Advice to My Younger Self About the Academic Job Market + Live Office Hours Q&A
A better understanding of the realities of academic hiring would have relieved some of my job-search stress years ago.
I’m offering a live office hours session this Wednesday for people to come and chat about job market strategies, tips, and general ways to keep your sanity.
What: A Q&A about the academic job market
When: Wednesday, October 4th, at 4 p.m. CST.
Where: Via Zoom
How do you access it? All paid members will get access to the Zoom link.
What if I can’t make the time? We’ll record it so you can access it later.
Special Note: This session will be recorded, and you can choose to have cameras on or off.
I’ve been reflecting lately on my experiences on the academic job market. From the moment I set foot in graduate school, I was acutely aware of the precarious nature of our profession and that securing a tenure-track job was not a foregone conclusion. I spent a lot of time developing a marketable profile throughout my PhD program and began reading about the process years before I even dipped my toes in the water. I believed that if I meticulously crafted flawless application materials and prepared endlessly for interviews, I would be able to secure that coveted position. I followed advice from resources like The Professor Is In with unwavering precision. My documents were flawless, and I frequently received compliments during interviews that the committee was impressed with my level of preparation.
In spite of all my hard work, I was rejected over and over again for positions that seemed perfect for me. For the first couple of years, I was devastated by each “we regret to inform you” that seemed to roll in endlessly. (For more on dealing with rejection, see this post.)
It was not because of perfect documents and over-preparation that I eventually got a visiting lecturer job and then a tenure-track job at my current institution; it was more about fit and being in the right place at the right time. I am older and wiser about this process now, and I think about it differently. I wish I could tell my younger self a few things that I now share with you today, because I think I would have saved her a lot of angst.
Academia isn’t transparent nor is it a meritocracy
Hindsight has shown me that this profession is far from a meritocracy, and it is veiled in a number of processes that are unclear. A better understanding of this fact could have relieved some of my job-search stress years ago.
After having been on the other side of job searches, it’s clear that the unspoken criteria that committees use to evaluate candidates have huge impacts. Furthermore, the hiring committee's composition can have a significant influence on the outcome of the search. Perhaps the department chair crafted the job ad, but the committee members held different perspectives on what the department needed. Fit is critical, but candidates do not always understand what that means based solely on the job description.
Another trend I have noticed is the use of broad job descriptions to attract diverse candidates. While this seems to open up searches on the surface, committees and departments still frequently have specific expectations. For instance, a seemingly open call may, in reality, lean toward a particular area of expertise. In my experience, reaching out to faculty members for insider insights can be illuminating. I once did this and found out that the department had a strong preference for global media, even though the call seemed much broader than that. Indeed, they ended up only bringing candidates for campus visits who fit that research area, in spite of the open call.
Additionally, academic job searches are not immune to politics. One of many factors that can influence decisions is the desire to appease specific groups within a department. Sometimes an internal candidate or a candidate known to several faculty members wins out. When I was a successful internal candidate, I wondered how many "perfect-fit" candidates were not shortlisted or hired and how they felt about the outcome. It is so disheartening to be optimistic about a position only to discover that the odds were stacked against you from the start for reasons completely beyond your control.
Advice to my younger self
With all of this in mind, I would give these two pieces of advice to my younger self:
Firstly, it's important to recognize that the application process for academic positions can be highly unpredictable. Even if a job posting appears to be a perfect match for your qualifications, that does not mean it aligns with the committee's evolving criteria, department needs and politics, or preferences for known candidates. It is critical to remember that the selection process for academic positions involves a variety of factors and subjective judgments.
External factors, such as budget constraints or shifts in institutional priorities, may also influence the department's decision-making. In some cases a department prefers one candidate while the dean has the final say that tips the scales towards another candidate. As a result, it is important to concentrate on confidently presenting your qualifications and strengths while acknowledging that the final outcome is not within your control and likely has zero correlation to your attitude or potential.
Secondly, explore alternative career paths, both within and outside academia, as a means to manage the pressures and precarity of a tight labor market. While graduate education often instills the belief that a tenure-track faculty position is the ultimate or only goal, it's essential to consider other avenues for your own peace of mind.
I recently found myself doing just this when I became concerned that my state government was attacking tenure and DEI work at universities. I was fearful about losing my job or having to quit on principle, and the only way I could really manage that fear was to open my eyes to the wide range of opportunities there are out there in the world beyond academia. This process was cathartic for me, and I recommend that you try it if you feel completely demoralized about your prospects within academia.
You can read about my experiences and advice around alternatives in these two posts:
I would advise my younger self to start looking for alternative jobs earlier because the precarious job market makes every rejection feel so much worse if you believe that academia is your only option. Embracing just the idea that other paths are out there can provide a sense of relief and reduce the stress associated with the competitive job market.
I've come to realize that there are numerous ways to apply the skills and passions cultivated in academia across various professional settings. Being open to these possibilities can lead to a more fulfilling and less stressful career journey, even if a faculty position is still your primary goal at this point.
The academic job market remains precarious and stressful, but by acknowledging its complexities and embracing alternative paths, we can alleviate some of the anxiety and pressure that often accompany each application.
Want more about the academic job market?
1. Read this post:
2. Come to the live Q&A on Wednesday at 4 p.m. CST. I sent the Zoom link in last Thursday’s post and will send it out again before Wednesday.