It’s been a while since I ran a guest post. A few weeks ago, Maren Wood did a webinar to share her findings about who gets academic jobs nowadays. Maren’s excellent research validated what many of us long-time adjuncts know: academia punishes age, experience, and contingency. “The market rewards potential, not experience,” she tweeted to me on December 3. In Humanities, most recent tenure-track hires have gone either to ABDs or candidates within 3 years of receiving their doctorates. Talk about having a short shelf life. I was an adjunct for 15 years, so I know that the longer one adjuncts, the longer one will adjunct. Full stop.
I began chatting about Maren’s findings with a friend who recently got a tenure-track position in English at a Public Regional Comprehensive University in the Midwest. He has experience at R2’s and a SLAC. We started trading stories of good, bad, and mythical job advice we’d received over the years, and he agreed to write this piece.
Consider it an informational interview with a new assistant professor telling you what others either can’t or won’t tell you: the academic job market is a mess. Sometimes, even it doesn’t know what the hell it wants.
Addressing the Myths
Assistant Professor of English
I. Things that Hurt
Let’s start with the hurt. Because we are generally in closest contact with our professors and advisors, we seek their advice on the job market. While this is not necessarily a bad thing (you’ll get stories from their own interviews), it can be somewhat damaging to first-time job seekers. Remember, most of your professors secured their tenure-track appointments a decade or more ago. While this does not automatically disqualify them from advising you, it certainly puts them at a disadvantage.
There had not been a TT literature hire in my department for years, and most of the faculty had been there for well over fifteen years. Take advice from people in this position with a grain of salt. I was lucky to have advisors and professors who knew their stuff when it came to the market. They did research (like I did), they asked important and difficult questions regarding standards (like I did), and they recommended better advice than they could give in the form of books, articles, websites, blogs, etc. My team knew their own shortcomings and told me to seek out as much information as possible, whether it aligned with their notions or not. This was crucial, and I know that it does not happen everywhere.
However, the bottom line is pretty simple: your advisors will have no freaking clue about the current job market. And how can you blame them? Even if they were hired in the early 2000s, the market has shifted significantly in the last sixteen years. It’s not their fault. But it is their fault when advisors dispense advice as God’s word: “This is how you get a job. It’s how I did it and it’s how you will do it.”
You need to do your homework. This job means the most to you, not your advisor. Their job is secured. Although they might really, really like you, this doesn’t mean a damn thing once the market opens.
Take ownership of your teaching, research, service, and hard work. You aren’t a grad student anymore; you’re a professional trying to procure employment. Dictatorial advisors (thankfully mine wasn’t one) fail to see you as a non-student. To them, you will always be their student, just like parents always see their children as children. Break away from that dynamic by seeking as much advice as you can. Talk to a diverse set of folks. This might mean you have to find new people. Get to it.
During my two years on the job market, I heard good and bad advice. Below are some of the myths surrounding academic job searches, followed by my thoughts on why they need to be broken. A lot of these ideas are generalities that were at some point discussed between me and either colleagues, advisors, professors, or friends.
As with any personal narrative, my experience does not (and will not) necessarily relate to every prospective job seeker. My comments are based on my own experiences, as well as my own research into the system. Take from my advice what you will.
Myth #1: Ease your way into the market during your first attempt. Only apply to your dream jobs, and spend the rest of your time focused on your dissertation.
No. No. No. No. No. No.
How do you expect to get hired if you do not get onto the job market in full force? This isn’t child’s play. This is your goddamn life. Your profession does not wait for you to come around. You have to attack the market. Attack is the best way to describe it. Easing your way into the market only prolongs an already protracted process. Realize that when you decide to apply for jobs, you may be sending out applications from September through June.
Some good advice: This is a numbers game. You don’t stand a chance for any position if you do not apply. If someone tells you to take it easy on the market during year one, tell them you cannot wait around. This is too damned important.
And, if you are worried about time to complete your dissertation, get a full draft done prior to the market opening. I wrote a 350-page dissertation in nine months. Revisions take time, but the first draft takes the most out of you. Finish a draft over the summer, and get to those applications when September hits. If your director is not prompting you to get it written in a timely fashion, then maybe you should reconsider their role as your director.
The national average for PhD-seeking student completion is 5-7 years. If possible, you should be done in four. Four. It won’t be easy. Some good advice: a good dissertation is a done dissertation. I wrote three days a week for eight hours a day from May through August. A 320-page draft came out of that writing schedule. It can be done, and your dissertation should not keep you from applying to jobs.
Myth #2: You only need one peer-reviewed publication in a good journal to be considered an effective scholar.
I’m not going to say that you won’t be hired if you have one (or none), but unless you are a PhD candidate at an Ivy League or a top-tier R1, you’d better have an impressive research profile. By impressive I mean quality, not quantity. On day one, my director told me that “publishing is the essential act of scholarship.” This is absolutely true.
