Wednesday, 12 February 2014

How to get a (tenure-track) job in academia

What motivates me here are the numerous conversations I've had over the last few years with people already in academia, those trying to get into academia, or those drifting around the edges in insecure posts exploited by administrators and tenure-track faculty alike – see here for my take on this. This post is necessarily personal and particular since it's derived from my experiences and those of people I know. Consequently - MASSIVE CAVEAT WARNING!!! - it does not reflect everyone's experiences or everyone's preferences. 

So, as you can probably tell from a quick trawl of my website, I've had a few jobs in academia – not loads, but a few. I've also had a bit more experience – good and bad – with job applications and interviews – see here for my application record and here for my take on these experiences. Since moving to Canada I've also had some experience sitting on the other side of the table, as it were, in that I've sat on academic hiring committees. These experiences have led me to think more about the broader issues and problems with academic job market, especially when it comes to things like the British interview process as I detailed in a guest post for The Professor Is In

Now, I'm not alone in this by any means – anyone who has read blogs, Twitter feeds, etc. by the likes of Pan Kisses Kafka, Thesis Whisperer, William Pannapacker, Sarah Kendzior, Melonie Fullick, etc. will know all about the problems with and in the academic labour market. I'm not focusing on the problems with the academic labour market here – in fact, what I present here does not really challenge the underlying structural and systemic fractures (should that be “fissures”?) in the academy ... I think this issue is beyond my ken right now.

So, what is the purpose of this post? Well, part of my motivation for writing this blog – not at first perhaps but definitely now – has been to reveal (and I initially wanted to write “expose” there, but that seems wrong somehow!) to all and sundry my failures, rejections, stumblings, etc. along the academic career-track. I see it as a way to 'disenchant' – to poach Alvin Gouldner's term – academic life and draw back the curtain on its inherent vagaries, messiness and downright contradictions, which academics encounter on a daily basis. The goal here, then, is to highlight a number of decisions and choices you'll need to make if you want to get a tenure-track job in academia. Another MASSIVE CAVEAT WARNING!!! None of this is to suggest that there is only ONE way to do things and no other; nor is it to suggest that these choices are necessarily easy or equally viable and valid for everyone. Rather, it is to suggest that there are some critical things you need to do and prepare for on the rocky road to tenuredom (if it lasts much longer!).


