By Jordan Youngblood and Allison Speicher
When we attended the workshop sponsored by Bridgewater State University this fall, hoping to learn more about succeeding in our new jobs, we were surprised to learn that we were seen not as rookies, but as experts—in the art of getting a job! We found ourselves deluged with questions from current jobseekers, wanting to know how we landed our tenure-track positions in the English Department at Eastern Connecticut State University. Below, we’ve answered the six questions we heard most frequently—may they help you to complete a successful search.
1) How many jobs did you apply for? How did you choose which ones to pursue? Where did you look for job postings?
Allison: I applied to about 30 jobs total, tenure track positions in English departments as well as lectureships and visiting assistant professorships in a number of different departments and programs. Some of my criteria for choosing jobs were idiosyncratic: for example, although I did a national search, I didn’t apply to any schools in Indiana because I was looking for a change in location.
Others were more systematic. I didn’t apply to any long-term positions that were not positions in American literature, but I did apply to short-term positions that were generalist or housed outside of English departments. I applied to almost every job posted in my field, nineteenth-century American literature, as well as to most for Americanists more broadly. In addition to looking for jobs in the MLA Job Information List, I also routinely checked The Chronicle of Higher Education website and received daily job updates from Higher Ed Jobs.
I should point out that it is worthwhile to apply for jobs for which you meet most but not all the stated criteria. The ad for the job I now hold at Eastern announced that the department was looking for a specialist in American literature and children’s literature with experience in the K-12 classroom and an awareness of the needs of a multicultural and first-generation student population. Most of these boxes I could check easily—my Ph.D. is in American literature, I’m a traditionally certified secondary English teacher with experience in the twelfth grade classroom, I had teaching and administrative experience in a bridge program for underserved students, and I’m a first-generation grad myself. The sticking point was the specialty in children’s literature, since my degree is in American lit. However, I write on the school story, I taught a course on tomboys that focused on children’s and YA fiction, and my published work centers on Louisa May Alcott.
This experience, along with my real desire to learn more about children’s literature, ultimately proved enough when coupled with my other qualifications, especially my strong interest in K-12. When I looked at the ad, I thought, I can do this job, and I’m lucky that the department agreed!
Jordan: I had a fairly extensive swath of applications, with about 65 spread across a variety of tenure-track, visiting, lecturer, and post-doc positions. One crucial thing to be aware of is when you’re hitting the market; my search began around the end of August and ended once I accepted the position at Eastern in early March. The fall market hits you really, really quickly, particularly if you’re still finishing your dissertation like I was. Once the MLA list comes out, the race is on, and even before that there was a pretty steady stream of positions and announcements.
Depending on the saturation level of your field, time and resources will end up forcing decisions upon you. I can remember at least three or four jobs I thought would be strong fits that I just couldn’t make the deadline for, whether it be finding out too late about it or getting swamped with other work. A thing you’ll learn really quickly in this process: shake off “defeats” in short order. If you dwell, it’ll eat you up inside.
I’m a sort of weird scholarly hybrid in that my background bounced from Southern literature into queer theory, and from there into—you guessed it—video games and digital media. So during the application process, I found myself focusing on two pretty distinct spheres of jobs: gender & sexualities studies, and new media positions. That Venn diagram almost never intersected, but when it did, I always prioritized that position. Most of the info I got came from the MLA list, the Chronicle, and Higher Ed Jobs, but I also pulled from DIGRA—the professional society for game studies—which occasionally posted specific ads. If you’re a member of a scholarly organization, be mindful of that as a possible resource. The Academic Jobs Wiki contains a lot of info and nicely categorizes things, but it also contains a whole lot of speculation on when and how people are being contacted for positions. Use it to get your bearings on how your field looks that year, but try not to get sucked into checking it on a 30-minute basis in the midst of a search.
I’ll echo Allison in that you want to apply for jobs even if you don’t meet all the stated criteria, but I will say that if you’re applying for a generalist or American lit position in almost any state, be prepared for 600 to 700 applications per job easily. It may sound really obvious, but if you have a specialty, always seek that out first and spend your energy there before diving into broader waters.
