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The Abysmal Job Market, Revisited

06/15/11

Permalink 09:42:18 am, by David Golland Email , 3617 words   English (US)
Categories: News

The Abysmal Job Market, Revisited

Last summer I posted a comparison between my experience and that of Joe Sramek, a friend and fellow CUNY PhD who went on the academic job market two years before me (Advice for the Abysmal Job Market, 8/9/10). Joe had written a piece for the Graduate Center Advocate in the fall of 2007 in which he laid out his path to the tenure-track job he now holds: over 150 applications, more than a dozen interviews at AHA Atlanta, three on-campus interviews, and one job offer. But between his Advocate piece and my doctoral defense a year later, the market tanked, and it has not recovered. Last year I blogged about my experience during my second post-doctoral year and my first in earnest on the academic job market. Consciously channeling Joe’s piece, I noted my nearly one hundred applications, exactly zero interviews at AHA San Diego, two telephone interviews and one on-campus interview. I had received no job offers for tenure-track positions but I was looking forward to starting my second semester as a full-time sub at CUNY, the “inside candidate” for a tenure-track job at Borough of Manhattan Community College. Under the circumstances, I considered it a successful year in that I had become a full-time faculty member and had, as I put it, the chance to try again.

As the insider at BMCC I considered the entire semester one long job interview, and was interviewed by the committee and then, as a finalist, by the provost. When I ultimately did not get the job, and found myself scrambling for adjunct work in January—again with no interviews scheduled for the AHA (Boston)—I considered writing this “revisited” piece. Ultimately I decided against it, worrying that I would come off as bitter at an academic market that had let me down. After all, my credentials were about as solid as they could be: a book in press, full-time teaching experience, copious committee experience, strong references. Things soon went from bad to worse: in March I didn’t even make the interview cut at Bronx Community College, which had two tenure-track jobs available, and in April I was rejected for an adjunct job—an adjunct job, for Pete’s sake—at New York City College of Technology.

But yesterday I received my third full-time job offer in as many weeks, and it now seems as if every three to four days I withdraw from a search after being offered an interview. As I prepare for the move to my new tenure-track job at Governors State University, an upper-division college with graduate and doctoral students outside Chicago where I will be designing the undergraduate history major and new MA program in history education, this seems like a good opportunity to reflect on the market and offer some fresh advice to recent grads and ABDs at the CUNY Grad Center.

A la Joe Sramek, let’s start with the stats. Over the past two years, I applied for a total of 281 academic positions: 181 tenure-track (or otherwise permanent); 58 replacement (visiting, sub, etc.), 36 postdocs, and 6 public historian (i.e. in-house historian at the Department of Defense). I had (or was offered) 15 first-round interviews (8 of which for tenure-track or permanent jobs) and 7 on-campus interviews (4 for tenure-track/permanent). The result: five job offers, two of which were tenure/track or permanent and three for visiting positions (including the two visiting positions I accepted last year).

(A word about “permanent” non-tenure track: this is a category of job about which I was unaware prior to my search. Perhaps it is a new phenomenon, as colleges seek to retain their options to lay off faculty in the wake of ever-tighter budgets. But I interviewed for two of these positions and was offered one, which ultimately I did not take because fortunately within days I had a tenure-track offer. Announcements for these jobs typically contain the word “renewable” but otherwise appear to be replacement jobs, but the applicant should ask how renewable they are during the interview. The two that resulted in interviews for me each involved three-year contracts, permanently renewable.)

Last year, my main regret was that I hadn’t gone on the job market in the semester of my defense—fall 2008. I still regret that, as the market was better then than it would be the following year. But my current regret is that I didn’t promote myself adequately as the author of a book until it was actually published. When I say adequately I mean listing the book on the first page of the CV, centered, below the address, above all other content. I had been listing the book under “publications,” on page two of the CV. Once I made it more prominent I received a flurry of interview offers, and that’s the key in this job market: you have to have a stand-out CV and cover letter. These are the tools for getting from the application to the interview—and to do that you will need to beat the longest odds of the process.

