Finding Success on the Job Market, Part 1

Why do you think you were offered the position?


September 16, 2015

Julie: We regularly advise doctoral students, recent Ph.D.s, and postdocs on finding tenure-track positions in a tough job market. For this series, we turned the tables and asked job candidates who found faculty jobs within the past two years to tell us why they thought they’d received an offer.

Jenny: As graduate career counselors, when we meet one-on-one with you, we spend a lot of time offering advice on how to highlight your strengths and do the very best in your job search. In Part 1 of this series, we will share how successful candidates strategized their search and prepared their materials. In Part 2, we’ll discuss what they believe set their interview performance apart. Then in a few months, we will write about candidates who had a successful search for a nonfaculty position. (If you fall into the latter category and want to share your story, please see how to contact us at the end of this column.)

Julie: We talked with job candidates in a range of disciplines, from the STEM fields to the humanities. What they told us, however, was surprisingly similar. Of each person we asked this question: What do you think made a difference for you in the job search and why do you think you were offered the position?

Jenny: Usually when we quote job candidates, we don’t use their names. This time, some of the people allowed us to use their names and affiliations, which is why you’ll see comments from both anonymous and named sources here.

Julie: Nearly all of our job candidates owed their success on the market partly to strong job documents. Of course that’s easier said than done. As Jenny and I know, crafting those documents is a challenge for all candidates. Our successful candidates offered a few practical tips.

Jenny: First, get a range of colleagues — faculty members, career-services staff, and your fellow students — to give you advice and suggestions on materials. As a new assistant professor of biology told us, "Have everyone read your materials. Don’t just pass your research and teaching statements on to your mentor. Use any resources available at your university — i.e., career services — to look over your materials for an expert view on everything from layout to grammar. Ask your colleagues and students to look over your portfolio; there are as many ways to write a research and teaching statement as there are prospective faculty. Some of my best suggestions came from colleagues saying: ‘I like this. I’d use this in my statement.’ Or, ‘I included this in my statement, and a search committee really liked it.’"

Julie: Second, make sure the descriptions of your research and teaching are clear and concise. A new faculty member in sociology received very good advice from faculty colleagues who, she said, "reminded me that hiring committees go through hundreds of cover letters and CVs in a short amount of time," as this recent article in The Chronicle points out. That made her realize that her letter had to explain her research in a way that was clear and quickly accessible to readers (yes, even highly educated ones). Her first priority: "Making my letter easy to read," she told us, "rather than filling it with complex theories I was proud that I comprehended and used in my work."

Jenny: Anyone who has gone on the academic job market knows it requires a lot of time and energy. Indeed, the candidates we spoke with put a good deal of effort into tailoring their application materials. While there are no real shortcuts, you can develop a strategy that can make the process easier. An English Ph.D. who accepted a position at a regional university told us: "To tackle my application list, I divided the jobs by skill set and area of expertise (composition, 18th-century British literature, etc.) and then tailored my CVs, cover letters, and teaching statement/writing sample to match the school/advertised position. (e.g. R1, research-heavy schools looking for an 18th-century scholar received one set of materials and SLAC looking for a children’s-literature professor received another set). For positions that really interested me, I also personalized my cover letter to dovetail the language used on their website."

Julie: Being able to demonstrate in your written materials that you have the teaching experience or other skills that the department wants can also help get you noticed as these three successful job candidates explained:

  • "Another reason I can think of why I was offered the position is that I have extensive experience in teaching research-methods courses. Since professors who teach research methods for the program … are retiring soon, the department needed a person who can teach the subject. I am sure that it helped me tremendously" (from a new faculty member in sociology).
  • "There was one (writing) course that the department needed to fill due to a retiring professor, and my particular background (in journalism and environmental planning and design) was an exceptionally good fit for their needs" (from a new faculty member in city planning).
  • "I was offering the university a skill set they did not currently have within their small faculty. … The search committee saw my expertise in researching and teaching digital literacy as an opportunity to offer new classes, design a new track within the major, and to provide opportunities for faculty who are interested in integrating technology into their pedagogy to learn from me. The administration saw my work as innovative and exciting in a way that they hope will attract new majors and create partnerships across disciplines. The best part of my experience interviewing at the job I took was seeing the genuine excitement that the faculty, students, and administrators expressed for my work," noted Amanda Licastro, a doctoral candidate in English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and a new assistant professor of digital rhetoric at Stevenson University.

