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How to Find the Perfect Academic Job (not just any TT job will do)

20 Aug

jobmarket_catAt the Annual Meetings last week, I found myself in an unexpected position. Graduate students going on the job market, wanted to meet with me to ask me for job market advice! Me? Advice? [looks around to see if someone older and wiser is standing nearby- nope] Crazy! It’s a new Assistant Professor role I didn’t anticipate (we only have applied graduate students in our department). Then I realized that the job market was such a long ordeal for me, that I am more than happy to give advice that makes it even remotely easier for someone else.

So for what it’s worth, here’s what I found myself telling people last week:

[Caveat: This post assumes that you are not in the position for an R1 job. If you are, more power to you, but the vast majority of us do not end up at an R1, and shockingly, many of us don’t want to end up at an R1. I was in a graduate program that only prepared me for an R1, unfortunately, and does a real disservice to many of it’s graduate students as a result. Thank goodness my advisor believed that a person could be happy at any sort of job that was a good fit for them.]

  • There IS a job out there somewhere for you. This might seem ridiculously idealistic, but I truly believe it to be the case. Very early on in graduate school one of my “academic sisters” (another advisee of my advisor) told me this, and described how it only took one TT interview for her to find what turned out to be the perfect job. It was job at a school and in a state she had never thought of and never would have imagined loving so much. She’s still there, with tenure. Her job market experience is atypical, especially today, when it takes people 3-4 moves and temporary positions to find the perfect TT fit. But, I think the advice still holds– there IS a job out there somewhere for YOU. But you might have to face head-on some myths, see past some bad advice, and apply to places your graduate program might not specifically prepare you for. In short, it has to fit you. It’s your job. No one else’s. Let me explain:
    • This perfect job might be at a place you’ve never even heard of. There are thousands of schools out there. Yes, there are well known R1s and liberal arts schools, but there are also hundreds of small liberal arts schools, small public universities, state schools, regional schools etc. And the people who work there are happy and and have fulfilling careers! So when you apply, keep an open mind, and apply widely. You never know what’s out there. I had not only never heard of my school before, I had to look it up again online when I got the interview request because I didn’t even remember applying for it.
    • Everyone’s perfect job looks different. Like I said, at my graduate school we were made to believe a job at an R1 was the only goal worth having. This is absolutely not the case. I have a  friend who, after much struggle against this expectation, got a job at a community college where she only teaches. She loves it. She realized she didn’t much like the writing and publishing side of academia. And you know what? That’s ok! That’s more than ok, actually, it’s great! Who wants to spend their life doing something they hate? Community colleges can be great places to work. Your perfect job might include more service, less research, and more teaching. Or, it might be equal parts all three. There are expectations (academia is full of hierarchies) that some schools that are more prestigious  are therefore are more desirable places to work than other schools. Again, not the case. I’ll repeat that there are lots of unknown and little known schools out there where people build happy careers.
  • Don’t make uninformed judgments about teaching loads listed in job ads. I remember applying for jobs and seeing 3/3 and 4/4 teaching loads and making lots of assumptions about what mattered at that school (i.e. not research). I applied for 3/3s but not 4/4s. Combine this with the fact I went to an R1 that not only gave me little teaching experience, but didn’t prepare me for a teaching/research job, and I really didn’t know what I was doing. It turns out that the teaching load doesn’t tell you everything. Here’s why:
    • Some schools might list that they’re 4/4 (like mine) but actually have an ongoing practice where faculty engaged in active research only teach 3/3. No one at my school actually teaches 4/4. And some schools automatically give course releases for the first couple years but don’t list that in their job ad.
    • Class size also makes a huge difference. For example, my last semester at the small liberal arts school where I had my VAP, I had 85 students in 2 classes. In one class had 50 students, the other 35. Those were the class caps– 50 for the Intro class, and 35 for topical courses (and we won’t even go into the fact kids were paying $62 grand a year for that). My current state school has a scary sounding 3/3 load (after the research release). But, I’ve only ever had 55 students in those 3 classes. Core courses are limited to 20 students (I have 2 sections of those). And topical courses, while they have a size limit of 35, generally have less than 20 students in them. And small classes make me happy.
    • Course repeats make things so much easier. My 3/3 load includes two sections of one course, so it feels more like a 2/2. Yes, it means double the students and grading, and double time spent in the classroom. But, mentally, it’s easier to teach 2 sections of the same course. It feels like less of a daily prep to just repeat what you did before.
  • Tailor your letter and application as much as you can for the school. I know everyone knows this, but I think it really bears repeating. All those unique schools out there want to know why you’ll be a good fit. They want to know that you bothered to read their website, to learn about their program, their research circles, their core curriculum, their school’s relationship with the community etc. They want someone to be there and contribute to those things, so say so in your letter. Be as specific as possible.
  • If you’ve been in a visiting or contingent position, ensure sure your letter and materials make the transition from graduate student to scholar. I didn’t realize that using the same materials I did as an ABD graduate student while I was a VAP would hurt me on the job market until I took a “Critique Me” workshop at a conference. A bunch of wonderful profs I had never met, from a variety of schools, ripped my materials apart and helped me make sure that I sounded like an established scholar, and not a student. I believe this made a big difference in landing a tenure track job.
  • can you tell this is from pinterest?

    can you tell this is from pinterest?

