(or, how I avoided being buried alive by PDF files)
This is the fourth in a series of reflections on going through the academic job market during COVID. Part 1, on the basics of what this process was like, is here. Part 2, on what things we should keep from virtual interviews and what things we shouldn’t, is here. Part 3, on the differences between research vs. teaching-focused institutions, is here.
Going on the academic job market is itself a full-time job. Academics might also think of it as taking on a new project, in that there is lots of research (looking for job ads, learning about departments), lots of writing (of application packets), and lots of project management to keep all of that straight. And, as with new projects, figuring out where to start can be overwhelming, much less organizing so many moving pieces over a protracted period.
This is how I kept track of things while on the market. My system may not work for you, or you may have your own system already in place that’s completely different but fits your work style just fine. I share this for those who aren’t sure how to get started or are feeling a bit deer-in-headlights and could use a starting point.
How I kept track of my materials
You might think your first task on the market is to find jobs to apply for, but because of how the market cycle works, your first task is actually to start writing your materials. Believe me, you will be glad to have these started once job postings start appearing. It may also feel strange to write materials for the sorts of jobs you hope will exist but might not—it certainly did for me.
I started writing my job market materials in June 2020 and went on the market that fall. This is because, in my department, the director of graduate studies reviews everyone’s materials in August and likes for letter-writers to have already seen them by that point, which means I had to get everything to my dissertation committee in July.
I got letterhead from a friend who’d gone on the market in 2019—to this day, I do not know how to get letterhead from my department—and wrote templates for my cover letter, research statement, teaching statement, and diversity statement. I also downloaded a copy of my unofficial transcripts and the paper I’d use as a writing sample (which was fortunately published by then), and I made sample syllabi. I cover all of these materials in more detail here. This whole process took about six weeks of constant work. I’ll spare you my thoughts on fonts and typographic tweaks and just say that your application materials are a first impression, so think about what their presentation is conveying about you. And also, if you have font neuroses and such (I refuse to write job applications in sans serif fonts, for no real reason), now is not the time to beat them out of yourself. Do what you want.
Initially, I kept these templates in a folder called “Master Files.” I also made a separate folder for each job to which I applied, and I figured I would copy each of the “Master Files” into these individual folders and make tweaks there. Over time, I found that it was much more expedient to tweak the cover letter from the last job I applied to, as I kept adding new accomplishments as the year went on—and, moreover, it was easier to build off of materials written for similar sorts of jobs than the templates I’d tried to make general enough to work for every job. Even for materials that never changed, like published writing samples, I still copied them into each individual folder for each new job application so I could click on that folder and know exactly what I needed to submit.
To keep track of letters of recommendation, I used Interfolio, an “online dossier service,” which is a fancy way of saying they’ll store your letters and let you include them with any online application without you being able to read them. I did this because my department pays for students’ accounts. If you have the ability to use Interfolio, I would highly recommend it. Using Interfolio meant I asked my letter-writers for letters once, they uploaded them to Interfolio, and I never had to bother them about letters again (with one exception for a school that refused to accept letters from Interfolio). I was very conscious about being perceived by faculty as too needy (hello, socialization as a woman!), and again, one of the most stressful periods of your life is not the time to try to change fundamental things about how you operate. Tools like Interfolio exist for a reason, and departments should pay for them.
How I kept track of job ads
I hear a lot from people worried about how to find job postings. Even in a pandemic year, I had the opposite experience: I struggled to keep track of all of the ads that were appearing. Especially if you are interested in interdisciplinary jobs or jobs in different countries, there are a ton of job boards (and listservs, and Twitter accounts) to keep track of. (Here, we crowdsourced a list of them.) And even though you will probably only apply to a fraction of all political science jobs posted, you still have to read a lot of ads to figure out which ones are and aren’t good fits.
I bookmarked five sites—APSA eJobs, Chronicle Vitae, Higher Ed Jobs, Times Higher Ed, and Jobs.ac.uk—based on the job boards I found to be most comprehensive for the countries I was interested in. I checked these once a day during the workweek, usually around midday when I was tired of doing work but still felt the need to be productive. There were a handful of other sites I checked less frequently as well.
When I found a job that interested me and for which I was qualified, I added it to a spreadsheet. In the spreadsheet went the full name of the school, the full job title, the application deadline, a link to the posting, and details on what was required to apply (which materials, how long they needed to be, etc.). For US jobs, it’s typical to list all of this in the job ad; for UK jobs, you might have to create an account on the application website and start your application before you can see what all they want you to submit. Because I was checking job boards every day, I had the spreadsheet open regularly and could see what deadlines were coming up. I found this system preferable to putting all of the deadlines in my calendar, which I like to keep streamlined.
Additionally, I saved a PDF of each job ad. Hat tip to Anna Oltman for this pro move: ads usually disappear after the deadline, but if you get an interview, the ad can be a useful reminder of what the committee is looking for.
How I prepped for interviews
My department offers a number of opportunities to prepare for interviews, usually long before any interviews would actually occur. I participated in practice one-on-one meetings with faculty, which took place in September. While useful, it would have helped me more, personally, to practice the panel interview with the hiring committee that occurs at every job interview. One-on-one conversations with faculty, in my experience, were just that—conversations—rather than the interrogations some faculty in my department set them up to be. I feel pretty confident in my ability to have a conversation with a stranger, whereas staring down a panel of people deciding my future necessitates a different sort of steeliness. Moreover, because all of my practice interviews were one-on-one, I proceeded under the mistaken impression that that would be the case in real interviews as well. Nope!
