Assembling Your Search Party (Part I): Academic Jobs

By Maria LaMonaca Wisdom

Job search party

Graduate students on the academic job search frequently ask me what I think of Karen Kelsky’s The Professor Is In.

Kelsky has helped to fill a yawning gap in the literature of grad student professionalization. Had The Professor Been In when I was in grad school, I would have owned a well-thumbed, heavily annotated copy.

Students sometimes ask me this question, however, when they realize—to their surprise and chagrin—that some directive in the book doesn’t mesh with reliable advice they’ve received from other sources, including their dissertation advisers.

I don’t agree with every point in The Professor is In, but I don’t agree with every point in most of the things I read. And neither should you. After all, it’s not so much about which professional development books you use, but how you use them.


One Text Won’t Cut It

Some academics (like me) have a tendency to read their way through challenging life transitions. Planning a wedding? Read The Conscious Bride! Expecting your first baby? Quick! Order Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child and The Nursing Mothers’ Companion! Going on the academic job market …?

You get the idea.

But conducting a job search informed by a single text (even a good one) is a lot like trying to write an undergraduate seminar paper using the only relevant book your classmates haven’t already checked out from the library. Or maybe going to Morocco and refusing to investigate anything that isn’t in your 2013 copy of the Let’s Go! guide.

I had this insight recently, after a couple of advising appointments with Ph.D. students who brought beautiful cover letters for me to review, some of the best I’ve seen.

“Where did you learn to write such good letters?” I asked.

Neither of these students, as it turned out, had relied on any one source or model. Sure, they’d read their Kelsky, but they’d also consulted other books. Non-published sources proved even more helpful. One student was from a department that had done a spate of recent hiring. Not only did she attend every job talk, but she carefully studied each candidate’s job materials. The other student mentioned, among other things, having developed a strong mentoring relationship with a junior faculty member at a nearby university, who generously shared her own recent job search documents.

Relying on a very limited number of sources or models implicitly presumes a “one-size-fits-all” approach to crafting job search materials, and the assumption of an unrealistic degree of homogeneity, both in job search candidates and hiring departments. Despite a ridiculously high number of (mostly) unwritten academic job search conventions, there is, never has been, and never will be a job search candidate exactly like you. To find your voice and tell your story, consult a wide variety of sources (both written and oral), evaluate the relative worth of those sources, and fashion an entirely original argument (within accepted conventions) for your academic employability.

And just as you are wholly original, hiring departments have their idiosyncrasies. The further we get from the realm of R1 jobs, the more distinctive the cultures of hiring departments, and the greater value in understanding them and tailoring your job applications accordingly. This process requires applying those close, critical humanistic reading skills to all-important texts such as position descriptions and program websites. It also requires thinking hard about how you can fill the needs and address the aspirations of an academic community that you wish to join.

So you should be reading lots of things. You have the entire internet at your disposal, and many university graduate schools and career centers now maintain online repositories of sample job search documents. However, just because a document supposedly led to someone’s academic hire, that doesn’t mean it’s a model document (hiring decisions being complex things).


Whom to Invite to Your Search Party

You may be tempted to imbibe most of your job search guidance from the solitude of your apartment, library carrel, or favorite corner of the coffee shop—but don’t succumb. Relying almost exclusively on print or digital sources, online communities, webinars, and wikis is not just flawed job search strategy; it’s a slippery slope to mental health issues.

Some students prefer not to discuss their job searches with peers from their Ph.D. cohort; I totally get that. But in general, the more people involved, the better. By the time you can see the academic job market on the horizon (fourth-years, I’m talking to you), you should be well on the way to identifying a carefully curated search party. It should include some subset of the following:

  • Your dissertation adviser (totally non-negotiable)
  • Other faculty committee members and referees
  • Faculty members from other disciplines
  • Faculty members beyond Duke, especially those working at places that don’t look anything like Duke (public universities, small liberal arts colleges, community colleges, HCBUs, church-related institutions)
  • Very recent alumni of your Ph.D. program cohort (who may fall into the category immediately above)
  • Non-faculty university personnel, such as professional development and career center staff
  • At least one person with a flair for writing and storytelling (this could be a nonacademic, perhaps someone who works in communications or marketing, for example)
  • An excellent professional proofreader (should you need one)
  • Close friends, family members, partners (not to read your stuff, but to keep you sane)

You may be a year or more away from entering the job market, but this is the time to build important relationships. Having a knowledgeable search party is about much more than garnering strong letters of recommendation, or getting multiple reads of your application materials.

Who are you as a scholar, teacher, and professional?

The Professor is In can’t answer that question for you, and nor can any other book.  Your advisers and professors can’t either. But they can provide mentoring, and the best mentors will support, listen, and even occasionally challenge you as you form a unique professional identity and forge a way ahead. This discernment happens best in the context of community and conversation. Start forming your job search team today, and consider making the advising resources of VH@Duke a part of that.