I got a job. Next fall, I’ll join the faculty at a university writing program. If you’ve read my past posts, you know how much I love teaching and talking about writing, so I couldn’t be more thrilled.
I’m tempted to say that I got lucky, but that’s not entirely true. Yes, there was probably some luck involved, but there was also a great deal of hard work and no small amount of structural privilege that allowed me to succeed. I recognize that. And I acknowledge, too, that it’s not a tenure-track position, but I refuse to buy into or perpetuate the idea that tenure-track is the only permissible outcome or one worthy of celebrating. At the end of the day, it’s a great, paid job that I’m excited about and that allows me to move into the next phase of my academic career.
I didn’t get lucky, but I feel lucky. I got a job.
Here’s what that story doesn’t reflect: the 20-plus other jobs, including postdoc, lecturer, and alt-ac positions I applied for. The deafening silence or outright rejection. The stress and anxiety. The wikis. The waiting. The feelings of futility and failure. The frustration and mental exhaustion. The arbitrariness. The incredible precarity of it all.
Most of us are not delusional: we know the market conditions we’re up against, especially in the humanities. We don’t go in blind. For every one of us who gets a position there are many others struggling with these realities. It is hard and uncomfortable. I understand.
I’m no job-market expert. I wasn’t fielding multiple offers, and I didn’t figure out how to “game the system” (as though that’s even an option these days). Nor did I have extraordinary expectations: I was ABD with only a modest degree of institutional/professorial cachet. What I did do, however, was work to make myself as marketable as I possibly could. I read the guides, pored over models, thought deliberately about my strengths, and worked and reworked my materials. I forced myself to overcome (at least temporarily) both a natural — and no doubt partially internalized — reticence to “promote myself,” carefully framing my accomplishments to meet each opportunity’s criteria without unduly inflating them or just padding my CV.
Truth be told, I don’t know exactly how or why I got through each of several rounds the search for my position entailed. Perhaps one day I’ll learn. Absent that information and understanding that there are no guarantees, I can’t promise that my advice is foolproof. But with the summer and a new job market cycle looming, I hope that reflecting on my experiences might help someone else succeed. So for what it’s worth, here’s what I think worked well for me.
Figure Out Your Narrative
When I say “figure out your narrative,” what I mean is think holistically about your work, teaching and research interests, and personal experiences (if relevant). I knew that I wanted to apply for for a variety of positions and that each would require a slightly different set of documents. Regardless of the position, however, I wanted to present a clear picture of who I was in my classroom and research. I wanted each piece of the puzzle, so to speak, to reflect and reinforce a general narrative about my career, both past and future. To do that, I thought about a core set of themes and beliefs I wanted to present through my dossier and used these to help frame every single document, if in slightly different ways. For instance, though the cover letter for the writing job I ultimately got predominantly focused on my composition experience, I made sure to weave into my teaching statement something that reflected my research in American poetry, which in turn gave depth to the information on my CV.
I also thought deliberately about my future development — something especially crucial for post-doctoral research statements. This meant not simply focusing on past achievements but allowing the “narrative” to unfold through future endeavors, like the syllabi for prospective courses some positions required or the first (and second) book project I have in mind, borne of my dissertation research. While your documents will and should be tailored to fit the demands of each position, I think it is useful to keep your basic, central narrative consistent: it gives you an arsenal of ideas to draw on even as you adapt them to meet particular ends.
Cast a Wide Net, But Set Priorities
For me and for so many of us now, the tenure-track job, especially as an ABD, is no longer a unfeasible reality. For the majority of job-seekers, applying exclusively for tenure-track positions is not only misguided but foolish (if you want to stay in academia, that is). And if you do want to stay in the academic world, as I did, you have to explore as many options as you can. From the outset, I committed to being flexible: I would be open to different kinds of academic work, including administrative positions and high school English jobs. At various points in the process, I sought out those I knew who had found postdoc, lecturer, and other positions to gain insight into their experiences, and I’m grateful that they were generous enough to share them.