Things you NEED to do to get a job ...
  • Complete on time:
Very basic … do the PhD on time. You have a deadline, even if it seems like you don’t. It’s 5-6 years in North America and 3-4 years elsewhere (mostly). Don’t procrastinate, don’t get distracted by something else (except see below), don’t start another big project (non-academic), etc., etc. If you get caught in an horrific situation (e.g. supervisor hell) then get out quickly – don’t hang around. This is obviously not as simply as I make out, but it is important to keep that deadline in mind rather than think of the PhD as a rolling contract. Think of yourself as having a job, rather than being a student anymore - learn to work 9-5 each day. What I would suggest is from day one you create a 5-6 or 3-4 year plan in which you specify all the things you need or want to do during your PhD – including things I outline below – and plan out each year to give yourself easy tasks to complete. It might also mean getting help from others with things you might think you’re already great at – e.g. writing, researching, methodologies, etc. Always ask for help – or you’ll end up making tons of mistakes like I did (see here). You can learn from your own mistakes, but better to learn from someone else’s!
  • Build up your network:
It’s a simple fact – at least it seems so to me – that academia is not really about great ideas shining through all the dross out there and winning hearts and minds due to their brilliance.* People tend to read very selectively – we have to since there are thousands and thousands of journals, let alone articles and books, out there. This means that the chance anyone will read your work is very slim when you’re a no-name newbie. This is a sad indictment of academia and what it’s meant to stand for, yes, but you should get used to such indictments if you want to survive in the academy without losing your mind. So, what this means for you is that you need to build up your network of academic allies and friends from day one. This means going to as many events as you can afford – especially workshops where you get to hang out with the same people for several hours – as well as getting over any fears you have about contacting people out of the blue. It’s perfectly legit to email people you find interesting and see what they’re doing – just don’t expect an answer every time. I also think it’s perfectly legit to spam relevant people with your work (e.g. journal articles), although some people find this terribly gauche. Basically, learn to network and learn to make contacts – that doesn’t mean sucking up to big-wigs. I think it’s actually more important to build up a network of peers around you since they are the ones who will be working alongside you in other institutions in several years’ time. In practically terms, this means going to at least 2-3 conferences or workshops per year and regularly attending seminars in your locale; it also means organizing a conference session or two during your PhD, maybe with a couple of key players on them; and, finally, it mean getting actively involved in PhD networks of one sort or another.
* Just think like a Latourian on this point; it’s all about building up your alliances, capturing those translation points, and generally enrolling as many people as possible in support of your ideas that leads to them gaining traction.
  • Publish during the PhD:
It’s increasingly obvious that people applying for academic jobs now are being judged on very different standards than those who have them already. In fact, it is likely that current faculty would not have got their jobs in many cases in the current labour market – it’s unfair, yes, but there is little you can do about it. Another sad indictment perhaps ... Anyway, I can only see things getting worse over the next few years. I'm guessing - but it’s probably a pretty reasonable guess - that if you want a job in academia you'll NEED at least 3-4 peer-reviewed publications (accepted or in print) by the time you finish your PhD to have any chance of getting a job. Moreover, you're better off if those 3-4 publications are all journal articles and if at least one is published in a top journal. This might mean that going direct from PhD to tenure-track job may just not be possible anymore for most people.
  • Prioritize research after the PhD:
Following on from the last point, it is evident that research gets you the job, not teaching, service or being nice – this is, obviously, institution-specific! What it implies is that you should prioritize your research during and after your PhD – continue collecting data, continue writing, etc., even if this cuts into other activities (e.g. teaching). I know this sounds grossly negligent, especially if you’re in a (sessional) teaching post, but research (in most cases) is really how we judge each other in academia and how we judge suitability for tenure-track positions. This means that getting a postdoc fellowship or research job after your PhD can be a much better way to build up your CV than going for contractual and temporary teaching posts. Certain places are better in this regard than others, especially places like the UK and other European countries where research jobs are much more common.
Things you SHOULD DO to get a job ...
  • Not get too invested in your PhD:
I think it’s important to find a balance between doing something you’re interested in and something that will get you a job at the end of (possibly) 5-6 years. What you may find interesting now could be of little relevance to the discipline in 5-6 years’ time – keep that front and centre. So, my suggestion is that you don’t get overly invested in your project and that you seek the input and advice of your supervisors (and others) about suitably interesting and relevant thesis topics rather than focus on that one thing you find so fascinating. Most good supervisors should have a pretty good finger on the pulse of their discipline – if not, it’s time to worry! I also think this is a good idea because it means you have some motivation to complete (because it’s not that exciting to you) and because you won’t disappear down a rabbit-hole (trying to write the perfect thesis). Generally, try not to go too arcane with the topic!
  • Develop side interests during your PhD:
