bulging belly, and walk away without a single word.
So, the Void makes a good – and valid! – excuse to chuck my CV into the other pile. So too is my apparent time-to-completion. Due to factors outside my control, involving money and antiquated ideas about age, I began coursework for my PhD in 2000 and then took a leave of absence to do fieldwork from 2001 to 2003, before I did qualifying exams. In 2003, I returned, finished up one class, did exams in 2004, (had a baby in 2005), and successfully defended my dissertation proposal defense in 2005. So that, while I technically didn’t have an excessive time-to-completion, my CV shows a decade-long gap between MA and PhD – eleven years of graduate school with a gaping Void right there in the middle. To my mind, these may be the two biggest factors working against me when my CV is sitting in a pile waiting to be culled.
There are a couple of other things that may figure in as well, though. One is my lack of publications in the most prestigious journals in my field. I take most of the responsibility for this, since I have not sought publication in them (honestly, I didn’t realize how important they were until it was too late). What responsibility I don’t take is actually my fault as well, in one sense: since I don’t have institutional access to these journals, I’m entirely uninclined to publish in them on principle. If you’re looking for a job in academia, this isn’t a principle you can afford to meaningfully honor until after you have tenure.
The other is my adjunct employment at our local community college. I always thought that having full responsibility for college-level courses in my field would be a plus on a job application, particularly when coupled with an active research agenda (which, following the Void, I’ve pursued). But this was actually what one of my mentors honed in on when we were talking about my inability to find employment a few years ago. According to this professor, community colleges are seen as different enough from four year institutions that working there is considered a step backward by hiring committees. I couldn’t say if this is all committees or just some, but this was what was held up to me as a significant impediment to employment.
And, of course, middle-aged women working for community colleges are often perceived as dilettantish housewives rather than ‘real’ academics, Jill Biden (and a PhD in hand) notwithstanding. There was a time when this might actually have been the case, but that time has long since passed – sadly without taking the stereotype with it. I enjoyed my students at the community college and even applied for a full-time position there when it came up (I got two interviews, a rejection, and an offer to adjunct again), but know that if you start teaching at a community college, you may be closing the door to other kinds of academic work.
Then there’s the trajectory early career scholars are expected to follow. There seems to be something of an unspoken assumption that someone who really wants an academic career will be willing to take one-to-three-year Visiting Assistant Professorships and/or pick up and move anywhere the work is. If you’re single, or even if you’re in a relationship without children, this may be viable. I know more than one person who’s moved multiple times before landing a tenure track position, and I know more than one person who’s part of a long-distance relationship. If you’ve got kids, especially school-age kids, this is all but impossible, and while it’s difficult to quantify how being effectively excluded from this trajectory actually impacts one’s academic job prospects, I can’t help but think that it would further disadvantage a CV sitting in the middle of a pile of VAPs.
Finally, I want to talk briefly about alt-ac and the older woman scholar. There’s no getting around it: if you spent years in graduate school working on a PhD, and then seek work outside of academia over the age of roughly 45-50, your chances of finding work are low. Yes, even the work that all the young alt-acs insist is out there for the taking. There is no one less desirable on the job market than middle-aged women, particularly outside urban areas. I’m 100% positive that someone will be able to give examples of women who got jobs as 50+ PhDs, and that’s great for them. My experience to date is that a lack of recent work experience outside of teaching, combined with age, sex, and degree (which is often perceived to make me overqualified for a lot of jobs, regardless of how much I just want a damned paycheck) renders me all but immune to gainful employment.
One can go the consultant/contractor route; I’d personally rather give that energy over to doing scholarship as an independent academic. But even that comes with the need for funding (my spouse), risks (the possibility my spouse will lose his job/die and I will still be unemployable – probably my biggest fear), and a psychological toll (imposter syndrome positively flourishes in independent academia). At one point, my anxiety over being an academic failure was such that my therapist (because of course I have a therapist – a lot of us do) recommended seeing a psychiatrist for evaluation for social anxiety. I’m medicated enough now that it doesn’t eat away at me, and there’s more at play than just academia, but the vague sense that I’m not good enough remains.
