What the Job Market Is -- and Isn't

Understanding the difference can help take the stress out of looking for a position, writes Stephen J. Aguilar.

October 25, 2018

If you are reading this article, you are probably on the job market or know someone who is. The stress associated with looking for a job is unavoidable, but knowing what the market is -- and what it isn’t -- can go a long way toward mitigating some of that stress.

What the Job Market Is

It’s about getting a job. It’s worth emphasizing that the point of going on the job market is to land a job. Until now, you have spent years in graduate school being trained by faculty members and have come away with the skills you need to ask and answer questions that you deem relevant. You may have fallen in love with your topic(s) as a result, and your sense of self may be intertwined with continuing your work by landing a tenure-track offer.

Such a mingling of self and profession is risky -- the passion that served you well in graduate school can become maladaptive on the job market. Thus, I urge you to disentangle your sense of self from your profession. Do not elevate your career to a vocation. Doing so risks conflating your self-worth with whether or not you land a job.

Do not lose sight of the fact that, at the core of your graduate experience, you are being trained to do a job. Granted, it is an interesting job and one that can build toward a happy and prosperous career. If you happen to land a coveted tenure-track appointment, then you will be given the opportunity to have unparalleled freedom in the tasks you do, how and when you do them, and what “counts” as new knowledge. That feeling can be intoxicating, but much like drinking too many spirits, it also comes with the danger of causing you to internalize (or express) delusions of grandeur.

Thus, you should be wary of advice from faculty members who treat themselves as stewards of a priestly caste of knowledge crafters -- somehow above the mundane worries of networking, navigating office politics, earning a salary and treating academic jobs for what they actually are: a livelihood.

The job you apply for must support you financially. If you have a family, it must also meaningfully contribute to the household. Note that if the position you are applying for does neither, then you must have the courage to look elsewhere. You have trained too long to be underpaid and undervalued.

It’s about representing your best scholarly self. This is not the time for you to be humble. Humble applicants stay humble -- and unemployed. Know what your accomplishments are and how to highlight them in a manner that will be well received by the search committee. Often that means having advocates who can speak on your behalf, either in writing or by picking up the phone.

Make sure that your CV is organized in a way that reflects the norms of your discipline and goals. Are you aiming for a position at a major research institution? If so, your publications and grants should come first, followed by awards and fellowships, with teaching relegated to the latter half of your vita. If you are applying to a teaching position, then the opposite is probably true. In short, make sure that your written materials highlight the parts of your work that the position calls for.

Ensuring that your materials are customized for the position will require you to create multiple versions of your vita and other materials. Develop such different versions and name them in a way that makes them easily identifiable. When I was on the market, every job had a folder with all of the relevant materials. Often those documents were just slight revisions of the originals, but having all of the material for a job in one place made sending the wrong PDF to a search committee unlikely.

What the Job Market Isn't

It isn’t just another application. Up until this point, many of you will have been successful at applying for graduate programs and fellowships. It is tempting for you to assume that the job-application process is similar to those applications.

It isn’t.

In fact, treating your job-market application just like any another one can derail the entire process -- both from a pragmatic standpoint and from a mental one. Applications to graduate programs are largely passive -- you present your credentials to an unknown committee, and they decide whether to admit you or not. It is tempting to see jobs in the same way, but remember: this is your livelihood. You must take as active a role as possible in seeking a position, while still attending to the norms of your discipline.

Timing is crucial. Ideally, you should be aware of trends in the market a year or two before you actually go on it. Also, faculty members from other institutions should know who you are, or at least be aware of your work. That way, you can take an active role in giving yourself advantages for a job before a job actually exists. If you haven’t done that, however, you can still be active by asking others to be your advocates.

It neither confirms nor denies your brilliance. I’ll say it again: the job market neither confirms nor denies your brilliance. Internalize this, because the job market will batter your ego in ways you didn’t think were possible. You will see mediocre peers land jobs that you felt were above them, and you will see brilliant peers land nothing.

The job market is not a litmus test for your brilliance as a scholar or a reliable indicator of how accomplished you are. The people who land jobs are those who were best positioned to land jobs. That means that they had the right advocates, studied relevant and timely topics, had the right set of accomplishments, and happened to be on the market while a job that matched their expertise opened up.

Unfortunately, you cannot control much of the above. You can, however, anticipate some of it and build relationships with other people that will help you along the way. The job market can often be messy and difficult, but you will be better equipped to deal with it if you know what it is and what it isn’t.


Stephen J. Aguilar is assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education. He leads the Learning Analytics and Psychology in Education Lab. You can follow him on Twitter @stephenaguilar.


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