Preparing for and Navigating the Job Market: Roundtable from NASSR Conference, August 2011
If you were at the NASSR conference last month, and happened to attend the job-market roundtable organized by the NGSC, then this post will be old news…but we figured there are at least some of you who want to know all the good advice! For all their wisdom, pragmatic counsel, and encouragement, special thanks again goes to all our panelists: Alan Bewell, Julie Carlson, Frances Ferguson, William Galperin, Jonathan Mulrooney, and Juan Sanchez. To protect the innocent, I’ve detached their names from the information below; please note that these are MY interpretations of what was said, edited and rearranged for your convenience. May they prove useful to all those currently preparing to go on the job market, and to all of us hoping to get there soon!
Choosing between a postdoc and the job market
The Postdoc offers certain advantages over the job market. It is generally much easier to get than a tenure-track position. However, there are many kinds of postdocs, and you might find yourself with a kind of postdoc that you don’t really want; some will help you more than others to prepare for jobs. The best kinds of postdocs are the ones that allow you to do research and get out some publications (these are generally 2-3 year postdocs).
Postdocs are also more difficult to apply for than jobs. The job letter can describe your research and experience very broadly and can be used on several applications; postdocs tend to have very specified requirements that often result in more time and effort invested; you have to write several very different applications, rather than one that can be tailored to many. Second, postdocs often want you to describe a NEW project: they don’t want you to go and finish your book; they want you to work on producing something new. This means you will be pitching two book ideas. Of course, when you go into the job market, you CAN say that you used the postdoc to develop a second book project, and you will have something to show for it…and this puts you in a really great position.
With the postdoc market, you may have more success because host institutions are interested in you developing new ideas and projects however you want to. In a job situation, you have to fit in to the department, and you will need to fit your projects to the departmental needs.
Format of the Job Letter and the Dissertation Abstract
These are THE TWO MOST IMPORTANT DOCUMENTS YOU WILL EVER PRODUCE IN YOUR CAREER! They will absorb hours and hours of your time, but you should recognize that time as a worthwhile investment. Nothing will affect your future prospects so much as these two documents. There is a standard tripartite form in the job letter, and you should adhere to it. You don’t want anything quirky or grandstanding. The entire letter should NEVER, under any circumstances, be longer than two pages.
Part 1: Announce your application to the job, and make clear your suitability for the position advertised. Show that you can operate from the center, rather than the periphery. Show that you are aware of their needs, and indicate your suitability to meet those needs.
Part 2: Describe your dissertation. This will naturally be the most difficult paragraph, and you should be prepared to make 8-10 revisions!
Part 3: Indicate your teaching experience. Every school, whether they are a research university or a teaching university, will employ you as a teacher, and they want to know that you have experience and enthusiasm for it. (see “Teaching,” below.)
To conclude, your last few sentences should declare your availability for an interview.
Getting Help and Guidance with the Letter, Abstract, and Interviews
The placement committee at your university can help a lot by giving practice interviews, mentoring, pairing a job candidate with a faculty member who is NOT on their committee (who can thus see with fresh eyes, like the people on hiring committees). If you can arrange such a pairing, you should meet with this person on multiple occasions. From a student’s perspective, this can be a very irritating experience, and may seem pointless, and it might feel infantilizing. It’s alienating labor for everyone involved, but everyone needs to be cheerful and grateful for it… and it can make a HUGE difference!
When to go on the job market
When to go on the market depends on where you are with your dissertation. For the most part, you should NOT go on the market unless you are done with your dissertation, or very nearly done. If you are an exception to this, let your advisor tell you that you are! You need to be at a point when you can talk about your work with confidence, both in the broadest terms, and in the 11-second elevator conversation. It’s up to you to figure out whether you want to do a “trial year;” but recognize that this will take lots of time that can feel slightly arbitrary, and it might be a better use of your time to move forward with your dissertation. It is indeed a useful exercise, but it is more useful at certain times than at others. Be discriminate.
How to interview and give a job talk (at MLA, or a campus visit)
Interviews are formal moments, and you should dress up – but you should also be comfortable! You should not be distracted by your clothing, and neither should others. Poise is also important; sustain it as best you can through all events, but especially make sure you have at least 15-30 minutes alone before your talk to gather yourself and your thoughts.
