a.k.a. A Public Service Announcement for those with children, spouses, partners, friends, co-workers, nieces, etc. on the academic job market
Job hunting is a stressful time regardless of the field; but for budding university professors and their loved ones, it is a particularly harrowing enterprise. This pamphlet is meant to help clear up some common misconceptions about the academic job market in order to alleviate some of the frustration that frequently afflicts conversations between “marketeers” and their families and friends. For non-academics, questions like “Where do you want to work?” and “Is such-and-such institution hiring?” are meant to indicate genuine interest in a marketeer’s future. But the academic job market is a unique beast, and many of the traditional questions simply do not apply. Which is why you may feel hurt or bewildered by the reticence or defensiveness which you’re likely to get in response.
There are two major reasons why these conversations so often go sour. The first has to do with a completely understandable lack of knowledge on the part of the questioner, who has likely had no firsthand experience with the academic job search and thus seeks to fit it to the traditional model of job hunting with which they are familiar. Secondly, the marketeer is often in a hypersensitive, anxiety-ridden state due to the uncertainty of the future. Thus friendly attempts at encouragement and optimism—“Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll get a great job!”—are easily misinterpreted as hollow platitudes or even veiled reproaches (“I told you you should have gone to law school instead”).
I’m not suggesting that you should walk on eggshells for an entire year; nor should you think of the words “job market” and “interview” as obscenities. Especially if you are a parent or partner of a marketeer, this is likely a scary time for you as well: what if your child moves far away, or requires extended financial support? What if your partner gets a job in a place you hate, or where you can’t find employment, or where there are no good schools for your children? These are valid and important concerns, and you should feel free to voice them. This pamphlet is intended to help you do that in the most productive way possible—and to avoid the common pitfalls which will foreclose rather than further that conversation.
Here is a basic rundown of how the academic job market works in the field of English (other fields will vary somewhat).*
- The department/institution secures approval for a position, usually to fill a vacancy, address particular curricular needs, or establish a new area of expertise.The department advertises this position; in English, this is often done through the Modern Language Association (MLA) job list, which is available online and is released around September of each year.
- Throughout the fall and winter, if an applicant considers themselves qualified for the position (i.e. they have demonstrated expertise in the specific field requested, usually through their dissertation), they send their materials to the institution: often a 2-page cover letter, a CV (academic resume), a sample of academic writing, letters of recommendation from their advisors, and sometimes supplemental materials (transcripts, teaching evaluations, diversity statements).
- Departments select a short list of candidates to interview; many are conducted at the annual MLA convention in January, although post-MLA deadlines and phone and Skype interviews throughout the winter and spring are becoming more common.
- After interviews, departments select a handful of candidates for a “fly back” to visit the campus and give a conference-style presentation of their work (a “job talk”) or teach a sample lesson (a “teaching demonstration”).
- Department makes an offer to their chosen candidate(s).
QUESTIONS WITHOUT ANSWERS
So what does all this mean for you? Well, let’s take a look at some of the most common questions someone on the market is likely to get asked:
1. Where do you want to work?
As you can see, the question of what one “wants” is pretty much beside the point when one enters the job market. It’s not about where you want to work: it’s about where an open position is. Certainly one can apply only to schools located in cities one would like to live in, but, at least in the current market, people who apply that constraint often find it very difficult to secure a tenure-track position, and are frequently required to take on a series of temporary/contract positions as adjuncts or lecturers, which, being intensely time-consuming and unstable, can make transitioning to a tenure-track position down the road even harder.
2. Where have you applied?
Even at the extreme low end, ABDs (All-but-Dissertation grad students, aka Ph.D. Candidates) conducting a nationwide search average a minimum of 20 job applications; most apply to at least twice that many. Obviously you don’t want to hear someone rattle off a list of forty colleges, especially because you (and they) probably haven’t heard of at least half of them. Worse, you’re likely to let slip, in the name of small talk, an unintentionally derogatory comment about their “chosen” schools—“Isn’t that in Upstate New York? Ugh, it’s freezing, you don’t want to live there!”
3. Have you heard anything yet? When will you know if you get the job?
While many schools with November deadlines will notify applicants of interviews by mid- to late-December, there are many more which applicants may not hear from for months—or at all. This purgatorial stretch is probably the most painful aspect of the search, for there’s nothing more one can do after submitting the application but wait; so reminding the marketeer of that anxious silence (or, worse, forcing them to list the rejections they’ve received) is likely to be perceived as somewhat sadistic.
4. What about Well-known Institution X, Y, or Z? They have a huge department/strength in your area of expertise.
Not every school advertises a position every year, let alone a position in your marketeer’s field of expertise: not by a long shot. It doesn’t matter if there are openings at the school in other fields, if the school would be a perfect fit for the applicant’s strengths, if it is ideally located or has a massive undergraduate population: if no position was advertised, then there is no position.
