Tuesday, September 13, 2011

On "Fit" and the Academic Job Market

Just as the academic job market is getting underway for another year, I’m really glad to see my fellow postacademics writing some critical posts about it. Right now, grad students and adjuncts around the country are putting together application packets, writing cover letters, and obsessing over how they can make themselves stand out from the crowd of applicants for each job. And in 5 or 6 months, many of them will have failed to land a job, and will be depressed and discouraged, wondering what they did wrong. 

We postacademics are here to tell you that most likely, you did nothing wrong. The problem does not lie with you. The problem lies with an oversaturated job market full of insanely qualified candidates, and with a hiring process in which decisions often come down to the mythical notion of "fit," which can be based on any number of factors inside or outside of the applicant's control.

As I’ve mentioned on here before, I went on the job market last year. After sending out about 60 job applications, I wound up landing six phone interviews, three campus interviews, and one offer for a one-year visiting professor position (which I had not applied for and which I declined – it was offered to me as the second choice candidate for the tenure track position I’d applied for). So, I’ve seen the process through from beginning to end, and I’m telling you … my fellow postacademic bloggers speak the truth. Many of them are talking about the humanities job market, where things are a bit bleaker. But still, even when it comes to social science jobs ... you have little to no control over this process, so there is no sense in killing yourself trying to position yourself as the "perfect candidate" for every job. It's a pointless exercise.

It’s not that no one ever lands academic jobs, obviously. Or that if you go on the market, you stand absolutely zero chance of landing a job. There are faculty positions posted each year, and someone gets them. That someone could be you; it’s true.

But what you need to understand about this process is that there is nothing you can do to guarantee you’ll get a call for an interview. Nothing. All of those advisors telling you that somehow you can craft the perfect cover letter tailored to the job ad, and the search committee will swoon? Nope. All of your colleagues urging you to send out one more paper, because then you’ll have interesting new research to discuss on your interview? Well, unless you wind up actually in an interview, that submission is just another line on your CV, which looks like all the other CVs the search committee is going through. And your other advisor who urges you to adjunct a new class to expand your teaching dossier? Well, if you’ve already got teaching experience, one more class on your CV is not going to make or break your application. If you've successfully taught a couple of college courses before, adding another one isn't going to do anything to help you. 

The truth is that many of the people giving you advice are either delusional (okay, probably not), or else they are still working under the assumption that the market is the same way it has always been. This is not true. The market today is vastly different than the ones that our advisors went through years or even decades ago. Not too long ago, a new Ph.D. in the social sciences with one publication on their CV was a rockstar. New professors were regularly hired on the strength of their in-progress papers and their conference presentations. Not anymore! Now grad students on the market are expected to have at least one publication in a peer-reviewed journal, with the rockstars having two or three in major journals.

What this means is that getting another paper sent out won't make you stand out from the crowd of candidates for a particular job. It’s the norm. And as the norms for publication increase over time, the number of publications (or grants, or whatever) that will make you “stand out from the crowd” continues to increase. The net result is that even if you push out one more paper like your advisor wants, you’re probably still just one of 30 or 40 candidates for a particular job that have more than one publication. If you teach one more class, you're just one of 30 or 40 candidates who've taught 3 classes rather than two. So how does the search committee choose who to interview? They rely on "fit." And what's "fit?" Who really knows, honestly. You sure won't ever find out!


Adding to the fact that every candidate these days is insanely well-qualified, Anastasia points out that search committees are often not clear about what they’re actually looking for in a hire. Pretty regularly, job ads will come out stating that the committee is conducting an open search, but chatter will soon make it clear that “everyone” knows that the department is seeking someone who works in one particular subfield. Of course, this is not stated in the ad, so (1) people not in that area waste time sending in applications, while (2) people who genuinely might be a good fit for what the department really wants may not send in an application at all, since the competition for an open spot may seem too steep.

