Figuring Out the Puzzle

After I re-ran this popular guest post from last year, I tweeted a call for full-time faculty who’ve served on hiring committees to write a complementary piece from an insider’s perspective. Not surprisingly, Amy Lynch-Biniek took me up on it. She’s an associate professor of English at Kutztown U. Amy is a tireless advocate for fair labor conditions, and she’s been a strong supporter the nonprofit I co-run, PrecariCorps. She uses her privilege well in speaking out for adjunct faculty and other precarious members of academia. She coedited this great book, Contingency, Exploitation, and Solidarity, which is available in e-format here.

In short: If you’re in a position to do so, be like Amy. Adjuncts and graduate students especially need to hear tenured voices and see that you’re on their side.

Remember, faculty, grad students, administrators, and whoever else: I’m always happy to run guest posts. They can be helpful and career-oriented like Amy’s or this one from 2014. Or they can be critical of higher ed’s broken, exploitative labor practices and social system, like this and this gem from a few years ago. If you’re reading this, you know how to contact me. Do it.

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Figuring Out the Puzzle

Amy Lynch-Biniek


As I read Erling Ueland’s guest post from last year, “Addressing the Myths,” I found myself nodding along. Here, I hope to fill in some more pieces of the academic job search puzzle without simply repeating much of the good advice offered there.   

I’m a tenured associate professor. I spent ten years adjuncting before landing my current position. Once on the tenure line, I served as a member of several search committees. My advice and observations are grounded in those experiences, as well as in my work studying higher education’s labor system. I aim to be accurate and helpful, so please forgive any bluntness.

ABDs Do Get Hired…

I agree with Ueland that you can and should apply for positions when you are ABD. You may not make the committee’s initial list of top candidates, but that doesn’t mean you are out of the race. Most often, candidates at the top of the “invite to interview” list already have PhDs in hand. Even so, they also may have interviews at other schools. More than once, I’ve seen committees make offers to all three top candidates, only to find they’ve each already accepted positions elsewhere. In these cases, the committee goes back to the pile. An ABD who missed the first cut for the lack of degree may make the second cut. (In fact, this was the case in my own hiring. I’m lucky #4!)  

…But ABD Hires May Come with Strings Attached

Administration may have a policy that ABDs must complete the degree in a specific timeline. A contract may require you to complete the degree as soon as within an academic year, or as late as by the tenure application. Know what the clock is, and be honest with yourself about whether you can make the deadline. I completed my dissertation while working my first full-time, tenure-line job, and I would not recommend running that gauntlet to anyone. On the other hand, the job security was an enormous motivator to finish. I gained weight and gray hairs in the process, but I earned tenure as well.  

“Terminal Degree” May Mean More Than You Thought

Depending on your discipline, you may not think you need a doctorate. The MA, MFA, MS, or MLS has conventionally been accepted as the terminal degree in a few fields. A creative writing professor, for example, could be competitive with an MFA.  

As more and more PhDs are applying for adjunct positions, however, administrators have realized that they can insist upon a PhD, even if that is not typically the standard in the field. This may not be fair, but it’s a demand that the adjunctification of higher ed has made possible. If you have a Master’s degree, weigh carefully your desire for a tenure-track position and the time, labor, energy, and money required for a PhD.

Expectations for Scholarship

If you are ABD or a newly minted PhD, a hiring committee at a teaching-focused school may consider one or two publications in smaller journals significant. Even a couple of book reviews and some reference materials may be fine. If you’ve been on the market for a long while, though, or worked at other institutions, then a committee may expect you to have accomplished more. Your chapter in an anthology may impress, but your entry in that encyclopedia of Victorian poets may suddenly seem paltry.

If you’ve spent any time in academia, you know the system loves its hierarchies, and faculty can be snobbish. Recently, I put a book review on my CV. This project had taken time and research, and I considered it significant scholarship. A colleague suggested that I remove it from the section of my CV where journal articles live, creating  a new section called “Other Contributions.” I didn’t do that, but I did explain the significance of the work in my promotion letter. I made a case, too, for my “public” writing in blogs and news outlets. You may need to advocate for the work you do, as you can’t assume the scholars reading your CV will. When in doubt, ask someone who’s been there.

I’ve learned that a significant portion of academics construct the the scholarly ladder thusly, from the bottom up: reference works, blog posts, book reviews, peer-reviewed journal articles, chapters in anthologies, and books (or “monograph” if you’re feeling fancy). Where purely digital scholarship lives in this formula varies widely from discipline to discipline and department to department.

This, too, is not fair. If you’ve worked as an adjunct, you’ve likely had less time and fewer resources to devote to scholarship. Most faculty know that the first three items on the list are both intellectually valuable and in many cases more immediately useful to readers. They can also often be completed with limited resources. If you’re lucky enough to have an adjunct-ally or former adjunct on the hiring committee, this might be taken into account. Unfortunately, too many tenure-line faculty have no sense of the obstacles to publication that adjuncting brings.  