2) How did you approach cover letters? Did you use a standard template? How did your letters for teaching-intensive and research-intensive institutions differ? Did you also tailor your CV?
Allison: The placement officers at my graduate institution advised me to create two different cover letters that could then be tailored substantially, one for teaching-intensive schools and one for research-intensive schools. The latter of these letters led with my research; the former, with my teaching experience. Despite having these two templates, I ended up writing essentially custom letters for each job for which I applied. (The paragraph describing my dissertation was really the only part I didn’t change.) I found that the letters read as too formulaic without substantial adaptations, and I wanted to show that I had taken time to do research to learn about the school.
I read department websites, admissions materials, webpages about student life, and anything else I could find related to the department or the search committee for each job, and I wanted my letters to reflect the time I had invested. I kept notes on this research in a spiral notebook in which I also kept track of deadlines. This proved to be a lifesaver later in the process, when I only had a few days to prepare for phone interviews. I didn’t change my CV for each application.
Jordan: With 65 applications, I definitely created three core templates: one for digital media jobs, one for gender & sexualities jobs, and another for teaching-centric institutions. I varied from school to school in terms of emphasis and order of information, and always attached a dissertation abstract to the letter as an optional resource for the search committee to read if they wanted.
Again, a lot depends on the scope of your efforts. If you have ten jobs to apply for, it’s worth the effort to laser-focus each one to the institution. If you’re trying eighty, you’ll likely need to select a few within that group to specifically refine—the ones you really want—and lean harder on the templates for others. I actually did switch the order of my CV depending on the institution: publications always went first, but if the school had less interest in research, I’d move the teaching and university service closer to the front and switch, say, conference presentations towards the back. A professor of mine at UF called it “the poetics of the CV,” and we had workshops devoted entirely to making it as…well, as sexy as a CV can look. Keep it snappy, emphasize your article & presentation titles if they reflect your work (every title should tell a story about you as a scholar), and don’t waste a committee’s time with superfluous information. They’re going to be reading a lot. Make what they read from you count.
3) How did the interview process unfold for you? How did you juggle interest from multiple institutions?
Allison: I had been told many times throughout my graduate school career that interviews would happen at MLA, but in reality schools have a variety of options, and I did my initial interviews by phone. Before my interview with Eastern, I had a phone interview and campus visit at another institution that wasn’t a good fit. My campus visit was like a bad first date… only it lasted for 36 hours. While the experience itself was disheartening, it was an excellent dress rehearsal for my interview at Eastern. When I came to Connecticut, I felt much more prepared for what was expected of me, especially the part I was most worried about, socializing with faculty members as an equal. On the ride from the airport to campus, the search committee chair and I found ourselves talking about Beyoncé’s brand of feminism and The Bachelor—so I’d say I was pretty comfortable!
One thing I wish I had known before my interviews is that sometimes search committees are confined to a specific list of questions and prohibited from asking follow-up questions or providing much affirmation. This was the case with Eastern. The phone interview I had spent a week preparing for was over in 15 minutes: the search committee had five or six questions and I had been coached to offer two to three minute answers. I hung up the phone utterly deflated and called my dissertation director nearly in tears. He reassured me that this wasn’t necessarily a bad sign and, of course, he was right: two days later, the department secretary called to invite me to campus.
The day after my phone interview with Eastern, I had a phone interview with another institution. Because of this, I had to be especially diligent about keeping my notes separate and remembering who worked at each institution. The beauty of the phone interview is that you can have materials in front of you, which helped me to stay on track. This school called to offer me a campus visit while I was visiting Eastern, which was a bit stressful: I had to arrange my flights on the computer at the Best Western while fine-tuning my teaching presentation. While this juggling wasn’t easy, knowing that I had another possibility on the horizon actually made it easier to perform my best at Eastern because it took some pressure off.