When older women ask me about grad school, like a lot of people, I struggle to be both encouraging and honest. There are virtually no jobs, particularly in my specific field, and the situation is not improving. Older women – especially with kids – are at a disadvantage in the academic job market going in, no matter what hiring committees are supposed to ignore. You cannot go into grad school with an expectation of academic employment, and for this reason I always say that, whatever else you do, do not go into debt for it. If you have a way to pay – graduate stipend, personal savings, whatever – and you want to study and do research, go for it. But without that, there are other ways to study without obtaining a degree (that could end up being more of a burden than a help in subsequent job-seeking situations). I hate that this is all such a downer; there are, in fact, advantages to doing research outside an institutional context. Even so, I can’t help but feel like they pale in comparison to the advantages that come with having one’s work compensated.
Just before we get to the offer, let me shamefully admit the under-professionalization of Jonathan Gray, by way of saying a few words about preparing to get an offer. When the search chair at Berkeley called me to offer me the job, I accepted on the spot. (Which is what can happen in England, where I got my PhD). He laughed, then said something to the effect of, “I know you’re new to this, so let me give you some advice. Say you’re honored and flattered, and that you’ll get back to me with an answer soon. Then think about whether the offer gives you everything you want, ask me if there’s anything else, and we’ll discuss. I can’t promise you’ll get anything else, but you should at least have the chance to think it over.” I think he found a nominal bit of travel funding for me? Maybe another $500 to my paltry salary? The point, though, is not that I cashed in because of this advice (I didn’t), but rather that you never accept the job when asked, and should always allow yourself (and perhaps your partner) to think it over.
Another preliminary note, though, is to set your expectations appropriately. There is so much talk about “Negotiations,” and understandably so, since I’ve heard of amazing things that have happened as a result of negotiations – a new, highly expensive projector for a campus theater, a new research center, grad students who come with you, partner hires, lucrative research packages, semesters worth of course releases, etc. However, many of these negotiations were with senior faculty, as a university throws the moon at Dr. Big Shot to ensure she leaves her current university. However, senior faculty not only command more negotiating power because they’re (presumably) Big Names; they also have a home university that is either actually offering them goodies to stay, or is at least presumed (by the pursuing university) to be offering them goodies. All this talk of negotiations, though, risks convincing ABDs that they can negotiate much better deals, that the initial offer is akin to the $0.01 opening bid on eBay. More likely, as an ABD (or even lecturer or junior assistant) you’ll have little room for big negotiations. I say this not to help The Man by encouraging you not to negotiate – do negotiate – but rather because I’ve seen many people feel deflated, demoralized, and – worst – embarrassed by themselves when they fail to negotiate anything or much, when that is perhaps the norm.
It’s also worth knowing that especially at state schools, a lot of things in the offer are standardized, and the only way a Chair could offer more towards those specific items is to dip into their discretionary funds, which may be limited. Moving expenses are often standardized, as are travel funds. Everyone usually gets the same pension, the same (health, disability, and life) insurance options, the same benefits for child’s tuition (if any: don’t expect this from public institutions), the same deal for sabbaticals. Thus, for these things, at first you simply ask what they are, before you even consider whether there is a need or possibility for negotiation on the perhaps-more-fungible ones like moving expenses or travel funds. (Also, note that many of those standard things won’t be spelled out in your contract, since they’re spelled out in the university’s policies. Don’t expect your contract to go through absolutely everything, or for your Chair to put the kitchen sink worth of explanations in the contract).