    Be yourself. If you want to land a job that’s the perfect fit for you, be comfortable being yourself on the job market. Make sure your application materials reflect you, and not what you think you should sound like, or what you think they want you to be like. When you go on the interview, be yourself. Be a professional version of yourself (yes, wear the suit, introduce yourself, smile, ask people about their work etc.), but be yourself. Relax a bit, laugh, be kind to everyone, and talk about your research/teaching/service with enthusiasm. That’s the best way to find a place that’s a good fit. The goal is for them to see you– who you really are– as someone who cares about their job and as someone they want to work with every day. Read all the interview advice you want, prepare your questions, job talk, teaching demo etc. but just take a deep breath and relax into it.


Moving Advice for Wayward Academics

23 Jun

34756452I realized today that I have a bunch of awesome friends making big moves this summer. Not just big moves, but big moves to coveted Tenure Track jobs! Yay! And I realized in the course of offering lots of moving advice on Facebook, that I have quite a bit of experience under my belt moving-wise. In the past 3 years, we’ve made 2 pretty big, life-changing moves for jobs. The first was to a VAP position across the country, the summer after I defended my PhD. I defended earlier in the summer, but made some massive edits that summer in the midst of packing and moving. Then, last summer I made another sizable, although not quite as far move, for the job I have now. Does this make me an expert? Nope. But I have some good tips to pass along. Some of these are good for any move, some of these are good for academics more specifically.

1. Start a couple months before you move going through stuff and weeding out. Go through junk drawers and closets, books and clothes. Sell what you think is valuable enough on Craigslist (but follow these safety tips). We sold some collector-specific stuff, extra dvd player, unworn running shoes (i.e. speciality items) and got good money that way. Yardsales are a lot of work for just a little bit of money, but we were able to do it with our entire apartment complex, so it wasn’t a waste of time. We donated everything that didn’t sell immediately. Money we made from selling stuff went into an envelope as “moving funds.”

2. Carefully weed out academic books and articles/notes/paperwork. Academic books for a one-time project can be sold on Amazon (if you have time), to grad students studying for exams, or just given away (most departments have a “free book” spot). Do you need all those physical journals? My guess is that you don’t. Add those to the free table, or give them to a library.

Papers and articles are another issue. I had an entire 4-drawer filing cabinet brimming with journal articles, class notes, teaching materials etc. The first time I moved, I got rid of about half of it. After this last move, I got rid of the cabinet itself. Part of this is my goal of becoming paperless. You can’t search paper with the click of a mouse, but you can search electronic files. Here’s how I did it:

  • I only saved journal articles that were critical to my research or important to me, and had important notes on them. Everything else you need you can find online as you need it.
  • I made a binder of notes from graduate classes and prelims, and kept only what would be useful and what would fit in that binder. I could scan that now into Evernote and those notes would be more useful, actually.
  • I got rid of almost all the drafts of everything I had worked on. Why save those? I have them electronically, and since I got into the habit of adding my advisor’s notes directly into a Word document, I don’t need those anymore, either.
  • I also got rid of student papers, assignments, duplicate class activities etc. Any class worksheet or activity that I didn’t have electronically, I scanned with my iPhone and filed it as a pdf.
  • Now I have files in my work office for articles I teach with regularly, assignments etc. But I also try to keep those down to a minimum. Paper is my enemy!

3. Find out if your new job will let you ship your books to your new office. I didn’t get any moving money this past move (state job), but the dean did offer to pay to ship my books. I didn’t take them up on the offer because I thought the whole process of shipping would be a pain. But you know what’s more of a pain? Moving 30+ boxes of books on and off a truck, and then into and out of your car to your new office. I’m not getting any younger and I should have had UPS doing that heavy lifting.

4. If you’re still prepping for Fall courses (I imagine you are– who is all prepped months before they start a new job?) or working on an article deadline (I’ll talk about how little work you’ll get done over the summer in a minute), you’ll need to keep some books with you and accessible. Sort those out and put them in their own box, clearly labelled “books for summer.” Then you can find them when you need them. Actually, keep out the things you’ll need for the move and a week or two after:

  • A suitcase for each person in your family with clothes and toiletries for a couple weeks.
  • A bag or box with moving supplies (tape, tape cutters, rope, measuring tape, nails, hammer etc.)
  • A box of pet stuff (blankets, beds, food, treats, toys, food dishes etc.)
  • A box of immediately-needed kitchen stuff (coffee pot, pans, plates, mugs, utensils).
  • A box of cleaning stuff. Not every apartment will be super clean when you move in (or you won’t trust that it’s actually clean…) so we kept all of this easily accessible too.

