Friday, September 27, 2013

Make. Good. Work. (or, On the Academic Job Market)

compiled by Mary Kate Hurley
Title with apologies to Neil Gaiman. 

First, go read Jonathan’s post here on empathy, and enjoy all the no doubt wonderful posts that will come in the next few days about Oceanic New York and Critical Liberal Arts. 

The epigraph and opening for this post is advice given by David Wallace to one of his graduate students :

“All this [jobs and postdoc applications] can be overthought. The first and last imperative is: do good work, and work that you believe in.”

Earlier this month, I was asked to speak to the graduate students in my department about the job market application process. This isn’t of great note, except that it precipitated a fateful facebook post, looking for advice from those not quite so geong on geardum as myself.

And so Friday the 13th precipitated one of my most commented-on Facebook posts. It also, as we all know, heralded the posting of the MLA job list for 2013-2014.

The post marks one of the best conversations – open, honest, and useful – that I’ve ever had about the job market. And so, with the goodwill of many of my colleagues, I’ve collated here the advice they wish they’d gotten, or did get, or learned the hard way. I’ve created several headings under which to file said advice, in the hopes that graduate students and job-market-goers of all varieties will find easily the type of advice they are looking for. Feel free to add to my list in the comments here. Or on facebook, where you can read the whole thing: it came to 11 pages in total, so this is much abridged! And of course, this post isn’t meant to be comphrensive: rather, it’s a sampling of advice that might or might not be useful to folks facing the job market.