“Negotiations” as a term is also deceptive, since it suggests that there are two sides both of whom want opposite results – in this case, The University is imagined to want to pay you as little as possible, and you are imagined as wanting as much as possible. That’s a crude, reductive way to regard the situation, and it could help to nuance it a bit before we talk details. So let’s do that:
First off, know that universities are structured quite differently from one another. In some places, the Chair is presumed to serve the university, while in other places the Chair is presumed to serve the faculty, and there are of course many places in between in the spectrum. In pure terms, then, some Chairs will enter negotiations hoping to get the best deal possible for the university while others will try their best from the outset to get the best deal for you. Even beyond university structure, there may be interpersonal reasons for them to veer one way or another – perhaps they really want a promotion and hence are willing to be a lapdog to the administration, or perhaps they have set an explicit goal as Chair to raise salaries. (And sometimes raising salaries for a department is best conducted first by raising incoming salaries, since you then have the rationale to complain about compression issues for more senior faculty, and have a good case to make to the administration that Assistant Professor in Their Fifth Year should of course be making the same or more than this new hire). Ditto for deans and higher admin – maybe they’re trying to cut costs and are being cheapos as a result, or maybe they are honestly trying to get great, competitive packages. What’s challenging is that you may not know which type of Chair or system you’re working with. That’s where smart questioning of faculty when you were there for the campus visit will hopefully have given you clues about the relationship between the Chair, the admin, and you. Or follow up and ask people with whom you connected on the visit – recent hires may be generous in telling you what they were or weren’t able to negotiate for (though be tactful: asking them for their financial details may be a little icky), but they may not know as much about overall university structure and style as senior faculty, who you might want to touch base with as well.
Second, there’s the all-important question of whether you have any leverage whatsoever. As noted above, senior faculty can negotiate a lot since their name and their current, hopefully-competing university provide it. Keeping your ear to the ground about what they feel about the other finalists can help you work out if you have internal leverage, since you may be in a situation in which you’re the person they clearly prefer – a situation that clearly gives you more leverage – or maybe they really like all their candidates – in which case it’s easy enough for them to move down the list to #2. As for external leverage, that comes from other offers. If you have one or more other offers, especially (only?) if they’re from competing universities (markedly down the ladder, and the current university may not take the possibility that you’d go there instead seriously, and they likely know they have more resources anyways; markedly up the ladder, and they might get fatalistic and worry that of course they can’t compete), that helps.
Whether you have leverage or not, though, still think about rational explanations and compelling reasons for why you want what you want. Indeed, and in particular, know that some chairs welcome incoming hires as presenting a chance to get resources for the department as a whole from the university. If, for instance, you’ll be adding a bunch of new media classes, perhaps there’s hardware and/or software you’ll need to teach those classes properly, or if you’re meant to do production classes, perhaps there’s other equipment they need. In such cases, should you present a rough budget for purchase of X, Y, and Z, with solid reasons for why this is needed for the classes they want you to teach or the research they’ll expect you to conduct, you might find the Chair wholly supportive, eagereven, to negotiate with the university to get this. Initial offers can often be created with a cookie cutter, so you might be getting the same offer that someone in the Department of Germanic Studies got two weeks ago, whereas you may have legitimate reasons to want and need more tech in your startup package. (Which, by the way, is why you should also check how much they’re offering you for a new computer. Sometimes what they’re offering is practical for the faculty member who just needs the Internet and a word processor, but totally insufficient for someone who needs higher-level video-editing software, data crunching software, higher processing speeds to do these, and/or add-on hardware).
Beyond the tech goodies that will directly and immediately benefit the department and its students, you might also think about how other things that you want could similarly benefit the department, albeit indirectly. A course release or two upon entry allows you to hit the ground running more effectively than if you’re sandbagged with needing to prep 6 new courses in the first year, for instance; or if you do ethnographic work or other research that requires going away, that may present a strong case for a mid-tenure-clock course release or for summer pay for one or two years. Perhaps the department expects you to do work that will be more expensive than others in the department, which therefore presents a rationale for asking for more research funds and/or travel funds (maybe, for instance, they want you to bridge the SCMS and AoIR worlds, and thus whereas everyone else in the department only needs money to go to SCMS, you need more to go to AoIR too?).
LGBTQ candidates should also consider whether university or state policies produce an inequality of pay and/or benefits that may need to be offset by some other mechanism from the outset. For instance, if the state doesn’t acknowledge same-sex partners for health insurance (especially if you have or intend to have a non-biological child who would similarly be cut-off from benefits), or if the state or university doesn’t cover transition meds, they are effectively asking you to take a pay-cut relative to cis colleagues. In such cases, this may present an obvious rationale for a higher salary. Candidates with disabilities might also consider whether existing accommodations or lack thereof render them immediately under-cut in equality, and hence how initial contract stipulations might offset these.
