Advice

Academic Job Hunts From Hell: Rebooting Your Search

What to do next if you were shut out on the faculty market

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

July 05, 2016

Have you ever sat in on a job candidate’s teaching demo and witnessed a train wreck but sensed, horribly, that the candidate was oblivious to how badly it was going? Or read a cover letter with enough typos to cause a search committee to chortle and immediately dismiss the candidate from consideration? Plenty of job seekers strike out for the same reasons again and again but never know why they’ve failed.

By the time you have searched for a tenure-track position, you may have invested three decades into your education, from kindergarten to a doctoral program to postdoc stints. If your dream is to be a tenured professor, the workload, the confusion, and the pressures of the academic job market may seem hellish in and of themselves. Add to the devil’s brew actually not getting a position on your first (or second, or third) season of job hunting, and it is hard not to be downcast and wonder if it is time to give up.

If you want to stay in the game, the only possibility is to get back on the horse and ride again.
But what if — after falling short once again on the tenure-track hunt — you really want to continue trying next season, despite the setbacks? How do you restart your job search and increase your odds of success?

In this series on the "what could go wrong" aspects of the academic job hunt, so far we have dissected fake searches, bad fits, inappropriate questions, scheduling challenges, interview snafus, contract-negotiations woes, multiple-offer challenges, and possible reasons why you didn’t get hired.

Now we assess what happens next after you hit rock bottom: a complete shutout in a hiring cycle. Certainly your shortfall might well be due to an uber-competitive market, bad luck, or malicious intentions on the part of the search committee. But are their other explanations? Things you can actually do something about? In fact, many applicants are clueless about the many ways — from deficient cover letters to poor interviewing skills — in which they undermine their own candidacy.

Clear your mind. Based on my conversations with job candidates and my own experiences with rejection, I have noted a period after an unsuccessful search that I call the "window of distraught." You are glum, embittered, and negative about your career path; you wonder how you found yourself in such a down-and-out situation. In other words, it is a very bad time to be making major life decisions. Your mind is too cloudy to decide what you should be doing tomorrow, let alone decades down the road.

So, difficult as it may be, take some time — a month or so, if you can — to clear out all the mental detritus. Depending on your employment and financial circumstances, watch some movies, read some books (Watership Down cannot be too highly recommended), get out, and exercise. Just press the reboot switch.

Certainly that advice is much easier given than taken. But before you make any determinations about your future, you must allow yourself a little time to settle.

Gather your performance data. People often liken finding a tenure-track job to winning the lottery, but that analogy is exaggerated. The odds against you — even in fields like comparative literature — are not those of a Powerball drawing. Nor is it completely random who is picked for an offer and who is not even granted a conference interview. Luck matters on the faculty market but you have no control over that. So you should try to gauge exactly which attributes, positive and negative, you have in hand.

The first step is to find out whether any parts of your applications, interviews, or presentations were problematic. To take a common example: How many times have you watched a job candidate give a research talk and thought, "Wow, this is really disorganized"? Well, what if that were you? Presenters may not even realize they were disorganized. We all have tics or areas of weakness that we can’t see in ourselves.

Of course the central problem in getting an accurate reading of your trouble spots is that many hiring committees will not give it to you. The standard HR practice on campuses is to limit communication to unsuccessful job candidates to: "Unfortunately you were not selected." It’s too risky (liability wise) to go into detail, even when doing so would be professionally kind and helpful. I am incredibly tempted, after filling a job opening, to provide a critique to the candidates we did not hire explaining any truly wounding issues they should consider for future applications and interviews. I cannot do so, however, and it is a tragedy for job seekers.

Nevertheless, with some energy and contacts you should be able to get some backdoor insights. One of the reasons to develop a network of contacts — even as a graduate student — is to gain friends who will tell you the truth. If your teaching demo, for example, was way off topic or above the heads of the undergraduates in the room, perhaps a friendly assistant professor in the department might pass that on.

Nuance and subtlety are called for here: You don’t want to come off as digging for dirt, even if it is on yourself. Instead, if you suspect you had a problem, raise it with the search panel as a general issue. I have participated in such exchanges. Very clever candidates have contacted me at conferences and asked: "When giving a research presentation during a campus visit, what would you suggest I do?" Then I could answer, "Well, the first step is to remain organized and clear …" without compromising my position.

Consult your circle of experts. Your next step is to talk with your advisers and others who have advocated for you. If you have one or more wise, shrewd, and trusted consiglieres, great: Buy them coffee and hear them out about what you should do next.

But what if you have a lousy adviser? (And unfortunately, plenty of evidence suggests that some candidates do.) There are alternatives. First and most prominent, you can turn to paid advisers like Karen Kelsky of The Professors Is In. Her business is booming for a reason: The "free" advising available to many doctoral students is inadequate. Second, I have to believe that every discipline, and even every institution, has some kind professors who — although they may not be your official advisers — would be willing to answer a plaintive cry for help from a bewildered Ph.D. Third, you can crowd-source your advice by posting on blogs, wikis, or forums.