In this abysmal job market, search committees are receiving upwards of 200 applications for each position. It’s easy to understand why: just read Perspectives—the AHA monthly magazine—and you’ll see that since 2008 the number of PhDs granted in history has exceeded the number of job openings. From these 200-odd applications, search committees must select 10-12 candidates for an initial interview. So it’s basically twenty-to-one against getting an interview. The odds get significantly better after that: 3-4 candidates get on-campus interviews, and if the top choice turns down the job (as I did for one permanent job and one temporary job) you only need to be in the top two to get it. In short, you need to get out of the general pool of applicants and into the much smaller pool of interviewing candidates. To do that you need a solid cover letter and a stand-out CV.

Your cover letter should be between 1.5 and 2 pages. The body should include a lengthy paragraph on your dissertation (followed by a short paragraph on your current scholarship if you have moved beyond your dissertation), a paragraph on your teaching experience, a paragraph on your teaching philosophy, and a brief statement about your service experience if you have any. (While at the Graduate Center it pays to serve on two or three committees; ideally you’ll serve on at least one that is college-wide. Ask your DSC rep to put you in touch with the students serving on the Committee on Committees so that you can get on a college-wide committee.) The introduction should briefly list your major accomplishments as they relate to the particular job (“with my dissertation now under contract and with copious experience teaching both American history and Western Civilization, I am very excited by the opportunity to apply for the assistant professorship at Beaufunk State University, Juneau”) and the conclusion should briefly restate the fact that your quals make you a good fit for the job and that you are available for a telephone or Skype interview and will be attending the AHA. Scholarship and teaching should come first and second: respectively for a research university job and reverse for a community college job; use your own best judgment for the many jobs in-between.

Everyone in this market has a Ph.D. or soon will (even for community college jobs), and everyone who’s in serious contention for the jobs you want has a list of awards, good references, and a solid transcript. You will stand out with a book (again, aggressively promoted on the CV from the moment you get a contract) and with full-time teaching experience. Is it possible to get a job in this market with neither? Sure. But the odds are worse than abysmal. So you need to get these things. The full-time temporary teaching experience will come through persistent applications and a willingness to travel (especially now that CUNY has cut virtually all substitute lines). The book contract will be a harder trick, so you need to put a lot of energy into that. It’s not just luck: you need to write an excellent dissertation on a topic that fills a gap in the existing literature or is otherwise very sexy. But you also need to have a good relationship with your advisor, who will recommend appropriate presses; you need to write your dissertation in a style that is conducive to becoming a book; you need to develop a strong book proposal; and you need to respond to the anonymous peer criticism with grace and thoughtfulness, showing the editors that you’re someone they can work with comfortably.

Here comes the tough love. If you’ve been working on your PhD for more than a decade, or you’re having problems getting your advisor or committee members to agree to schedule a defense, stop. Just stop. Get out and find another career. You’re not going to get a book published and you’re not going to get a full-time job—so you can forget about joining the professoriate. No college is looking for a failed historian, and the sooner you accept that you need to get out, the better it will be for you. And if you can’t count on good references you are in for continual frustration. I know this is harsh, but it’s reality, and the sooner you accept it the happier you’ll be. If you don’t get out now you can expect a career on the adjunct circuit—and even adjunct jobs are getting harder to come by. If you haven’t already done so, file for your MPhil and move on.

