Last January, I returned mentally and emotionally exhausted from the American Historical Association meeting. I had been lucky to have had a few interviews, and all I could do was refresh my e-mail every few minutes, hoping for any updates. I toggled over to Facebook and quickly posted the status, "If the academic job market is like dating (and it totally is) I hope to be engaged by Valentine’s Day." The likes and comments poured in from family and friends.
"Oh, it so totally is," a young colleague replied. A graduate school friend assured me that now, according to my horoscope, was "the time to shine! Go!" Other girlfriends of mine chimed in, "Remember, you’re a catch!" while a male friend from college days cynically joked, "Your first marriage will end in divorce once you find a more endowed (pun intended) husband."
Getting some virtual reassurance that I was good enough, and that I would eventually have that tenure-track ring on my finger, was what I needed at that moment. I had gone on the job market for the first time during my final year of graduate school, and things had looked promising. I had close to 10 AHA interviews, five campus visits at various kinds of institutions ranging from the small liberal arts college to the top-tier Research I university, and was optimistic that I would wrap up the season with a wonderful job.
It didn’t turn out that way. I did end up with a wonderful position, but a temporary one as a postdoctoral scholar in a part of the country where I had never imagined living. By the time the job market season rolled around again, I had barely started my new gig and wanted to give it my all. Diving back into dating new schools seemed especially daunting — did I really want to ride that emotional roller coaster again? A big part of me didn’t (my postdoc was renewable), but a bigger part of me wanted to find true, tenure-track love. This second time around, I began to think of my job search like dating, and it helped put many things into perspective — here’s how I believe the two journeys are similar, and how you (particularly talking to you ABDs or recent Ph.D.s) can use this analogy to stay sane during your own job-hunting experience.
1. People scan your profile quickly, so you need to make the effort to stand out.
Much like those scanning online dating profiles, search committees are scanning job applications quickly and looking for key words, interesting factoids about you, and evidence of other desirable traits. The initial screening of an application takes a matter of minutes, or even seconds, and people are separated into "yes," "no" and "maybe" piles quickly. As a result, you must cultivate your best first impression through your cover letter. Get many pairs of adviser (and outsider) eyes to read and help you revise it. Play up your strengths, your passions, and what makes you different and interesting. Tell search committee members why they should move you to their "yes" pile. This isn’t the time to send the proverbial mass e-mail, "Hey, your online profile looked interesting. Want to chat?" In a competitive market, this is the time to research, personalize, and tailor each application down to the last stitch. A search committee will notice if your tone isn’t enthusiastic about their specific institution. While your recommendation letters or other materials may stay the same, the cover letter must communicate your interest and enthusiasm for being considered by that one college — and that one college only — for a date.
2. You can’t control the process, only your reaction. Don’t take rejection personally.
After you have sent out all your applications, you must sit back and wait. To many people, this lack of control is anxiety-producing. When you finally do begin hearing news — through an e-mail from a search committee member, a friend applying for the same position, or even an academic wiki — most likely you will experience rejection. Each rejection stings, but no rejection should be dwelt upon too much. Most of the time, it is very hard, if not impossible, to tell what a search committee and department really wants from the language of its job ad, and many times you will have no idea why a department did not want you. All you have control over is your response, which should be to move forward and focus on who is left on the playing field.
3. You have to not only make them believe you are special, but that they are special.
When I made it to the interview stage, this was a piece of advice from a friend that made all the difference. One thing many job-hungry academics forget is that this is a two-way process. A department is not only interviewing you; you’re interviewing the department. And like a search committee has the power to make you feel desirable, you have the same power over them. During each interview — whether it’s preliminary or campus — you have to make your interviewers believe you could not imagine being connected to any other institution. They’re the ones you want! No one else! This focused energy has to come through. You must communicate what makes you a desirable candidate, while making them feel like a desirable department and institution. No one wants to feel like they’re dating someone who’s really thinking about someone else.
4. To find your best match, you have to know what you want out of the relationship.
I knew that I wanted these things — a reasonable teaching load, colleagues whom I could imagine being friends with, and to live in a diverse and culturally rich place that would present opportunities for me to meet new people (read: the other kind of dating). I wanted to be at a college where my work in Latino/Chicano history and my identity as a woman of color would be welcomed and valued by my department and the campus community. Though I knew some of these things at the beginning of my job market journey, I only knew all of them after I had finished interviews at colleges that clearly could not offer these things. Through dating in the romantic realm, we come to know what we want and don’t want in a partner. The same goes for academic job hunting. If there is something you are absolutely not willing to tolerate (inadequate family leave or child-care opportunities, a lack of diversity, etc), you must pay attention to your feelings.
