Essay on job-hunting as a humanities ABD
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- Review of Jason Dittmer, "Captain America and the Nationalist Superhero: Metaphors, Narratives, and Geopolitics"
The following is adapted from a short reflective piece I wrote last spring for my fellow graduate students in the literature program at Duke University, based on my experience going on the job market as an ABD. I've had to remove some of the more personal details — such as my personal hit rate, specific details about my interviews, and so forth — but otherwise I've tried to retain the usefulness of the advice as best I could.
To be honest I feel some amount of trepidation posting this at all, simply because I feel as though the mere existence of the "job market advice" genre legitimates the fantasy that the academic job market is a meritocracy, which it emphatically is not. There are no magic bullets; in the final analysis there is nothing you can do to game the system. Even the advice I give here won't necessarily apply to all colleges and universities — some of it doesn't square with my experience of ultimately being hired in the English department at Marquette University, for instance, to take but one particular case very close to my heart.
Still, there are some practical things you can do to help your candidacy, and with the Modern Language Association Job Information List now out it seems like a worthwhile time to write this all down. I’ve tried to include some general thoughts about my experience of going on the job market as an ABD while attempting to focus on the stuff that I had to learn or improvise along the way. Naturally some of my experience is rather specific to English literature, but perhaps job-seekers in other disciplines will find it useful as well. Good luck!
Know in advance that the process is extremely time-consuming, with each individual step along the way almost completely unrewarding in itself. I went in with the mindset that because it was my first time on the market, and because I was still ABD, I was going to be "selective" and only apply to jobs I really wanted. In practice, however, this didn’t happen: I applied to more or less every tenure-track job I seemed at all qualified for that didn’t have a 4/4 course load (and some that did), and every postdoc it seemed like I had any chance to get. This is how you have to do it. As we all know, the line between a "successful" search and an "unsuccessful" search can be pretty razor-thin. It’s worth it to put the time in going all-out in your applications to maximize your chances of getting something in the end.
I kept two Excel spreadsheets, one detailing job openings and the other postdoc openings, and used the strikethrough feature whenever I finished an application. Sadly, crossing something off your list is essentially the only positive reinforcement you receive for almost all of the process. Dossier requests don’t come until mid-November, and are becoming rarer; with digital submission, I found most departments are just asking for everything up front. Generally MLA interviews aren’t scheduled until early- to mid-December, and some come really last minute; rejections don’t arrive for months, if ever.
That said, most of the really painful work is up-front. Once you have your generic job letter written, it’s really not that hard to customize for each individual posting. The process has a rhythm: (1) change the date (2) change the address (3) change the salutation (4) change the first paragraph (5) change the last paragraph (6) change the one place in the middle where I say "I am eager to bring courses in this subject to UNIVERSITYNAME," (7) add something specific about the posting or about the campus if applicable. By the end I could do four applications in an afternoon, even taking my tendencies toward neurotic over-proofreading into account.
What took longest, after the initial setup, was tweaking my generic materials to suit the sometimes esoteric requests of individual postings. This is especially, infuriatingly true of postdocs.
If at all possible, you should hit the ground running with the very early institutional postdocs that are due at the end of September: Princeton, Dartmouth, Columbia, Michigan, Chicago. These are well-paying, low-load, high-prestige jobs with very generous timelines (contracts as long as four or five years), which means several years of guaranteed income and health insurance before you have to start panicking again; they’re definitely worth the hassle of having to do everything early.
Be prepared to significantly revise your interest letter at least three or four times before it feels "ready." Share it with your advisor and your department’s Job Czar early; workshop it with other grad students.
Minimum preparations. To be minimally prepared for a job search, you need:
- Generic interest letter template
- Current C.V.
- Two- to three-page dissertation abstract
- At least one writing sample, preferably a tear sheet from a published article, or if not that an article "under consideration" somewhere — I had three different ones I used for different sorts of jobs
- At least one completed, very polished chapter you feel confident about sending out immediately if it is requested
- A statement of teaching philosophy
- Your teaching evaluations, including the statistical analysis your college provides if available
- A "research agenda" specifying your plans to revise your dissertation into a book and describing your initial plans for a second project
- At least two to three sample syllabuses — I actually wound up with many more than this. Include courses taught, courses you’d like to teach, intro/survey courses in your field, special topics courses for juniors and seminars, and grad courses.
- Transcripts from undergrad and from all grad schools
- Recommendation letters, including (definitely) someone familiar with your teaching and (possibly) one or two letters from people not on your committee / outside your university
- An endorsement from your director of graduate studies director that you will finish by the spring (if ABD)
Not every department will ask for every document, but you’ll likely be asked for each of these documents at least once.
If you're ABD, you also need an adviser who you are existentially certain is willing to say you will finish your dissertation within the year. This is absolutely crucial.
You should contact your recommenders as soon as you’re sure you’re really going to go on the market and follow up with them by mid-September at the very latest. (Do it now!) What you want to do is open up an account at a dossier site and solicit two generic letters from your recommenders, one for tenure-track jobs and one for postdocs. (I actually created two separate accounts so neither I nor they would mix the letters up; this might have been overkill, but at least the plan seemed to work.) The reason for this is that some of your recommenders will want to recommend you in a slightly differently way for tenure-track jobs and for postdocs; a new tenure-track hire is imagined to be much more of a "finished product" than is a postdoc, and the rhetoric used in your letters will need to speak to that perception.
I was lucky enough to be able to accept an offer before applying for visiting assistant professorships and non-tenure-track, fixed-term positions, but if I had, I likely would have solicited a third generic letter, updated with my accomplishments since the fall.
Generally speaking, I don’t think you need multiple rec letters tailored to different disciplines and subdisciplines, must less tailored to specific job postings or postdocs. Attempting to do this in any systematic way would drive your letter writers completely crazy, and probably you too.
I had seven letters in my dossier: one letter from each member of my committee and then two from scholars at other universities who are relatively well-known in their fields and know my work. (If you know people like this, it’d be a very good idea to have a letter from them.) Opinions differ on how many to send each time; I was advised by one of my chairs to send all seven recommendation letters every time, regardless of how many letters the search committee actually asked for. This is what I almost always did.
The second part of this column will appear next week.