Democratizing the Academic Job Search

Job candidates have access to more information than ever about the search process, but departments and their faculties must not leave grad students to the vagaries of Internet advice, Marietta Morrissey argues.

August 14, 2015

When my now retiring baby boomer colleagues and I searched for jobs in the late 1970s, we were largely in the dark about how the process of landing a position really worked. Ours was a dismal job market, although generally not as grim as today’s.

The keys to success seemed to be a strong CV and positive letters of reference. A bonus was having an approachable and aggressive chair who would work his or her (mostly his) networks to up the likelihood of success.

Looking back, I am amazed by our heavy dependence on job-searching advice imparted almost exclusively by full-time tenure-track faculty. Traveling only very occasionally to academic meetings, our extradepartmental networks were small and yielded little new intelligence about the mysteries of job seeking.

In many ways, the ingredients of a successful job search are unchanged. It comes down finally to graduate school achievements and evidence that the candidate will prosper as both a teacher and performer/investigator. The emphasis has shifted, though, from evidence of research and teaching potential to proof of achievement in teaching and research. Reference letters remain critically important.

It is also clear, however, that job applicants have more information than ever about the process, thanks to social media and electronic access to constantly updated job lists, articles and blogs.

Position candidates I encountered as a college dean and my own former students refer casually to pieces in Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education and other sources that provide concrete advice and personal experiences with graduate school, dissertation completion and job seeking. They may have accessed as well sites that offer the behind-the-scenes scoop on particular jobs and departments.

This proliferation of information and resources reflects the Internet-driven communication revolution. It also fills a vacuum left by the academy’s general failure to respond to the career concerns of graduate students facing ever-tighter job markets.

This is in many ways a positive development, and the material is irresistible to the perfectionist personalities seeking doctoral degrees. Knowledge, it is said, is power, and the democratization of information hitherto privileged or absent is even better.

Yet as I reviewed dozens of these sites I felt a growing sense of despair. How bad must it be out there to warrant this torrent of commentary and advice on how to land an academic job? And if I am feeling depressed, how must the job candidate feel? Indeed, the more I read of these discussions, columns and blogs, the more I questioned the emphasis on the candidate’s perfectly honed search effort.

As anyone who has hired new faculty or worked with academic job candidates knows, the beautifully crafted cover letter, the carefully planned reference list, the recasting of skills and experiences to fit what seem to be the particularities of the job only goes so far. In fields where a small number of positions appear annually and the applicant numbers are huge, the likelihood of success is largely beyond the individual candidate’s control.

I also got a dispiriting look at the frustration that many candidates feel with their committee chairs’ lack of interest in academic career matters. Advisers and academic departments should be the primary sources of assistance and support for students on the job market. Web resources may be useful supplements, but the democratization of job search materials and information should not diminish the obligation of dissertation chairs and other faculty members to see students through the process and to assist them in understanding and responding to the market.

When in the 1980s supermarkets first tried to persuade shoppers to bag their own groceries, the phrase “bring your own bag” became an apt descriptor among my colleagues for the increasing number of tasks faculty members were being asked to do themselves. While the supermarket and academic tasks were sold as more efficient and empowering for the newly responsible actors, we understood that both supermarket clerks and departmental support staff would finally pay the price for economic rationalization.

In the case of the democratization of job market knowledge, the cost of “bringing one’s own bag” seems most immediately borne by students, but in the long term the roles of advisers, committees and academic departments are weakened by DIY job seeking. Perhaps that seems attractive to the committee chair who is not inclined to guide students through the rigors of today’s tough job market. But it does the beleaguered professoriate no favors to abandon the products of their academic guidance to the electronic advice mart.

The discouraging academic job market seems increasingly the student’s to master, when mastery may not be enough and the close counsel of academic mentors is needed more than ever. The virtual cottage industry in career advice is not going to disappear, nor should students ignore its advice.

But job candidates should view it as a resource for further discussion with any willing and engaged advisers and faculty members. Students should also take advantage of departmental and disciplinary resources geared to the exigencies of specific job markets and other postgraduate opportunities.

Finally, I urge students to exercise their right to ask advisers and other academic mentors for their counsel about career matters large and small: faculty have an obligation to the next academic generation that no other sources can as knowledgeably or effectively satisfy.


Marietta Morrissey is professor emerita at the University of Toledo and former dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Montclair State University.


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