In other cases, committees will post an ad only to hire someone who does not fit their stated preferences for a candidate. This happened to a friend of mine, who was applying to every late-breaking job ad a few years ago out of desperation. Ultimately, this friend sent their CV to a job ad that specifically noted they were looking for someone who studied crime. My friend studied education. My friend got the job.

If search committees are not clear about what they’re looking for, but you’re supposed to be tailoring your applications carefully to each job … how are you ever supposed to make yourself stand out? You can’t, of course. It’s all arbitrary. It comes back to that "fit" thing, which you have no control over.


If all else fails, though, we’re told that if we just write that perfect cover letter, and really dynamically and excitedly sell our skills to the committee, then we’ll definitely land a tenure track job. Just proofread that letter one more time! Check the margins on your CV! Make sure to mention faculty members in the department you're applying to by name! That’ll make you stand out for sure!

I call bullcrap. First, we all know many people who’ve done everything right and who’ve been dedicated beyond words to the pursuit of an academic job … only to come up empty. Second, there’s just no way to know what a search committee will find impressive to emphasize in your letter. As recentPhD notes, one committee member might be really impressed with your fellowships while another might be thrilled with your lengthy teaching record. Others might take a liking to you because you went to the same college for undergrad. Who knows what will impress these strangers? You have no way of knowing. Nor does your advisor. There is, literally, nothing you can do to make sure you’ll stand out.

So sure, write a great cover letter* and emphasize your strengths and make the case about why you’d be a great addition to their department. But don’t kill yourself trying to do one more thing that you’re convinced will position you perfectly for the market. Unless you have literally no experience in a particular area (teaching/publication/grants/etc), chances are it is not going to help. What will help is having a search committee member - a stranger - think you’d be a good fit for their department. And how can you guarantee they’ll think that? You can’t. All you can do is send out your applications, and make a contingency plan in case it doesn’t work out. Don’t keep trying to add one more thing, one more line. You’ll drive yourself crazy.


I’d like to close by noting that in the academic market, just as anywhere else, networking matters. It’s not just what you know, but who you know. In the academic world, however, being networked into a job depends very heavily on two things: (1) how prestigious your grad program and advisors are and (2) whether they’re well-liked. If you’re at a top program working under a famous professor with a great reputation? You’ve got a leg up. If you’re at a mid-range program with someone who’s moderately well-known in their niche field but not broadly? The networking isn’t going to be as effective. Academia has a strong, entrenched hierarchy. Networking works much better at the very top than anywhere else.

As new postacademic blogger Crocodiles with Coffee says, it’s very possible that in the academic job market, your future “could potentially be tied to strangers’ perceptions of other people.” If you’re fine with that, then I wish you well. But if you want to have a little more control over your future, I urge you to at least consider a backup plan.


*As to the “perfect cover letter” idea … while prepping for one of my campus interviews, I was reviewing my application materials and realized that I had sent a cover letter to this school with a huge, glaring, obvious typo in the first paragraph. I didn’t think I’d had much of a chance at this job but wanted to throw my hat in the ring, so I quickly whipped together a cover letter and got it in just under the deadline. Huge typo and all. And I wound up a finalist. How? I have no idea. But clearly “writing a perfect, flawless cover letter” wasn’t the way I did it. Again ... this idea of "fit" is totally arbitrary.


  1. I'm glad I'm not the only one who has, in the past, obsessed over an academic cover letter only to send it out with a mistake. Such is life :)

    On networking, my sense is that, even if you're at FancyPants Grad U., networking only goes so far these days. From what I've heard, it was not all that uncommon once upon a time to have an advisor call up someone ze knew on a search committee and put in a good word for a candidate -- and have that candidate get an interview, at the very least.

    But I don't get the sense that happens much at all anymore. In my personal experience, a Fancy member of my dissertation committee knew the chair of a search committee for a position I applied for last fall. Ze said, "Search Committee Chair is an good friend of mine. I'll give hir a call and put in a good word for you." That professor was quite old, and, I gather, had used this tactic in the past and seemed somewhat surprised when nothing came of it.

