Why Didn't I Get Hired?

April 22, 2005

Question: This was my first time on the academic job market. I am A.B.D. but my department encouraged me to go on the market early. One of my colleagues who is in a similar situation landed seven conference interviews, three campus visits, and a job offer. I, however, only had one conference interview, and nothing else. What gives? What am I doing wrong?

Question: I've got publications, presentations, and even a good deal of teaching experience on my CV. I sent out more than 40 applications and got no response. It's my fourth time on the academic job market, and I have to say that my rate of return is not improving. What can I do to get an academic job?

Jenny: You might not be doing anything wrong. One of the main reasons that people fail to get academic jobs in their desired field is the lack of jobs in that field, and the surplus of excellent candidates. As career counselors, we cannot stress that reality enough. The academic job market is extremely tight in many fields, even for the most qualified candidates.

Julie: Because of the vagaries of the market, it might happen that there are even fewer jobs in your field than you might have hoped. Luckily, that situation can change from year to year. Someone working in 18th-century American history might find more job openings in a given year than are available to someone in 20th-century European history. A biophysics postdoc working in NMR spectroscopy might have a tough time finding appropriate positions one year, only to find many more available the next year. So, if our first reader's colleague had more success on the academic job market, that might have been because there were more openings in his or her subfield.

Jenny: As for our second questioner, it's possible that you did not get called for an interview because your recommendations are not up to date. Do you ask your recommenders to revise their letters every year? They should be mentioning your new publications and how the research you are doing is important to the field. If you are applying to primarily teaching institutions and you've taught a new course, at least one of your recommenders should discuss that. And if you ask for updated recommendations, your recommenders may rewrite them so that they are not just current but stronger.

Julie: You might also want to double-check your job materials. Make sure your CV is up to date. Verify that there are no errors or typos that might have prompted someone to send your job materials directly to the circular file. You'd be surprised how many errors slip past even the most astute of proofreaders.

You should also reread your job materials for content. Ask yourself, Is this the most accurate and compelling description of my research that I can write? Have I discussed my teaching in the best possible light? It never hurts to reread your cover letters and CV with fresh eyes a few months after you've sent them.

Jenny: If this is your first time on the academic job market, don't worry too much if you didn't get any interviews or campus visits. In many disciplines, students are encouraged to go on the market early. The rationale is that if a candidate receives a job offer, fantastic. If not, he or she will have a CV, cover letters, and other job materials ready to go for the next year, and maybe even some interviewing practice to boot.

Julie: Is your degree from an accredited institution? Some writers to our column mention that they are not at an accredited institution or that they are in a program that is not yet accredited. All things being equal, a search committee is much more likely to interview candidates from accredited institutions. That is a problem now with the growth of online and proprietary institutions that seem to promise significant career changes and develop inappropriate expectations in their students.

Jenny: Unfortunately we also find that American citizens who have spent a lot of time abroad recently, or foreign nationals who have little experience with academe in the United States, often have trouble finding a faculty position. They are often perceived as "out of the loop." See "Finding a Job Overseas" for suggestions on how to make connections with the American academic community.

Julie: In the meantime, how might you support yourself while you're waiting for your academic career to take off?

Jenny: A first step might be to think hard about what you'll need in terms of salary, benefits, and other requirements. If you become an adjunct instructor, will you need to take on another part-time job to make ends meet? Are you willing to move to take a temporary position, like a postdoc or a one-year appointment? What will you do about health insurance? Is your spouse or partner able to be the major source of income in the household if you are unable to find employment? Most important, whatever you may end up doing, will it afford you the opportunity to continue your research, publishing, and/or teaching, so that you can improve your performance on the market next year?

Julie: Some students have the good fortune to have received their Ph.D.'s from departments with enough resources to provide recent graduates with temporary employment, either a full-time lectureship or adjunct teaching. Those types of opportunities allow students to gain experience that may make them more competitive on the job market the following year, thus facilitating the transition from graduate student to assistant professor. Such opportunities might not be obvious -- sometimes you have to ask.

Jenny: You might also want to keep your eyes open for one-year positions and postdoctoral opportunities that might not be advertised until late in the academic year. Those types of opportunities are often posted in the spring, as departments decide who will be on sabbatical the following year. In many fields, especially in the life sciences, students are almost required to do postdocs in order to be a competitive candidate. However, even if a postdoc is not required, an interesting one could help you solidify your research and improve your chances on the job market (all while paying you a salary).

Julie: You might also explore other possibilities for employment at your university. A job in administration would keep you connected to academe while providing the security, the stability, and the all-important library privileges you need to keep doing your research.

Jenny: Many other interesting possibilities are available for short-term work that won't exhaust you intellectually or keep you from your research. Some Ph.D.'s parlay their writing skills into temporary jobs writing grant proposals for small nonprofit groups. Others with foreign-language skills work for companies writing abstracts of journal articles. Standardized test-preparation companies provide many short-term positions -- from tutoring to writing practice questions -- for which doctoral students are well-qualified. It's even possible to find temp agencies that place skilled writers and researchers.

Julie: As with any job search, let your friends and family know that you're looking for ways to make a little money. Do informational interviews. With a bit of luck and some networking, you might find yourself working in an interesting research position in a museum, doing a bit of consulting for a growing biotech, or taking advantage of any number of opportunities while you're waiting for your academic career to begin.

Jenny: If, on the other hand, you've been on the job market several times without any significant results, it might be time to start asking yourself some tough questions: How long am I willing to pursue an academic career? Do I have the financial means to continue that search? Realistically, what are my chances of succeeding? What will I do if I don't succeed? What is my plan B?

We will talk about how to respond to those enormous questions in a column next week.

Julie Miller Vick is associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania. Jennifer S. Furlong, who earned her Ph.D. in romance languages from Penn in 2003, is a graduate career counselor at the university. Vick is one of the authors of "The Academic Job Search Handbook" (University of Pennsylvania Press), along with Mary Morris Heiberger, who was associate director of career services at Penn.