I also gave several practice job talks, which I think are absolutely essential. This isn’t a conference presentation; you can’t wing it. (In case you are also like me and interpret everything as a challenge, that isn’t one.) I gave my first talk to a group of more senior friends who had all been through this process before. In these early stages, you need empathy more than you need critique, so starting with friends is a good move and was made easier by Zoom-world.
I then gave a full-on virtual practice talk in my department for faculty and other grads in October. This was designed to be the most similar experience to a real job talk, but I found it to be more combative than any actual talk I gave while interviewing. Because I am a critical, interpretive researcher who yells about white supremacy all the time, I’m used to this, and so my practice job talk felt like yet another talk, rather than anything special. Maybe that was a good thing? I don’t know. It felt irritating at the time. The next day, I gave the exact same talk, with no changes, to a virtual colloquium of scholars from other universities and got a completely different set of questions and feedback. So it goes. (Bottom line: at some point, you have to stop listening to feedback and do what feels right to you, because you will never please everyone.)
I cannot adequately describe how much I hated writing my job talk. I’m not sure why I hated it so much—obviously I know my own work well, and I’ve given plenty of talks about it over the years—but it was an excruciating exercise. I gave myself about a month to write it and then, realizing that I wasn’t making any progress, scheduled the practice talk with friends to give myself a deadline earlier than “Night Before I Have to Try to Impress My Whole Department.” I finished writing the first full version of the talk about 15 minutes before my self-imposed deadline. In other words, I crammed the writing into about six hours because I work better in short bursts than steadily over time, and trying to make myself work at a different rhythm because “preparation” or whatever was very silly.
Before my first virtual campus visit, I gave two additional job talks, having revised the talk based on earlier feedback. I did these for my committee, a handful of other faculty members, and close friends—in other words, people whose feedback I valued most highly. I hated doing these, because I was tired and stressed and did not want to have to explain yet again how capitalism and racism are related to people who are smart and should really get it by now, but I needed to do them in order to see which parts of the talk I still had to clarify. So, if this is you, I would recommend biting the bullet. And also, listen to your brain. If giving yet another talk will make you anxious or depressed, even to a room of people who love you and want you to succeed, you don’t have to do it. It’s not worth it.
I scripted every word of my job talk and did not memorize it. If you’ve ever seen me give a talk at a conference, you know I do this for all of my talks. I also script about 70% of every lecture I give. This method works for me, and I fully intended to take advantage of Zoom’s screen-sharing functionality such that the audience could only see my slides and not my notes. That meant, initially, that I read word for word from a Word document in front of me on my computer screen. (Eventually, I memorized some of the talk inadvertently from giving it so many times.) Some people could tell and commented on it. I decided not to care, because we are in a fucking pandemic and I live alone and this was the most I could ask of my very tired brain. If I sound angry about this, I am! I’ve sat through six years of women giving job talks and being told they’re too polished whether they’re reading from a script or walking around a room and clearly doing everything from memory, and I’ve seen the same faculty say nothing about male job candidates who cannot string a sentence together. Sing it if you know the words: do what feels right to you.
I made my slides in PowerPoint. This is sacrilege to some Beamer enthusiast out there, but I decided it was more important for me to have precise control over how my slides looked (again, the design of your materials conveys something about you) than to virtue-signal with LaTeX. I’ve also had enough bad experiences at conferences over the years with computers that can’t open PDFs to default to PowerPoint for presentations, even though all of my interviews were virtual and I was using my own laptop. I hooked up my clicker because I thought that might feel more natural than hitting the space bar to advance my slides, but it ultimately didn’t. And I always, always used wired earbuds to give my talks. Any of you who have taught on Zoom know that it interfaces strangely with wireless earbuds and can turn you into a distorted static monster. It’s not worth risking it, in my opinion.
How I kept my committee apprised of what I was doing
I…didn’t? Okay, let me elaborate. I didn’t think it was realistic to email every single committee member every single time I applied to a job, especially since I applied to over 50—that’s a lot of emails! And I was also applying to a lot of non-U.S. schools and teaching-focused institutions, where most of my committee members didn’t have connections. I had one committee member who asked me to text her whenever I applied to an institution “where she might know someone,” and I did do that; it was very little work, and she always reliably advocated for me when she did in fact have a connection. I have friends whose committees asked for a “top 10 list” of jobs, which mystifies me because the market is ongoing and I don’t know if I ever felt good enough about 10 positions at any one time before some were filled or at least didn’t shortlist me, because again, the market is ongoing. (I also have friends whose committees had to “approve” of them applying to each job, which, no.)
Bottom line: talk to your committee about what they expect from you, but don’t feel as though you have to rely only or even mostly on your committee for support. EX: I have a friend who teaches at a liberal arts school in Pennsylvania, which has approximately five million liberal arts schools. Whenever I’d apply to one, I’d mention it to her; sometimes she’d know someone. Mentioning my applications to more senior friends was also generally useful because sometimes they’d know an alum of our grad program whom I didn’t know who taught in a department that was hiring. In the end, the connections that mattered most, in terms of offering insights into what specific departments were looking for and cheering me on, were my own, though I recognize that not everyone has that sort of network.
If anything, I’d move this conversation of keeping in touch with your committee away from networking and to broader sources of support. As the market went on, I needed check-ins and pep talks more than I needed email introductions to people who probably had no say in the hiring process. You might need a different sort of support, and it may be difficult for you to ask for what you need, or to turn down help that feels stressful but is offered kindly. I’d urge committees to ask grads what they need, be prepared for those needs to change over the course of the market, and perhaps also provide a menu of ways they can offer support, but let grads guide the conversation.