Understanding Your Academic Friend: Job Market Edition

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“If you and your spouse don’t like living 400 miles apart, why don’t you just get jobs at the same university?”

“You miss living near your mom? Well, there are like 5 colleges in her town — just work at one of those!”

“You still don’t know anything about that assistant professor job? Didn’t you apply to it 9 months ago?”

“Wow, your salary is terrible. Why don’t you work for a school that pays better wages?”

“Want me to talk to my friend’s mom, the dean at University X? I’ll bet she can hook you up with a job there and then we’ll live closer to each other!”

I’ve had to answer all of these questions — or some variation of them — ever since I completed my PhD 7 years ago and began looking for tenure track jobs. The people asking these questions are friends and family who love me very much but who just cannot understand why a “smart, hard-working” lass like me has such limited choices when searching for permanent employment as a professor. When I’m asked these questions I need to pause and take a deep breath because I know the rant that’s about to issue forth from my mouth is going to sound defensive, irate and even paranoid to my concerned listener. When I finish the rant, I know my concerned listener is going to slowly back away from me, all the while secretly dialing 9-1-1.

In the interest of generating a better understanding between academics and the people who love them, I’ve decided to write a post explaining exactly how the academic job market works for someone like me, a relatively intelligent, hard-working lady with a PhD in the humanities. My experiences do not, of course, represent the experiences of all academics hunting for jobs, nor do they represent the experiences of all humanities PhDs (they do, of course, represent the experiences of all humanities unicorns though). I think this post will prove useful for many academics as they return to the Fall 2014 Edition of the Job Market.

So, my dear academics, the next time a friend says “I just don’t understand why a smart, hard-working person like you can’t get a job,” you can just pull out your smart phone, load up this post, and then sit down and have a stress-free cocktail while I school your well-meaning friend/ mother-in-law/ neighbor about what an academic job search entails and, more importantly, how it feels. I should note that I have been successful on the job market (which is why I’m currently employed) but for the purposes of this post I’m going to describe (one of my) unsuccessful attempts at the job market, during the 2013-2014 season. Enjoy that sweet sweet schadenfreude, you vultures.


Spring 2013

Though job ads usually don’t go live until the fall, the academic job search usually begins the spring before. At this point all you really need to be doing is selecting three individuals in your field (preferably three TENURED individuals) who think you’re swell and ask them if they will write a letter of recommendation. It’s necessary to make this request months in advance of application deadlines since many of these folks are super busy. You should also lock yourself in your bedroom and do dips, Robert-De-Niro-in-Cape-Fear style, because upper body strength is important. Who knows what the fall may bring.

Summer 2013

Job ads still haven’t been posted yet, but at this point any serious job candidate is working on her job materials. These are complex documents with specific (and often contradictory) rules and limits. Here’s a breakdown of some (not all, no, there will be so much more to write and obsess over once actual job ads are posted) of the documents the academic must prepare in advance of the job season:

1. The Cover Letter

The cover letter is a nightmare. You have 2 pages (single spaced, natch) to tell the search committee about: who you are, where you were educated, why you’re applying to this job, why you’re a good fit for this job, all the research you published in the past and why it’s important, all the research you’re working on now and why that’s important, the classes you’ve taught and why you’ve taught them, the classes you could teach at University X, if given the chance, and your record of service. You explain all of this without underselling OR overselling yourself and you must write it in such a way that the committee won’t fall asleep during paragraph two (remember, most of these jobs will have anywhere from 200-400 applicants so your letter must STAND OUT). You will draft the cover letter, then redraft it, then send it to a trusted colleague, revise it a few more times, send it to several more trusted colleagues (henceforth TCs), obsess, weep, and revise it one more time. Then more De Niro dips.

2. The CV

The curriculum vitae is not a resume. Whereas the primary virtue of a resume is its brevity, the curriculum vitae goes on and on and on. Most academics keep their CVs fairly up-to-date, so getting the CV job market ready isn’t very time-consuming. Still, it’s always a good idea to send it along to some TCs for feedback and copyediting. And don’t worry about those poor, overworked TCs: academics love giving other academics job market advice almost as much as mothers like to share labor and delivery stories with other mothers. There is unity in adversity. We also drink in the pain of others like vampires.

