We’re heading into late summer, which means thousands of graduate students and postdocs are gearing up for their first faculty job search. I know from experience -- my own and through advising hundreds of grad students looking for jobs -- that entering the academic job market can be both exciting and terrifying. Exciting because it’s a period of major transition and open possibility. Terrifying because at least one of those possibilities is that you won’t get a tenure-track job this time around -- or maybe ever.
Understandably, candidates tend to lean in to the excitement and avoid the terror. They invest enormous time and energy into the pursuit of a single possible future in which they will be tenure-stream faculty without an endpoint or exit strategy in mind should that future not, in the end, work out.
And in the absence of a scheduled endpoint and next steps, they can easily find themselves stuck in the land of sunk costs and precarious employment -- still adjuncting or postdoc-ing or moving every nine months for yet another visiting professorship years after their first hopeful attempt at the market. And that can make it challenging, to say the least, to build the stable and satisfying lives most of us want.
That isn’t to say going on the faculty job market should be a one-and-done kind of thing. In many crowded fields, it can often take a couple of years to land a tenure-track job. Indeed, depending on your field, teaching experience and publication list, it may make sense to spend some time in temporary positions that could enhance your profile. But constantly chasing just one more semester of adjunct teaching or that one additional publication without a clear limit in mind can easily get you stuck in a cycle of uncertainty and precarity.
So what’s the alternative? Build an endpoint into your plans for the faculty job search. Make a contract with yourself now regarding how many years you will spend on the academic job market before you stop applying and shift your efforts to new possibilities.
That will require reflection to figure out the number of years you plan to commit to the search and determination to stick with your plan if and when you reach your deadline. Below are some suggested steps for figuring out how long to give yourself on the faculty market. The advice is designed for those getting ready to engage in a faculty job search for the first time, but it could also be useful to those who may already be all too familiar with the process.
Determine your priorities. Where does “being a professor” fit in relation to all of the other aims that motivate you and will determine your path? I find that graduate students usually enter the faculty job market with an “at all costs” mind-set, applying to literally any open position regardless of institution, location or other factors. Remember: It’s OK to care about location. It doesn’t make you a bad academic, for example, to prioritize living in a place where you can more safely walk down the street with your partner over being a professor where you can’t.
And it doesn’t make you a bad academic to decide that the arduous quest of becoming a professor shouldn’t eat up more than X years of your life.
Identify broader life goals. Whatever the next few years of your career look like, they will take place in the context of your broader life. And your life as a whole probably shouldn’t take a back seat to work. One common life goal that could influence how long you want to spend in the faculty job search is an interest in having children. People can and do have kids while job hunting, but a desire for a stable paycheck and (in the United States, in particular) a need for employer-provided health insurance and parental leave may prompt you to delay kids until you’re in a more permanent position.
Other life considerations that may impact how long you stay on the faculty market could include a desire to move closer to family, access to a particular religious community, a burgeoning side hustle and more.
Talk with your "stakeholders." Think about who might be impacted by your faculty job search -- and by its duration. Who has a stake in your future? Will your relationship need to be long-distance until you end up somewhere permanent? Will your kids have to change schools for each visiting assistant professor position? Do aging parents need you nearby (or at least financially secure enough to travel to them when needed)?
It’s not that their needs must take precedence over yours. You may, in fact, decide to prioritize your own needs over theirs for a period of time. But thinking and talking through that compromise may help you determine how long that period might be.
Consider your finances. Your financial situation, both in terms of needs and wants, is likely to change over the next few years. Not long after you finish your Ph.D., your student loans will come knocking. And, at the same time, moving out of “student/trainee” mode may get you thinking about saving for retirement in a more deliberate way. Each situation is distinct, and yours will inevitably change over time depending on debt load, family and shifting life priorities. Sit down and figure out your primary financial pain points and when you’ll really start to feel them, and use that information to help you plan your time on the faculty market.
Explore your options now. Enter the faculty job market from a place of hope, but don’t let the focus of that hope turn monomaniacal and ostrich-like. Instead, find hope in an open, positive and as-clear-as-possible sense of the range of options available to you now and in the future. As Beth Godbee wrote in a "Carpe Careers" column recently, “Saying no is actually saying yes to something else.” Take time now to figure out what you would be excited to say yes to when the time comes. Explore your options broadly, and understand what your next steps might be beyond the faculty search.
How should you do that? If you have access to graduate student or postdoc career services at your university, take advantage of those now. Read books like the classic So What Are You Going to Do With That?: Finding Careers Outside Academia or the forthcoming Succeeding Outside the Academy: Career Paths Beyond the Humanities, Social Sciences, and STEM (out from University of Kansas Press this September). Use online tools like ImaginePhD and MyIDP designed to help you identify and explore career paths. Start doing informational interviews with interesting people. You might consider scheduling at least an hour a week to explore new options, as a balance to the hours you’ll be putting into your faculty job search.
Ultimately, by better understanding your needs and your options, you can feel more empowered, open and excited about whatever the next few years bring your way.