    In my nonacademic life, I'm discovering that who you know really does count a lot -- even more than what you know in some cases.

    Which just makes the notion of "fit" in academe all that much more insane -- it's neither about what you know OR who you know!

  2. You know, this is probably true ... now that I reflect on it, even our most networking-obsessed Fancy Faculty member's most recent students have landed in jobs that are widely viewed as "beneath them" ... VAP posts or jobs at regional campuses or whatnot. Certainly not in line with their credentials or with the prestige of their chair's reputation.

    I think you're right - networking doesn't even matter that much anymore. Oh, to sit on a search committee and see how they determine "fit" when looking at a stack of CVs....

  3. I'm not going to identify myself, but your opining for search committee experience wooed me on. :) I was on a search committee - as a grad student. Candidates were selected based on gender, attractiveness, ethnicity (I shit you not), and personality conflicts. They selected 5 candidates (to see if the Dean would spring that much $$). They knew who they were going to hire beforehand, because that candidate was a personal friend. So the other candidates were ruthlessly eliminated. One was eliminated because she was younger and prettier than the popular faculty member who liked being the youngest and the prettiest. One was eliminated by being baited at a dinner about international politics (the candidate was jewish), etc. They told the junior candidate that they wouldn't get the job in the first sentence of the first interview of her 2-day interview nightmare. She looked like she had been kicked in the face by a donkey.

    To this day, when i think of that hiring process, I get so angry I feel a strong need to vomit or spit. It disgusted me on all levels of my being - I am ashamed of humanity over it. And I still had years left on my grad program to survive before I was free of them.

    1. Our dept. just bases its opinion and whether they think you're awesome and whether or not you'll be invited to hang-out with them outside of the university. Still, "fit" depends on you having the the right personality for that specific job, which unless California Psyhic actually works, you are royally and totally fucked.

  4. Wow ... this is basically exactly how I assumed that at least some committees operated, and is pretty discouraging (if not surprising).

    I know that at Grad U, my department would automatically throw out any CV from anyone who was not from a top-15 program as the first line of cuts, so that's one blow to the idea that if you just write the perfect cover letter you'll be considered for any job...

    The personality conflicts angle I can understand - this would be your colleague for the next few decades, after all. But gender, attractiveness, race? Bullshit.

    I'm not saying that hiring in every other field is handled perfectly. But at least in those other fields, you're not forced to bend over backward (or forward, for that matter) for a shot at one crappy job in a city you'd hate.

  5. RE: Randomness & fairness of hiring - I am a member of a forum for academics/grad students & regularly hear the lament of the job search. Yesterday however a member posted that s/he needed to reneg on an accepted position due another offer from a more prestigious U with a much larger starting salary. Now this person is not from business or engineering, but lists themselves as 'social sciences'. I figure either there is still one highly sought after discipline still out there or this person has some magic beans - in this day, who the hell gets two U's competing? I have asked this person to elaborate on their suitability/recipe for magic beans & am very keen to hear their response. Seems like insanity that most can't get one but this person got 2! At the same forum, recent grad was the market for 10 days until they secured an offer. Again, I have asked for secret recipe/discipline but as yet have no response. Do you think these success stories contribute to eh large number of grads still aiming for jobs when everyone knows it's 300:1 they will get an interview, let alone an offer?

  6. I absolutely do agree that the success stories that we all hear contribute to the (in my mind, slightly delusional) idea that each of us will be the one person to overcome the structural constraints of the market and to find our dream job and be happy. I think that everyone in academia knows a person or two for whom it's all worked out perfectly ... hell, I just heard such a story this week from a friend who's been in VAP hell for the past three years. For me, I know how lucky that person got in landing something great (for them) "just in time." For people still in academia, however, I'm sure they're thinking that this person's story is evidence that "it all works out how it's supposed to."

    I don't know. I'm a slight believer in fate, but I'm not delusional about it. I'll take the better odds in the nonacademic job world, thank you very much. :)