Why Taking the Plunge “Early” Into the Academic Job Market is Worthwhile

By Sonia Nayak, Doctoral Candidate in English
and Dr. Michelle Sroka, Ph.D.
Nayak and Sroka

Sonia Nayak (left) and Michelle Sroka

When should you start preparing for the academic job search? If you had asked us that question last May, we’d likely have told you that, by joining a small, summer academic job advising group through Versatile Humanists at Duke, we were way ahead of the curve. After a long 10 months and counting on the job market, however, we’re here to tell you: Starting your academic job preparation over the summer should be a top priority. In fact, taking advantage of summer market preparation that Dr. Maria LaMonaca Wisdom and the Versatile Humanists program offers is something we would recommend Ph.D. candidates begin thinking about, and participating in, well before their sixth year.

The thought of committing to anything over the summer can feel daunting. As two rising sixth-year English Ph.D. candidates, we already had a busy schedule of writing chapters and preparing articles for submission. There’s also that natural human fear of the unknown, and the idea of devoting time over the summer to unfamiliar documents—cover letters, teaching statements and abstracts, oh my!—just seemed masochistic.

Yet signing up for this group turned out to be an excellent decision—possibly one of the most important we’d made in graduate school. Not only was the commitment minimal, allowing us to accomplish other goals over the summer, but it was also tailored to our needs, flexible with our schedules and travel (most meetings were held over video conference), and gave us a reason to pound out those essential, foundational drafts.

Below, we’ll explain what we did in our advising group and what we learned, from the things that surprised us most about the job market, to the things we wish we’d known before entering our sixth year.

What did we do?

The group first met with Maria over video conference in May, where we set the tone and agenda for the rest of the summer. What did we hope to learn? What documents did we want to write? How, and how often, would we want to offer, and receive, feedback? We then met up for three more virtual monthly check-ins, from June to August, deciding to focus mostly on academic professorships and their required documents.

Over the course of the month, we tackled four of the most important ones: the cover letter, the CV, the teaching statement, and the dissertation abstract. Our cover letters were written to specific job ads (you’d be surprised to know how early schools begin posting jobs!), and each additional document was tailored with that job and school in mind. Being held accountable over the summer forced us to face our fears about our own work, and the job search itself, and to devise strategies for addressing those fears and productively harnessing them well before applications were due.

What did we learn?

Preparing materials for the job market takes much, much longer than you think.

We estimate that it took us about 15 drafts to write our first successful cover letter. This seems like an exorbitant number, but the demands of the cover letter are much more challenging than they initially appear. Despite what you may hear from other advising forums, the cover letter resists following a paragraph-by-paragraph formula. It is as much about presenting yourself, and hooking your reader, as it is about properly decoding a job ad. This means distilling the necessary information, inferring what gaps the department is trying to fill, and tailoring your work, perspective, and teaching credentials to meet those needs.

Deadlines loom incredibly fast once the semester starts.

We would not have been able to apply for jobs, and make progress on our dissertations, if we had not begun writing over the summer. In order to apply for jobs in the fall and work toward completing your dissertation and defending, you need to get a head start on your materials. That way, the moment when letter-writing turns into a full-time job, you are ready to stem the tide, balance your time, and be the most efficient while recrafting your letters.

“Tailoring” often means rewriting, not editing.

In our experience, the demands of the modern job market have created the expectation for hyper-personalized letters. The days of a “template”—in which the body of the document remains the same from letter to letter, save your last, school-specific paragraph—are long gone. Now there seems to be an insistence that the entire letter—from your research description to the classes you would be able to teach—be geared toward the needs of the specific school.

  • You have to learn how to speak seamlessly to all facets of the job—especially those with multiple specialties—while demonstrating your fluency in these disciplines. Your CV, too, must be reordered with the specific job in mind.
  • After including logistics, you might find it surprising how few details you’ll be able to fit into the letter. When each word has to be used with the utmost thrift, we estimate that you’ll be spending 8 to 10 hours on each new draft. The advising group can help you build the stamina to accomplish this.
  • It is worth challenging yourself to write with standard margins and a relatively normal 12-point font, rather than squeezing in details by way of MS Word manipulation. (A reader going through many applications will notice an overstuffed document and end up skimming more than usual.) This way, you’re trimming the fat for the search committee, rather than leaving this determination up to another party.

Talking about your dissertation is hard, even after writing three chapters!

The Elevator Pitch is real, but even in a written document it is difficult to nail. Giving yourself plenty of time to solidify, sharpen, and pinpoint your project into a couple-sentence thesis, or “hook”, will not only make it immediately accessible to search committee members who aren’t in your field, but prepare you to talk more conversationally about your research if you are asked to a Skype or MLA interview. Even better, thinking more deliberately about the seeds of your dissertation—something we are not asked to do enough—can positively affect your final chapter, and make it easier to craft an introduction and conclusion while finishing your project.

Getting opinions and feedback outside of your department is essential.

The small-group summer job search made it easier to ask a variety of people for feedback: people both inside and outside your department. Getting feedback from multiple sources about the elusive and often counterintuitive genre of the cover letter can result in a lot of conflicting advice—everyone has a different idea of what the ideal letter reads like—but starting on these documents earlier gives you the time to sort through the advice you most want to incorporate.

You may have to go on the job market a second, or third, time.

It’s important not to burn out applying for jobs that are not worth your trouble—say one that requires six different tailored documents, one that heaps an unmanageable workload upon junior scholars, or even one in a city you would absolutely hate to live. When you feel tired, rest. When you can’t look at your writing anymore, don’t look at it! Taking a couple days off from your documents is crucial to seeing them afresh. If you need or decide to go on the market again, you’ll have all your pieces, ready to be reassembled and tried out again, with an extra year’s worth of refining to boot.

What Can You Do Now?

If this feels like an overwhelming amount of things to do before your final year, it might be helpful to start familiarizing yourself with job ads—Chronicle Vitae, among other sites, posts year-round—to see what they require. Reading some sample documents from peers and alums is also quite useful, just to get an idea of how your own documents might start taking shape. You can also learn how to extract and synthesize your teaching evaluation data from Tableau, and begin to imagine presenting this feedback in more visually appealing and accessible ways.

For us, although our commitment only spanned the summer, we found working together to be so beneficial that our meetings continued throughout the fall. Giving and receiving feedback had created an intimacy with one another’s writing, research projects, and career trajectories that resulted in feedback that, naturally, was more constructive and effective than more general advice gotten via self-help books or anxiety-laden workshops. Likewise, the atmosphere of positivity and non-competition allowed us to share documents at all stages of writing, and to produce much more polished and professional materials. We weren’t afraid to be honest and authentic with one another, and that in itself was a rare and beautiful thing to have as part of our graduate school experience.

Thinking about the market can be daunting, but you’ll be a much more confident and capable candidate if you begin preparing for it early and thoughtfully through avenues such as the VH@Duke summer advising group. Investing in yourself in this way will mean that by time the fall rolls around, you will have the confidence to write persuasively, balance the demands of the market with progress on your dissertations, and develop close writing and advising partnerships that can continue throughout the year. Good luck!