5. You will most likely get your heart broken, at least once. Have a good support network.
During the campus visit, one invests a great amount of emotional and mental energy into imagining a future with a department. Knowing that other candidates/suitors are visiting the same department and essentially meeting its institutional "family" can drive one crazy with worry. Are they smarter than me? Do they have a better academic pedigree? Are they charming them right now? Are they older/younger/more experienced? Again, try to remind yourself that you have valuable things to offer, and the right institution will think so too. That mentality will help in cases of post-campus visit rejection, and so will a good support network. Know who those people are in your life, and ask for moral support when you need it. Your adviser, colleagues, family, and friends can listen to your frustrations, remind you of your value, and encourage you to keep your chin up (perhaps over a strong drink). I can’t say every heartbreak gets easier, but staying connected with supportive people helps you deal with them better.
6. There will be plenty of awkwardness.
Preliminary interviews and campus visits, meals with potential colleagues, car rides to and from the airport — all of these spaces are breeding grounds for awkwardness. I experienced plenty of it. I got laryngitis during two campus visits and literally squeaked through job talks and schmoozing. I ran into friends coming out of hotel interview rooms as I was waiting to enter them (one of my friends even remembered being called my name by an interviewer!). I had to negotiate my response to inappropriate remarks and inquiries about everything from my religious practices to relationship status. I had to finish a multiple-day campus visit/date when I knew from the first few hours that I wasn’t the right candidate for them, and they weren’t the right department for me. Be prepared to deal with any situation, even if your advisers reassure you that you won’t have to deal with "x" in these modern times.
7. If you’re in a position to make them want you more, take advantage of it, and negotiate for your happiness.
If you are lucky enough to get more than one offer/proposal, do not waste that bargaining power. You must be ethical and courteous to your prospects, of course, but you must also be your best advocate. The search committees and departments have already invested an incredible amount of time and energy into reading your application materials, interviewing you, listening to your job talk, attending related events, and voting on your hire. This is not the time to get scared of negotiating. Your future happiness and comfort is at stake. Begin your negotiations with your preferred institution and tell them exactly what it would take to match or exceed the offer terms of the competing institution/s. Make a list of these things. Practice saying these things out loud. Call everyone who can adequately pump you up to have this conversation. Younger candidates and women are less likely to negotiate for what they are worth. Do not shy away from making it clear that other institutions want you. This does not make you unattractive — it makes you more attractive, and the department that steals you away from a competitor will relish the opportunity to say they did.
8. Even if you find a match and commit, no relationship is perfect.
The position I have now is one that gives me everything I deemed important — enough time to research, great colleagues, and a culturally exciting place to call home. But I could have only met and committed to my match by going through the experience of NOT finding a tenure-track position the first time I put myself out there. If you are fortunate enough to get proposed to by an institution and sign that contract, proceed with common advice to newlyweds: no marriage will be perfect, and you will have to keep working on the relationship. You may have the prestige of a position at an Ivy League university, but you may feel stressed by the pressure that comes with being linked to such an elevated partner. You may be in a place that provides intellectual stimulation, but very little in the way of social stimulation. You may have wonderful colleagues, but have to deal with dwindling departmental or university budgets. You will have to learn how to deal with your match’s flaws and make the best out of your time with them. Maybe it will last for the long term, or maybe you’ll begin flirting with other schools relatively soon. Either way, the experience of institutional commitment will continue to teach you what you want and don’t want in your academic life.
9. No matter what happens, you will gain invaluable self-knowledge.
After countless cover letters, days of waiting for phone calls and emails, and several campus visits, I learned many lessons that I continue to apply in my work and other areas of my life. I learned how to be more confident in my value and worth. I became better at asking people for the intellectual and moral support I needed. I learned how to eat really fast while being asked hard questions. And finally, I learned that things will work out somehow in the end. As clichéd as that last statement sounds, it is something that all those on the academic job market need to hear once in a while, if only to keep them a bit saner as they wait by the phone or computer. Love doesn’t always come quickly, and the search for a tenure-track job can be equally unpredictable and frustrating. Every experience, however, will teach you something, and make you a wiser person to walk whatever path you do end up choosing.
Lori A. Flores is an assistant professor of history at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, living in Brooklyn.