By Maria LaMonaca Wisdom
Director of Graduate Student Advising and Engagement for the Humanities
Last week, I had the pleasure of talking with a small group of Ph.D. students (each from a different department) over videoconference on the topic: “Preparing for the Academic Job Search.”
These students—who had carved out time in June to talk about job searches that wouldn’t formally begin until September—wanted to know how they could best use their summer time to get a leg up for the fall. We had a great conversation, and I wanted to share with you some of the takeaways.
Although these tips are intended for advanced graduate students who will be on the market in the next year or two, there is a larger lesson here for students just starting out. Successful academics—from graduate study through full professor—learn early on that they must use their summers well, whether for job searches, teaching prep, or academic writing.
Even professors at R1 schools may find that if they are not on sabbatical or research leave, summer may be the only time they can really focus on research. Managing unstructured time in the summer is a habit graduate students should cultivate early.
So, if you are gearing up for the academic job search, what can and should you be doing now?
Talk to your DGS
If your department or director of graduate studies (DGS) hasn’t already convened a meeting to discuss the job search, reach out and schedule a conversation now. Departments and DGSes have different ways of preparing Ph.D. students for the market. How your department likes to handle things, however, may not best suit your timetable or needs. If you are seriously considering a run at the job market, and you haven’t spoken to your DGS yet, email him or her today. You are not asking for anything unreasonable; it is your DGS’s job to talk with you.
Start preparing a dossier of recommendation letters
Many academic positions require three to four letters upon first application; others ask for letters (with a very quick turnaround time) after an initial review. Professors are deluged with requests for recommendation letters in the fall and would likely appreciate having lead time. Think carefully about whom to ask for letters. You will definitely need one from your adviser, and the others should best showcase your potential as a teacher, scholar, and future colleague. Consider that the most famous scholars may not write the best recommendation letters. You might also include a letter from a scholar beyond your institution, if he or she is well positioned to speak about your work.
Prepare evidence of good teaching
Teaching portfolios will look different across disciplines, so this is a topic you will want to discuss with your DGS or other program faculty. Your portfolio will likely include syllabi from courses you have taught, descriptions of assignments you have designed, and a statement of teaching philosophy. If you have a couple of sets of teaching evaluations, consider preparing a one-page summary of that data (including some of the best quotes from students) to share with hiring committees. Also start thinking about what courses you’d like to offer (especially ones based on your current research) once you land your dream job. You will almost certainly be asked about this in job interviews.
Write like mad
Obviously you need to keep working on your dissertation, but you will also want to work toward getting at least one article placed in a credible journal in your field, if you don’t have that line on your CV already. Also, remember that most search committees request a writing sample prior to scheduling conference interviews. If you already have an article published, it’s probably best to use that as a writing sample. Otherwise, start creating a 20- to 30-page excerpt of a particularly strong chapter in your dissertation. Prune as much jargon as possible, as few hiring committees will consist entirely of specialists in your research area.
Talk with other grad students
You likely know a few others in your program who have already gone on the job market. If you don’t, your DGS or other program faculty can likely connect you.
Consider your online presence
This may be a good time to create an online portfolio, if you don’t have one already. Populate your Scholars@Duke profile (including a current, professional-looking photo), and create or update your profile on Academia.edu. If you have a LinkedIn profile (which I recommend, even for those on an academic search), make sure it’s updated and looks good.
If you have a habit of letting it all hang out on social media, give some thought to your priorities in this regard. It may be worth reviewing any social media sites or personal websites, with an eye to what you want hiring committees to know about you. Bias is alive and well, even in the most “enlightened” academic department, and it can be deployed against you for any reason or no reason. If you post political comments on Twitter or elsewhere, keep in mind that not everyone on a hiring committee (even in enlightened academia) may share your views.
Prepare for multiple outcomes
Think carefully about your action plan, should the job market not tip in your favor this year. Postdoctoral positions are a common fallback, and there are lots of good ones out there. Research these positions now. You don’t want to come up emptyhanded on a job search, only to discover that deadlines for competitive postdocs have passed. Also ask yourself how many years of contingent faculty life (and /or how many relocations) would be acceptable to you. If it’s a small number, you might want to begin creating a strategy for a nonacademic job search as well.
Finally, reflect upon what you can actually control in the job search, and what you can’t. Doing some or all of the above this summer puts you in a better position to apply for jobs in the fall, but reminding yourself that you have no control over the number or quality of jobs available (or the number of people competing with you) can be a healthy and liberating practice. Do what you can this summer, and then head for the beach.
Whatever the outcome, things have a way of working out. If you need convincing, drop me an email sometime (email@example.com), and we’ll talk.