Addressing the Challenges of Adjunct Work

You might consider addressing the challenges of adjunct work head on, as our host Joe Fruscione did in his last cover letter in 2013. The approach he shared with me is one I can imagine a search committee being moved by: he emphasized the significance of his scholarship in light of the adjunct’s schedule he was keeping.

In my own interview for my current position, I was asked if I felt prepared for the 4/4 teaching load shared by all members of the teaching-focused university. I think I may have actually chuckled! Honestly, I think the description of my ability to juggle my dissertation with adjunct work at two or three colleges each semester made a convincing case that I was ready to handle the demands of the tenure line. It helped, of course, that the faculty involved in my interview were labor-conscious already.

So, I think that some faculty will be moved by addressing the challenges of adjunct work directly in a cover letter. A few, however, are bound to misunderstand thanks to their lack of experience adjuncting (and perhaps apathy). We’ve all read the posts and comments from tenure-line faculty who dismiss the descriptions of adjunct workloads, claiming that “we all work hard” and “we all have busy schedules,” betraying any understanding of the material differences in positions.

That said, it can’t hurt—and might help—to ask some tenured faculty for feedback on this section of your letter, especially if they have experience serving on hiring committees.

It’s easy to paint the tenured profs with a wide brush, as one-dimensional villains with tweed jackets, mostly because so many of us have refused to acknowledge or address the concerns of our adjunct colleagues, despite advocating for social justice beyond the academy. (You won’t get any “not all tenured professors” nonsense from me.) Even the most ignorant of professors are awakening to the broken nature of higher education’s labor system, since budget crisis rhetoric, increased workloads, and/or shrinking departments have come for us all. As non-tenure-track faculty unions grow in number and power, tenure-line faculty are being forced to acknowledge that the problems of adjunct faculty are linked to the problems of us all.

As a result, emphasizing the particular context in which adjuncts work, while noting the increasing demands on all faculty, can be a better a countermeasure to adjunct-bias now than it would have been ten years ago.

Find Your Fit

While you may be applying to every college with an opening, you will seem a better fit to the hiring committee if you can speak to features of the institution you find attractive. You might want any job, but they want to know why this one is the best fit for you. Learn about the department, its programs, its student population, and its extracurricular organizations and publications. Explain why you’re excited to work in these contexts and with these people. Ask questions that show you’ve done your research. Whatever you do, don’t say that the interviewing institution is a great “first stop” in your academic career. They’re interested in nurturing a colleague, not in preparing you for a job somewhere else.

You may be tempted to apply for a position that you aren’t particularly suited for, or one which you feel you can do well despite it being out of your specialty or experience. Maybe you take the time to recraft your letter and CV to show your ability to do such work, or to acknowledge directly that this is not your field. These are understandable moves, but they’re not always the best tactic.

When serving on committees, I’ve had to read through over a hundred applications for a single position. Looking through reams of paper between classes and meetings, faculty may look at these reworked CVs with a twinge of annoyance—or resentment. If the ad asks for a hard news journalism professor and you pitch your creative writing degree as a qualification for that work, you’re likely going on the “no” pile.  

That said, some applicants undersell their suitability. I’ve seen applicants for composition positions continue to pitch themselves as Medievalists or American Studies scholars (perhaps hoping the job teaching writing may one day allow them to teach in these areas again, too), not bothering to mention the two classes in composition pedagogy and theory they took in graduate school. If I’m on the committee, like your experience, and want to make a case for you to the other committee members, I need concrete lines on the CV and cover letter to point to. I need letters of reference that speak to your work in the area in question. Your identity and long-term hopes may lie in a different specialty, but your qualifications for the job at hand is the only case you need to make. When they have hundreds of applications to consider on a deadline, many committees won’t take the time to hunt out details you didn’t highlight.

One last piece of advice: where possible and practical, apply to institutions that share your sense of fair play and labor ethics. That is increasingly challenging in the modern, corporatized university, and certainly no institution is without its flaws. You can tell a lot about a college by the way it treats its graduate students and adjuncts, though. When I applied to the tenure track at Kutztown University, I did so in part because its faculty were unionized, it employed most adjuncts full-time with pay and benefits above the national average, and it did not take advantage of graduate students in the classroom. I knew that for those circumstances to exist, the tenure-line faculty must have fought for them. I assumed that the search committee might see me and my CV with this same spirit. I figured I might fit.

And if you get that tenure-line job, I hope you’ll remember every detail of the fight to get there, the broken scales and elitist ladders. I hope you’ll volunteer to serve on a hiring committee and be the voice that advocates for fair play.

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