Get Ready for Your Search

Claire Potter offers advice for those going on the market for the first time, those who never left, and those who are returning.

June 26, 2009

"And by the way," I wrote in a message to a young scholar whose book manuscript I would love to sign for the new monograph series Renee Romano and I are doing at the University of Georgia Press, "Since 1970: Histories of Contemporary America," "There's nothing that accessorizes an interview outfit like a book contract!"

Which got me to thinking: it's been a long time since there was any Radical Advice for the job-lorn. One by one, jobs are starting to appear on the Web and in those odd paper newsletters our professional organizations still send out. So what can you do now to get ready for a new job season? Well, it depends on what kind of job seeker you are. None of the advice that follows is comprehensive, and if we are really lucky, this will draw comments from readers willing to share experiences that will correct, amplify and enrich it.

For The Market Novice

If you have never been on the market before, you need to draft a job letter that can be re-crafted to suit different applications. Depending on where you are applying you will want to emphasize scholarship or emphasize teaching; depending on what the precise job description is, you will need to emphasize certain features of your education over others. Ideally, this draft letter will be considerably longer than the letter you eventually send out (no more than two pages), and when you re-write it for specific jobs, you will be cutting parts of it, and modifying others. For more on the job letter, see this post and the comments section that follows.

But what else should you be doing? Well, think about what fields you will be applying in and draft a couple syllabi. Trained in European century intellectual history? Draft a Western Civ syllabus, and a Modern European Intellectual History survey. You are writing your dissertation on World War II memorials? Well, how about a seminar on 20th century patriotic culture? I wouldn't get more specific than this if I were you: if you get far enough along that you are being asked for courses, you will want to look at the department Web site and see what specialized sources they need. But at least you won't be cobbling together all your syllabi at the last minute. And there's nothing nicer in a preliminary interview than to have a candidate present a syllabus for us all to talk about: on both the searches I was on this year, we asked for syllabi in advance of the preliminary interviews, and it helped us learn more about the candidates as teachers and scholars.

You should be drafting, and revising, as much of your dissertation as possible. You will be competing against people who have been on the market for two or three years who have a book coming out, people who are finishing post-docs and already have a contract, people who just defended. If you only have two chapters done when you go on the market you are at a disadvantage. This is because prior to interviewing you the search committee may find it hard to believe you will complete your degree by July 1, or that if you do finish, it will be because your committee wants to get you situated and, within reason, they will sign off on whatever you have written.

Practice not going around telling people that you won't go just anywhere for a job. It causes them to believe that you are a snob, or that you have your head up your butt about the state of the market, or that you don't really care about getting a job. Or all of the above. So practice not saying it: it is really immature, and it causes people -- especially those who are in charge of recommending you -- to think poorly of you. If you really want a job, and you want a shot at this career, you may need to go to someplace that seems like anywhere to you, but is actually somewhere to the nice people who already work there. If your attitude gets back to someone on a hiring committee (because as Walt said, it's a small world after all), you might as well have not applied.

You also need to be honest with yourself about why you think this, because you may need to start planning an alternative career now rather than waiting for the perfect job in the Bay Area that 500 other people are not applying for. If you can't go anywhere because your partner won't allow it, be clear with yourself that you are risking putting the career you have trained for on the shelf because the relationship you want to be in, and the person who says s/he loves you, requires it. If you won't go anywhere because you refuse to live outside a major city, or a particular major city where you have made your home, be clear that you may be sacrificing years of graduate study because of your own limitations about what constitutes an acceptable life and/or job. "I don't want to" or "I am afraid to" is not the same as "I can't." Be clear about the difference, and the consequences.

For The Battered Market Veteran

You've been through it all before, haven't you? And it hurt, whether it was the first year or the sixth year. You did your best, and it didn't work out. But here's the good news: you have a crop of letters you sent out, and if you are lucky, you had some interviewing experience, and you now have some work that is going to carry you over next year.

Your first task is to put last year behind you, dust yourself off, and figure out what to improve -- if anything. One way of doing this is to re-circulate your job letter to your committee and have them look it over. Better yet, if there are people you know as friends who have recently served on search committees at other institutions, get one or two of them to look at your letter. But if you got any interviews, chances are you have a good letter, and all you need to do is update it to reflect the accomplishments of the last year. One hint? If your degree was just awarded, your "dissertation" is now your "book."

