“Preparing for the [Academic] Job Market” workshop notes

Dr. James Coltrain, UNL
Dr. James Coltrain, UNL

Below are my rough notes from a whirlwind workshop on the subject of preparing for the academic job market. Dr. James Coltrain led the workshop, which took place on August 21st at the 2014 History Department Graduate Student Retreat.

Preparing for the [academic] job market:

  • every aspect of getting a job will be a grind”
  • being a good job candidate = not same as being a good grad student
  • To be a good job candidate:
    • for an elite position, at a Research I university have:
      • publications (ideally 2-3 peer-reviewed article in your field; any other kinds of publications = a good idea; chapter in edited edition; anything shows through an editorial process)
      • major conference presentations (as many as you can – esp. the big ones like the AHA, OAH; you need people in your field who can advocate for you)
      • a fellowship or two (money to go to a library = very good; apply early – in the Fall; EVEN if it’s only a week’s stay at a library it will help your C.V.)
      • teaching experience (do everything you can to teach your own class + develop the major courses you know you’ll be expected to teach)
      • for digital jobs: do something with strong disciplinary purpose (significant historical questions) AND be knowledgeable about a particular kind of technology (esp. good if its innovative)
      • show impact on your field: If you nail your dissertation, what would the textbook companies be OBLIGATED to change (a chapter, even a sentence)?
  • Where should you look for job listings?
    • Hnet.org
    • academic jobs wiki (google this, disciplinary areas divided by subfield)
    • AHA – “last generation”
    • Chronicle of Higher Education
    • follow a bunch of people on Twitter, institutes – see what pops up
  • Your cover letter – no more than 2 pages; single-spaced
    • must be PERFECT → okay if you spend a month on it
    • VERY direct intro – you, what you’re applying for, your research
    • how your research changes your field, your major field → explain in way that non-experts can understand
    • methodology, which archives you used, travel you’ve done, previous discourse you’re engaging with
    • your WIDER research, how you fit into a school, a mode of analysis, pitch your NEXT project → your next book, connected in some way to your current book (not committed to this, so BE BOLD)
    • brag → don’t just repeat your c.v. – substantive things that don’t come across in your c.v. (communicate its importance); remember: people evaluating you are NOT in your area
    • everything else, especially TEACHING and SERVICE (up to two paragraphs); good place for school specific arguments (particular center you’d be excited to work in; you have a relationship to the place – but don’t go overboard)
    • change this cover letter for different DISCIPLINES you are applying for & for different LEVELS of universities (research, community colleges)
      • work influenced by debates in other fields, taught classes in other areas, etc.
      • cover letter for teaching institution versus R-1 institution → ALWAYS start with your dissertation, adapt your paragraphs after that (emphasize teaching experience and philosophy)
  • Your C.V. – every important thing you’ve done in different categories
    • emphasize professional-level stuff over grad-level stuff (prioritize/list them in this order)
    • 3-4 sentence abstract of your dissertation on your C.V. = good sometimes
    • 2-3 pages of GREAT stuff is better than padding it
  • 3 letters of recommendation
    • 1st person = your advisor → CUSTOMIZED letter; CRITICAL (hopefully “says it all”)
    • 2nd person = could be a committee member, someone who knows your RESEARCH very well 
    • 3rd person = lots of options: someone you taught for that knows you very well, someone at another school IF you know them WELL; want someone with a NATIONAL profile whenever possible
    • NO LAST MINUTE stuff on requests for letters → send a spreadsheet with deadlines, start as early as possible
      • about a month’s notice = the “sweet spot”
    • Interfolio = good; generic letter of recommendation that YOU write for the advisor to give them an idea of what you think you need
      • don’t be afraid to GET ON your letter writers if they’re not keeping up with deadlines – “it’s part of their job” to write letters for you
  • Some things often (but not always) asked for in job applications:
    • writing sample
      • dissertation chapter OR peer-reviewed published article → whichever is BETTER
      • stay within the page limit
    • teaching evaluations → pick the best, most informative ones
    • teaching portfolio – including syllabi (classes taught, planned), evaluations, teaching philosophy
      • come back to those books from your comps for the basic courses you know you will be asked to teach (show your historiography)
      • what you do, why you do it, assignments given (avoid buzzwords without examples)
    • research statement – same as you would do in your cover letter
      • your dissertation, methods
      • final 3rd = future project
    • diversity statement: have someone who actually IS from a diverse background read it
      • how you approach your subject with diversity in mind (pedagogy, research, community)
        • e.g. content of what you teach; can mention your background (but don’t assume that has significance)
  • do as much as you can during the SUMMER
    • different applications will ask for different things, so you’ll constantly be tweaking your application materials
  • significant, polished segment of your dissertation ready to go (in the summer if applying for fall jobs)
    • don’t be shy → go for it if you’re interested
  • Stages of the interview:
    • job posting come out June – January
      • most to Dec. 15th
    • get 70-100 applicants – few cuts may happen early on
      • e.g. send more writing samples (as much of your dissertation as you have)
      • e.g. Skype interviews – look at the CAMERA, wear what you wear to teach in, be in a quiet, well-lit space
      • e.g. phone interview – dress up for your phone interview (state of mind for your interview), have the internet/notes up
      • e.g. conference interview – not all have a conference interview (cuts made to 15-20 or 7-8) → it’s an accomplishment to get there, take it as a good sign
        • be prepared to be at the AHA → think about your finances (ask the department, the center you’re involved in to support your need to be there)
        • make sure you have enough turn-around time (1 hour or so) between interviews
        • ask for names of committee members → do research on them
        • be relaxed for the interview
          • as nice as you can look without being too formal (NOT about style here, about professionalism)
        • get to hotel early, get to the room 5 minutes early
        • bring a clipboard with paper to write on
          • small amount of notes = okay
    • 1st question is ALWAYS – tell me about your research (3 minutes, just like your cover letter – research, methods)
      • theory, method that influenced your research, how it fits within your field
