Some Basic Tips About the Academic Job Market

In May of 2021 I started a Twitter thread collecting some miscellaneous tips for grad students going on the job market, and offering to chat with anybody if that would be useful for them. Since my tweets self-destruct, I’m preserving and reorganizing that here, and revising it as appropriate.

My offer to chat still stands! Email me or find me on Twitter or whatever. The academic job market is very counterintuitive in a lot of ways; if you’ve never experienced it before it’s very hard to know what to expect, so no question is too trivial. (Academic conferences are similar in that regard; I’m happy to answer questions about those, too.)

Updated: August 11, 2022

Quick tips:

  • I strongly agree with Susanna Berkouwer: once you’re a little ways through grad school, have a website that includes a CV, contact info, research/professional interests, information about ongoing work, and links to available publications. I recommend keeping it simple (as you can probably tell from my website); visitors will mostly be looking for the aforementioned information, so make those things easy to find quickly. You may also not want to rely entirely on any website your school offers, since you can’t take it with you.
  • Even if you’re not ‘on the market’ this year, consider applying for a job you would potentially take if offered. This can give you a sense of what your applications will look like, a kind of “dry run” for the real thing. You don’t actually have to submit the materials if you don’t want to, or if your dissertation won’t be done, etc. But you’ll be glad to have a draft, to have identified strengths you want to emphasize, job aspects you care about, weaknesses you want to work on during the year, etc. If you’ve already drafted some combination of research/teaching/equity statements that you’re happy with, you can re-use a lot of that work, even a year later.
  • This is a nice overview from Anna Meier of the materials you’ll typically need, how to assemble them, and a rough timeline for doing that.
  • Most tenure-track job calls ask for a pretty consistent set of materials. Ultimately, you’ll probably need:
    • A cover letter
    • A research statement
    • A teaching statement
      • Sometimes related and requested: “evidence of effective teaching” or something like that. (Generally not defined, but teaching evaluations are commonly used here.)
    • An equity/diversity statement
    • 3-5 letter writers
    • A CV
      • Sherman Dorn has good advice on CVs.
    • 2-4 writing samples
    • Unofficial transcripts
  • Not every call will ask for all of those things, but few will ask for anything else.
  • Even when the hiring institution wants a single cover letter to touch on all of research, teaching, and equity, don’t go on too long. I don’t think I ever sent statements that were collectively longer than 3 single-spaced pages.
  • You are mostly unlikely to discuss your application materials with anybody at the hiring institution, even if you advance in the hiring process. So you get little feedback on them. A corollary to this is that you should find people to give you feedback on your materials before you submit them, particularly early drafts of the first applications.
  • Lauren Cagle has generously shared some example job market materials here.
  • I generally did not make big changes to my materials for different jobs except between types of institution (e.g., research university vs. teaching-focused institution vs. think tank). However, I did always have a section in my application materials – usually in a cover letter – being explicit about why I was interested in the specific position that was being hired for. Usually this was 2-3 distinct reasons, and they focused on anything from specific job duties, aspects of the institution, or interests in the state or community.
    • Conveying enthusiasm is often good and can be important because institutions do not always assume you really want to work with them, or often think that you may just be “covering your bases” in case more-preferred options don’t work out. Frequently, people want to hire people who are excited about working with them. Just be genuine, and be explicit about why you’re enthusiastic about the specific position you’re applying for.
    • Riley Acton has good advice on customizing cover letters/application materials.
  • Pitch yourself forcefully and clearly. Applicants often overestimate how “desperate” things make them look because normal and desirable behaviors when looking for a job are often abnormal or even frowned upon (e.g., explicitly stating strengths) when not looking for a job. Explaining why you’re cool can be bragging, but it’s also possible to do without looking like a jerk. It also conveys genuinely useful information since the people doing the hiring 1) want somebody cool and 2) don’t know you as well as you know you.
    • As Trevon Logan says, “There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance” and “there is nothing in the academic job market that is not somehow related to the social functions of race, gender, and class”, but “you are THE expert on YOUR research”.
  • Job application logistics are a little confusing, but the basic structure for faculty jobs there’s a mostly-consistent set of steps:
  1. You submit your application.
  2. A fraction of applicants get 30-60 minute “first round” interviews with the hiring committee (e.g., on Zoom).
  3. A fraction of those get asked to do 1-2 day “flyout” visits.
  4. One or more of those get a job offer.
  5. If the offer is declined another applicant may get an offer, other applicants may get another look, or the position might not be filled at all. If the institution cannot find anyone they want to offer the job, or anyone who will take the offer, this is sometimes referred to as the search “failing”.
  • The timeline on those steps is all over the place and depends on a bunch of things. I’ve seen it take anywhere from less than a week to many months to transition between steps. Frankly, sometimes it will not be communicated that the process has advanced without you or been cancelled. By my tally, ~30% of jobs I applied to never explicitly “closed out” the process with me; they just stopped communicating or I never heard from them in the first place.
  • This, from Kevin Wong, is a really nice, overall summary of various aspects of the academic job search process.

What if you get a job offer?

  • That’s very exciting, congratulations!
  • Tyler Cowen has a concise set of useful tips for negotiating an assistant professor job offer. (The headline is about negotiating salary, but it covers other things and as he notes in many cases salary is not where the most useful negotiating room is.)
  • And what else besides salary might you want to negotiate? Good Twitter thread on the subject here started by Jennifer Doleac.