And let's suppose you got interviews, but got no offers. This doesn't necessarily mean you did badly, or even that someone else did remarkably better. I was impressed this year in one search we ran how well all the candidates did: each candidate proved s/he could have done the job superbly. The thing I see most frequently on the job wikis is someone griping that s/he did such a terrific job in the interview and the fact that s/he didn't get an offer means that the search was rigged in some way. There are two problems with this: one, you might be wrong that you did great; and two, you might not have been the only one who did great.

My suggestion? See if you can activate a connection to get some feedback on one or more of the interviews you did. You might not be able to talk to a search committee member yourself, but your dissertation advisor might be able to call someone and either have the conversation or find out if someone is willing to talk. Just remember: you don't want to hear about the other candidates, and you should never ask why you didn't get the job -- both questions are really rude. You should ask what you did well, and what you need to improve. And you should thank the person for taking the time.

Finally: finish something. Whether it is submitting an article, finishing revisions on an article that has come back with reader's reports, writing a book proposal and sending your manuscript out, whatever. You need to show that you are moving forward in your career. Everyone knows how much time it takes to be on the job market, particularly when you are teaching adjunct, but the further out you are from graduate school, the higher expectations are about your scholarly trajectory. Do not agree to write any: book reviews, encyclopedia entries, or anything else that fills up a curriculum vitae with entries that have nothing to do with original scholarship.

And finally? If you have been on the market for years and have not landed a permanent position that allows you to make a life, you may wish to start looking at other kinds of jobs. It is not admitting fault to do this: many wonderful scholars get kicked to the curb and never get back on track with a teaching job, but that doesn't mean you can't find another career that will let you keep on writing and shield you from the annual ego-battering of the market. Even as you apply for jobs this one last time, begin to talk to people about this and ask them to help you. Well-hidden secret: most people who write don't have tenured academic jobs.

For Those Re-entering The Market

Much of what I have to say on this topic is here, including a lot of interesting commentary about whether wanting to change jobs is evidence of a character defect on your part (no). But I do have a few other things to say.

First, be clear about why you want another job. Want to live with your partner, rather than commute? Probably a good idea but be aware that living with your partner can cause you to break up, since both of you have become accustomed to having a lot of time alone and have developed routines and friendship circles that aren't automatically inclusive. It happens to more people than you know. Angry at the people you work for? Well OK, but it is surprising how similar most colleges and universities are to each other, and if you don't encounter the same frustrations, you may encounter different ones. You might try to see if your issues can be addressed, or if you can insulate yourself better by shifting your relationship to those problems. Just thinking there may be more to life? OK -- could be true. You better find out.

But after considering these questions, if you still want to go on the market, no job that is more prestigious than the one you have now (equally or less if this is driven by family needs) should be off the table. Every once in a while I get a priceless piece of advice, and ages ago it was Peggy Pascoe who told me to apply for everything within reason and allow the people who interviewed me to show me why University X would be a great place to make a career. So while you may have ideas about what place would be worth moving for, they are inevitably under-informed. What does it hurt to kick out another letter?

If you can, call someone you know and talk to them about the job before you apply. A few times I have had a good conversation with someone who has said, "Oh yes, the ad says 20th century, but the department is pushing to hire someone who can do urban." Or I have found out that they are under a mandate to find what is known in the biz as a "star," and I ain't their kind of star. And you know what? No harm, no foul. But ask your friends to be honest with you if there is some reason you should not bother to apply, because writing a job letter -- as all the newbies on the market can tell you -- is time-consuming, difficult work.

In your letter, ask for what I would call limited confidentiality. Give them the name of a colleague who will be writing for you whom they can call to find out how much the institution will regret losing you, and then simply ask them to let you know if they feel they need to make more general inquiries that will expose the fact that you are on the market. But balance your understandable desire for privacy with another issue, which is that you may want to put it out there in a limited way that you are interested in moving so that your name comes up when people are soliciting applications. True, you do not want to make your current colleagues feel that you have one foot out the door. But many senior jobs are never advertised, people recruit to increase the intellectual, racial and gender diversity of their pools, and you want people to know that you can be moved for the right job if that is true. Second, if there is something that your colleagues and administration can do that would take you off the market, why not tell them and see if it can happen prior to a negotiation over a real job?

A final note: what if there is a tenure track job being advertised that you want to try for as a tenured person? It might not work, particularly in this economic climate, but it never hurts to ask if they would consider your application. All they can do is say no.


Claire Potter is professor of history and American studies at Wesleyan University. Her blog is Tenured Radical, where an earlier version of this essay appeared.


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