Jordan: Mine was a pretty extended process. I was contacted in early November about a phone interview with Eastern, which happened near the end of the month. Like Allison, it was a 30-minute phone call with six questions, no follow-ups. I kept a watch in front of me as I talked to ensure I wasn’t rambling while also being mindful I’d said enough; once you stopped talking, your answer was done, with no “Could you expand on that?” lifeline possibilities. It felt like a good conversation, but I didn’t want to get false hope; it wasn’t until December 18th that I was contacted for a campus visit, which was scheduled for January 29th. After the visit, I didn’t get the final offer until March 3rd.
So in essence, I had Eastern on my mind (and ideally, me on theirs) for four full months. While necessity demands you go about the rest of your daily business and keep on applying/dissertating/eating/etc., you can’t help but think about how you stack up in their search. This is compounded by how things are going in the rest of your applications, and while I had interest from one or two institutions, I was so excited to get a visit—and so fearful about it not working out—that I did the very thing I warned not to do in answer 1: I dwelled. A lot. I’m fairly certain by the end of February I forgot what this so-called “full night’s sleep” was like. There’s not really a solution to it other than the fact you’ve already survived an entire dissertation to this point. What’s another few months of mental and emotional damage?
In all seriousness, the most important thing you’ll have during the interview process is a support network. My dissertation committee, my partner, my friends, and my family all went above and beyond to keep me human in the midst of the fear and stress. Don’t be afraid to go out and party, vent openly, or admit you’re scared. It can be the difference between surviving and getting swallowed up in all of it.
4) What did you do ahead of time, before the job list came out? How did you prepare to go on the market?
Allison: In the months leading up to going on the market, I presented at a couple of national conferences, both to strengthen my CV and to network. I also started working on my materials, drafting my teaching statement, my dissertation abstract, my writing sample, my cover letter templates, and a few syllabi for courses I could plausibly be asked to teach. I was advised to start planning for a job talk, but I’m glad I didn’t: each of the three schools that invited me to campus asked for something different, so pre-planning would have been a waste of time. I also made sure about a year in advance that I had submitted an article for publication so it would be out in time for my interviews. Drawing on a variety of sources, from published books and articles to the experiences of others, I generated a list of about 35 common interview questions, drafted my answers to them, and practiced delivering them.
In addition to preparing my materials, I also prepared my loved ones for what was to come. As I mentioned above, I’m a first-generation college grad, so the world of academia is rather foreign to my family members. I explained to them how tough the job market is and threatened to stop calling home if they ever told me everything would work out just fine because I’m so special. As Jordan indicated above, laying that groundwork and articulating my needs helped me to have a good support system in place when the time came.
Jordan: Mine’s pretty similar to Allison. I set up my Interfolio account, made sure I had my rec letters all uploaded and established, had my CV and cover letters mostly finalized by the start of September, and did what I could to fatten up the publications & presentations side of things. In all honesty, the real “time” to begin planning is right after going ABD, so that you can maximize your dissertation work’s usefulness on the market. I would have likely been much more aggressive in getting stuff out there early in the degree had I known how quickly the market approaches. If you’re doing your Ph.D in four years like I did, you don’t have a lot of time to build up that academic portfolio—and it’s not like more time in the program makes it any easier either.
5) How did you budget your time and money while on the market? How did you keep up with graduate school and teaching responsibilities while on the market? How did you stay sane?
Allison: I was very fortunate to be on dissertation fellowship in the fall, when I was completing many of my applications. I finished my dissertation in October and defended it in December, an option which I highly recommend—I felt much more confident interacting with faculty members during the interview process knowing that I too had Dr. before my name. I’m very glad I returned to teaching in the spring, however, because this gave me great stories to tell during my interviews and helped me to believe in myself.
My students knew I was job-hunting and were warmly supportive; they helped me to see myself as the competent professional they believed me to be. Having to juggle responsibilities also helped keep me from obsessing about my job hunt. I couldn’t control search committees’ decisions, but I could work to make my students’ experience the very best it could be.
No one who knows me would ever accuse me of being calm, cool, and collected, and the job hunt was no exception. I was really forthright about my frustrations and triumphs with my grad school friends, most of whom weren’t on the market, and this helped a great deal. One evening when I had many job documents to edit, I invited a large group of friends over for appetizers, desserts… and proofreading. Knowing that they were pulling for me and invested in my success helped me get through my hunt. So too did the unfailing support of my teaching supervisor and my dissertator director. Feeling secure in their esteem and affection made it much easier to chalk disappointments up to the vagaries of the market, not to deep personal flaws.