1.      Existential Advice
a.   No one is alone. Your colleagues are not your rivals. One of the things that, for me, made the job market livable was not doing it alone. Find colleagues and friends you can root for without inhibition, both in your field and beyond it. Tim Youker adds “avoid thinking of your peers as rivals,” and Ryan Judkins suggests that “one should avoid the black hole of competition with each other and anger at the process and the academy.”
b.   Departments are people with quirks too. Amanda Walling says, “Think about the departments in which you have studied or worked. Did the people in them have their own eccentricities, hobbyhorses, prejudices, and longstanding personal conflicts? Probably so. And the people in the departments where you apply will have just as many that you don't know about, that will come into play in their reading of your application. It is not a meritocracy, or a referendum on your work as a scholar, and 'fit' is not code for that. It's a bunch of flawed people making compromises with each other and with their administrators, and sometimes where you fit into that is just blind luck.” This luck element cannot be overstated.
c.   You cannot read the minds of departments who post job ads. Chris Piuma puts it this way, and gives us “the most helpful thing I've heard, as a grad student, translated: The hiring process is a black box—a different black box every time—and, outside the vaguest generalities, you cannot predict what goes on inside that black box; it is, for all intents and purposes, irrational, and, whether you get the job or not, it is no reflection on you.” Christina Fitzgerald notes that you should “also know that committees sometimes disagree with each other, and may even inadvertently set you up for failure because of it. This is not your fault.”
d.  The Job Market is not a referendum on your worth as a scholar, a colleague, or a human being. Robert Stanton puts it: “Understand that a tighter job market doesn't mean that only the very best people get jobs, but rather that imponderables and quirks become bigger factors.” Jeffrey Cohen adds: “Don't internalize rejection; it means nothing.” I’d add that my favorite coping mechanism for rejection a drink, or dessert, or long walk in a beautiful park with good friends.
e.  The Jobs Wiki is not your friend. While it is tempting to watch the wiki like a hawk (and I’ll admit to having done so a bit during all of my job market runs), consider its implications. It may have information that you might not get anywhere else, but as Jeffrey observes, “Much that appears on the job wiki is mean-spirited and wrong.” Think through who you are, and how you’ll respond to the culture of the wiki, before you click that link!
f.    Be your Best Self, and find support for that best self. Jonathan Hsy gives us a checklist for that process:
 1. Always keep an open mind.
 2a. Be honest, and 2b. Be yourself (the "best version" of yourself of course).
 3. Find understanding people (not necessarily academics but people who "get" the weirdness of the process you face) to be your sounding boards.
g.   Take care of yourself, psychologically and physically. Jeffrey writes: “Rely on your friends and supportive colleagues (and be there for others). Do what you can to keep anxiety down: run, see movies, take walks, whatever.”
2.      Preparing for Applications
a.   Prepare in advance of the job market. But do so in a way that reflects your interests and expertise. Kevin Caliendo writes, “Broaden your profile by developing skills and projects outside of your primary field. For example, show that you can teach composition (that you know current ideas and best practices in Comp, not just that you can teach a section they assign you). Develop skills in digital humanities applicable outside of your discipline (ex. learn markup).”
b.  Tailor your letters. No, seriously: tailor your letters. There are a variety of ways to approach this, but make sure that you’ve seen the website for the department you’re applying to at the very least – it may be that there’s a program they’re spearheading that’s JUST PERFECT for your research, and it’s up to you to make certain they know you know! Ryan Judkins notes that while this advice is thrown around pretty often, “both the necessity of doing that and learning HOW to do it well take awhile.” Seek advice from other job market veterans, and...
c.  Have someone outside your field read your application materials. It can be very painful to share your materials and have them critiqued, but can only help in the long run. Megan Cook suggests that you “have someone outside your area read your materials to make sure they're interesting, accessible, and free of field-specific jargon, especially if you're looking for a job at an SLAC or in another small department.”
d.  Have an article out for consideration, or already accepted. This is not just because of the “publish-of-perish” model of academia either – it’s also soothing for you to have the article. As Catherine Osborne points out: “not only does it demonstrate that you can publish etc, but it also reduces the angst around what to send as a writing sample by 400%.”
e.  Don’t try to change who you are. As Tim Youker puts it, “Trying to pull off a new self-refashioning for every application is a mug's game [. . .] Committees can tell that you're doing it, and it doesn't impress them.”
f.   Accept the things you cannot change, and that you have no control over. Put another way (Catherine Osborne again), “All you can do is have a decent CV, write the best letter you can, and then hope that you happen to fit their idea. It's important not to get caught up in the idea that you can convince them you're someone you're not.” Lenora Warren sagely adds: “There is no perfect formula to getting a job. Don't obsess over gaps in your CV to the point where you psyche yourself out.”
3.      Interview Advice
a.  Practice. Practice. Practice. Most schools will happily set up a mock interview. Do one every year – it is possible to forget how to act in an interview.
b.  Practice your elevator pitch. It’s the most concise form of your research explanation. Bruce Holsinger has a fantastic exercise over at Burnable Books – #3tweetsmax. Try it. Try it again. See what you learn about your project when speaking/typing about it concisely. 
c.  Make your research accessible and interesting. It’s already the most fascinating thing you do, but it’s important to talk about your research to a search committee differently than you’d talk about it to your medievalist colleagues. Dan Kline notes that it’s important to “Remember that for smaller schools (and the 'directional' schools), there's probably not going to be someone in your field on the committee, so you have to be accessible and fluent in your research pitch.” Catherine Osborne suggests that “A good way to be ‘accessible’ when talking about your research, if it's not immediately obvious why your research has broader relevance to the state of the world, is to start by saying ‘a big problem in my field/subfield is X. People have tried to solve it in ways Y and Z. I wondered if we couldn't approach it in way M instead.’ This shows that you're well-situated in your field while also explaining why your not-immediately-obviously-useful work is aimed at an actual problem and not just for fun.”
d. Know the department that you’re interviewing with. Dan Kline reminds us that “many committees are looking for people who can teach the courses in their department, so it's wise to look at the website to get a sense of (1) what courses you'd likely teach (first half of the British and world lit surveys, most likely) and (2) how you'd approach them. It's always a good sign for a committee when a candidate, unbidden, says something like, 'I was noticing on your website that in the structure of your English major that students take ...' or 'From your website it looks like students most often get medieval content in ... ' It shows that you're actively imagining how you meet their needs.” Moreover, it can focuse you on the excitement of an interview rather than how nervewracking it is.
e. Did I mention PRACTICE? You should also consider practicing for the TYPE of interview you are having. Phone interview? Try to get friends to conference call you and see how you come across. Dorothy Kim reminds us that Skype interviews are different from regular interviews: “Do a mock in the location you will be doing it. There may be weird technical and angle things you don't even notice (glare of computer on glasses, lighting, etc.) that can easily be addressed etc. Also it hyper-emphasizes any talking ticks.” Keep in mind that to make “eye contact” you will need to talk to the camera. The upside of this: it’s the most like a movie star many of us will ever feel!
f.  You can’t read their minds. Interviews result in lots of feelings. You might feel like you were so great they’ll cancel all their other interviews (unlikely), or you might feel like you’ve actually just tanked your career (thankfully this is also unlikely). Luckily – as Tim reminded us – “how you felt about an interview walking out of it is an unreliable indicator of whether you'll reach the next phase. I didn't feel great about the interview for the job that I actually got, whereas what I still think was the best interview I've given didn't even lead to a job talk.” These stories are pretty common, in my experience – so have a “survival celebration drink” and then do your absolute best not to overthink it.