Is that a CV in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?
Is that a CV in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?

3. Statement of Teaching Philosophy

The statement of teaching philosophy (aka, teaching statement) is basically a narrative that details your approach to education in your field. You usually offer examples from specific classes and explain why your students are totally and completely engaged with the amazing lessons and assignments you have created for them. What’s super fun about these documents is that every school you apply to will ask for a slightly different version (and some, bless them, might not request it at all). Some search committees want a one-page document and others want two-page documents and still others don’t specify length at all (a move designed specifically to fuck with the perpetually anxious job candidate). Some search committees might ask that you submit a combined teaching and research statement, which, as you might guess, is the worst. So when you draft this document in the summer it’s just that: a draft. It’s preemptive writing. And it’s only just begun.

4. Statement of Research Interests

You know all the stuff you said about your research in the cover letter? Well say all of that again, only use different words and use more of them. This document could literally be any length come fall so just settle in, cowboy.

August 2013


Commence obsessing.

September 2013

At this point job ads are appearing in dribs and drabs, so you’re able to apply to them fair quickly. If you were obsessive in preparing your materials over the summer, your primary task now is to tailor each set of materials to every job ad. This process involves: researching the individual department you’re applying to as well as the university, hunting down titles and descriptions of courses you might be asked to teach, and poring over every detail of the job ad to ensure that your materials appear to speak to their specific (or as it may be, general) needs. This takes more time than you think it will.

Also keep in mind that every ad will ask for a slightly different configuration of materials. Some search committees are darlings and only ask for a cover letter and CV for the first round of the search, while others ask for cover letter, CV, letters of recommendation, writing samples, teaching statements and all the lyrics to “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

It’s also important to keep in mind that most folks on the academic job market are dissertating and/or teaching or, if you’re like me, already have a full-time job (and kids). But still, things haven’t gotten too stressful yet — the train’s barely left the station.

October-November 2013

Loads of jobs have been posted over the last few months and you are applying to ALL OF THEM. Well-meaning friends will send you emails with hopeful subject lines like “This job seems perfect for you!” and a link to a job you will not get. You apply to it anyway.

Also? Remember, all those jobs you applied to back in September? Well, right now you might also start receiving automated rejection emails that look something like this:

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Neat huh?

If you are lucky, though, the search committee will send you an email asking you to “submit more materials” — Ah, it feels good even to type those words — and at that point you do a happy, submit-more-materials jig in front of your computer. Yay! More materials! They like me!

Every search committee will ask for something different at this point. Almost every school requests a writing sample and letters of recommendation at this stage. Some schools will ask the candidate to submit sample syllabi while still others ask for the candidate to design an entirely new syllabus. It’s kind of a free-for-all.

Oh, you might *also* be doing phone or Skype interviews with departments that don’t attend the annual MLA convention in early January, where many humanities-based schools conduct face-to-face first round interviews (more on those later). It’s far more humane to allow candidates to interview from home, so I’m always pleased when this is presented as an option. Of course, interviewing from home generates its own share of problems when, for example, your cat and your toddler simultaneously demand entrance to your office in the middle of a Skype interview for which you have put on a pressed button-down, suit jacket and a pair of pajama pants.

December 2013

Ah December, December. As the days get shorter, the Job Wiki gets longer. Most job candidates now have a pretty good idea about how the market is “going.” Spoiler alert: it is going terribly. 

Even if you haven’t received a lot of rejections yet, it doesn’t mean you haven’t been rejected dozens of times. It just means that the university is going to wait until an offer is made and accepted by The One in the spring before sending you the automated rejection notice I posted above. Usually though, we don’t need to wait that long. If University X has already contacted the standard 10-15 candidates for first round interviews (which you know because you check the goddamn Wiki every day 5 minutes) and they haven’t contacted you (which you know because you checked your spam folder twice and had your husband call your phone to be certain that it was working properly), then baby, you’re out.

