Monday, September 17, 2012

Notes on the academic job search

It’s that time of year when institutions are advertising academic positions, and you may well ask what you need to do to get your application considered seriously. I don’t have the answer, but here I tell you what I think you shouldn’t do. These are, as always, my personal opinions and should never be construed as giving you infallible advice when job hunting. But I have served on academic hiring committees in the US and Canada and these are four issues that have cropped up time and again, and probably have application outside of North America, too. Even if the details don’t pertain to your situation, please do consider the underlying principles.

1) Do not apply for a permanent/tenure-track job if you are not what they say they are looking for.

If the ad is vague enough, then by all means give it a try; it’s likely that the department members couldn’t agree on what they wanted, so they decided to cast the net broadly and you might catch their eye. But if the ad is very specific, do not try to pretzel yourself to fit the position description. You may be telling yourself,  “I could teach that,” and perhaps you could, at the level of a freshman survey course. But you should be asking yourself if you’re sufficiently competent in, and committed to, that subdisciplinary area in order to teach focused senior level seminars and supervise graduate students, and whether you’re willing to change the direction of the research that you’ve spent many years and likely tens of thousands of dollars to pursue. You should also consider whether you’re interested enough in that area to teach it year after year after year after year after year…

2) Do not apply for the job “just for practice”.

You’ll be wasting your time, your letter writers’ time, the time of the admin assistant who has to collate all the applications (which, depending upon the discipline and the attractiveness of the institution’s location, could amount to hundreds), and the time of the members of the hiring committee who will read closely, at a minimum, the cover letter and CV of every applicant. If you want practice putting together an application, giving a job talk, or being interviewed, do it in your own department, with the assistance of your supervisor, other grad students, and the coordinator of your department’s graduate program.

An aside: I oppose totally the idea that a search committee short-list one of their department’s own contract instructors, recent graduates, or ABDs, when the individual is not a serious contender, on the grounds that a) it’ll be good practice for them, and b) it won’t cost us anything to bring them in for an interview. This practice demeans everyone.

3) Do not apply for the job if you’re patently overqualified.

If the ad is for an entry-level assistant professor and you’re a tenured associate professor (you can fill in the equivalents for the UK etc.), there’s no law to prevent you from applying. There are exceptions, but the most common, and valid, reason why over-qualified applicants are dismissed in the first stage of application review is that any Dean or other senior academic administrator who is supervising the search isn't likely to accept a department’s argument that “this person is overqualified but looks fantastic”. You should look good compared to the rest of the applicant pool because you’re not being compared to your peer group! The question that the Dean is likely to ask is, “If this vacancy was advertised as open to applicants at both the Assistant and Associate Professor level, would this person be the best applicant?”

4) Do not apply if you’re ABD and miles away from completing your degree.

If your supervisor cannot write a reference letter that says something along the lines of “I’ve received a complete draft of Nancy’s dissertation and, seeing few shortcomings, I am confident that she will have completed her degree requirements before taking up the position,” then don’t waste everyone’s time. Seriously. The job market today is flooded with applicants who have their PhD in hand, some teaching experience, and peer-reviewed publications. ABDs do get hired, but they're usually special in some way (a targeted hire? a spousal hire?) and typically there is good evidence that they are near to completion. (And in those cases their contract usually will specify that the requirements for the degree must be completed within the first year of the appointment.) It won’t matter when you say you’ll complete; it’ll be what your references say, or don’t say.

There are, undoubtedly, other issues that you should consider before you apply for a job, but the above are the top four on my list.

One issue that has garnered a lot of attention recently is whether you should apply for a job at your own personal “North Dakota”. For discussions of the “North Dakota” problem, see:


  1. I agree. Though the academe is a good place to practice one's teaching skills, it is not the place to use underdeveloped teaching skills. Back home, there are agencies, much like an it recruitment sydney that assess applicant's knowledge and skills through a set of written test and skill applications.