Academics on the Market or Advisors of Grad Students Who Might Be Thusly Engaged
By Prof. Shane Greene, Anthropology, Indiana University
In the midst of a professionalization seminar, I drew the topic of “Landing your first academic job” w/ a colleague. Since I bothered to write this up for it, I thought I’d share, and so feel free to copy/paste/share or dismiss as utter non-sense.
— Not all academic jobs have job talks/visits, e.g. Lecturer positions, definitely not most adjunct jobs. These are typically associated with coveted TT gigs. Others might be determined by a Skype interview or on the basis of application alone. But if there is a talk/visit the odds are good at this point (typically between 2–4 finalists, except for elite rich-AF universities that just bring people in constantly on a rolling basis of ‘looking to maybe hire but we got the cash and we are not in a rush’).
— Main problem at stake and being ritually tested: Does this person actually feel like a colleague? Thus, no longer ‘someone’s student.’
— Main ingredients: Basically, ‘the talk’ (eg. the central ritual event), a series of individual mtgs (w/ faculty), maybe a group mtg. (or a class) w/ students, at some point an individual mtg. w/ a Dean (where the only objective is to make nice, talk in more general terms (unless they are in your field) and not piss them off; they mostly approve faculty search decisions, and are only likely to veto in some strange circumstance, possibly involving you pissing them off). All of it is interspersed with ‘meals’ and almost no downtime or room to breathe. It’s actually a truly horrible experience even when it goes completely smoothly because of the main problem above.
— You are always “on”; there is never a “not on” moment except when they finally drop you off back at the hotel. Despite the ‘talk’ being the central part of the ritual, and your academic interests/abilities being center stage there, your personality, sociability, collegiality, spontaneity etc. are constantly being implicitly ‘measured’ (at breakfast, at dinner, in the goddamn elevator). That’s just inevitable. So, be the best version of who you are, rather than a stick figure of who you think they want you to be (that will be detected or come back to haunt you like bad karma at some point).
— Also, secretly judge them right back, figure out for yourself how much you might like, might be ok with, or radically detest the dynamic in that dept/university/college. True, no one feels like they have the power to turn a job down given how bad the market is, but sometimes a place is just toxic and you can tell. Take an important note of that; ask yourself if you really should go into that environment and then feel trapped in it.
— Don’t over reveal personal information. But also don’t get panicked or overly offended if it comes up. It usually does, somewhat organically, sometimes too interestedly. But freaking out about it is not productive. Keep your own “apparent curiosity” about people’s personal lives at an absolute minimum.
— The Talk itself. Don’t apologize or give too many disclaimers. Confidence is the main thing that matters (and confidence is neither arrogance nor constant self-deprecation). Practice speaking away from the text (if you’re a reader). Whatever you do, definitely practice and time yourself. Do NOT blather on for a bloody hour; if anything, keep it to a nice concise 35–40 minutes (even if 45–50 is still considered “normal”). Start with a broad statement about how this talk/your work speaks to broader trends/problems (in or beyond anthropology) before getting into the specifics. During Q&A, you are allowed to say, “I don’t know exactly but…” as long as you then find a way to pivot to something else you do know. You should never say “Did that answer your question?” (screw that, it just opens the door for awkward comebacks like “Well, not really but that’s ok…” or further questions, and you want to move on to the next question/questioner and be done with these overly judgey jokers).
— Do apply to everything that you clearly fit or mostly fit (but look at ‘be selective’ below).
— Don’t overstretch your interests/focus/abilities out of desperation/anxiety or “they might rethink what they’re after”. It’s a waste of everyone’s time, starting principally with yours. There’s always someone, usually multiple people, who do the precise things they want. And unless they wrote a really vague, open-ended job add they do know what they want.
— Do pray to the pagan gods.
— Don’t let existential angst overtake you; use your friends/peers/colleagues/committee members as an anchor and sounding board for the angst. Have some that allow you to vent it; have others that help you put it into perspective and tell you to shut up.
— Do carefully check over each item in an application right before you hit ‘send’ for simple mistakes, from spelling and wrong name of institution, to much larger ones, like submitting something they didn’t ask for that reveals something that colors their perception of you in the wrong way.
— Think through plan Bs, meaning simply be open to other career moves that are not academia. (This should have been talked about already, since like Day 1 of graduate school, but it remains relevant throughout, right up to the point where you get an offer and/or suddenly find yourself doing an academic job you radically dislike).
— Don’t go on the stupid Wiki site that allows people to post what’s happening behind the scene with jobs; your life will devolve into an anxiety-ridden vortex that is good for no one.