Yes, December is a dark month for the job market candidate. As the winter holidays arrive, your dear academic friend has invested over six months in a job search which has, at best, offered ambiguity and at worst, pummeled her with outright rejection. Your friend, if she’s lucky, has some MLA interviews scheduled by now or maybe even … a final round interview! … lined up for just after the holidays. So try to pull her away from her interview flashcards. Treat her with care. Make her get drunk with you the day after Christmas in some crappy bar you two liked to frequent in your younger, more carefree days because listen: shit is about to get real for your friend.

to be continued…

[Part II of “Understanding Your Academic Friend: Job Market Edition” or “When Shit Gets Real” is now up. Click here to read. ]

So academic friends, have any to add to this timeline? What else should the friends and family of job-seeking academics (henceforth FFJSA) know before the job season begins in earnest next month? Share below…


24 thoughts on “Understanding Your Academic Friend: Job Market Edition

    Jason Mittell said:
    August 29, 2014 at 12:24 am

    My favorite example of an outsider not understanding academia was when I was teaching in Atlanta & wanted to move back to to the northeast – my uncle asked, “can’t you just ask to be transferred to a university in Boston?”

    The other thing I’d add to your process is that, at least for people in interdisciplinary fields like film & media, each job could be in a different department (English, communications, film studies, theater, journalism) or be pitched with a very different approach or subfield. So each letter must be customized to fit the school, the department and the position. Fun!

      Stéphane said:
      August 29, 2014 at 12:28 pm

      Yup, that’s me, a Journalism+Films Studies+Film Writing Major, with an advanced MA in Modern Lit currently, doing a PhD in Animation Studies (but officially Information and Communication), currently teaching Art History, Image Analysis, Animation History/Theory and writing for comics at a Graphic Design school… Even I’m not quite sure what my specialty is 😀

    Kelli Marshall said:
    August 29, 2014 at 9:08 am

    You tickle me, Klein. You tickle me.

    Pris said:
    August 29, 2014 at 10:03 am

    I can’t wait for Part II to see how you explain to the layperson how insane first and second round interviews can be.

      Amanda Ann Klein responded:
      August 29, 2014 at 10:06 am

      Yeah I decided to break this into 2 parts because I was already getting traumatized just thinking about MLA and campus interviews. I’ll probably do some shots before I write part 2.

    Viewpoint from non-academia said:
    August 29, 2014 at 12:10 pm

    I am not in academia (anymore), but I have to say that the academia job search process is very, VERY similar to the job search process mostly everyone goes through. CVs, cover letters, letters of recommendation, samples of past/current work – these are all things that most non-labour jobs require in the current market. The only marked difference may be the length of time to hear back from the jobs applied to, but otherwise this basically just seems like whining to me. Everyone has to work incredibly hard to find, apply for and interview for a job that will be rewarding, challenging and suitable. Calm down.

      先生 said:
      August 29, 2014 at 1:28 pm

      Just wait until the second half, which will feature The Campus Visit. Personally, I think it’s the most unreasonable, and varying, component of the entire process.
      But, to a large extent, the biggest difference really is the timing. We are on an annual cycle—jobs really only open once a year—and depending on your field, the numbers game is bad. For example, in my field, there were thirteen jobs in the US. Thirteen. For the year.
      I’m not whining (especially since I got one of those thirteen), but the public misunderstanding of the academic job process is added salt in the wound…especially the miscomprehension that because there are plenty of schools out there, there must be plenty of jobs. If there were, we’d live in places we like and with our partners/spouses (currently 877 miles away from mine, another academic).

      Amanda Ann Klein responded:
      August 29, 2014 at 2:20 pm

      This post does not (I think) imply that other fields don’t require a lot of materials from job candidates. The difficulty with this market includes:
      1. the paucity of jobs (400 applicants for one job paying less than $50K)
      2. The fact that jobs are posted essentially once a year so that if you get rejected you have to wait a full year before trying again
      3. The sheer length of the process–how many jobs (other than show business) have a yearlong application process.
      4. Th inability of friends and relatives to understand #1-3. (hence the need for this post)

        Jason Mittell said:
        August 29, 2014 at 3:14 pm

        Not to mention that you cannot move to a place and try to get a job there (except for paltry-paying contingent positions). Instead you are engaging in a national (or sometimes international) contest that will determine where you live. There are two fields that operate that way: academia and professional athletics. And only one has the potential to become a multi-millionaire if you succeed…

      chemerson said:
      August 31, 2014 at 1:05 pm

      I’ve had supervisors outside of academia that weren’t contacted for a calendar year. There aren’t many differences here. Campus interviews are not any worse than what I’ve seen chemists going to work for pharmaceutical companies or instrument companies having to go through.Oh, and other jobs require relocation as well. There are many geographic locations where my career doesn’t exist.

