Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

The Professor Is in: Summer Prep for the Job Market

Full poppins

Look here to find previous advice columns from The Professor Is In.

Midsummer is always a good point in the year to take stock of what one needs to do to prepare for the faculty job market. I have already written on this topic, and my advice from previous years still stands. So rather than repeating myself, I am going to focus on some specific things you can do to streamline your application process that will kick into high gear come fall.

I want to reiterate that the most valuable commodity in the symbolic economy of the job market is publications — in peer-reviewed, preferably first-tier or high second-tier journals. NOT book chapters, NOT book reviews. If you are in a book field, progress toward a book counts, but it’s more of a promising indication of a robust pipeline than something concrete that will carry indisputable weight with a search committee. The exception here is if you are more than three or four years beyond the Ph.D. in a book field. At that point, search committees really do expect to see concrete timelines for publication of your book. So you should be prioritizing publications above all else.

If you are intentionally targeting teaching-oriented institutions, publications are still necessary to distinguish your record. If your teaching record is light, I hope you're teaching courses this summer. Pay particular attention to the syllabi-writing advice below.

But much like humans can walk and chew gum at the same time — and much like one can be both outraged by Trump’s twitter tantrums and pay attention to the destructive legislation his party is trying to ram through — it is possible and desirable to both aggressively pursue peer-reviewed publications and perform a variety of other tasks in order to hit the ground running as a job candidate.  

Fall is stressful. Chances are, you are teaching (maybe adjuncting several courses). At the same time, you may be finishing your dissertation, or completing the revisions your committee required of you if they gave you a conditional pass. While you can’t really compose cover letters until the job ads start to come out, here are three practical things you can do to prepare.

Read old job ads. If this is your first time on the tenure-track market, look at the job ads from previous years. Get a sense of the language and trends in your field, and of the range of documents requested by most departments.

You don’t want to write your cover letter, teaching statement, research statement, diversity statement, firstborn promissory note statement, and other application documents all at the same time. If you get started on drafts of these documents over the summer, you can pace yourself, which will benefit both your emotional well-being and your self-presentation.

Prepare to be astonished at how much time and energy you will spend on the application process. To be effective, job documents take days and weeks of refining, editing, and updating. Don’t assume you’ll be able to throw together a cover letter, a teaching statement, or a research statement in a few hours. Well, you can. But they will be bad. Do the advance prep now so you can focus on the necessary painstaking revisions when crunch time comes.

Take time this summer to draft sample syllabi. Make one for the core introductory course in your discipline, and for an upper-level or graduate seminar in your area of specialization. A good syllabus has to:

  • Make clear what the purpose of the course is, and how it’s built to achieve that purpose.
  • Be creative and inventive without being too "experimental."
  • Convince the search committee that if you were air-dropped into the classroom tomorrow you could teach that course.

Your sample syllabi should accomplish all three things. That’s particularly important for those of you who have only TA-ed, and have not yet taught a course as an instructor of record. Lacking actual experience, you have to imagine a class into being.

Even if you served as instructor of record for a big intro class at your university. If you are shooting for a position at an R1, or for a fancy postdoc, you will be asked to submit a syllabus for a graduate course. And while you may be thinking, “hey, I just took a million of them, I could write one in my sleep,” that is an incorrect assumption. In some ways sample syllabi are the most time-intensive documents to produce, so be nice to your future self and “can” them in the summer.

Think about who your letter-writers are going to be. Of course, in most cases, one of them will be your dissertation chair — and likely someone else from your committee. But it can be a real boon to have a known scholar from another institution vouch for you. That showcases you as an up-and-coming scholar whose early work is already transcending both student mentality and institutional insularity.

Maybe you presented a paper at a conference and a fellow panelist from a major R1 was particularly impressed with your talk, and told you so over lunch. That is the kind of connection you can cultivate into a reference — but that takes time and putting out some feelers. You can (though you should not) email your dissertation adviser and say “can you please send in a letter for this job by 5 p.m. tomorrow?” Doing so may annoy your advisers but is part of their obligation to you. A last-minute request will obviously not fly with someone who would really be recommending you just purely based on their favorable assessment of your merit. They are good people to approach in the summer. If they agree to write you a letter, they may want to see your CV, or learn a little bit more about your next research project, so they can contextualize their support.

Again, none of this should come at the expense of peer-reviewed publications. Those are the closest thing there is to a golden ticket in academic hiring, and you should be strategically building your publication pipeline. But doing these other three things I’ve listed can make the high season of job applications, especially that first frantic fall, seem more manageable.


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