5. Google Drive is your friend. I had a spreadsheet for finding an apartment, a spreadsheet budgeting for a summer without pay (another thing to plan for!) and new expenses in a new place, and a Master Moving List document with an ongoing checklist of stuff to do.

6. Apartment hunting sucks. Of course it depends on where you’re moving too, how much of a budget you have per month, what your pet situation is, whether or not you have kids etc. My partner and I moved to a rental market fueled by nearby NYC, and we moved with multiple cats. Think honestly about what you want and what you absolutely don’t want. Be firm on these, because when you start looking and feel desperate, you might sway and feel like you have to take that crappy garden apartment with the dumpster outside your bedroom window.

  • If you’re moving to a major metropolitan area, find a realtor to help guide you through the market. And not just any realtor– get a recommendation! Ask your new colleagues, listservs, Facebook friends, for anyone in realty who can steer you in a good direction. There are realtors that will screw you.
  • Don’t trust Craigslist– especially if you’re moving to a major metropolitan area. You can tell pretty quickly what’s a scam on there ($900 for 2 bedrooms when everything else is $1500?), but some of them are pretty deceptive.
  • Make a renter’s resume. This is super-geeky, but especially if you have pets, you need to do it. Include info about your job. You’ve got a PhD! You’re going to be a professor (or a visiting professor… or whatever)! Don’t hide it! Flaunt it! Landlords want someone who isn’t going to screw them over, so take advantage of the nerdy reputation of our profession! Include info about your pets, your vet, your previous rental experiences. Include your hobbies and how you spend your free time. We also created a second version with specific info on it for apartments we were applying for seriously. This had our updated credit scores, and income information (and a contact for your dean so they can verify your employment).
  • Include a letter of recommendation from former landlords with your application. Most people don’t call references (shocking, I know) so put that really good reference about you being the tenants with cats right in front of their face!
  • Don’t rent anything you haven’t seen. Seriously. It took us 4 trips to find a rental. Pictures lie. Places that look fantastic in photos, look horrible in person, and vice versa. Check out the area (Google Maps street view is great for this), and your commute to work (Google Maps during rush hour will give you traffic times)!

7. If you get moving money (instead of submitting moving receipts for reimbursement), keep in mind taxes will come out of it (ouch). If you don’t get moving money, or don’t get enough, then try to keep moving costs down by cutting back on what you’re moving and comparing different rates. Ryder was cheaper for our move across the country, but UHaul was somehow a better deal for our move a few states away. Can you drive the truck yourself (or can your partner/Dad/friend)? Can you load up the truck and have them drive it (ala UPack)? Check Craigslist in your area for free (or cheap) boxes and moving supplies as lots of people who just moved will want to get rid of those. Or go for liquor boxes as they are sturdy and aren’t too big. And heck, if you get lots of moving money from your new job, pay for someone to do the whole thing for you–loading and transport! If I *ever* move again, that’s going to be the only way I go!

8. Keep all moving receipts. My partner had a big envelope she kept with her (along with all our financial stuff in a bag– because she’s good that way) and put every single receipt into it. Did you buy sandwiches for the people who help you load? Keep the receipt. New trashcans and mops for your new place? Keep the receipt. Last minute Home Depot boxes and packing tape? Keep the receipt. Donations? Keep the receipt… get the idea? Moves for a job are tax deductible, and if you pay for the move yourself, you can wind up getting some serious change back from the government!

9. The summer you’re moving, you’re not going to get any work done. At all. Really. Especially if you’re moving pets, kids, a whole household, across the country. It ain’t going to happen. I let a book review slide for a couple months because of the move (and the journal editors worked with me). You’re not going to have time to think about your research. You won’t be able to expend one ounce of energy thinking up new research ideas, or new theoretical approaches. You’re going to fall asleep if you try reading new lit in your field. You’re going to barely get your books selected for your Fall classes (only after the bookstore pressures you), and you’re not going to finish that syllabi until you get settled in and mostly unpacked. Unless you’re Wonder Woman, this is the reality. No one is Wonder Woman. Not even me, with a beer in my hand!

