10 Things to Know This Summer

A graduate student provides advice if you plan to start applying for an academic position this coming year.

July 24, 2018

Graduate candidates are often told the job market is random. A part certainly is -- in fact, probably a large part -- but good strategy can help as well. The following is a short collection of advice for any graduate student preparing materials for this year’s cycle.

Think about your social needs. Do you have a partner? What are their needs? Do you have kids? You arrived at the U of Wherever and immediately had 30 ready-made friends, all of whom had a similarly obscure and nerdy interest. Your partner probably had to build a network from scratch through work, yoga, sports and the like. As you’ve moved through orals and prospectus to dissertation, your friends have gotten positions and moved away. You’re probably ready to move; your partner may not be.

Think about the stress of multiple moves and rebuilding support networks. Talk with your partner about how far they are willing to move or how you might negotiate a long-distance relationship. Make explicit how much you appreciate their sacrifice for your career, and make them an equal partner in decisions about where to apply. If you have children, what kind of a place do you want them to grow up in?

Have a full draft of your dissertation in August. Don’t try to finish chapters while you are applying. Send your committee a full-but-not-perfect draft at the end of August. Note that you will continue to revise it, but ask explicitly for your committee to mention in their letters of recommendation that they’ve seen a full draft. Set a date to defend in the early spring and mention this in every cover letter. Search committees give full drafts more weight. Also, the job/postdoc application cycle takes up more time than a full-time job, and you may be teaching. The last thing you want to worry about is finishing chapters. Tinker while you apply, but have a draft done in August.

Prepare for rejection. In the warm June before you go on the job/postdoc market, accept the idea that May the following year may be quite cold (i.e., no job or postdoc). It’s statistically almost certain you won’t get a job -- or even a postdoc -- the first year. The pool of applicants is too deep, and the easiest way for search committees to filter is to sort applications first into two piles, Ph.D. and A.B.D. The latter pile goes into the round blue bin. A corollary here is not to apply to anything in your first year on the market that doesn’t look written for you. Postdocs are the new norm, but they are also very, very competitive. You may not get one your first year trying. The best thing to do is to have three-year plan.

Have a three-year plan. This is likely your thought process: “If no job this year, then postdoc this year; if no postdoc, then …” This approach is wrong. It should instead be “First year local, second year postdoc, third year job.” In the summer before you’re on the job/postdoc market, spend some solid time planning for a failed job or postdoc search. Figure out something to do locally for next year assuming you get neither a postdoc nor a job. It might be an internal teaching gig at your institution or limited adjuncting assignments at other local institutions. If that isn’t available in your area, your local year might be a nonacademic side job that pays the rent paired with a fellowship or affiliation that allows you to use the letterhead for job applications.

While you’re planning your local year that summer before, work the wikis for postdocs. There’s no way to foresee what jobs will pop up, but postdocs are quite regular. Consult the dreaded Academic Jobs Wiki from last year for postdocs. Make a list of last year’s postdocs that apply to you, including their requirements and deadlines. There’s no guarantee that they will be offered this year or that the deadlines will be exactly the same, but it’s a start for your list.

If that first year doesn’t net you a job or a postdoc, you’re ready for your local year. As a newly minted Ph.D., do the following six things: write, write, apply, apply, publish and publish. You’re now in the non-blue-bin pile. In the second year, you will hopefully get the postdoc. In your third year, you’re a postdoc who has published. The three-year job hunt: one year still local, two years in a postdoc, then the job.

Understand the calendar. You will already have a general calendar of postdocs, compiled from the wikis over the summer. The job/postdoc market has a cadence and typology of postings that is somewhat predictable. Real tenure-track jobs will be posted from August through October; deadlines will be late September through mid-December, with a particularly heavy crush between Oct. 15 and Nov. 15. Don’t plan anything for that month. Most jobs thereafter, especially those posted after New Year’s, are either to replace a faculty member whose leave was just granted, adjunct positions or inside hires. Lesson: the tidal wave crashes early. Thereafter it’s mostly just eddies and foam. Planning is your life preserver.

Request generic letters of recommendation. Send a request through Interfolio to each of your letter writers in September asking for a generic letter of recommendation. They will upload a confidential letter that you can send to jobs. For each uploaded letter, Interfolio provides a special email address (e.g. [email protected]). In applications that ask for your letter writers’ contact information, you can insert this special email address in place of your advisers’ actual email addresses. Instead of them getting an email to upload the document, Interfolio gets the email and uploads that letter automatically to the link in the email. This is great for busy advisers as well as for jobs that pop up at the last minute. Some search committees may penalize generic letters, but if your only alternative is no letter at all, you have to run that risk.

Triangulate advice. Heed the Third Law of Job/Postdoc Market Physics: any advice that comes in all caps or contains the word “absolutely” will always be contradicted by equal and opposite advice from another source. Should I send my teaching portfolio when they ask for a teaching statement? Which writing sample should I upload? Should I call my dissertation “my dissertation” or “my current project” in my cover letter?

In general, it’s difficult to beat Karen Kelsky’s advice; nonetheless, triangulate. Ask your fellow graduate students, your adviser, another committee member, junior faculty, your departmental administrator, Office of Career Services staff and your parents (for a real-world response).

Use your network to do research -- and don’t be shy. Research all the postdocs over the summer. The fit paragraph in your research proposal -- “I would look forward to conversation with Professor X and taking part in the colloquia hosted by the Center for Learning in Y” -- won’t get you the job. (That’s why it’s near the end.) But it’s still important. Contact the person who has the postdoc now and ask for advice on your application. If the postdoc teaches, take a look at the courses that person has done. Do you have contacts at Famous University? Ask them if they know anything about what the search committee is looking for. Getting a job or postdoc is like Swiss timing in an Olympic swimming heat: you don’t need to edge out your competition by an hour, just by a hundredth of a second. Research could give you the edge.

Read Inside Higher Ed. Read it every week. If it’s October, at least skim. This is research. You need to be aware of the current debates in academe so you can look like a colleague when you interview, not a grad student who only knows about late-12th-century tailors’ account books in Marseille (west of the river).

Stay the course -- until you decide not to. If my experience is any guide, it’s not worth wasting energy worrying about applications past. Keep refining your materials, always be on the hunt for new postings and give each one your best shot. Then keep moving forward. That said, think about when you are not going to stay the course and rather change direction. That date may change, but you should have a provisional one penciled into your mental calendar.

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Robert Dulaire (a pseudonym) is a doctoral candidate. He wrote this piece in conversation with fellow graduate students.


Robert Dulaire

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