Advice for Aspiring Academics

Philip Nel has some ideas for those seeking to land on the tenure track.

August 19, 2015

As we approach a new academic year, graduate students, postdocs, adjuncts and others are eyeing the job market warily and wondering, How do I get a tenure-track job? Here are a dozen pieces of advice to help get you to the interview and, with luck, onto the tenure track.

1. Publish everything. A conference paper is half an essay (or chapter). Once you’ve given your presentation, develop a full version and send it out to a peer-reviewed publication. Or if it’s part of a book, write the rest of the chapter.

2. Sustain production. In one respect, building a CV is a simple mathematical equation: if you publish two articles per year, in five years you’ll have 10 articles. The specific annual number is up to you. As a graduate student or young scholar, if you’re able to publish one article per year, that’s truly superb. The larger point is that if you maintain a rate of production, then -- over time -- the numbers add up and your CV grows. When a hiring committee faces a stack of applications, candidates who have more publications stand out.

3. Always be publishing (to paraphrase a line from Glengarry Glen Ross). You should always have something in the pipeline -- under consideration or forthcoming. Once it’s under consideration, I list it on my CV as “under consideration.” Some people list articles in progress on the CV, but I only list books in progress. However, both approaches are fine -- especially when you’re early in your career. In addition to developing your vita, including future articles or books shows people that you’re an active scholar.

4. Make your CV easy to read. Especially as it grows, it’s helpful to distinguish between types of publications: book, refereed (peer-reviewed) articles or chapters, unrefereed articles or chapters, refereed reviews, reference, and so on. For each item, list the page numbers for print publications, word count for online, number of manuscript pages (e.g., “27 pp. in ms.”) for unpublished. Use a legible font: serif fonts look better on paper, but sans serif looks better online. Look at other people’s CVs online: Which ones are easy to read? Model yours on theirs. Which ones are confusing? Avoid their mistakes. Hiring committees see a lot of CVs. Make it easier for them to see why your CV warrants their attention.

5. Believe in and doubt merit. Believe in merit because it motivates you to produce and inspires you to keep going, despite the odds. The more academic currency you gain (via publications, presentations, etc.), the more merit you accrue. But doubt merit because the vast number of Ph.D.s on the job market means that merit will never be enough. Remember also that merit is subjective, masks privilege and should not be trusted as a single measure of your worth.

6. Seize as many opportunities as you can, but be selective. Pursue collaboration with others, put together panels for conferences, curate a social media presence (blog, Twitter, Tumblr or the like), seek placement in essay collections or in a special issue of a journal. (Pro tip: special issues of journals tend to come out much more quickly than essay collections. If you’re looking to build your CV, choose the special issue.) But only pursue these if they help you achieve larger scholarly and intellectual goals -- such as, say, a book, a digital humanities archive, an article, a research grant.

7. When seeking a venue for your work, aim high … and then settle. Send your article to the best journal in your field. Send your book proposal to the best publisher in your field. Should the best turn you down, try another venue. Also, if the top one turns you down, take heart: you may find that a publisher or journal that’s allegedly not “the best” is in fact a better fit for your work. I did. Two academic publishers turned down the book that developed from my dissertation, but the third one published it. I have no regrets.

8. Recognize the limitations of this advice. Like academe itself, this advice is sometimes absurd, paradoxical or impossible. There is no magic formula to landing the elusive tenure-track job. I wish there were.

9. Vote for political candidates who support publicly funded higher education, and encourage others to do so. A decline in government funding is one (though not the sole) cause of the dwindling numbers of tenure-track jobs. Politicians who demean or defund higher education deserve neither your support nor anyone else’s. We need to fight the exploitation of adjuncts, expand the ranks of the tenured and halt the erosion of tenure itself. We need to oppose a politics that raises the cost of tuition for students while increasing job insecurity for their teachers. I realize it’s a tall order, but job candidates should aspire not just to succeed within a faltering system, but to change the system itself. Or at least to keep this goal in sight.

10. Take care of yourself. There are two reasons why you should exercise regularly, sit or stand with correct posture, seek sufficient sleep, and try to eat well. First, an academic career is a marathon, not a sprint. In your early years, you can (and probably will) push yourself too hard. I did. But this approach is not sustainable. If you keep it up for too long, you’ll burn out. (To avoid implosion, I’ve had to scale back a bit.) Your body is not merely an inconvenience; it’s what allows you to be in the world and to do the work you want to do. Second, taking care of your body can help your mind flourish. After a good night’s sleep, what seemed elusive may become clear. During a jog or a bike ride or a swim, you may find yourself making connections that you’d missed before. Indeed, a simple change of scenery can shift your perception in useful ways. So: do not neglect your health.

11. Pursue meaningful work. This is the best reason to stick with academe. Choose projects that spark your curiosity, because intrinsically interesting work will sustain you both intellectually and emotionally.

12. Do not define success according to academe’s terms. Given the scarcity of traditional academic careers, there are many reasons not to pursue a traditional academic career. Seeking an alt-ac job is not failure. Leaving academia altogether is not failure. You’re smart and capable. You have much to offer your community. You can do many things. Go and do them!


Philip Nel worked as an adjunct for three years before landing a tenure-track position at Kansas State University in 2000. He is the author or co-editor of 10 books, and author or co-author of 28 refereed articles/chapters. Nel blogs at Nine Kinds of Pie and tweets as philnel.


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