But if all indications are that you’ve got a shot at this, you need to get on the market with gusto, starting with the fall semester of the academic year in which you will defend. Get an Interfolio account, line up your references, get them to upload their letters directly to Interfolio, and ask them to renew their letters each year you’re still on the market. Use your Interfolio references for EVERYTHING: even online applications, which ask for your referees’ contact information, can be given individual Interfolio e-mail addresses (instructions at Interfolio). Apply for every single job for which you feel qualified, based on your scholarship and your teaching experience—including temporary jobs outside of your scholarship as long as you’ve taught in that field. Check the listings every week at higheredjobs.com, historians.org, H-Net, and cuny.edu. Apply for each job significantly early to meet the deadline—and be conscious of whether the search calls for delivery by e-mail, online, or post. Plan on attending the AHA, but don’t be dejected if you don’t get scheduled interviews for it (I never did). At the AHA, check the job board and apply. I applied for two jobs at AHA Boston and got one interview while I was there. Keep checking and applying into the spring. Both of my tenure-track/permanent job offers were the result of applications with spring deadlines.

If you can get into the interview pool, you’ve got an excellent chance of landing a good job. And the more you interview, the better you’ll get at showing what’s great about you—and the more your chances improve. Because once you’re in that pool, it’s much more about personality and delivery than paper credentials. But there are some things you’ll need to keep in mind long before you get to the interview stage.

Most importantly, you need to start regularly reflecting on your teaching. You don’t need to be an excellent teacher to get a job, even at a teaching institution like a community college, but you do need to demonstrate that you think about your teaching and are looking for ways to improve it. It’s generally better to talk about the mistakes you’ve made as a teacher—as long as you can discuss how you overcame them—than it is to recite all the latest pedagogical techniques you’ve been trying.

Give some serious thought—preferably long before the interview—on why you want to be a teacher.

Once you’re offered an interview, research the school and think carefully about why you want to work there, why you think you’re a good fit, and what you want to know from the interviewers. Yes, I know, you want to work there because you want a job—any job—and all you really want to know from them, in this market, is whether or not they’ll hire you. But part of the process is to pretend you don’t feel that way. So do as much research as you can in advance, take notes, and write down questions. The questions, by the way, are as much about showing you’re serious as about getting more information. After all, if you only get one offer, you’re going to take it. But if you get more than one, you may not have a lot of time to make up your mind, so it pays to know as much as you can. You should ask about the teaching load and opportunities for research funding, service commitments, where the faculty tend to live, etc. But the question I always lead with is “tell me more about the students.”

You’ll probably be asked about using technology in the classroom. You might also be asked about online courses. Be honest. Talk about what technologies you like, and where you feel you could use more training. If you haven’t taught an online course (I haven’t), it pays to be able to say you set up a blog for your students and posted questions on it each week for them to discuss. But as with everything else, don’t just do it for the sake of being able to say you did it; reflect on the results and be prepared to discuss them.

Don’t ever say “pedagogy” in an interview; for that matter, don’t use all that many GRE words at all: you’ll come off as out of touch, incapable of relating to your students. You should speak in a relaxed manner, using plain English. Answer questions directly, and don’t be evasive; just like in your orals, don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.” Hopefully you won’t have to say it that much in each interview.

Be positive; don’t be glib, trite, or flip; take the interview seriously even while showing that you don’t take yourself so seriously. I was once asked about my experience teaching junior high school. I smiled and said “the most important thing I learned teaching junior high school was that I didn’t want to teach junior high school.” Needless to say, I didn’t get that job. Only in retrospect did I realize that they were asking how I could relate to students pursuing degrees in education. But more importantly, if I wasn’t prepared to discuss something on my CV, I shouldn’t have put it on my CV. A far better answer, obviously, would have been something like “it taught me just how hard teachers work and gave me a tremendous respect for people pursuing that calling.”

Be prepared with a list of courses you’d like to teach, not just the courses you’ve already taught. As a full-timer you will likely teach at least one or two courses a year beyond the introductory surveys. In interviews for two of the jobs I was ultimately offered, I was asked about my willingness to teach in my minor, so you should think about how you would design such courses. For your surveys, be prepared to list the textbooks you’ve assigned.