Asking for more money seems to be de rigeur, so you might want to do that too, even though it’s hard to create a rationale – in the absence of a higher offer from elsewhere – other than “please.” Within reason, don’t be shy about presenting other me-centered requests. When I moved to UW, it was after four years in an office with no windows at Fordham, so I asked my Chair please please please give me an office with a window, since otherwise I will be depressed and miserable.
What should be standard, and what do you need to ask about? This will vary wildly by type of university. That said, for a tenure-track job, I think that everyone should at least get moving funds, a new computer, and should be told how travel funds work (if they’re not standardized, you want to be sure you’re given some). Research funds differ by institution – I’ve seen zero at many places, I’ve seen $50,000 or so at wealthy R1s, and I’ve seen all sorts of numbers inbetween. Sometimes those funds are flexible, sometimes they’re specified as, for instance, summer pay. Again, though, this is where talking to recent hires could help, as they might be kind enough to give you a sense of what to expect, and where the hard-and-fast lines are, where the room for movement exists (if any).
Importantly, in all of this, be polite and friendly. Remember first that there may be an equally-qualified, equally awesome candidate waiting in the wings, and if you become a rude, jerkish headache early on, everyone involved may be happy to see your contract demands unmet so that they can quickly course-correct and move to someone else. It’s very unlikely that the mere act of asking for something will result in a retraction of the offer, but don’t test that assertion by being an utter asshole. Your Chair may (and certainly should) respect your business acumen in knowing what to ask for and how to do it, but not if you’re a jerk. Indeed, while above I note that you may not know if your Chair is truly on-side or not, you should always treat them as though they are on-side. If you end up with this job, after all, do you want the Chair excited that you’re there and happy to work with you, or already rolling their eyes and tensing their muscles at the mere mention of your name?
A few words on salaries. Check out salaries for your colleagues online, too, to get a sense of what a department’s “going rate” is. Almost all public institutions should have a searchable database somewhere, though private institutions regularly aren’t so forthcoming. This will help you set your expectations. At the same time, though, know how to read them, since salaries in academia are often “compressed,” meaning that sometimes senior salaries stagnate and juniors can come in with the same or more. Don’t automatically assume, therefore, that you “should” get paid less than everyone else in the department. Seeing a full department range should help you get a good sense of what this university is likely or able to pay you, and you should use them to give you a sense of realism (e.g: if all current assistants make $50-something and all current associates make $60-something, expecting $70-something from the outset is foolish), but it’s not outrageous to think that you’d start by making more than several in the department.
From my end, I have seen starting salaries as low as $45,000, and as high as $80,000. You’re likely only to get above $70,000 if you’re getting an offer from a leading R1 or a fancy private university. More common is something in the $50s or $60s. Be prepared to be angry and upset when you hear the disparities between universities, and if you share incoming salary information with your peers, since some of you will make $51,000 for what seems the same job as someone else getting $76,000. That said, realize that price of living issues may be involved (a person making $70-something in Boston likely has lower takehome than a person making $50-something in Bloomington).
Another thing to consider when working out salary is to consider mechanisms for raises at this university. While those can’t be negotiated, they may be important if you’re considering several offers alongside each other (more on that below). Some universities have a built in yearly percentage raise, while some don’t. Some offer merit pay, while some don’t. Some merit pay is easy to get (publish an encyclopedia article and you’re set), while some is hard to get (where’s that fourth book?). Asking a senior assistant or an associate how their salary has moved is a good thing to do. What you want to find out is whether your initial salary is just a starting point, from which you’ll soon depart, or whether it’ll now be your place in life.