4.      Campus Visit and Post-Campus Visit Advice
a.  This goes without saying at this point, but PRACTICE. Make sure you’ve given your talk and practiced answering questions. Try to get a mock job talk group together that includes people outside your field, and professors who have acted on job committees before. The questions you will get are not standard conference fare, but will likely be very wide-ranging and important to practice for/be aware of.
b.  Know what’s expected. Dorothy Kim points out that you need to know what they expect of your job talk: “Find out explicit instructions and reconfirm what they want (whether for general audience, specialists, length, etc. etc.).”
c.  The teaching demo is not always teaching per se... Teaching Demos are one of the harder part of the campus visits, particularly because your audience is both the students AND the observing faculty. Catherine Osborne notes that one way to approach the teaching demo is to “think of it as a performance which requires certain elements: some form of tech (powerpoint, preferably a video clip), some form of class discussion (preferably involving small groups), some form of (preferably brief) lecture.” I would also note that it rarely feels like a normal class.
d. Be your best self. Your extroverted best self. As Melissa Ridley Elmes mentioned, a lot of your campus visit is about performance – what you’re like, how you get along with others: “The happier and more enthusiastic and comfortable and natural you are up there, the better you are going to look. And for the love of all that is good and holy, SMILE. Real smiles, not plastered-on smiles. ENJOY yourself -- even if the interviews suck, even if you don't think you have a shot, when you actually get up in front of people to talk about your work you should be having fun. You are talking about Your Thing. Sell it! And TALK to people. Talk to Everybody. Just this once, for these couple of hours, no matter how introverted you are, really interact.” That said, if you hate smiling or are otherwise not a smiler, engage in the way that feels natural to you.
e.  Know your audience. This is obvious for the job talk – don’t give a talk for medievalists only if you’re speaking to mostly 20th century specialists. Consider that you should look for the good in the place you’re visiting, too. This means, as Megan Mulder points out, “If you're interviewing at a school in a small town and/or red state, be really, really careful not to do anything that suggests you'd be whiny and miserable there and would be looking for another job within a couple of years. Trust me, they will be hypersensitive about this.” And regardless of hypersensitivity – they are hosting you. Be gracious.
f.  Once again, accept that you cannot read their minds. There is, as Peter Buchanan relates, no such thing as the perfect job talk: “From having seen a large number of job talks last year, I think one important thing to realize is that there is no such thing as the perfect job talk. Most job talks are pretty good because we're smart, articulate people working hard to achieve our goals. That's enough to get a job (although it doesn't mean you will get one). Some people will like your work better than others, and what works in one department might not work in another. Another important thing to realize is that schools want to hire you. They ask for more materials and interview you because somebody already likes you. It's just they may not show it, and they might not call until six months later when you get a letter that says, ‘It's not you, it's me. You're great, but I've met somebody else.’”
g.  After your visit, remember you have options. Christina Fitzgerald reminds us that it’s important to “know that you can negotiate stuff, especially once you have an offer, including asking for extensions to make decisions about an offer and even salary and start-up funds. The market makes us so abject that we forget that sometimes we have some leverage!” As Meg Worley puts it: “Don't say "yes" right away when the offer you the job Even if it's the job of your dreams, say "Let me think about it." Then, go read an article on how to negotiate, before you do anything else. If you're female, read a second one that decries the tendency of women not to play hardball. Only THEN should you say yes, and then play hardball.”

