Surviving the Job Market as PhD Students, Visiting Professors and Untenured Faculty:
I gave this presentation at the Southern Sociological Society 2018 annual meeting. At the request of attendees, I am posting it here for all who are interested.
Advice for the newly minted
So much of what you can do to increase your prospects on the academic job market occurs long before you are actually on the market. Success on the job market is about what you do early on in your PhD program. Yes, publications matter and it helps immensely to have your PhD in hand (or at least to have a firm defense date), but beyond that what else can you do to give yourself an edge on the market?
Versatility is important. As you know, the job market is really tight, and most institutions are struggling financially. This means that with every single hire, departments are thinking strategically about how much the person they hire can meet their endless needs.
• Being able to teach across multiple areas,
• having an affiliation with a center or interdisciplinary program on campus.
• Having experience with online classes and/or large person lecture halls.
• Having some administrative experience
These are all examples of the kinds of versatility that can help you standout on the job market. It’s imperative that you understand that you cannot and should not advertise yourself as being able to do all of these things. Rather, that you should look at your CV and identify the places of “weakness”. Find the experiences you have or still have time to build that will showcase your versatility. This way institutions can feel that they are getting the most bang for their buck in hiring you.
At most institutions gone are the days when departments could hire a person because they specialized in one thing with the expectation that that person’s main contribution to the department would that one specialization. Instead, what I’m seeing is that the most marketable candidates are those who can specialize is several things well. I emphasize the well because sometimes newly-minted candidates make the mistake of saying that they can teach anything and everything. My experience is that departments are highly skeptical of that approach. To have multiple areas of specialization means to be able to say that you have an existing record of teaching, publishing, or conducting on-going research in that area. If you don’t meet these criteria reconsider claiming that area of specialization, it will only make your application look suspect.
Advice for the visiting professor
In an era of major budget cuts, institutions want to hire instructors to do more for less money. This means that newly-minted PhD students have to think strategically about how to make the most out of whatever job opportunities come your way. Yes, ideally one would get a tenure track job but the reality is that many won’t land those positions out of graduate school.
I recommend that you consider the potential that a visiting or lecturer position may yield for you. I often see new PhDs in those positions who try to overdo it. They take on everything offered to them at the visiting institution because they hope it will lead to their being hired for a tenure track position at that institution. My experience is that this is rarely the case. Chairs will tell you that as a visiting professor you are welcome to apply to any subsequent tenure-track positions that arise in future years. But unless they are specifically telling you that they think you are perfect for that potential tenure-track line and unless you are hearing that same message from more than one person in the department, chances are that tenure-track line won’t be going to you. Chances are that line will go to someone on the national market. So, rather than investing and overextending yourself at the visiting institution, think about it as an opportunity to increase your experience so that you are more marketable next year. To that end, ask yourself these questions…
• Am I prepping courses outside of my areas solely to meet the department’s needs?
• Are the administrative tasks I perform at visiting Institution A marketable at another institution?
• Am I engaging in administrative tasks that do not suit my career needs in the hopes of meeting the needs of the visiting department?
• Am I spending endless amounts of time mentoring students at visiting Institution A?
If you answered yes to these questions its time to make a change! The reality is that visiting positions can be largely exploitative. Department chairs are desperate to fill the demands of their departments and visiting lecturers with little autonomy become the easy targets to meet those needs. It’s easy to want to take on extra work in order to demonstrate you are a team player and therefore a desirable colleague. But these characteristics will largely get you exploited in the academy. If there was ever a time to be selfish in the academy its when you are in a visiting position.
The harsh reality is that for most, visiting Institution A is not going to be their long-term academic home. This is likely out of your control. You are best off being strategic about Every. Single. Thing. you do at visiting Institution A… Before taking on any new responsibility at visiting Institution A, consider how said task will improve a pre-identified weakness in your CV. If the task will not improve a pre-identified weakness in your CV, Politely Decline. This market is brutal, but it also rewards selfish scholars. Don’t ever forget that visiting Institution A has not invested in you and therefore you need to also not invest long-term in it.
Advice for those moving from one tenure-track position to another
I’ve done this. It isn’t fun and can be very tricky to navigate. You have to consider what you want to happen with your tenure clock in a move like this. Are you pushing for credit for the time you have already spent at Institution A or are you wanting to rewind your tenure clock? These decisions are personal and have a lot to do with how productive you have been in the areas that the institution you are moving to values.
I found the hardest part in making this kind of move was finding a diplomatic way of explaining why you are leaving Institution A without bad mouthing the institution. NEVER badmouth an institution on a job interview by the way.
Say things like, Institution A is not a great fit for me. Or Institution B will allow me to work with a different student population than Institution A does. Avoid statements like Institution A is dysfunctional or unsupportive.
Bare in mind that if Institution B is very excited about potentially hiring you, they may also be skeptical.
• Why does this person want to move?
• Are they afraid they won’t get tenure at Institution A?
• I wonder if they had a fight with someone at Institution A?
• Who do we know at institution A that can give us the 411?
These are all common conversations that Institution B will have when contemplating hiring you. To that end, be ready. Make it abundantly clear that you are not leaving Institution A because you are afraid of not getting tenure. If you have already gone through a third-year review at Institution A and that review went well be sure to make that clear. You want Institution B to feel like your leaving has nothing to do with your perceived ability to succeed at Institution A.
Also, be prepared for Institution B to call their colleagues at Institution A which means that if you are indeed applying for other jobs you should always tell someone at Institution A. Tell the Chair…. Or trusted senior colleague. Let them know you want their support. Don’t let them find out you are on the market through the rumor mill. This will only result in hurt feelings at Institution A and leave them in a lurch when you turn in your resignation letter. Be honest with them, give them time to plan. They will respect you for it and are more likely to speak favorably of you when they do get that call from Institution B.
Please note that my advice on navigating the current job market is not in any way an endorsement of the current state of the academy or its practices. My only objective is to help you all survive it. I do not in any way condone the exploitation, devaluation of teaching and overall elitist mentality that pervades the academy. Nonetheless, I am fully aware that we can’t change these academic practices without getting more social-justice oriented folks into protected positions in higher education. So, consider this one of my many side projects. Now go get that job!