Job market thoughts

14 September 2016 by Kristen Moore

Job searches are hard. And academic job searches, especially, seem fraught with unknowns. Women in TC will publish a series of blog posts that consider aspects of the job market & job searches throughout the year. This first one will handle different approaches to the job market: how should you plan and strategize your job search?

the-trend-in-the-job-marketThe perhaps obvious answer to this question–and our recommended guiding principle–is that everyone’s job search is personal and contextual and therefore should be tailored to their own life circumstances and goals. Nevertheless, various approaches get spun as “the best way” to search, and understanding these approaches will help you decide the best approach for YOU given the circumstances of your own life. In general, there seem to be two philosophies about the job search: 1) Cast a Wide Net and 2) Narrow and Focus Your Search. Other approaches emerge from life conditions, too: like the internal job search, the alt-ac job search, and the geographically limited job search. I’ll deal with the first two here–and if y’all want to chat about these other options, let us know–we can write up a blog about them or we can talk them through at our Women in TC Job Market Talk.

Casting A Wide Net

Some folks will tell you to cast a wide net: apply to as many places as you can. The philosophy of casting a wide net builds from at least two principles:

First, regardless of what you think a department wants based upon the job ad, as an applicant, you can’t really be sure of requirements for a job.

Second, having a job is better than not having a job and, since the first point is true, it’s best to play it safe.

So, you find the jobs you’re qualified for and apply to them without discretion. For me, this meant applying to 80+ in the first round of applications [think Sept-Nov] and an additional 30 or so in the second round [think Jan-Feb]. So, I’m sure you can see the drawbacks of this philosophy already: so. much. work.

The affordance of this approach is that you’ll learn more not just about who you are but who schools think you are based upon your dossier. Particular kinds of schools won’t call back, maybe, or you’ll suddenly be getting calls back for all the Digital Humanities jobs, which you didn’t even think you were really a good candidate for, but apparently now you are. This approach plays the numbers game–more apps out, more likely to get called back and therefore more likely to get an offer.

The first time on the job market is scary because [even in Tech Comm] the jobs are limited, the assistant professors on the move are many, and the control you have over the outcome is, well, pretty much zilch [sorry]. Casting a wide net acknowledges the uncertainty and addresses it strategically and through work hours–just brute force. [And probably some yoga & wine. Sometimes at the same time.]images

And that’s the drawback: you’ll be tired. You’ll be so, so, so tired. Tired of tailoring letters to schools, tired of interviewing [or tired of not interviewing after you’ve done all that work], tired of responding to requests for more materials that require, like, a 1.25 page administrative AND teaching philosophy or a teaching portfolio with four sample sylllabi and a 250 word statement of how your teaching and research overlap [wait, what? 250 words for all that??!].

Another potential problem is that it’s easy to lose yourself on the market, and in interviews, having a strong sense of who you are and what your teaching and research hope to accomplish is, IMO, really important. Casting a wide net often involves stretching yourself, contorting at times, and in turn becoming something of a chameleon. Are you a master teacher or a research-focused scholar? These two identities fit different schools, and applying to both can cause sway in confidence and an unsteady foundation for answering questions in round one interviews. It means preparing vastly different campus visit presentations and imagining vastly different lives.

Those who support this approach often argue that having an offer allows you to negotiate. True enough. But the newly extended and unpredictable timeline of the market, makes it more difficult to predict when campus interviews and offers will occur. So this philosophy is a little riskier now than, say, ten years ago when interviews followed pretty closely with the MLA timelines. Because schools are trying to game the system, you could end up with a job offer in December before you’ve even done any other campus visits. So if you’re not being choosy about where you send your applications, you may feel tempted to take an offer you’re not sure you want.

Narrow and Focused

Now, I know others who used the other philosophy: Narrow and Focused. This approach is smart because it is driven by the work you want to do and the kind of place you want to do it at. Philosophically, it assumes at least two things:

First, it’s a silly [and even unethical] waste of time to apply for a job you wouldn’t want to take in the first place.

Second, the well-focused and pruned job search can more effeciently lead to the job you want.

Folks do narrow searches because they’re geographically bound, for example, or because they want to be at a teaching-focused university–or, on the other hand, because they only want to be at an R1. I think this approach is bad ass: you decide what to be and go be it [Note the reference to the Avetts].

This strategy allows you to shift the work of the job market from lots of applications to personally crafted letters for each school; it allows you to deeply research schools you’re applying to and build a picture of yourself in that school. So, your time on the market is less frantic: you apply to only schools you want to work at [for whatever reason] and you hold out for the job you want.

This approach gives you less cards in your hand, so there are less opportunities to play, but you’re holding only the best cards [whatever best means to you].

You can run into problems using this strategy because job ads rarely tell you everything you need to know to understand a job. Sometimes the chair of the search committee already has an internal person they want to hire, and even though Sally isn’t as qualified as you, the job is going to Sally. Sometimes a job is advertised for one specialization, but some jackal, who might be the only senior faculty on the committee, really wants to hire another person in her specialization: so although you fit the call in the job ad, you don’t actually fit what the search committee is looking for.

There are other challenges, too, because you don’t really know what the market looks like. You may know other grad students on the market, but there are Assistant Professors who’ve been at this longer than you who will come in and swoop up the R1 jobs. These stair-steppers are the bane of the unjobbed jobseekers’ existence. [The year I went out on the market, one of my cohort members found out she was giving campus visits up against two advanced assistants who already had books. BLECH.]

So: you can search narrowly and focused. But it’s sometimes hard to know what committees are looking for, and you don’t really know how you compare to others on the market. So it’s really hard to play this approach strategically.

The other drawback is just the wait. The long, long wait. I worked with a student [who is now placed at an excellent research university] who wanted to only apply for research jobs, and the hardest part was that there’s radio silence on the other end of 20 applications. This particular student already had a permanent job, so the risk was low, but the student’s confidence plummeted when she wasn’t hearing back from schools.

But there are advantages to this approach, too. You’ll be less tired and more focused. You’ll know the answers to the interview question: Why do you want to come to this school? Not only will you know the answers, you’ll believe them and they’ll be TRUE! This is likely to shine through in interviews [and probably even in your job materials]. You’ll have more time to finish the dissertation [if that’s a thing you need to do] or to send out another article. You’ll have better work-life balance.

conventionAdditionally, because the timeline of job searches is so wonky these days, job seekers can sometimes be on the other end of schools trying to game them; the narrow searcher, IMO, may be better off than the broad searcher. The narrow searcher finds herself untempted by early offers from schools trying to game the system. If you’re offered at a non-optimal job in December, you’re in a pretty pickle: to take the job or turn it down assuming you’ll get another offer. Or, worse, do you play the long, drawn-out negotiation game with school #1 until you get a better offer? In choosing carefully the jobs you apply for, you hand pick your potential jobs and don’t end up being gamed by the system.

My Weigh In

The reality, of course, is that some combination of these two approaches is probably best. If your search is too narrow, you risk not getting any offers; if it’s too broad, you risk looking like a chameleon with no center. So, find the center for yourself, and let that be your guide. Your job search is about crafting the career and life you want. That means while you’re on the market and after you’re jobbed. It’s tough out there, but we’re here to help.

Want more blogs about the job market? Just let us know via Twitter, Slack, Facebook, or email. Interested in writing a guest blog for Women in TC, we’d love that! Contact Lisa, Kristen, or any of the Women in TC steering committee.

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