Financially speaking, I didn’t find the job hunt to be particularly costly. I submitted most documents on the web and never paid any fees on Interfolio. Our department placement officer handled mailing out dossiers, which saved me time and money.
Jordan: Quite frankly, you don’t balance it. The market will pretty much consume your life when it happens, and that’s hard to escape. What you’re really looking at is damage control: how much necessary stuff is already finished, if you can teach a familiar class while you’re on the market so the prep work takes less time, and if you can fit conference presentations into interview visits. If you anticipate needing to go to MLA for an interview, go ahead and try applying for the conference. You’re going to be paying a lot of money for the “privilege” to begin with, so why not get another CV line out of it too?
I’ve already talked about the support network thing, but do be mindful of where your peers are in their searches—particularly if they are in your field. The search is such a draining, emotionally wearying time that seeing a friend parading around successes, no matter how much you may like them, can kinda cut to the core. Don’t announce things until you’re sure of them. Support your friends, commiserate with them, and know they’re going home to the same mental struggle you are too.
I didn’t have Allison’s luck on cash. Interfolio doesn’t charge for MLA-list institutions, but when you go past that grid, it can get trickier—and a lot more expensive. It’s $4 per PDF you request, so that’s $12 to $20 for a set of recommendation letters on some institutions’ online applications (assuming you’re not going to fill your rec writers’ inboxes with requests every single time you apply for a job). Nor did my program offer dossier services. If you’re having to travel for the initial interview, those costs too can quickly take a big bite out of your pocket, even if your program can help some with the travel. Whenever possible, pay $6 for the “collection” PDF that compiles everything together; that, of course, depends on the institution and how they want their materials compiled. Word of warning: you will come to hate the online application process at most colleges and its PDF-formatting arbitrariness. Allocate time for it.
6) How did you navigate attending a Research I institution while seeking jobs at teaching-intensive institutions? What were the perceptions of your advisor and other faculty members? Was there a stigma attached to taking a job with a 4-4 teaching load?
Allison: As I mentioned above, I had (and still have) a really strong rapport with my dissertation director, which helped a great deal. I never made any secret of the fact that teaching is immensely important to me, so I don’t think my decision came as a surprise. (After all, I wrote a dissertation on schools!) The culture of my graduate institution definitely emphasized research-oriented jobs, but I’m certainly not the only recent grad to accept a position at a teaching-oriented institution. It’s a misconception that professors at teaching schools don’t do research: I’ve done a good deal of research since starting at Eastern, even in the midst of a hectic first semester, and I intend to do a good deal more.
During my interviews with Eastern, the committee was really enthusiastic about my scholarly work, so I felt confident that this was a job at which I would be valued as a teacher and a writer. When I explained this to my professors, they understood why I was attracted the position: good teaching, always a strong priority for me, is highly valued at Eastern, but good writing is seen as a part and parcel to good teaching. I was really excited to be offered this job—and truly insufferable the week I was waiting to hear from the committee—and I think this enthusiasm helped to convince the faculty members close to me that I was making a great choice.
Jordan: Among some faculty at some places, yes. There is still the assumption that R1 jobs are the sole pursuit worth taking, and everything else is settling. However, I think the realities of the market—let alone the situation of the humanities—are dawning on more and more people, and the whole stigma surrounding teaching-intensive institutions is fading.
That’s not to say a 4/4 load isn’t a hell of a lot of work. It is. The first semester will teach you that in a hurry. But as Allison said, the assumption that we can’t keep doing good
scholarly work—or that we aren’t good scholars to begin with—is, to put it politely, total bullshit.
Being a good scholar and a good educator go hand in hand. If you care about your field of study, you’ll find ways to make it work even with the higher teaching load. And if your colleagues are willing to read your work for what it is and not the institution that happens to be attached to your name, they’ll get over the stigma too.