Despite this flexibility, I quickly found that applying to every job was also unfeasible, not to mention costly and time-consuming. I actually felt overwhelmed at first by the sheer array of options out there, especially when it came to catch-all humanities postdocs. I was shocked that there were so many advertised positions, given how much focus is placed on dwindling (tenure-track) jobs. This sense was only exacerbated when I realized that the job market would be a year-long process: new positions seemed to pop up near daily across a variety of platforms (H-Net, Chronicle Vitae, and the MLA) and deadlines seemed to proliferate endlessly. I soon realized that I had to be strategic and that being strategic meant setting priorities. What was I willing to compromise on? What factors were non-negotiable? For me, location was a huge factor. I had a specific area in mind which, while certainly limiting, felt crucial to my future happiness. I also knew that teaching, in some capacity, was a major priority; I wanted to be in the classroom, whatever that entailed. While I didn’t fully rule out non-teaching positions or faraway locales, I chose to focus energy primarily on the positions that that best reflected my priorities. There are many other factors to take into account, of course, but the point is this: figuring out what matters most to you can help you sort through the morass, making the process of “casting a wide net” feel manageable rather than insurmountable.
Specifics, Specifics, Specifics
At the beginning of the process, before I wrote anything, I took stock. I re-read or looked over the “paper trail” of my academic career to date: my CV, professors’ or peer reviewers’ comments on my writing, student evaluations, my would-be teaching portfolio (in-class assignments, exercises, essays), and more. Doing so not only reminded me of things I’d done in the past and sometimes forgotten about, but also allowed me to pinpoint trends (see also: “figure out your narrative”). Beyond that broader story, I made note of particular key points, achievements, exercises, etc. that I wanted to highlight in my job materials. For every broad point I raised, I could give ample specifics to help bring it to life on the page. It’s one thing, for example, to say that your teaching practice makes students see writing as a persuasive tool. It’s another thing — and a better thing — to describe the in-class exercise that illustrates this goal in action.
This is not to say that everything I’d done had reinvented the wheel, often it had not. If the specific thing you’ve done happens to be extraordinary, that’s great, but if what you’ve done is simple or even common (e.g. T.A.’ed one section of a class) that’s ok too. More important than the thing itself is how you portray it. Did something particularly memorable or effective happen in one conversation in that section? Explain how and why. It’s that evergreen maxim I imagine I’ll be saying quite a lot in my next gig: show, don’t tell. Academic job materials are a unique genre, but they also are a story. Take a cue from your favorite fiction authors: engage your reader with details, don’t bore them with platitudes. (And PS: simple but vivid prose is your friend).
Find Your Own Voice
When I first began writing my job materials last summer (start early!), I found reading The Professor is In and models from former students and young professors in my program extremely useful (if your program doesn’t provide these, ask around to see if you can get a few). While the former offered valuable general principles, the latter lent specificity to the sense of the documents I was gleaning; together they made the process of writing my early drafts much less stressful. Nonetheless, my drafts always felt a little stilted. While they met the criteria, avoided major pitfalls, and didn’t merely repeat the language of others’ documents, they still felt a little too formulaic. I could hear my words in them, but not my distinctive voice.
As I got later into the process, however, and continually reworked my documents to fit different positions, something changed. I wasn’t starting totally from scratch, but I started to tinker with the materials, switching things around or adding in paragraphs that I felt were necessary. I also played with moving language around between my documents, reevaluating what information served me best where. Once I let go of adhering strictly to particular templates, a more organic sense of my own documents and voice surfaced. What I was doing began to feel instinctual, but that wasn’t exactly what was happening. Because I had already practiced writing these documents in other ways, I had already intuited the basic components and conventions of them, but I was no longer beholden to one particular script. I finally uncovered a middle ground between the “formula” and what felt most natural and best reflected the individual work I’d done. My job documents improved (as did my confidence in them) as I allowed them to evolve slightly away from the model I thought I was “supposed to” replicate.
Been on the job market recently or just starting out? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below!
[Image by Flickr user Kate Hiscock and used under a Creative Commons license.]