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Title

Organizing an Academic Job Market Working Group

A case study from Northwestern University.

February 27, 2020
 
 

Alícia Hernàndez Grande is a Ph.D. candidate in theater and drama at Northwestern University, where she has also worked with the Graduate Writing Place and Northwestern Career Advancement. She is passionate about peer mentoring and bringing kindness to the academic job market. You can find her on Twitter at @alihergra.

Among the many obstacles for graduate students facing the academic job market are the job market materials themselves. Academic job postings of all kinds require a myriad of documents, including cover letters, CVs (teaching and research focused) and multiple kinds of statements (teaching, research, diversity), which, of course, each need to be tailored to the specifics of each job post. Drafting, revising and endlessly tailoring these documents can feel like a second full-time job to be balanced alongside teaching responsibilities, research, writing and our personal lives. It is no wonder that the academic job market, already plagued by insecurity and a scarcity of jobs, feels inhospitable and anxiety-inducing.

In August 2019, I trialed a working group sponsored by the Graduate Writing Place at Northwestern University that sought to make writing and revising materials for the academic job market less isolating. Over the course of a week in August, I gathered 23 students from all of Northwestern’s schools entering the fall 2019 job market to write our job materials together. Although a week was not enough to finish these materials, by writing together we combated the initial anxieties of writing these materials, learned about other resources on campus and created community ahead of entering the job market. While some of us had already drafted some or all of their materials -- and hence used the week to revise and polish -- others drafted some or all of their materials for the first time. Thanks to this mixture, we learned from each other and encouraged each other to keep going.

It is my hope that, by sharing how this workshop was organized, these kinds of working groups might be implemented at other universities and departments, helping graduate students navigate the job market just a little more easily. It should be noted that this working group was itself developed from a workshop within the English department at the University of Iowa, created by Anna Williams and Kate Nesbit, which has since grown into campuswide program.

Each day of the workshop was devoted to a different job material:

  1. Monday -- Job postings and CVs
  2. Tuesday -- Cover letters
  3. Wednesday -- Teaching statements
  4. Thursday -- Research statements
  5. Friday -- Diversity statements

Each morning began with a different “expert” giving a workshop about each of these materials. These experts came from various parts of Northwestern, including the Northwestern Career Advancement (job postings and CVs), the Graduate Writing Place (cover letters and diversity statement), the Searle Center for Advancing Teaching & Learning (teaching statements) and the Fellowship Office (research statements). In fact, many of these workshops were already present and regularly given on campus, and usually more than one person in the working group had already taken the workshop. However, we found this repetition helpful in determining what information was the most pertinent to each of our needs. These workshops also helped introduce or refresh memories of resources on campus to help navigate the job market.

After the workshops, the working group dedicated itself to what I called designated writing time. Usually lasting about two hours, students agreed to write together, with respect to other’s writing process (i.e., in silence). This was, perhaps, one of the most critical elements of this working group. Speaking from my own personal experience, I had attended nearly all of the workshops on offer previous to this working group. I had taken diligent notes and with the best of intentions had made room in my schedule to write the materials. But invariably, between the workshop and my writing, things became more nebulous. Self-doubt crept in. Other tasks also required my attention. Writing didn’t happen. By asking students to write immediately after the workshop, I tapped into these best of intentions, when information is fresh and clear. Doing so among our peers also kept us writing past self-doubt or uncertainty (a trick I learned at dissertation boot camps: when everybody else is typing away, you keep typing yourself).

Finally, each day ended with a peer writing group. Students had been preselected into groups of five students depending on overall field (STEM, humanities, social sciences) and, if required, subspecialty. That being said, I avoided pairing students from the same department within a writing group to avoid the risk that they might be applying to the same job and hence competing with one another. With the shared understanding that materials were at all levels of writing -- from freshly drafted to freshly revised -- we read each other’s work, offering suggestions, insights and tips. I found that peer readers often were helpful to pick out the strongest bits of writing, the most compelling evidence or anecdotes, what was missing from a cover letter or a teaching statement. Through these conversations, we were able to get immediate feedback on our writing, which, in the weeks after the working group, we could return to and propel our next stage of writing and revision.

This working group also included other, smaller events. In the weeks preceding the working group, I sent out an email with readings, often from Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle, The Professor Is In and The Academic Job Search Handbook. Ideally, participants could use the readings as a head start to get writing, and they were useful during the working group to reference back. On Monday, as part of the general introduction to the working group, we talked through the parts of an academic job posting, talking through the specialized language of job postings students may be unfamiliar with. On Tuesday and Thursday, we had two faculty members from Northwestern come through and give insight on the job market from the perspective of search committees. These “extras” helped address other questions from participants and further demystified the academic job market.

Question

Pre-Working Group Mean (1-5 scale)

Post-Working Group Mean (1-5 scale)

On a scale of 1-5, please rate your general sense of preparedness for the academic job market.

2.4

3.7

On a scale of 1-5, please rate your understanding/confidence regarding academic job application materials.

2.6

4.2

On a scale of 1-5, please rate your knowledge of strategies for making applications competitive and appropriate for your skill set.

2.4

3.9

Although the response to the working group was overwhelmingly positive, recreating it has proved difficult. Hosting the group over the summer made it difficult to access for those doing summer research or internships. Furthermore, as a full-day event, I required grants and additional funding to cater lunches, snacks and other supplies -- funding that can be difficult to gain long-term or at other universities. Finally, the working group as constructed on Northwestern campus served only 23 students, limited by budget and space.

I, along with my colleagues from the working group, benefited from the collective work of figuring out the academic job market and its specific documents. Although nothing we did fixes the many issues within the academic job market or the scarcity of tenure-track jobs, we were able to meet this adversity with productivity that, at the very least, lowered our general anxiety surrounding the academic job market.

[Image by Unsplash user Nick Morrison and used under a Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication.]

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