With the above in mind, it’s also a good idea to develop side interests and other areas of research during your PhD – even trying to publish in them if you can. What this means is that you can offer greater versatility at the end of your PhD, which is no bad thing when you might be expected to teach a range of topics. Obviously, this might mean you end up cutting into fun-time, family-time, or whatever-time – so, it’s probably better to work for your supervisor or someone else as their research assistant. They should, if they are decent human beings, put your name on a publication or two as a result; you, if you want an academic job, can put in enough effort to learn a whole new area.
  • Don’t apply for every job:
It might seem like you need to apply for as many jobs as possible, but that strategy probably won’t work. You'll only be suitable for a small number of posts and are unlikely to get invited for interview as a result of more speculative applications. You can always ask the contact person about your suitability and see what they say. My suggestion is to focus on the most relevant jobs – wherever they may be (see below) – and put real effort into those ones - don't forget to ask for help! This does not stop you applying speculatively, but I would have a ‘speculative’ application pack and a ‘real’ one. Really investigate the institution, the faculty, the courses, etc. before applying – you should be able to illustrate to the hiring committee how you will fit in and what you will add. It’s probably a good idea, as well, to start applying for jobs a year or so before you finish your PhD to get experience, to see whether you are competitive (i.e. do you get an interview invite?), etc. 
  • Teach, but not too much:
Although research gets you the job, you will also need to demonstrate your ability to teach. This means teaching at least something during your PhD - or your postdoc. In North America universities are run on the back of PhD student labour (and sessional faculty) so there should be no problem getting this experience there; elsewhere, ask your supervisor, friends or department for teaching opportunities (and then take them). There is a fine line, here, between teaching enough and too much; if teaching is taking you away from research then it is too much. If you can do it on top of research then you are fine. As a word of warning, although sessional and adjunct faculty are now the majority, doing this sort of teaching for more than a year or two is likely to really damage your chances of getting a tenure-track job for the simple fact that it will cut into the time you have available for research and writing. Another sad indictment of academia is that being a great teacher will (likely) get you nowhere career-wise when you're starting out – there are obvious exceptions (e.g. teaching-intensive institutions). So, make sure you can show that you can teach, but don’t let teaching take over from research – learn to ‘cut corners’ (e.g. assignment types, marking process), ask for help from colleagues and supervisors (e.g. draw on existing syllabi), take over old courses rather than create new ones, etc.. This may sound very cynical on my part, but by doing so you are more likely to create breathing room for yourself. It is all too easy to get caught in sessional or adjunct positions, and be unable to get out because you have no time to do anything but teach.
Things you'll PROBABLY NEED to do to get a job ....
  • Move cities, regions, institutions:
I know that some people have railed against the idea that academics should be willing to move to get a job while others think it’s a prerequisite – see here for discussion by Karen Kelsky (i.e. The Professor Is In). I think it’s almost a certainty in two senses: (a) you should move institutions simply to develop your autonomy and new ideas; and (b) you’ll probably need to move city / region simply to get a job. If you are not willing to move (one or the other) then you are likely to face serious difficulties getting a tenure-track job; my advice is to accept you’re not going to get a job at your graduate institution (you almost certainly won't, straight out of PhD) or in the city you live in (you probably won't unless fate shines on you) and move on. This is hardly surprising really. People in other careers have to move all the time. If you want to become a banker (boo, hiss!) or a journalist (less booing and hissing), then you are likely to have to move to the centre of finance or journalism, wherever that may be (e.g. New York, London, Toronto, etc.). Same with academia, no matter your preferences or desires or other needs. This means making a decision about where you are willing to live – it doesn't have to be anywhere. It's a good idea to know where you're willing to move and where you just can't see yourself living, as this will help focus your job search.
  • Make difficult decisions about your family life:
This is a question of priorities; if you want a family then it is likely to interfere with your career – this is highly gendered issue, moreover. However, it's obvious that this is a contextual issue since there seems to be a major difference between attitudes in places like the UK – where PhD students start younger and finish faster (and have free healthcare) – and places like the USA – where the reverse is true. In the USA, therefore, it may make perfect sense to start a family during a PhD. What it does mean is that you are going to have to make tough choices and decisions.
All these suggestions are derived from my experience and (non-rigorous) analysis of the academic labour market which means they are my interpretations of things. One or the other may be more important to certain people in certain contexts. What they do show, hopefully, is that you have a degree of agency – maybe a small degree – when it comes to seeking an academic job. It is not simply that there are no suitable jobs out there; in fact, some institutions and some disciplines find it difficult to recruit the right kind of person for tenure-track positions. I’ve heard of a couple of places where searches have had to be re-opened because not enough people applied – or not enough people with the right experience etc. However, and this is a biggie, it does mean that you might have to move to a whole new place to start your career and that may seem intimidating – it’s not though, it should open up loads more opportunities, to meet people, to develop your ideas, to encounter new things, and so on.

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