When I entered the job market in my fourth year, I had published two peer-reviewed journal articles, with three forthcoming peer-reviewed articles or book chapters. All were in my field, with one of the two journal articles in the field’s primary journal. I built on this resume in year two (with a postdoc I secured in year one based in part on my publishing background). If you have publishable work, get it published in a decent journal when you can.
Some good advice: I had my first peer-reviewed article accepted by the beginning of year two. The earlier you start honing your writing for publication the better. Most applicants have more than one peer-reviewed publication, chiefly because the market has changed since the above advice made sense. I applied to a job at a SLAC in a subfield, rather than a major field, in year two. There were 400 applicants…for a specialty position at a SLAC. Don’t think that publications had nothing to do with weeding out potential candidates. Your job is to get to the second pile. Publications can help you get there.
Myth #3: When applying to teaching institutions (jobs that require a 4/4 or 5/5 teaching load), downplay your research profile.
Interestingly, a study by the Lilli Research Group, which surveyed the job market for non-STEM fields between 2013-14, noted that, regardless of institution, 70% of TT jobs were going to applicants from R1 schools. That’s a lot of prestigious researchers taking jobs at sub-R2 schools, where teaching is more of a focus than research.
Never downplay your research profile. Own it. Don’t go on and on about your dissertation in your cover letter, but also don’t pretend you don’t research, don’t have aims to publish articles and books, and won’t use your research as a teacher. For teaching institutions (4/4 loads or more), always connect your research to your teaching. If that can be done well, committees will appreciate your ability to make them work together. Connect research and teaching, but certainly do not deny your research its place in your profile. That work took a lot of labor and time. Honor it.
Myth #4: ABD students (All But Dissertation) do not get hired at the same rate they used to, so don’t bother applying too heavily.
In the same study, the Lilli Research Group found the majority of TT jobs go to ABD applicants. This came as a surprise to me, since I always thought that ABDs would not fare well on the market. A myth I wholeheartedly believed was busted by reliable data. Trust the data. And this goes back to Myth #1 regarding taking it easy in year one. Do not ever take it easy. Go for it as soon as you can. I suggest you watch the video the Lilli Research Group put together.
Myth #5: “If I don’t get hired at an R1 or R2, I’ll settle for a job at a nice liberal arts college or a community college if I’m really desperate.”
You can think that all you want, but you’ll be wrong. SLACs and CCs are just as competitive as R1s and R2s when it comes to hiring tenure-line professors. And even worse: if you think that throwing out some half-assed applications to CCs “just in case” will get you hired, you’re wrong again. CCs can sniff out a jumper (someone who plans on leaving as soon as another job comes up). CCs will not hire you if you come off as anything but CC material. That means you have to carefully tailor your materials to the institution you’re applying to.
Don’t get me started on SLACs. I don’t know where the myth came from that a SLAC job—almost always teaching focused—is somehow “easier” to secure than others. Wrong. Private schools are extremely discriminating because they can be. Most have mission statements, and if it is religious-affiliated, then there is usually something relatable to that college’s specific religious mission involved with your application. My postdoc was at a SLAC, and it was not an easy job to get. Departments are small or combined with others, most SLACs are feeling the crunch of reduced budgets, and some have even begun retrenching (firing faculty on the tenure track). Take CCs and SLACs seriously, and do not ever think they can serve you as backups. You’ll be sorely disappointed.
Myth #6: Spend more time on applications for jobs in your specialty, especially R1 & R2 apps.
Again, if you haven’t picked up on my theme yet, you will now. Every application you send out should be treated equally. Knowing that the chances of securing an R1 or R2 job are slim to none (for those graduating outside the Ivy League or top R1s), do not overdo those apps. Do them well, and work hard at them, but treat those apps to public comps, SLACs, and CCs with respect. Chances are, that is where you will end up, so get used to researching those schools, faculties, and communities.
Myth #7: Schools pick the “best” candidates for their TT positions.
No. They. Don’t. They pick candidates that fit.
Most departments are afraid of hiring the best candidates because they may one day surpass them in terms of prestige or merit. Committees are a fickle bunch, and hiring mediocrity with a decent pedigree (like a Harvard degree…yes, mediocre people come out of R1 schools. Someone’s got to be at the bottom of the class don’t they?) makes them look good, makes them feel good, and keeps the status quo humming along. The sooner you divorce yourself from this fantasy the better.
Fit matters, not your merits. You have to fit into that department. This could mean anything from studying the right field or author, to understanding the mission of the college, to just getting a good look that day. With hundreds of applications to be gone through, most committees look for anything that stands out. I got my job at my current institution, I believe, because I actually taught a course in the specific discipline they were hiring for. That small detail separated me from the pack. You never know, so apply with an open mind and realistic expectations.
