by Daniel Tubb, University of New Brunswick
Until June 2016, the plan was to move into my parents’ unfinished basement with my wife and our young son. It was a bad plan, for obvious reasons. But it was the only plan we had. I felt defeated by three years on the ‘academic job market’, and I was broke. A SSHRC postdoc in the US when the Canadian dollar fell to 68 cents had proven to be a financial disaster. I told myself that 2016 would be my last year looking for an academic job.
Then on April 7, 2016 I got an email: “Could I Skype interview.” “Yes.” After the interview, I was invited to a campus visit. After three whirlwind weeks of preparation, there was a month of excruciating silence before I got an offer. Now, I find myself in Fredericton, at a fine university, in a great department, with supportive colleagues. I feel like I’ve won the lottery.
But, as one colleague reminded me a few days ago, that’s not quite true. Getting an academic job takes much more than luck. For one thing, it takes solid scholarship. For another, you’ll need skills you were probably never taught.
First, learn to cope with rejection: Melanie Stefan, in a 2010 Nature article, writes about her CV of failures—the record of rejected applications hidden behind her impressive CV. Devoney Looser, in a 2015 article in Chronicle of Higher Education, describes her shadow CV—the hundreds of rejections in her professional life.
Like both Stefan and Looser, my shadow CV is longer than my real one.
Take the first section: Academic Positions.
My real CV shows a nice upward trajectory: 2007 to 2014 a M.A and then a Ph.D. at Carleton University; 2014 to 2016 a postdoc at Yale University; and now, in 2016, a tenure-track position at the University of New Brunswick Fredericton.
My shadow CV: five rejections from doctoral programs and 71 rejections from post-doc and tenure-track positions in the US, the UK, the EU, Latin America, and Canada. How did my disastrous intercontinental job search measure up? In total, I had offers from three doctoral programs in 2009, one post-doc in 2014, two phone interviews and one conference interview in 2015, and one interview followed by a campus visit and a job offer in 2016.
In total, my rejection rate on the job market: 97%.
My success rate just to get to that long-distance interview: 4%.
Is this abnormal? Am I bad scholar or just unlucky? Stefan and Looser’s articles suggest rejection is typical. Sure, I know some people who got the first job they applied for. Certainly they are brilliant, but I know many equally brilliant people who haven’t found jobs. Indeed, many of my mentors have lists of rejections far more impressive than my own.
Second, realize there may be no correlation between hard work and reward. While still not finished my Ph.D., I used to spend weeks tailoring a cover letter, a CV, a teaching statement, a teaching portfolio, a research statement, a writing sample, a syllabus and a diversity statement for positions—sometimes the same position. The response to my efforts? Silence. If I was lucky, I got a form rejection letter politely telling me I was one of 300 unsuccessful applicants.
By 2016, I stopped worrying about any one application. I gave myself an hour or two to apply for each job, and did the best I could to respond directly to each job ad. I stopped trying to be creative and original, and instead aimed at clear and professional. Most importantly, after I sent it off each application, I forgot about it.
In my experience, there was an inverse correlation between hours worked and success achieved. I revised the letter for the position I got in a short period of time. Indeed, this was true for all three positions I interviewed for. Perhaps applying for an academic job is like dating? Desperation is a turn-off. Less is more.
Of course, once I got invited for an interview I spent two weeks preparing.
Third, know the market. My field is environmental anthropology and political economy in Colombia. I wanted a job in a Canadian anthropology department. When I started looking for this job in 2013, I had had no idea how few there would be. Last year, I put some figures together by scraping the websites of the AAA, CASCA, and the archives of the Academic Jobs Wiki. The unscientific results?
The Canadian anthropology job market is tiny. If there were about 97 sociocultural anthropology jobs mostly in the US in 2014/2015, only were five in Canada. Worse, each year there seem to be fewer jobs in Canada. I counted 11 jobs in 2011/2012; nine in 2012/2013; six in 2013/2014; and the five in 2015/2016.
Do doctoral students and the faculty who train them realize there might be twice as many anthropology Ph.D. programs in the country than there are tenure track jobs in anthropology? How many of those jobs go to Canadian trained Ph.D. recipients?
What did I do in response? In 2016, I pitched myself for positions that in 2013 I wouldn’t have applied for because they were not exactly what I did: The job I ultimately got was one of those positions.
Other than dealing with rejection, working efficiently, and pitching myself in unexpected ways, what else did I do? On the one hand, with the postdoc, I had time to publish, write, attend conferences, go to workshops, network, get a book contract, and apply for jobs. On the other hand, I read and applied what I call the academic self-help literature.
That first year on the market as an doctoral student, I only took advice from my cohort and my faculty mentors. Three years later, I had read and applied ideas from Karen Kelsky on the academic job search, Wendy Belcher on writing, and Robert Boice on moderation. Each was invaluable. I learned to write better, to emphasize the future not the past, to speak with confidence, to prepare for interviews, and, most importantly, to do it all in moderation. I wish I had read more advice in 2012, although I probably would not have been ready to listen.
Did it work? Maybe. I got the job after all. Or maybe, I was in fact a good fit for the department, in Fredericton in ways that I could not have known before I applied. Of course, perhaps I just got lucky. I did buy over 70 lottery tickets after all.