the academic job market is the worst, except for all the others

Hi, I’m going on the academic job market this fall! Please hire me.

For years, I’ve had trouble understanding what in particular makes the academic market so difficult. I’ve been on a job market before: I graduated in June 2013, and it took me 10 months to find a full-time job. In the interim, I cobbled together part-time service industry work and a makeshift freelance business while also engaged in the full-time job of finding income. Coupled with my experience in academia (and my dating life—heyo!), I’m used to rejection. And so I figured, well, this is effort and rejection all over again. It sucks, but it’s familiar.

Of course, I assumed I would not be job-hunting in the middle of a global pandemic and countrywide recession. Nor did I expect the uprisings and accompanying anti-racist work that’s kept me driven for the past month or so (though if you read that and immediately thought, “Anna, you’re an organizer; if it wasn’t this it would be something else”…yes). I did expect more mental and emotional capacity, and enough time to account for the seasonal depression I experience every summer.

All of these things are challenges, but they aren’t the structural things that I want to talk about—the questions that would be relevant in any year and the quirks of the academic market that make it different from applying to jobs in other industries. So here’s a list of things I’ve already learned, in June, before the crumbs of jobs that might still exist this year have even been posted, written quickly while waiting for my cookies to cool. It’s a long list. It turns out there’s a lot to learn.

1. Academic cover letters are not like “regular” cover letters. I’m used to writing short, direct pieces that highlight skills developed and results delivered. Academic cover letters are, instead, pages of description of one’s research—past, present, and future. This is confusing, because academic jobs also require a research statement that feels like much the same thing. They are also extremely formulaic, and I’ve been told by both faculty and newly graduated friends not to deviate from that formula. This feels wrong—ultimately hiring is about personalities, and part of assessing a job candidate’s materials is figuring out whether or not they “fit” personality-wise—but I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m not here to question. But writing formulaically is exhausting. Like other parts of academia, it beats the humanity out of you.

2. Academic job packets require so many more pieces than applications for “regular” jobs. There’s the aforementioned lengthy cover letter, the (maybe?) redundant research statement, the CV, the job market paper, the teaching statement, the diversity statement (probably), teaching evaluations and sample syllabi (sometimes)…maybe other things? Who knows! There are also a minimum of three reference letters, and these are letters—not forms people fill out, and not 15-minute phone calls. Which requires, of course, getting letter-writers your materials well in advance of any deadlines. Anyway, this is a lot to put together. And having sat on hiring committees for “regular” jobs, it feels unnecessary from the outside. It takes very little time to figure out whether you want to interview someone. Surely it does not take 50+ pages. But I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m not here to question. In short, if you thought tailoring materials for “regular” jobs was exhausting…yes, and.

3. Well-intentioned people will offer you many opportunities to practice for various parts of the job market, such as the ever-looming job talk. Less well-intentioned people will strongly encourage you to take all of these opportunities. This is exhausting. I don’t know what I’m doing, but I know that mental and emotional health matter more than anything when job-hunting. Do things that scare you a little. Don’t do things when you know they’re going to send you into an anxiety spiral and not actually help you. A sense of obligation—or, worse, a guilt-trip—is not a reason to do yourself harm.

4. The people best equipped to support you in a job search—your graduating friends who just went through the process—are also the least able, because they’re trying to finish their dissertations and holy hell does that seem stressful. For me, friends going through the market (or any academic experience) at the same time are helpful for commiseration purposes, but we don’t fully understand it yet because we haven’t come out the other side. Personally, I want support from people who’ve survived. To be clear, I’m indicting the system, not my friends. Pandemic aside, academia could have required less of them this past year. The discipline could generally agree that asking-but-actually-demanding that grads on the market teach a massive introductory course for 7% of the salary of the professor who usually teaches it is a Bad Idea. I digress. Sing it if you know the words: emotionally supporting yourself is exhausting.

5. You will need to ask a million questions, and this will in turn make you feel like a nuisance. This is because the advice you are given may not be the advice you need. I have learned a lot, for example, about how to prepare for APSA interviews (which are not happening; pandemic), how stressed I will be (thanks?), and how I need to divest myself of my gender entirely (lol). I have learned less about whether I should start saving. Are flyouts paid for upfront or reimbursed after the fact? I literally thought of that question just now. To whom do you even pose that question? ACH.

6. Questions I have asked, and answers I have received:

-How do you sell work on race in a discipline that devalues such work? Be white. Actual answer: an incredible email I can’t summarize here from a scholar I’ve never met in person but who took the time to think this through with me. I am blessed, and grateful.

-Do I put my cover letter on letterhead? Yes. Maybe this is obvious, but I would not put a cover letter on company letterhead for a “regular” job, so. (This answer would be more obvious if anyone provided us with letterhead.)

-Do I include the exact month I’ll be defending my dissertation in my cover letter even though I don’t know what that month will be? Yes.

-Are there typically word or page limits for [X component of application]? Sometimes; there is a lot of variation; great.

-Did your imposter syndrome flare up every time you found out someone else was going on the job market, even if they researched the opposite of what you researched? Yes; great.

-Who pays for sending out job applications through Interfolio (because everything in academia has to cost money)? In my case, my department. I hope that is true for all of you. Faculty reading this, if it is not true in your department, it is your job, not your graduate students’, to advocate for having costs covered.

Is this list already exhausting? Is it June? Wheeeeeee.

A serious note: I plan to continue writing about this experience as I go through it—about how I’m feeling and how/if I figure out how to cope. The worst disservice we do in academia is failing to communicate openly and honestly.

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