Another Year on the Academic Job Market

David Shorter offers advice on what you might do between now and the next academic hiring season to help land a new job.

July 26, 2017
 
 
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So you’ve been on the academic job market, and it didn’t pan out. If you graduated after 2014, not having a job after earning your degree puts you among roughly 40 percent of all recent graduates. In the humanities alone, the percentage of recent doctorates without employment commitments is almost 50 percent, according to some studies. Let’s begin, then, by acknowledging that if you didn’t get a job in your first or second year out, you’re not alone by far.

While that feeling won’t pay the bills, it also shouldn’t be cause for blame. Simply put, there’s much too much responsibility to go around. The graduate program you wanted to get into probably shouldn’t have accepted so many people. Many universities are becoming top-heavy with administration at the expense of renewed or new full-time faculty positions. Your great interdisciplinary research needs an interdisciplinary departmental home, and those have become rarer over the last five years. Your advisers have zero to little training in getting students jobs, and getting students jobs is rarely in their job description. But mostly, the exact fit between you and a hiring institution wasn’t obvious to an application review committee.

And of all these things that might be at fault, you can only proactively address the last one. Perhaps the summer months can provide you some time for concentrated focus on your next -- and hopefully last -- round on the market. Here is one person’s perspective on what you might do between now and the next academic hiring season.

Publish. I know; the answer is so obvious that it hurts. But while most academic jobs are looking for people who can teach and do academic service, the main job of the academic is often to engage with and contribute to the scholarly research in one’s field.

Don’t have a field? Pick the two that most speak to your interests and send their journals and newsletters your written pieces this summer. Write blog entries, popular press pieces, essays on methodology -- even if they are not peer reviewed. Yes, peer-reviewed pieces matter, but in the job market, it also matters that you have spent some time refining your voice, putting yourself out there, becoming part of the conversation on your research topic.

And while writing is only one way to exemplify knowledge making, be sure to adapt this first item to your specific field. Whatever your area of professional activity, show that you are doing it all the time -- whether it be performing, activist work or digital scholarship. Would you be doing what you want if you weren’t being paid for it? Otherwise, you might appear to be a person saying you want to do something, but in fact not doing it much.

Review you. Clear your cache, erase your browsing history, use a friend’s computer -- whatever it takes to get a fresh perspective -- and search for your name on the internet. Do you come up on the first page? What does come up? Is it scholarly? It should be if you want a job as a scholar. Now might be the best time to do some curating of your web presence.

Of course, search committees are not supposed to review any materials not provided by the applicants. But you simply cannot control what people might do. And when academic positions come around so rarely, anyone involved in them will tell you that the worst-case scenario is to put in all the work of a faculty search, months of reviewing materials and meetings, only to have the offer not approved by a dean or provost, or to have them not work hard to recruit you.

Kill your darlings. Hopefully, you spent countless hours last year writing, rewriting and editing your cover letters, CV, writing samples and teaching statements -- including printing each one out and reviewing them line by line with a ruler to avoid a single spelling mistake or typo. Now throw them away and start again for this next year. You have a fresh take on your work this summer; now you can express something about your research that is more refined by the last year. And, frankly, last year’s materials didn’t do what you hoped they would. It goes without repeating, but you should ask several peer reviewers to look over those documents that you plan on sending to employers.

Help people help you. Regardless of how much of your cover letter is duplicated for various jobs, be sure you demonstrate for each position that you are invested in being with the organization for a long time. Do your research on the archives on the campus, the communities around it and the networks that would benefit your research (and their department) were you to get the job. Look over the course offerings, particularly core courses, so that you can help those hiring to better understand what you could contribute specifically to their teaching missions.

Since your CVs are only for those items that are in press, forthcoming or published, use the cover letter to say which essays are under review and how that shapes your future plans. For my department, and I imagine for some others, where you volunteer and how you are socially active is important, as well. You’re asking a group of people to be your physically closest professional community for years, if not decades.

Already dreading the awful comments that come with almost any online publication, allow me to admit that I am writing from a privileged position of having a tenured job. I am fortunate and say so with gratitude. But my hard-earned position shouldn’t be reason for suspicion about my two cents here. You have some reason to believe that the academic job market is no worse than in previous years. You have more insight into your research than last year because you’ve had more time to plan a research trajectory. You now have three months to work proactively toward the next application cycle. You have, in other words, reasons to be positive about the year ahead.

Bio

David Shorter is a professor of world arts and cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles. He directs both the Wiki for Indigenous Languages and the Archive of Healing, Ritual and Transformation.

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