Myth #8: “I can just adjunct for a couple of years until a job comes along.”
Joe Fruscione, my good friend, will tell you this is absolutely hogwash. The Lilli study showed that most (if not all) jobs went to applicants in either their first or second year on the market. That means that, after year two, your chances of getting a job reduce dramatically. When I started my search, my spouse and I decided that we would give it two years. If no meaningful employment (which my spouse meant as TT) came about, then something else would have to be done. Because of institutional biases, adjuncts literally adjunct themselves out of TT consideration.
Is it ageism? Yes.
Is it elitism? Yes.
Is the system built on merit? No.
Do schools see adjuncts for TT jobs as damaged goods? Yes. Joe can back me up on this one. After a decade of adjuncting and applying to jobs, he courageously walked away from the academy. I respect him for it, and I am glad it didn’t come to that with me.
Unlike most, I never adjuncted. Not once. If you can avoid adjuncting immediately after your doctorate, avoid it. It’s the kiss of death.
Myth #9: “If I don’t get a job this cycle that’s okay. My department will offer me some kind of position to help me out.”
After finishing my PhD, and prior to interviewing for and accepting my postdoc at a SLAC, I hoped my institution would offer me something like an associate lectureship. Instead, the best they could do was put me in a pool for adjuncting, with a 3 class limit should I be brought in. That would have amounted to less than $8,000 for the semester, were I to get a full load. I find in speaking with colleagues that this is true for most institutions. They educate you, then they cut you loose. It’s business. Again, is this the fault of departments? Not necessarily. They have to operate under the restraints of their college or university. Budgets are tight, folks. Don’t expect anything to get handed to you just because you graduated from that school.
Myth #10: “I deserve a tenure-track job, so I’ll get one.”
No you don’t, and you probably won’t. Depressing and cynical, I know, but it’s honest and realistic.
I applied to 275 jobs over a two-year span. That’s right, 275. It was 165 in year one and 110 in year two. Year one (ABD): I received one interview (for a postdoc at a SLAC, which I was eventually offered) and an interview request for a lectureship at a public comp once my postdoc had already begun. That equals out to 163 rejections, two interviews, and one position. Both interviews came almost nine months after the market had opened. Year two (postdoc): I received one TT campus interview (public comp where I currently work), one alt-ac interview (finalist), one continuing contract campus interview for a private school (finalist), a Skype interview for an NTT visiting position at a public comp, and three additional NTT or visiting interview requests I turned down after accepting my current position. That equals out to 103 rejections, seven interviews, two campus interviews, one TT position. I saw a remarkable increase in action in my second year, which I initially attributed to having “PhD” rather than “ABD” after my name. I was wrong.
I believe that I got my current job because of several factors:
- Impressive research profile coming from an R2
- Flawless materials (formatting, spelling, grammar, design, style)
- Persistence in applying
- Fit with my current department and college
- Excellent teaching evaluations
- Professionalism in materials and in person
- My postdoctoral fellowship: My SLAC department allowed me to design a specialty course based on my sub-field. I asked to design it because I knew that certain jobs would appreciate this experience and potentially hire me because of it. This turned out to be true. I know, absolutely, that I would not have secured my TT job had I not worked at the SLAC as a postdoc for a year. It made me stand out, and it gave me a leg up. You never know what thing will separate you. So do as much as you can to be successful. I didn’t deserve my current job. I earned it.
III. Things that Help
The help is also important. You are currently in a community of writers, teachers, scholars, and (hopefully) friends. Get them to read your materials. Have them comment on structure, formatting, and content. If your chair is also on your dissertation committee, talk their ears off about job searches and hiring cycles your university has done. What did they look for? Why did they hire certain professors?
Seek out junior faculty members, especially those that recently navigated the job market. Get their materials, notes, and advice. These were the most helpful moments of my search in year one. Once you leave their halls, communication generally lessens, even if you forge great relationships with your committee like I did.
Take advantage of your environment. But the myths I outlined above would’ve been the most helpful notions to discuss when I started my search. These nine myths all reared their ugly heads at some point in my search. Knowing the information surrounding them and what to do with that information would have greatly benefitted my first year. In fact, in year two I applied a lot of the busted myths to my work, which led (eventually) to my current job.
Knowing the terrain, trusting the data, and seeking out actual productive advice will get you a lot further than if you just listen to your director, who got hired in 1995 when you still had to mail in every application.
My narrative is not the norm, I assure you. I am lucky…and that’s the damnedest thing. LUCK has just as much to do with your search as skill. Figuring out what’s useful, what’s harmful, and what’s mythical will go a long way in making that luck count at the right moment.
I’m always happy to run guest posts about relevant aspects of academia and adjunct life. Comment below or find me on Twitter.