10. Actually you can plan on not getting much of your own work done for your entire first semester. Don’t do what I did and beat yourself up about it. Set your sights on minimal deadlines– conference abstracts, short funding proposals, reading some new lit. Make an outline/list of stuff to do on an article. Think about your research, work on something related to it a few minutes every day, if you can, but don’t expect to get lots done. You’ll be adjusting to a new town, a new house, a new grocery store, new colleagues, a new school, new office, new library system, new grade reporting system, new courses, new students… and the list goes on. You’re going to be mentally exhausted during this adjustment, and that’s ok. I remember reading once that among the most stressful events of life are deaths, major accidents, major illnesses, and moves. Seriously. Take time to get to know the people and places around you, but don’t beat yourself up about not getting much research or writing done.

11. Finally, get unpacked as soon as possible. Spend a week getting unpacked, one room at a time. Stay up late and get rid of those boxes one at a time. Hang stuff up and make it look like home. There’s nothing worse than an unpacked apartment. When classes start, you’ll appreciate coming home to a home.

Those are my tips for getting through a move as an academic. Have any others?

An Academic Foster Child: Life as a Visiting Assistant Professor

18 Mar

3debe0880801c8b6746f251554a2d651Like many recent PhDs, the process of getting a tenure track job was not what I thought it would be. While working my way through grad school, I watched newly minted PhDs ahead of me move from grad school into their “forever” jobs. Naturally, I assumed that if I played my cards right (network, publish etc.), I’d follow the same track. But I happened to finish up the year after the economy tanked– just in time for budgets to be slashed and positions cut. The number of positions plummeted. After two years on the market, applying for dozens of positions, and I ended up in a VAP.

And I’m lucky that it was a great VAP. I had healthcare, a travel budget, and I wasn’t paid slave adjunct wages. My colleagues were nice and my teaching load was reasonable (2/2). It was the ideal place to spend a couple years learning how to teach, learning that I loved teaching (I didn’t do much teaching in grad school), and getting acclimated to post-PhD. But I also hated the professional limbo of VAP-hood. I had to keep applying for jobs, finally revamping my application materials to reflect someone no longer a student. And I hated having that “visiting” label tagged onto my email signature and business cards.

I received lots of advice about being a VAP from mentors near and far. They told me to keep working for my next job, not to spend time serving a college that hasn’t made a commitment to me.  Not to settle into the area too much (hard to do when it happens to be your home state). That I should always keep one foot out the door, using whatever resources are available there for my career. But, then others would tell me that if I wanted a shot at a TT job there, I should ingratiate myself with them– attend student and faculty functions, work closely with students, develop the courses they need etc. Don’t be invisible. Make it hard for them to imagine life without you, I was told. But, if you’re the inside candidate for a TT job there, things will be awkward to say the least. They’ll believe in you– that you can be successful, but not there. Someplace else. In face, one piece of advice that really stuck with me, although I tried to pretend it wasn’t always the case, was that:

[VAP] hiring is often decided based on personal relationships, but tenure track hiring almost never is. Tenure track hiring is absolutely cutthroat, and is dominated by an ethos of “desire for the unattainable.” This means that the unknown, who promises seemingly limitless possibility for achievement and contribution, will almost always prevail over the known.


In short, the tenure track search is about making THEM want YOU. If you pander to them, cater to them, overtly appeal to them, and try to play off of pre-existing personal relationships and your ethos of “giving” to the department, you are defining yourself as, fundamentally, NOT TENURE TRACK MATERIAL.

So I was there, but temporarily. I kept one foot out the door– genuinely enjoying my students and teaching, and continuously applying for other jobs. All while I tried to ingratiate myself and be what they needed, just in case that coveted TT line opened up in my area.Because in spite of all the advice I received to the contrary, I planned and plotted to make them want to keep me forever. I liked the area, and didn’t want to go through the hassle of moving again. But all along, I knew that even pandering to their needs might actually work against me. I tried my best to balance on that undefined line in that liminal space of VAP-hood for 2 years.

In reality, I was only an academic foster child. They paid/fed me, sheltered me, and welcomed me into their fold, to a degree. But, I was, by very definition, temporary.

I didn’t see that for what it was until recently, now that I’m settled into my shiny new, completely wonderful “forever” TT job. A job where they wanted me— and would love to have me stay and build my career there permanently. The differences are startling. I have the space, freedom, and encouragement to develop my own teaching, scholarship and service. Having that support and encouragement actually makes me more productive as a writer and researcher. Instead of living year, to year, job app to job app, I can shift my plans to real short term and long-term goals. I’m a nester. I can settle in and organize my time around what I want to write and where I want to go with my research. I can begin to think about developing courses that I want to teach that fulfill area requirements at my school. I can contribute to shaping something larger than myself. It’s fantastic not to be a foster kid any more!

I recently asked my mentor why she thought I needed that VAP for two years. Yes, the VAP shielded me from the bad job market and gave me teaching experience. But what was the larger point of all that living in limbo? She answered: “So that you would appreciate what you have now.”

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