5. In the case of an academic couple: So are you two going to apply to the same places?
This is probably one of the most painful and uncomfortable questions to receive, and one which you should avoid at all costs. While partner hires are not unheard of, they are far from automatic, and, especially if a couple is in the same department, may not always be an ideal situation. More importantly, this question stirs up some of the most severe anxieties afflicting marketeers who have an academic partner (or any partner, really): the inevitability of long-term separation or unequal job prospects weighs heavy on all academic couples, and to ask “What are you going to do if you guys can’t work at the same place?” is likely to make them feel that you’re rubbing their faces in it—because there’s nothing they can do, at the very least not until a position has been offered and negotiations are underway.
SO WHAT CAN I TALK ABOUT?!
Now that you know what kinds of questions to avoid, you’ll naturally be wondering what isn’t off-limits conversationally. And as in most life-changing situations, finding the right thing to say is much more difficult than simply knowing not to say the wrong thing. No marketeer is the same; as with those who are newly grieving, what comforts one person may aggravate another. That said, here are some general guidelines.
1. The golden rule is: bite your tongue.
Of course you’re curious about your marketeer’s prospects and want to be supportive; but if their response to “How’s the job search going?” is a curt “Fine,” then leave it be. If there is any good news, or if they’re looking for commiseration, you’ll be sure to hear about it.
2. Praise them for their survival skills.
When you’re on the market, sometimes just applying to one more job feels like an impossible task; waiting one more day to hear about an interview makes you want to down an entire bottle of wine. Sympathizing with this sorry state of affairs, or even turning it around, can go a long way: “I’m really impressed at how pro-active you’ve been about finishing your dissertation and going on the market”; “I’m really proud of you for staying positive.”
3. Remain optimistic but not unrealistic.
Don’t tell your marketeer that “something will come through”: you can’t predict the future, and for many ABDs on the market for the first time, what “comes through” may be a less than ideal position. Rather than making promises that aren’t yours to fulfill, try to limit your sentiments to those which are more likely to be self-fulfilling: “It’s going to be okay whether or not you find something; we’ll get through it together”; “I’m really excited to see what’s next for us, regardless of where.”
4. Don’t try to find the silver lining in their despair; acknowledge the loss.
If your marketeer comes to you with unsolicited news of a rejection, this demonstrates a willingness to trust you with extremely private, painful truths. Let them grieve, and grieve with them: because a job rejection is very much a death of possibility. But don’t let yourself slip into platitudes: they’re looking for comfort and understanding, not clichés. Consciously avoid offering well-meaning banalities like “Rejection is a part of life; it’ll make you stronger” or “When one door closes…” Offer genuine empathy—“I’m sorry. I know it hurts a lot.” “It’s okay to be sad about it.”—but be careful about offering personal anecdotes, especially if they have a moralistic ending. Of course you can remain positive—but don’t make “this too shall pass” your stock response.
5. If they are offered a position, highlight only the positives. If they’re offered more than one, still highlight only the positives.
Getting any interview, let alone a job, is a true accomplishment: even the tiniest of schools these days commonly receives an average of 200 applicants for a single position. For you, the notion of teaching at a religious women’s college in rural Pennsylvania may sound like a nightmare; but this is the time when your silver lining pep talk skills are urgently needed. If they are seriously considering an offer, vigilantly guard against mentioning the negatives: your marketeer is undoubtedly aware of them. Instead, maintain unflagging optimism, do a little research on the school and surrounding area, and regale them with the positives: “You’ll be able to get a big house with a yard for the dog/cats, and walk to work!” “There’s amazing skiing there, we’ll come spend Thanksgiving with you!”
In the event that your marketeer is weighing more than one offer (a rare and lucky occasion), do your best not to make your own preferences too transparent. While one school may be in a more desirable location or have more name recognition, it may not be the better position: the less “impressive” school may actually be a better fit, or allow them to transition to a more ideal location in a few years. Don’t let your initial skepticism, or theirs, foreclose a possible future that may turn out to be far more rewarding than it first appeared.
SOME FINAL WORDS
I’ve heard the academic job search compared to a marathon rather than a sprint; I’d liken it more to being trapped in a labyrinth. Nobody except those with a secure job and enough distance will tell you that the experience is pleasurable, although it’s true that there are fleeting moments of exhilaration. So don’t worry about trying to make the job hunt what it’s not. The fact that you care enough about your marketeer to take the time to read this wordy pamphlet is an effort that I guarantee they will appreciate—even if you have to wait until they find their own way out of the maze to tell you so.