Getting Psyched Up for the Market

August 29, 2003

In some disciplines, job openings for academic 2004-5 have already been advertised in advance of late summer scholarly meetings. By fall, we will be well into the posting season for academic jobs. Chances are, if you're planning to go on the market this year, you've already begun preparing for it, or at least started thinking about it.

We'll remind you quickly of the basics you'll need: a CV, a dissertation abstract, a teaching statement, and a research statement. You may also be organizing a teaching portfolio, perhaps posting it to the Web, or at least pulling together student evaluations of your teaching. Maybe you're designing a personal Web page.

Additionally, and critically, now is the time to start conversations with those people whom you want to recommend you, updating them on your work and interests, perhaps providing them with copies of your vita and other documents that will make their letter-writing easier.

Time-consuming as all of this is, it is also, in some sense, the easiest part of organizing your search.

Mary: The hardest part can be dealing with the emotions associated with a job search -- the uncertainty, the fear of failure, the expectations of advisers, family members, and friends. One recent candidate said, "It is an incredibly stressful process because candidates have little control over their fate once they have written their cover letters and completed the interviews. ... The greatest challenges in the process are psychological rather than intellectual."

You may compound the difficulty by setting yourself up for failure with unrealistic goals. Mixed feelings about the process may make it hard for you to focus your energies.

Julie: Before you begin your formal search, take a careful look at your background. It's fine to apply for some jobs that are a stretch, but it's a waste of your energy to devote too much time pursuing jobs for which you're not a competitive candidate.

How can you tell? Thanks to the Web, you can get a good general idea of what's required at different types of institutions by looking at the online vitas of recently hired faculty members. How does your background compare with theirs in terms of publications, grants, awards, and teaching experience? How does the status of your graduate school compare with the status of the prospective department?

Mary: As you do this, keep in mind that more is not always better. If you look much more strongly qualified than others in a department, a hiring committee may think that the college is a last resort for you. It sometimes does happen that people with very fancy backgrounds genuinely want to work at less fancy places, and as long as such candidates are aware of the impression they may accidentally create and work to correct it, such searches can be highly successful.

Julie: Not so with mismatches in the other direction. If your background looks very weak by comparison with recent hires at the kinds of institutions where you want to work, it may be time for some serious, re-evaluation of your goals. Make an effort to set goals that you have a reasonable chance of attaining.

Weaknesses in one career path may turn out to be strengths in another. You may never write a great theoretical paper, but you might turn out to be a crackerjack manager or gifted counselor or happy entrepreneur. For example, a life scientist we know who found research too abstract and lonely to be very successful at it found great success as a project coordinator at a pharmaceutical company.

Mary: Your teaching may resist all efforts at improvement yet you may work very well independently. Such was the case of a social scientist who suffered every time she had to stand in front of a class but is happily employed with a research organization.

You may enjoy a success at a very modest institution, and be richly satisfied with your life. A humanist who could never "get with" the academic hierarchy found the job of her dreams at a tiny, nonselective college in a small town she and her husband thought would be a great place to raise a family. Once you stop trying to be someone you aren't, you may find that who you are is just the ticket for a good life.

Julie: Another challenge occurs when you start a new job search after a disappointing experience in the previous year. Perhaps you went on the market before you were really ready. Sometimes it makes sense to apply for a job before you have earned your credentials: if your field is very small and jobs come up infrequently; if, for personal reasons, you want a job in a specific location; or if your adviser urged you to apply. If the results weren't what you'd hoped, keep sight of the fact that your search was a bit premature, your background is stronger this year, and you've had some valuable experience of the search process.

Mary: We know a graduate student in the humanities who last year had only a few chapters completed, and had some conference interviews and one telephone interview. That student will finish the dissertation this fall, teach in the department, and be a much more competitive candidate this time around.

Finally, it may actually be to your long-run advantage not to have gotten a job "too early." Starting a new job with an incomplete dissertation puts you behind schedule for the research you'll need for tenure.

Julie: You might have good reason to be bitter about your previous experiences on the market. One job candidate who wrote to us was understandably angry: The candidate had accepted a position and turned down others, only to have the financing for the job fall through.

Perhaps you were interviewed for a job, and later learned that the candidate hired instead of you seemed to have weaker qualifications. We know a woman who lost a position to one of her former students. Unfortunately, anger, cynicism, or bitterness about past events -- however justified those feelings -- acts like a poison if it seeps into a job search. Your past experiences may have inclined you to expect unfairness in the hiring process, but no members of search committees like being approached as if it's presumed they will be unfair.

Mary: If you repeatedly find yourself losing positions to people you find less qualified, then it's possible that you're working too hard at being "the best" during an interview and not hard enough at being "the best fit" or a "good colleague."

Generally the person who is hired is not "the best qualified" in some abstract sense, but highly qualified and best able to meet the hiring department's perceived needs, even if all of those aren't articulated. Engaging a hiring committee in conversation rather than haranguing it about your excellence is a good start at looking like a good fit.

Julie: Ph.D.'s who are job hunting as part of an academic couple have to deal with all these emotions but they also face some added burdens. It is important that couples continually renegotiate career issues. Both partners need to articulate personal and professional goals and envision themselves in various kinds of situations, not just the one they both see as the ideal outcome. They need to anticipate and discuss some likely questions: Can we live apart for a specific time period? What about indefinitely? If living apart is an option we are unwilling to entertain, and one of us has to make a few career sacrifices, will that person be miserable -- possibly more miserable than if we had lived apart? How will we finance two households and commuting costs? If we are in the same field and we apply for the same jobs, how will we feel if one of us gets an interview and the other doesn't?

Mary: It's important to talk about these various scenarios ahead of time, and not just when one them presents itself. We have worked with couples who have decided to live apart and with couples who decided they couldn't live apart. A few who wouldn't live apart were fortunate to obtain good positions in the same geographic area. Others had to deal with the stress on their relationship caused by separation and by the uncertainties of the job search. Colleges and universities are full of dual-career couples who are living apart with varying degrees of success. Talk to them.

Julie: Perhaps landing a job in a new city will introduce difficulties with someone else in your life, whether it's with children from a former marriage, a relative who is ill, or a spouse whose career is flexible but who wants to remain near family in your current location. It's helpful to raise these issues as directly as you can with the other people involved in advance of your search. Even if you decide to pursue a search that doesn't make them happy, you can let them know that you would still appreciate their support.

Mary: Let's say that you've set clear goals and done everything you can do to minimize your ambivalence about the search. Unless you're too superhuman to be reading this column, you will have moments of self-doubt, procrastination, anxiety, and frustration. Do everything you can not to let these feelings derail you from doing what you've decided you need to do. Give this hiring cycle your best effort. You'll have plenty of time to second guess yourself once it's over.

Have a question you'd like the Career Talk advisers to answer? Send it to us at While we are unable to answer all of your letters personally, we will consider them as materials for future columns. Confidentiality is assured.


Mary Morris Heiberger and Julia Miller Vick are the authors of The Academic Job Search Handbook (University of Pennsylvania Press). They have provided career services for thousands of graduate and professional students since 1985. Ms. Heiberger is associate director and Ms. Vick is graduate career counselor at the Career Services office of the University of Pennsylvania.