        abigail said:
        August 31, 2014 at 3:55 pm

        Relocation, fine. I would love relocation. Many of us have thirteen jobs or less in our field each year. We compete with new PhDs and seasoned professors alike. We move to wherever we get a job, because there are so few. So there are geographic locations where your job doesn’t exist? How nice for you. Imagine being in a market where you are competing with 400 people for one job, and you are lucky, so very lucky, if you have the opportunity to move cross country for that job, regardless of what it pays and where it is. Why do people feel the need to tell academics it’s not that bad? It is that bad, and i’m one of the lucky few who got a great TT job.

        Eliza said:
        August 31, 2014 at 5:53 pm

        Really, dude. Go talk to your industry cronies and leave the rest of us alone.

      Diana said:
      September 2, 2014 at 6:25 pm

      Sorry, but no. Many jobs ask for resumes, not CVs, and the fields are VASTLY different. Universities are only in a few areas, and they only need a handful of professors for most areas–something that is even more limited now that adjunct hiring is rampant (it’s a way of avoiding full-time professorship pay). A few years ago, we had 98 candidates for 1 job position. Know how many other positions were open in the U.S. in that field at that time? 11. So at least 100-ish candidates competing for a dozen jobs. Then you add a campus visit (IF they even chose to give you an interview) complete with a lecture/job talk, faculty interviews, and a maze of other trials while you’re there. And still, you’re competing with 100 or more applicants for a handful of jobs. It’s not just the application process, or the campus visits, or the relocation, or the year-by-year basis. It’s also the small amount of jobs in academia combined with all of those hoops, and they get even more complex when you have a spouse who works in academia as well, as there might not be more than 1 job where either of you is going. It’s *not* the same as other fields.

      John said:
      April 16, 2015 at 4:02 am

      The MAJOR difference is that for most non academic jobs there is a much greater standardization of position specs, which doesn’t necessarily require as much tailoring for each application. It is this tailoring that is the most time consuming element of academic job applications. As folks have already mentioned, pitching yourself across disciplines is tricky business.

    Cynthia B. Meyers said:
    August 31, 2014 at 12:37 pm

    Yes, yes, and then there’s the mismatch between what PhDs actually research and what job descriptions demand they do. Many job descriptions include a menu of subfields: nearly every media/communications job listing has a *different* list. Outsiders don’t understand that not specializing in those subfields usually disqualifies the applicant. The job market is like a crazy matching game that doesn’t match.

    End of August Links | The Hyperarchival Parallax said:
    August 31, 2014 at 4:46 pm

    […] Understanding Your Academic Friend: Job Market Edition. […]

    Ktthemighty said:
    September 2, 2014 at 2:17 pm

    Very similar to the job finding process in medicine, specifically if the degree holder is a specialist…

    […] few weeks ago I published part I of my 2-part post on the academic job market. I decided to break the post into two because when you write something like “part I of my […]

    SB said:
    September 24, 2014 at 1:31 pm

    I am an archivist, and a large percentage of archives jobs are in the academic arena. This all sounds so familiar! I am SO JEALOUS that there is such a thing as an academic job wiki. Our profession could benefit from one!

    Angry Scholarship | The Angry Scholar said:
    September 27, 2014 at 11:13 pm

    […] never get a faculty position. (And job hunting is a whole separate rant–but fortunately somebody else has already ranted it for me.) So you read, and you write, and then you wait. And while […]

    […] Case.” Because, as I posted a while ago, Amanda Ann Klein already basically wrote this (part 1 and part 2) at Judgmental […]

    […] months ago I published a 2-part guide to the academic job market right here on my blog (for free!!!!!!!!!!), as a way to help […]

    The Job Market – MPG said:
    March 18, 2021 at 7:09 pm

    […] And, for those of you who have friends or family who just don’t understand what you are trying to do, here is a little therapy. […]

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