Clarity and conciseness are your best friends. You must learn to articulate quickly and clearly what you are “about.” Learn who you will be speaking to, what the format is, and what will be expected of you (your advisor can help you find these things out.) Keep in mind that you will be talking to non-specialists in your field. You don’t need to dilute yourself and open yourself up to super-broad questions you can’t handle, but you want to give the broadest possible range of your work and its relevance. Show that you know the specifics, but that you can participate in the larger conversation. Your originality is most apparent in the CLARITY with which you articulate your ideas, NOT that you are the first person ever to think about them. Avoid vague sloppy verbs like “negotiate”, “through the lens of,” or “this is a moment where…”
The quality of your research will probably be much like that of other candidates. In the interview, the committee will probably not ask you much about your dissertation itself; they will want to know how it fits in with the larger academic conversation, the limits of your project, etc. Also, the committee won’t know anything you haven’t told them in your application letter, and in the interview they will want to know about your wider academic interests.
Have Fun!! We all got into this profession because we enjoy it! That’s not to say that you don’t act rigorously professional, but in an interview you should communicate not only what you know, but HOW you know! The people who are interviewing you want you to succeed; you don’t have to convince them that you have the intellectual goods; they already think you do because they invited you! You are a colleague. Keep in mind that it is a conversation! The more it becomes a conversation, the less it becomes an interrogation…you win! If the committee is having fun, it will make a difference. Be human. Respond to questions as they occur, but keep it natural. This isn’t Trivial Pursuit. It’s okay to acknowledge when you don’t know something; keep in mind that such times are opportunities that demonstrate how you think about new ideas. Don’t be afraid to risk some intellectual playfulness. You can go out on a limb and have conversations, and be willing to stretch yourself.
It’s not always all about you. There is a good chance that at least one person on the committee will be crazy, and not necessarily liked by their colleagues… there are dynamics going on, like when you go to Thanksgiving with your in-laws. J Not everything that goes on between the people there has to do with you.
Both research and teaching are important. Don’t assume too much about what a school wants, based on its reputation as a research institution or liberal arts college. Always be prepared to talk about both your teaching and your research, and how they integrate. This will serve you well no matter what kind of institution you apply to.
Teaching – It is SO important!
Different universities may have different degrees of emphasis on research, but they ALL will emphasize teaching! In order to get an interview, you do have to have a strong letter and strong research; that is, teaching will not get you the interview. However, once you GET the interview, your teaching experience will often get you the job. Make teaching matter to you as a graduate student, and make sure you get experience with it. Don’t treat it simply as a part-time side job that you put second to your research. Make sure someone writes a letter of reference that can say something about your teaching. Invite a faculty advisor to observe you, so they can write with real knowledge.
Make teaching important to you in the interview. YOU can bring it up! Ask questions about teaching. Take time to find out about the kinds of courses offered at the university. Put together some sample syllabi, and be prepared (and excited) to talk about them. When you are talking to the director of undergraduate studies, teaching will be particularly important.
At this point in your career, a teaching portfolio is not really necessary, but you may want to leave some samples of courses you have taught or would like to teach with the committee. However, don’t make the mistake of giving the committee too many papers before or during the interview…. You want them looking at YOU, not at the six syllabi that you have constructed. Try to focus on perhaps one course that you might teach, and talk about it.
How to demonstrate your teaching skills at a campus visit
The job talk will likely be your most important teaching moment. Approach it like a teacher. Imagine the talk like a seminar, in which a lot of ideas are discussed, and everyone feels they’ve been engaged in an important exploration. Then, think of the Q&A as a class about your paper, with you as the teacher! Keep in mind that many search committees are new to the process too, and they sometimes fumble. So, YOU are the teacher. Find ways to let them know the important things about you. Take control in a diplomatic way to make it work; find creative ways to engage with difficult people. You’re at the beginning of your career, and no committee is under the impression that you aren’t! They are looking for potential, for how you organize your thoughts and think on your feet, and how much you respect the ideas of others, and yourself.
It sometimes happens that interviewers set up a sort of artificial class in which to observe you. IF this happens, discuss interesting and relevant things, listen to and interact with students, and finish on time.
How to act once you might have an offer.
Don’t get ahead of yourself. A job offer is just a gleam in the eye of a department and a candidate until an official letter arrives from the university. Until then, sit tight and be patient; don’t start asking questions about employment benefits and all those details. You can do that later.
Once you have your official offer (and if you have only one), you should feel free to ask for some time to deliberate. This is the time to inquire about various policies, money issues, and to make it known that taking the job might complicate your family situation. Through all the discussions, stay focused on the most important goal: a good situation over the long future. Don’t compromise your future relationship with your colleagues by being a tough negotiator.
If you have more than one offer, you should inform the chairs of both departments, so they can talk to each other.
If you don’t get a job offer, makes notes about the process while your memory is fresh. Review your experiences and your materials. Take a little time to remind yourself that jobs are hard to come by, and that it may not be your fault…then read something fabulous to cheer yourself up. 🙂
How is the job situation in Romanticism particularly?