5.      Clothing Advice
Not surprisingly, a lot of really great advice was given regarding what to wear to interviews and campus visits (we medievalists are a stylish set). A lot was aimed particularly at women – don’t, for example, wear a pantsuit if you are not a pantsuit kind of a person. I’ve made an effort here to encapsulate the more gender-neutral salient points.

a.  Be yourself. (Yes, your best self.) Meg Worley suggests that you “dress like yourself, not some over-coached drone candidate.” The best advice I ever received was to make sure that your clothes didn’t look like they were still on the hanger. Be comfortable in them.
b.  Test your shoes first! Make sure that you can walk, comfortably, possibly a long way, in the shoes that you wear. This goes for everyone.
c.  One last word on suits: Lenora Warren gives the fantastic advice that “If you have a professional outfit that makes you feel like a superhero that's probably the one to go with. If you feel compelled to buy a suit, and you are not a suit person, think of the droves and droves of awkward newly minted phds in stiff new suits that will be hurrying around MLA and ask yourself, ‘Is this how I want to present myself?’”
6.   And finally, just in case you were feeling blue, or nervous, or just plain scared, remember the great advice from the Old English poem Deor. Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg! (Thanks to Steve Rozenski for keeping it in perspective at the end, and for reminding us that the best recording is Seamus Heaney, reciting his translation on the Norton Website. To translate: “That passed over, this can too.”)

Also see:

Add your favorite links, advice, etc, in the comments -- looking forward to seeing what else we come up with!

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Holly Crocker said...

fantastic post, Mary Kate! I'm sharing with all our grad students *right now--invaluable advice!!

Nathaniel M. Campbell said...

Re: Point 4, subpoint e:

If the way that you approach a school "in a small town and/or red state" is to assume that they will be hypersensitive about how whiny you will be living there, then it's probably already too late to cure you of your arrogant prejudice against places that aren't New York, Boston, Chicago, or California.

Leila K. Norako said...

Thanks so much for this post, Mary Kate. I followed the Facebook conversation with considerable interest, and I really appreciate everything that you've written here. Truly invaluable advice, which I'll be returning to again and again as I navigate the market this year.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Thanks, Holly and Leila. I hope that everyone finds it useful. It certainly was for me.

Nathaniel, you make a very good point. I think that's part of what Megan was getting at: you should cure yourself of it before getting there. Graciousness and generosity is key.

Alison Walker said...

Thanks for the post, Mary Kate! For me the most emotional portion of the job search came when, after my campus visit, schools stop treating you as a colleague when you don't get the job.

It was really disheartening to me to have people be very nice and excited about my research until I had to email them to ask whether decisions were made because I had another offer.

I rolled with all the punches until then.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this. I have a piece of advice, too, although I am still in the process. Explain the vagaries of the job process to your friends and family (including academics, if they are not in the humanities) well beforehand. To non-academics, the length of the process and the diversity of the options can seem really alien, and they should be prepared. It's especially important, I think, that parents understand that just because you go to a famous grad school, this does not mean you'll be taking a job at a famous college or university.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Reposting my comment because it had several typos. Whoops!

Alison: That is undoubtedly one of the hardest parts of the job market, and on both sides. I've been on the receiving end of sudden silence, but so far not on the silent side. I hope that when the time comes I remember what it felt like.

Anonymous: This is a really great point. I'm lucky, actually, because my mother chose not to pursue a career in academia because of the job market. While my immediate family understands the vicissitudes of academia, however, sometimes other friends or family members don't quite understand that when there's a job in my state for a medievalist or even just an English professor, it might not be a likely scenario that I'll be coming home.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks for compiling this Mary Kate. It's terrifically useful, and I have shared it with all the GW graduate students (I'm Job Placement Director this year). Crowd sourcing for the win!

Kristi J. Castleberry said...

I just want to chime in and say thank you. I know it was a lot of work to compile this, but it's both really helpful and also really encouraging. So, thanks!

Alexandra Bolintineanu said...

What a terrific collection of advice: the best part is its specificity -- e.g. the three tweets exercise, the advice on how to mine departments' websites for information. Thank you for this compilation.