Do a "360" review of your application materials. Many job candidates are struck out even before they go up to bat. The search committee may be scanning 100 or more applications in its initial cull. Your CV, cover letter, teaching record, and research portfolio may get only a few minutes of attention. They’re looking for reasons to toss your materials and narrow the pool.

Most likely, your CV will be first up, and each committee member may just check for a few details — such as: Do your dissertation topic and adviser match the area of the search? For example, in my field, we currently have a tenure-track opening for a "scholar and teacher in broadcast/multimedia and international journalism." If your dissertation topic was related to international news media, you are much more likely to get the committee members’ attention than if it was on, say, "Interpersonal Digital Gaming in Nebraska Senatorial Elections."

Obviously you have to tailor your application to the job opening (however painful and time-consuming that is). But you also need to determine if the general template you’re using is fatally flawed. Among the questions you need to ask yourself:

  • Are all the items on your CV up to date? If an article has moved from "under consideration" to "accepted and forthcoming," is that fact cited? Do the copies of your teaching evaluations contain the latest (and you hope the greatest) results?
  • Are your accomplishments sufficiently explained? Do they contain the kind of detail in which a search committee might be interested? For example, if you have a journal article with multiple authors, especially in a field like economics where authorship is listed alphabetically, do you note the percentage of your contribution?
  • Does your cover letter — the one you will tailor to each individual application — have the right tone as well as the correct itemization of main points? Do you come off as either overly humble or a braggart?

And so on. You want to make sure the basic building materials are sound before you start renovating.

Conduct a brand audit of you, Part 1: Your content. Who are you? If caught on an elevator with a curious professor who asks about your area or specialization, what do you answer?

Portfolio-wise, it is dangerous to come off as too narrow — that is, as someone who can apply for only a limited range of positions. If you have too few keywords in your self-descriptive tool kit, you reduce your odds of employment.

Don’t pretend to be something you are not, but try to look at yourself from new angles. In my case, for example, when I first went on the job market I branded myself a "visual communication" scholar and teacher. There were a few positions open in that category in 1995 but not as many as there are today, and the key words at that time — rather than "visual" — tended to be "photo," "film," or "video."

Then, during a conversation with some fellow graduate students, one pointed out that while it was true that I studied many aspects of visual communication, my research questions tended to be about the political motivations behind, and effects of, pictures. Overnight, I recast myself as a student of "political communication," an area booming at the time and still today. Fortuitously, I later applied for and received my first tenure-track position in that area.

Sometimes the problem is that you are too broad. I remember a search where an applicant had conducted research in dozens of different areas. At a meeting of the search committee, I mentioned, "She looks like a real Renaissance woman." A senior professor squinted at me and stated, "The position we have open does not call for Michelangelo." He was not being anti-civilization but was simply pointing out that we had a specific set of needs for the position.

You can approach the question of your brand from an external perspective as well. I run a workshop each year for the doctoral students in my college. Even if they are in their first year, I suggest that they scan available positions in our field, look at the areas and key words, and ask themselves, "Is this something I could eventually plausibly apply for?" Try to see whether there are specific areas, perhaps new and hot ones, where the numbers of openings may be expanding and where you have some chance of being seen as a good fit.

Conduct a brand audit of you, Part 2: Your vibe.Technically your personality is part of your brand and the frequent advice to "be yourself" on the job market makes sense — until you notice nobody is buying you.

So maybe the problem is not your pubs or teaching evals but the interpersonal factors — the vibe you send. Remember: Your potential colleagues are not just hiring a CV or even a pedigree; they’re hiring a person. Do they feel that they want to work with you, the human being, as a prospective colleague? What would your references say, honestly, about your intellect and collegiality? Here are two common types of bad vibes that underwhelm or even repel search committees.

The first is overconfidence, arrogance, cockiness — that general air of "I’m better than you" and "I’m slumming to even deign to visit your lowly school." Did you answer every question at the interview before someone finished asking it? Did you boast of your achievements instead of just citing them? Did your teaching demo go over students’ heads, as you presented material designed to impress the committee rather than teach the class?

You may actually be "better" — at least on paper — than most of the people hiring you. But few search committees vote to hire an aristocrat who thinks they should be grateful peasants. Search committees will likely declare "not a good fit" and move on to the terrestrial mortals in the hiring pool.

Alternately, you might exude a lack of confidence or a surfeit of desperation. You have every right to be rattled by a lack of success on the job market and justifiably frantic about your future. But nobody hires for the tenure track based on pity. A friend once described a job candidate who, during his research presentation, replied to every single question with a "Gosh, I never thought of that before!" He left faculty members in the department thinking he was not ready for a job with "professor" in the title.

Getting one rejection is discouraging; striking out in an entire season of applications is traumatic. If, after measured deliberation, you decide it is time to permanently exit the tenure track and go alt-ac, then let that be your choice.

But if you want to stay in the game, the only possibility is to get back on the horse and ride again. However, it need not be exactly the same horse. You must carefully consider each aspect not only of your application materials but also of whom you project yourself to be to search committees.

Yes, luck matters, but careful planning can’t hurt.

David D. Perlmutter is a professor in and dean of the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University. He writes the "Career Confidential" advice column for the Chronicle. His book, Promotion & Tenure Confidential, was published by Harvard University Press in 2010.