Jenny: A social scientist we interviewed stressed the importance of understanding the mission of the department/institution, and then demonstrating how it aligned with the candidate’s own agenda: "When I started my job search, I made a concerted effort to target specific job postings that aligned with my educational/teaching philosophy. … Once I learned as much as I could about the schools, I tailored my package to them by stressing elements of their mission, pedagogy, and research desires in my cover letter, teaching philosophy, and research statement. Since I wanted to be in schools with a focus on practical work in the classroom and research related to practice, I played up my professional experience and how that informed my research in academia,"

Julie: Strike a balance between tailoring your application materials to a department’s expressed needs and making sure your own voice comes through. Amanda Licastro also told us: "Although I tailored my materials for each position, my teaching philosophy remained constant, and in my opinion was the strongest part of my application packet (perhaps next to my letters of recommendation). This document gave me a chance to show my passion for teaching with technology, and provided a snapshot of my critical, constructive pedagogy. I truly believe that the care and respect I have for my students came through in this narrative."

Jenny: While it’s important to take the time to write strong documents, many of these candidates felt this was an iterative process, and that it was only after a first time on the market that they were able to write with ease and confidence about their research.

This was a recurring theme for many of our candidates. A new assistant professor in the social sciences wrote: "I think that I was more prepared going on the job market this time around because I had a better sense of my own scholarly identity, and the kind of institution I wanted to work for." Similarly, a Ph.D. in English told us, "I took what I learned about myself as a candidate and refined how I wrote about my research in my materials and how I spoke about myself as a scholar during interviews. With a clearer sense of what I was looking for in a job, I was a more careful reader of job calls and worked to tailor myself as a candidate to the jobs I knew I wanted and for which I was a good fit. This longer process paid off for me, as I will be starting a tenure-track job in September!"

Julie: Try to demonstrate a mature and confident scholarly voice. Your job documents should communicate the importance of your research in a way that is accessible to a range of audiences. Professors reading your cover letter are unlikely to be steeped in your particular research question, and it’s an important part of your development as a researcher to be able to explain what you do to a general audience. A confident scholarly voice comes from a demonstrated record of publications and other scholarly activities. You may be on the job market several times before you develop that voice, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Jenny: Many job candidates found it useful to get different perspectives on the search process. As one sociologist who accepted a position at a liberal-arts college told us, "Take advantage of a career adviser for doctoral students if your campus has one. For me, it was nice to have a different sounding board, one that wasn’t my adviser or committee members, and unlike those individuals was ‘trained’ in helping with this process."

Julie: Last but not least, our candidates acknowledged the role that luck plays in their success on the faculty market. That luck came in different forms, as these three candidates reported:

  • "The very specific field I invested myself in throughout my graduate-school life suddenly became a trendy topic in academia" (from a new faculty member in sociology).
  • "Through a combination of personal interest, academic insight, and luck, I happen to be working on a topic that is of genuine interest to people, both inside and outside of academia" (from a new faculty member in city planning).
  • "I have been on the academic job market four times from 2009 to 2014, … and in 2014 I was offered a tenure-track position at a regional Midwest university. … The final aspects that enabled my success were luck and attitude. The academic market — especially in the humanities — is incredibly competitive. While I did what I could to prepare, I also understood that much of my success related to issues beyond my control. Because of the variability of the market, I also prepared myself to leave academia. The knowledge that I could be a viable candidate in a variety of industries helped me to keep the academic job market in perspective and to really think about what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be professionally and personally by the end of the job search" (from a new faculty member in English).

Jenny: For anyone who has been looking for a tenure-track position for some time, it can be hard to hear that part of a successful search is the unpredictable convergence between a candidate’s background and the department’s needs.

But luck sometimes comes as a result of putting yourself out there. Collette Sosnowy, an assistant research professor at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, noted, "I was not shy about my job search and talked to anyone and everyone, even if they didn’t work in my field. … I really enjoy my work and my colleagues and feel fortunate to have landed where I did. It’s not a place I expected to be and I wouldn’t have ended up here if I had not cast a broad net, kept going, and been open to many possibilities."

Knowing the role that happenstance can play means being open to other types of opportunities, even if they end up taking you off the tenure track (as was the case for Collette).

Julie: That said, these successful candidates — some of whom found a position the first time they went on the market and some after four hiring cycles — did in-depth research on each institution and department to which they applied, tailored their written materials for each job, and developed a narrative to distinguish themselves as a strong fit for each application. Luck, happenstance, or chance can occur only when you, the candidate, have done the other things to make you stand out. It’s not something you can afford to "wait around" for.

Julie Miller Vick has retired as senior associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania and now works there part time as a senior career adviser. Jennifer S. Furlong is director of the office of career planning and professional development at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. They are the authors of The Academic Job Search Handbook (University of Pennsylvania Press).