My Rules for Job Market Sanity

Like a lot of people, I’ve been thinking about the job market a lot lately. Really, I have been thinking about it a lot for the last three years. To that end, I’ve come up with a list of rules that I try to follow to keep myself sane. These may not be for everyone, but they have been a way for me to cope with the big bundle of rejection that is the academic job market.

1) Know your profile

This one is a little more complicated than it will sound, but here goes: You need to know what sort of institution will be most interested in you as a candidate. No matter your dreams of working at an elite institution, if you have no published works to your name, you are extremely unlikely to get an Ivy League gig (even if you went to an excellent, Ivy League-caliber school). No matter your dreams of working at a small liberal arts college with lots of interaction with students, if you have never taught a single course (or have very limited teaching experience), you’re extremely unlikely to get a job at a school that truly values teaching.

These are not happy things to think about, but they are part of being realistic about who you are as a candidate and what the job market is like. Market yourself appropriately.

The flip side of this is that you have to recognize when you are a good candidate. Just because you have a good profile and good application materials it, very sadly, does not mean you will get a job (or even interviews!). Do you best not to get discouraged and keep working hard. This is much harder—knowing that you can be a good candidate and it still not lead to your employment. It really is true that there are too many good candidates and too few jobs.

2) Be honest about how hard you’re willing to work on the job search process

If you’re willing to spend the time you can probably apply to dozens (or more) jobs. You can write a new cover letter for each position and finely tailor each document to the position. One friend on a search committee told me that they had some teaching philosophy statements that were so carefully tailored to the school that some candidates researched not only all the courses on the books but which courses had been taught recently and by whom. Those candidates then laid out a detailed plan for how their courses would fit into the department. That took a lot of time and effort!

To be blunt, I am not willing to work that hard for almost any application. Everyone has to decide what makes sense for them.

The flip side of this, of course, is that no matter how hard you work it may not end up in you getting a position. Hard work is not a determining factor past a point. Just because you put 10+ hours into an application it does not mean that you will get an interview.

3) Know that you probably do not understand the dynamics of a search

The more time I deal with search committees (having been on both sides of the process), the more convinced I am that candidates have little sense of what is actually going on with a search committee. Even being part of a search committee and in the room during deliberations is not always enough to have a full sense of everything that is going on.

Without revealing too many details, I was crushed not to get an interview for a particular job because I was very familiar with the institution, department, and faculty. I thought I had tailored my application materials perfectly (I was willing to put in the work on this particular job). It turns out, talking to a faculty member later, that the department/institution had decided to go off in a direction that was totally unexpected to me (and my friend on the faculty, who was tangentially involved in the search), and I never could have fit what they actually wanted.

No matter what the job ad says or what you think you know about the department, faculty, and institution, you do not fully understand the search. Just accept it.

4) Know that the job market is neither 100% merit-based nor is it completely random.

Someone much wiser than me told me this, and I have found it to be so very true. Some of this is related to no. 3 above, some of it is this very (VERY) nebulous idea of “fit,” and some of it is the mere fact that different people value different things out of a colleague. If you are a good candidate and give it enough time you will get opportunities and, if you have a little luck, get a position.

5) Be happy, truly happy, when your friends get interviews and job offers

This is one that I said out loud my first year on the job market but did not mean until halfway through my second year. If you are lucky you will have talented friends who are also on the job market with you, and hopefully they will get interviews and job offers. You will lose out on many, many positions to people you have never met and may never meet. Wouldn’t you be happier if one of your friends got that job offer instead of someone you do not know? It is a tough idea to accept in your heart, but accepting the logic of it is the first step.

6) Finally, know that not getting a position does NOT mean you are a bad scholar or teacher

We live in a rough time to be on the academic job market. As I said in no. 1, even good candidates can miss out on interviews and job opportunities. One of my friends has a good teaching record, multiple publications (one forthcoming in the top journal in his/her field), and has had multiple prestigious fellowships (including a Fulbright). This friend has gotten no interviews to my knowledge, and it completely baffles me. I would think this person would be one of the first snatched off the market, but it has not happened.

Just because one year (or even two) does not give you a job offer, it does not mean that the future will be the same. Doing so may mean putting other career or maybe even family opportunities on hold, and you will have to balance what potentially landing an academic job in the future is worth to you. But you just cannot feel bad at a few (or even a lot of) strikeouts.

Remember, jobs are like spouses—you only need one to say yes.