— Don’t write them and ask for an update; they will give you an update when they have one. Some will never even bother to respond yay or nay to you and they suck for doing that but there’s nothing you can do about it.
APPLY FOR EVERYTHING vs BE SELECTIVE.
— Everything that you are academically and professionally relevant for and that would, more or less, be workable within your personal circumstances and sense of self. It’s easy to act/think desperately because of the less than pleasing aspects of “the market” and relative (un)availability of academic jobs, making searches inherently national and international for most people. But the rest of your life (partners, kids, geography, urban vs rural, this region vs that region, US-based vs. international employment etc., your racial/gendered/sexual/class status etc.) are huge features you at least need to think about.
— Be selective to the extent that you are clearly not a fit for that job and making crap up (see above) or that place/institution/department/context clearly is going to mess profoundly with your sense of well-being and what you think it takes to be a reasonably satisfied human being. (*This also goes to “Plan Bs”)
— Start publishing and participating in major conferences at dissertation stage, the higher profile the better. Work with committee members on how to do that; anyone who says not to worry about publishing at that stage needs to get a grip on reality.
— Make sure you have teaching experience (fellowships/grants are great; but most small colleges will not even look at you if you don’t have some classroom experience).
— Craft a mouth-watering cover letter (apparently there’s a whole day on that); it’s probably the one thing that initially gets you into the door (i.e. your file not into the trash), all the rest (CV, Statements etc.) simply backs it up.
— You have suddenly become radically more powerful than you likely felt for the last 5–10 years; so realize (at a minimum) that you are in a position to negotiate, not simply say “OMG, OMG, OMG, Thank you, yes, yes, yes.”
— The bottom line is you need to realize that you just became the magical 1 selected out of a pool of anywhere from 60–600 individual applicants. They do not simply rescind the offer b/c what you ask for is not possible or even the mere fact that you asked for something. They say some version of “Sorry, we can’t do that. This is our final offer.” / “Let me consult and get back to you…” (i.e. w a Dean) / “Yeah, we can do X….” / or the more ambiguous, “We can’t offer that to you at this time but will be sure to keep it in our sights for the future…”
— This does mean “negotiate” and not “expect everything you want,” obviously. Nor do you want to send aggressive signals that you are sorely out of touch with what’s possible in such negotiations (just b/c you start to look like an asshole). The point is just don’t immediately accept the first offer that comes your way without testing what’s possible.
— There is definitely MORE, considerably more, negotiating room in a TT job, than say a full-time Lecturer position or a VAP (and, honestly, none whatsoever in an adjunct position, unless the day comes when a powerful vanguard of adjunct academics arises to lead a class overthrow of academia…but I digress). But push at least a bit on Lecturer/VAP offers just to see what happens (particularly around slight bump in salary offer, moving expenses, etc.)
— Always be very nice and diplomatic about what you ask for and have some reasonable basis on which to ask for it. This can range from spousal/partner accommodations to higher starting salary to research funds to moving expenses (or amounts) to precise office/lab/technology requests to time off from teaching during the pre-tenure years.
— In order to not be ‘flying blind’ about what’s possible, consult with committee members or trusted colleagues, Google salaries at that institution and nationwide, find out (diplomatically) any gossip about prior offers etc.
— If you are one of those rare persons who is operating with multiple simultaneous offers, in the sense of more than one formal job offer at the same time, your negotiation power has just become exponentially more powerful. So, again, don’t be an asshole about it, but definitely bring it up with both parties and make them up the offer. *The one caveat here is that if you actually already deep-down know you will go to one place over the other no matter what, be a bit more careful how you word things to both sides. But again, they typically can’t rescind the offer simply b/c you are negotiating; they can only declare something a final offer or declare a final deadline by which you must make a decision. This also sort of, but not exactly, applies to a situation where you perhaps have an offer and another job visit/talk already lined up (i.e. are a finalist somewhere else). That can be delicately inserted into the conversations as a negotiation point, either to ask for more time or to try to get them to sweeten the deal while offering them the promise of withdrawing from the other search.
— The above does not apply to a situation where you are still “waiting to hear” (i.e. an application still floating around out there) about other jobs. They could care less about that and know the odds are not in your favor; likely they will just pressure you to make a decision to have you locked in (contractually speaking).
— Never formally accept a job and then back out of it for purely self-interested reasons, like a month later another job offer came up (a legit. Personal crisis is a different matter). Legally, there might not be much they can or would bother to do. But you will have just started your career with the worst karma possible, and quite likely within days be on your way to being “that person who sold us out for X…” (it’s a small world, word will get around).