Sometimes, Romanticism can get swallowed up by scholars of 18th or 19th centuries… romanticism does seem still to be regarded as its own “thing,” and as a component of an expertise, it still has a lot of traction. The field seems to have been quite agile in adapting itself to academic categories, without losing its identity.
Should Romanticists spin themselves for 18th-century or Victorian jobs? And if so, how?
Most importantly, you should make your own intellectual center very clear and honest. You can speculate out loud in your letter about ways that you might pedagogically fulfill the university’s needs, but don’t fake it. Be yourself, and be honest. If the university wants 100 years, that’s probably a teaching mandate, not a research mandate. They just want to know if you can teach stuff from a full century. As long as your research is interesting and worthwhile, and you can teach about a century of stuff, you’ll probably be fine.
Do interviews really sometimes happen in hotel bedrooms at MLA?
There are some regulations trying to be put in place, but you may have to be creatively professional. Don’t underestimate search committees’ bad behavior; awkward things may happen! Make sure that you have enough time between interviews, even if they are in the same hotel, or in the same city. If you are late, the committee won’t adjust their whole schedule for you.
Some departments are shifting to phone interviews, skype interviews, or interviews that happen even before MLA?
For better or worse, MLA is losing its centrality and control over the hiring process, and this does make expectations much less clear. The “rules” set up by the MLA are voluntary, and universities can choose whether to participate. Videoconferencing offers many advantages: not everyone can go to the MLA, you can reach internationally much more easily, and whole committees can be present. We are moving into an era in which this will be more and more common, and more important to think about. Check into what videoconferencing options are available to you, and learn how to use them!
For those interviews/offers that occur before MLA, you can ask for some time to consider, at least until after MLA.
Skype interviews and phone interviews present a different set of challenges from in-person interviews, and you should definitely practice for them. Especially practice when to know you should STOP talking. Practice pausing 30 seconds into a response, to watch/listen for cues that others might want to redirect or jump in. Practice putting your thoughts in order, so that if you get cut off, you have communicated the important information! In a phone interview, it might be good to talk explicitly about the process, and invite the interviewee to break in, or to expect pauses from you. It might be good to call your own voice mail, and practice talking to a machine for a limited amount of time!
In Skype interviews, be aware of the background you set up in your screen shot…there are lots of possibilities, and you can give people insight into the kind of person you are (both good and bad). This is risky, though, and a neutral environment is probably best.
Should we devote our greatest energies toward publishing, or toward finishing and polishing our dissertation?
There’s no question that having a well-placed article will speak well for you. However, the main decision is based on a very careful and scrupulous reading of the writing sample that you send in. The published article can be very powerful window-dressing, and it puts you into a different echelon of candidates…but your submitted writing sample will be most important.
If your dissertation project is under revision, and you think of it more as a manuscript than as a dissertation, how do you talk about it – as your book, or your dissertation?
Committees want to know how close you are to finishing; they don’t want to see that your project is continually evolving into nowhere. Be specific about what parts are truly finished. (Did you finish the dissertation, and now you are beginning the book manuscript?) The committee might ask “what are your plans for your dissertation”? You have two options; you can turn it into a book, or chop it up into 3-4 essays. Once you graduate, your dissertation is finished and done. If you’re at that stage, talk about your book project, not your dissertation. Talking about the book project allows you to talk about the dissertation without actually saying it. Committees aren’t expecting you to have your book already accepted by a press, and even having a book may not always work to you advantage. It is just one of many, many factors. Just do the best you can to present yourself as honestly as possible. Keep in mind that when a university hires someone to tenure-track, they’re imagining hiring you for 40 years. The big picture is the most important. Keep your perspective.
If you’ve been NOT getting hired for a long time, and you’ve been adjuncting for ever, is there a point when you should cut your losses and consider other careers? Is there a point when you’re just going to look stale, compared to other candidates?
Because the job market is tough, you are not going to look stale as fast as perhaps in the past…but you should be honest with yourself, and decide what your own psychological stamina is up for. It is tough, and you will need to look inside yourself and decide what’s right for you. BUT, don’t make a quick decision and get down on yourself too easily; be realistic about the fact that it may take 2-3 years to find a tenure-track position. Recognize that such delays don’t necessarily mean that your work is not up to par. Stay focused on what matters, and what makes you happy about your work – the research, the teaching, etc.
What other sorts of academic jobs are available? And if you get an “alternate” kind of academic job, does it hurt your chances of going back on the market for a job as a professor?
In some ways, it depends on what you’re doing. Some “alternate” jobs are perfect fits for the particular professorship. And it IS important to think about alternate jobs too. We are multiply talented people, despite being very focused…and sometimes developing ourselves on other disciplines can make our minds more fluid and mobile in terms of how we envision ourselves.