The academic job market sucks

Dear Snark: How long were you on the job market and how grueling was it?

The thing with the academic job market is that no matter what your experience, it just sucks. I was on the market for more than a year, had my share of rejections (including from what I thought at the time was a dream job – certainly my colleagues thought it was), and eventually wound up in the perfect position.  Despite the snark, I’m actually a very lucky academic.

That said, I’ve watched people I think are far smarter than I, with more interesting projects and better people skills, bounce between visiting positions and/or eventually leave academia altogether. There’s no easy formula for getting an academic job, given that there are far more PhDs than positions.  But here are some pitfalls I’ve seen that you might be able to do something about.

1)  Don’t rule out too many jobs.  So you don’t want to live in a small town? The South? Be at a liberal arts college? Seriously, suck it up and go back on the job market the next year if you have to. Apply to (almost) everything.

2)  Pitch to the center.  Many of us have intellectual projects that are on the edges of multiple disciplinary areas — it’s what makes our work exciting.  As PhDs writing dissertations, we are rewarded for that.  But on the job market, remember you need to show you are also master of a field that already exists.  Present yourself as a disciplinary expert in your field, with the benefit of an exciting project that also takes you to the edge.  You need to be able to teach those intro, area studies, writing, language or whatever courses.  Don’t ever say you aren’t “really” part of your field.  That doesn’t make you an exciting avaunt-guarde academic, it makes you someone who is going to teach unfilled classes.

3)  Stand your ground.  Following on #2, people may challenge your mastery.  Don’t back down by saying, “Well, that’s not really my area.”  Instead, argue that what you do know is central to your field — or should be.  No one knows everything, but you do have to know something.

And finally, remember that lots of PhDs are smart, awesome people who get jobs outside of the academy.  There is no shame in that.  Stay in touch with your graduate school friends who take this route — you may be glad you know them later on. And besides, it may be you one day.

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