Which courses you’ll teach isn’t usually a thing that gets discussed in negotiations, and is usually an afterwards thing. But I will say here, rather than writing a whole section on it, that you should think carefully about what you agree to teach. What you want is a situation in which you don’t have a barrage of new preps in your first few years. Thus, teaching things you’ve already taught (or TA’d, or taken, so that you can rip off your PhD profs, at least at first) is good. Repeating courses each semester or year is good … as long as they’re ones you actually want to teach (beware agreeing to do a shitty class straight off, lest it hang around your neck like an albatross forevermore).
Finally, unless the very last job you apply for is your absolute favorite, any offer you get will come when you still haven’t heard about other places, and in particular when you still have places to which you (think you) might rather go. Thus, an inevitable question you might ask is, “how do I speed those other searches up, enough so that I can decide with all the information in front of me?” Largely, you can’t. If a place has expressed significant interest in you, you might be able to get them to speed up a bit. But if you’re just one of many applicants, even if they’ve asked for additional materials (which means you’re still one of many), first there’s no way they care enough about you yet to change the speed or integrity of their search (yes, they might be intrigued, even excited, by your candidacy, but they’re bound to be intrigued and excited by others, and they’re bound to know this second point …). Second, time just isn’t going to allow this. Go back to my section on timeline and work out how long it will be until a place that doesn’t yet have a shortlist gets an offer out, and you’ll see it’s unfeasible to think the place that gave you an offer will wait that long (and for what? The hope that another place gets interested in you? That’s insulting to the institution giving you the offer).
If significant interest has been directed your way (which I define as having a phone, Skype, or campus interview), then you might be able to speed things up a bit. Contact the slower university first, and tell them you’ve been given an offer but remain interested in this position, and are hoping to get a realistic assessment of the timeline till a decision. This, by the way, will drop a great sounding lead into their interest in you. If they come back to you with a “that’s nice, but it doesn’t change anything here” response, you know your chances are at best even, at worst you’re an outsider. If instead they offer to speed it up a bit, or even just show authentic interest (not neutral indifference) in you staying in their search, your chances there are hopefully decent. Armed, then, with the timeline from them, you can then see if it makes sense to ask the place that gave you an offer for an extension. Anything over a month extension is extravagant for an ABD, and I’ve never heard of this being granted for junior searches. Three weeks leans that way too. One to two weeks should be do-able. Intervening holidays can perhaps elongate that (though intervening holidays will slow down the other search too). What if they don’t give you the full time? Well, then, you make the decision now, or you hedge a bit, and see if they can at least give you an extension till after your (potential?) campus visit at another place, so that you at least know whether you like the other place more, and have a better sense of where you fit in their hierarchy of value and desire. Through all this, be transparent, speedy, and respectful: places really don’t like the semblance of being strung along, and you could hurt your career by burning bridges.
Should you then get to a point where you get competing offers, you have more leverage to ask for things you want, though realize still that it’s an incoming position, so the frame of what can be asked for is still small. Refer back to my section above on where to go, though, since you’ll want to think about what’s good for your life and career, not just go for the place that offers you $2000 more. You’ll also want to remind yourself about price of living costs, and you’ll want to know about prospects for raises, since that offer of $X might end up eclipsing that offer of $X+5000 in a few years if the first offer is at a place with better raises.
(Interlude: This process is way harder for women. I have rarely been asked about my wife, whereas she has always been asked about me. And even if I brought her up, I think most people simply assumed that she would follow me. That assumption is what makes life hard for straight female candidates, since departments may assume you’ll follow your husband, and thus it matters more to them what he does and how possible it is to get him work too [note: of course, queer candidates have their own, other mountains of shit to deal with. I don’t mean to imply that straight women are the oppressed of the world here]. It’s a sexist world, even when the individuals don’t realize they’re being sexist. How to deal with such questions? It’s hard. You can say they’re not allowed to ask, but that makes you seem standoffish, and unless you feel like a lawsuit, you’ll be left without a job. You can dodge, but that might make you seem cold and removed. You can be honest, but that might be a problem. Neither my wife nor I worked out an easy answer, except not to be a woman in a patriarchal society. A colleague had a good move, though, whereby when asked about her partner, she’d be clear in saying he knew her job mattered to her, and he had signed up to following her wherever.