      • the next project
      • teaching experiences, philosophy
      • classes willing, able to teach (make sure you aren’t taking anyone else’s classes at the institution you’re applying for)
      • they’ll tell you about the department, position → you’d BETTER HAVE QUESTIONS FOR THEM
        • read everything on the department website, “stalk” your committee members
        • make YOU and THEM look good with your questions
        • don’t go off on tangents (stick to the basics – emphasizing your research/teaching in your questions)
  • 3-4 folks in the interview on campus
    • everything else in your life is on hold” → don’t be a problem for them, put everything else aside
    • will be stressful, lengthy → give recovery time to yourself between these
    • research every single person you’ll be meeting with on your campus visit
      • try to memorize some names & faces
    • get an itinerary
    • pack a carry-on if you can in case your bags get lost
      • layers, options
    • TONS of meetings – be as friendly as possible, have good posture, emphasize positive things (topics of convo reflect well on them)
    • if you have a weak spot in your candidacy – find a strength to focus on
    • lots of meals – dinners, lunches; “you are on the clock” (do not get drunk); if anyone else gets water you get water
      • do not gossip but be human → bring conversation back to you and the job if it drifts TOO far off
      • order neat, fairly moist food (you’ll be talking the most out of everyone; something easy to eat, not messy)
      • you’re always on; you’re never off”
    • the job talk → 35 minutes to 1 hour
      • questions can be very long sometimes so NEVER go over
      • practice!
      • Have great visuals BUT be prepared to have NO powerpoint
        • have handouts as your backup
      • always have a hard copy or two of your presentation
        • usb drive
        • adaptors
        • e-mail your presentations
      • probably a chapter, or a combo of 2 chapters → but hit on every important aspect of your dissertation
        • mention ALL the important work you’ve done
        • have as many people review this in advance as possible
        • bring water with you
        • clear, direct loud voice – speak slowly and DO NOT READ, make eye contact
        • speak to the person on “your team” as much as you can
        • build natural speech into your talk
        • Q & A: set up possible questions in your talk
          • end your answers with seeding another question
          • anticipate things you’ve been asked to emphasized in your application process
        • stand up for your project → defend your work
        • do the best that you can with “the jerk(s)”
          • there will be people who are aggressive → handle it as respectfully as you can and explain your perspective
        • most of the people in the audience don’t know who’s right”
          • can say something along the lines of “historians continue to debate this point…”
        • think about talking to the aggressive person right afterward → “My committee and I have talked about and debated this too…”
  • adopt a “dating” attitude toward this
    • don’t smother them, don’t creep them out
    • the thank you e-mail after your interview, to the chair of the committee, = a MUST (right after you leave) → show them you don’t take them for granted
      • exercise restraint in impulse to check in on progress
    • don’t be a problem → your personal preferences don’t matter
      • go with the flow
      • only exception = ask for a minimum of half an hour before your job talk, alone, preferably in the room you’ll be speaking in
      • don’t say a negative thing about a person, place, thing, entity the ENTIRE time you are there → you never know who you’ll be making angry (connections of connections)
    • you are nice to everyone the entire time you are there
    • If they had you, they wouldn’t need you.”
    • may not even be the committee that makes the final decision → could be a total faculty vote, higher up considerations
      • keep your distance from any personal connections you may already have at the institution
    • salary, disability, information about the town → DON’T ask until AFTER the offer
      • be light on personal information
      • don’t engage in controversies
      • job offer: be clear about expectations
        • only time you get in touch = if you’re considering another offer (to give them a timeline so you can make a decision)
        • make an effort to negotiate a salary, but realize there is not a lot of wiggle room
  • teaching colleges may ask you to do a guest lecture → they may even dictate which course you’ll lecture
    • so don’t OVER-REACH or over-sell yourself in your application on what you can teach
    • especially true at small liberal arts colleges
    • do a “super-lecture” → rich with sources, images
      • and be a politician with the “students” (who may or may not actually be teaching the course) → get to know them a tad
  • you cannot get down on yourself about rejection
    • & you cannot try to analyze the cause of that rejection
      • it’s such a HUGE combination of circumstances that inform the final decision
    • the pool is too large, the sample size is too small
    • don’t read gossip about jobs (e.g. on the job wiki listed above)
    • also DON’T complain about why you think you didn’t get a particular job
      • don’t check this more than once per week
      • don’t post on this wiki
      • don’t count yourself out → might be a failed job search, other people might have taken other jobs → be patient (this process can literally take a very long time)
  • What if I can’t get a job?
    • Major use of time and effort to get on the market
    • be realistic in both a positive and negative way
    • if your diss is done, don’t get a single conference interview → you may have learned something useful and can try again
    • there are no guarantees because it’s so competitive
    • diversify your skills while you’re here
      • e.g. alt-ac, digital → but don’t over-romanticize the opportunities here (these are still very competitive)
      • think about what else you can do and get started on it (volunteering, internship)
    • post-docs = NOT a “fallback,” still very competitive
      • know yourself” – what this does at best is to extend your shelf-life a while longer
    • know the geography of your job search and weigh your options against the post-doc (compare the resources, connections you have where you are against where you are going – what if you don’t get a job after your post-doc?)
      • consider work a post-doc requires of you too
    • you are probably qualified, but that might not be the way things shake down
      • (American Idol comparison)
    • discourages ANYONE from taking adjunct position in hopes that anyone will turn it into a permanent position
      • okay” for just a year
      • it’s a dead-end” → better investment to focus on writing, researching, speaking (not being a 2nd class citizen basically – no health insurance, pitiful pay, no security, etc.)

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