Try to think about the process from the interviewers’ perspective. Reading more than 200 cover letters and CVs, then meeting to discuss them and choose interviewees, then debating the choice of finalists. But that’s just the logistics: they’re often very anxious about making the right choice. They’ll be working with the successful candidate for at least seven years, if not many more; that’s a big commitment and they don’t want to hire someone with whom they won’t get along. But once you can relate to that experience, it will be helpful if you can find a way to show that empathy during the interview. People who can relate to different perspectives make good colleagues.

Don’t be put off by what appears to be a bad attitude on the part of the interviewers. You may think they don’t like you, but they don’t know you, and they might be role-playing to test your responses. You also might rub someone the wrong way; be cool, and you might win over everyone else. (That person you’re rubbing the wrong way might actually be disliked by everyone else.)

The more you interview, the more you’ll find that your answers seem (to you) rehearsed. Just remember that this is the first time your interviewers are hearing them, so behave accordingly. This holds true even with multiple interviews on the same campus: the dean hasn’t heard your spiel with the committee, so just say it all again. You’ll develop a few catch phrases, and that’s great: it will build your confidence, and confidence (as long as it’s not arrogance) comes off well in an interview.

Full-day campus interviews will include a meal, but late in the day your energy will start to flag. You might have breakfast with the committee chair, a meeting with the full committee, lunch with committee members, a teaching demo or job talk (to which the entire community might be invited, a walking tour of the campus, and one-on-one meetings with the chair, dean, and/or provost. Bring granola bars to keep your energy up; eat them when you’re getting tired, rather than waiting until you’re hungry. Because of adrenaline and anxiety you might not actually get hungry until much later.

With the teaching demo or job talk, style and substance both matter. As with the orals, if you don’t know the answer, don’t fake it; admit it candidly and explain that you use such moments in your teaching as an opportunity to show how professors aren’t omniscient, and that you turn it around and ask the students what they think the answer is. Try to teach towards your specialty, both because that’s where your expertise is and also because it shows how you relate your scholarship to your teaching. In one demo I was asked to lecture on the social and political changes of the Age of Jackson. As a scholar of African-American history, I focused on the growth of abolitionism during that era and the political changes regarding the expansion of slavery. I didn’t even mention Andrew Jackson himself until the Q&A. I got the job.

A good way to prepare for the teaching demo: teach (duh). But here’s a good way to prepare for the job talk: convert a dissertation chapter into a fifteen-minute presentation, then start delivering it at conferences. You can find a list of Calls for Papers at H-net; find the conferences that seem most likely to accept your paper, write a proposal, and send it off. After you’ve delivered the paper a few times, the job talk will be second nature—and all those presentations are lines on the CV!

When you get a job offer, ask how long you have before they need a decision. Then IMMEDIATELY inform any other search committees for whom you have interviewed but not been told whether or not you got those jobs. If it’s true, say “I’d really rather work with you, but I need to make a decision soon.” I did that, and within two days I had a better job offer—which I accepted.

Try to avoid pulling out of jobs which you have already accepted, but you can exploit the job-value hierarchy. It is understood that you can and will back out of adjunct commitments for a full-time job, and you can back out of a temporary job for a permanent job. This is not unethical as long as you have not signed a contract (and may be ethical in any event when it comes to backing out of adjunct contracts—just be sure you’re not breaking the law). But if you have signed a contract for a temporary full-time job, you must meet that commitment. You also may not ethically back out of one job for a better job in the same tier, i.e. backing out of a tenure-track 5-5 for a tenure-track 4-4, or backing out of an adjunct job with an hour-long commute for one closer to home. In this regard a verbal acceptance is ethically binding, so it pays to ask for as much time as possible and not commit until you’re sure you’re ready. Just don’t miss out! It’s better to turn down a better offer in the same tier later than to lose one job hoping for a better offer that may never come.

You can imagine just how excited and relieved I am to be off the market. But like Joe Sramek before me, I felt that I could not leave for my future on the tenure track without imparting what I have learned to my fellow CUNY PhDs and ABDs. See you at AHA Chicago!

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