what it’s like being on the academic job market during COVID-19

This is the first in a series of reflections on going through the academic job market during COVID. Part 2, on what things we should keep from virtual interviews and what things we shouldn’t, is here. Part 3, on the differences I experienced across research- and teaching-focused institutions, is here.

It Happened to Me: I Survived the Academic Job Market During a Global Pandemic. I don’t use “survived” hyperbolically. The past year was one of the lowest sustained periods of my life, with my mental health reaching troughs that I didn’t have the capacity to process in the moment and that I suspect will sit in my body for years. And, in the end, I achieved the goal I set out to achieve: I landed a permanent faculty position at the University of Nottingham. I want to talk about what happened along the way.

The job market is a highly individualized experience, as everyone has different professional goals and different extents to which they tie their self-worth to their work (or not). Everyone also interacts with a capricious and near-random job market where there are simply too few positions, such that some people get lucky and some don’t for reasons divorced from their qualifications. And that’s why I think, for those who feel comfortable doing so, that it’s important to share what the process is actually like—not because it will be identical for you, reader, but because it will be hard (in different ways), and it may be traumatic, and voicing that gives us a foundation from which to establish what is similar and systematic across experiences and what we might to do make the system work better. (I also want to acknowledge that the privilege of having obtained a permanent job gives me the space to speak openly about my experience on the market, along with my complete lack of a self-preservation instinct and my inability to keep my mouth shut/white woman-ness.)

I didn’t put the title of this post in past tense because we’re still in a pandemic, and depending on where people are applying, I suspect they’ll run into a number of the same restrictions that I did. I also suspect the low costs of virtual campus visits will make them a more common practice (or, at the very least, that virtual first-round interviews will become more of a thing since we’re all used to the Zoom ecosystem now). So some of the insights here may be useful beyond the pandemic year. But, as with everything: grain of salt, your mileage may vary, do what feels right to you.

The basics: where I applied

It’s common to start a conversation about one’s job market experience with their “stats”; this is our way of establishing scope conditions, probably, because academics are insufferable and can never not talk about research methods. Here are mine:

  • I applied to 51 academic jobs.
  • Twenty-six of these jobs were in the US, 14 in the UK, four in Canada, three in the Netherlands, two in Germany, one in Ireland, and one in Switzerland.
  • Forty-one of them were tenure-track positions (or permanent positions, in the case of Europe), three were visiting positions, and seven were postdocs.
  • Of the tenure-track or visiting positions, I applied to five jobs at liberal arts colleges, nine at US R1s, 23 at non-US research universities, one at a community college, and six others (R2s, etc.).
  • In terms of subject area, I applied to 37 positions in political science or international relations departments and 13 that were interdisciplinary (international studies, legal studies, criminology).  

These numbers were in some ways a product of the pandemic: a liberal arts job was my ideal job, but there simply weren’t a lot of liberal arts schools hiring this cycle. I applied to every single one for which I was plausibly qualified and that was at least a two-year contract…which was five. Ouch. I would’ve loved to apply to positions in Australia, but they’re not letting their own citizens enter the country, much less me. But these numbers are also a product of my own preferences. I didn’t want to live anywhere very hot. I didn’t want to have to meet the tenure expectations at a US R1. I didn’t want to work for the military. I didn’t want to work at a religious school. And I especially didn’t want to work anywhere on a contract that wasn’t at least two years long, because I had no desire to immediately have to uproot my life again, and I think it is unreasonable that this is a norm in academia. I ended up breaking all of these rules at least once, because preferences are a constellation and sometimes a very large pro in one column could make up for a negative in another.

My biggest rule, one guiding every other decision I made, was that I wasn’t going on the market more than once. At the beginning, this was critical for me as I worked to separate my identity as Anna and my identity as an academic/student/my work. (Those things have often been one in the same for me, which is not healthy for a host of reasons.) I thought if I repeated enough times to enough people that I’d be okay with pursuing a non-academic career post-PhD, I’d make it true. When it seemed like a non-academic path would indeed be my reality, I realized just how not okay with that reality I was. You can’t talk yourself into something you fundamentally don’t believe by putting on a show. More on that later.

I got interviews for six of these positions (technically seven, though I turned down the last interview invitation because by that point I’d gotten my permanent job). Someone told me they thought that was a common experience, and I cannot emphasize enough that it is not. Candidates who get that many interviews are rock stars who do work in a very particular mold with a bazillion publications in top journals, which does not describe me at all, and they get those interviews in quick succession, not because they are still on the market in May. This experience was bewildering to me and also gave me a strange feeling of guilt: I knew so many people who weren’t getting interviews, but I was, and so I felt that my continual failure to convert those interviews into job offers was letting the side down. I had opportunities, so I had to make sure not to squander them…yet I kept doing so, again and again. There are multiple things wrong with that narrative, but that’s where my brain went, and I think acknowledging that that narrative is what I experienced is more productive than trying to break it apart (because responding to it rationally, I cannot underscore enough, does not help), so.

Anyway. My interviews were for:

  • a postdoc at a German research institute
  • a tenure-track job at a Canadian research university
  • a visiting position at a US liberal arts college
  • a tenure-track job at a US community college
  • a tenure-track job at a US R1
  • a permanent position at the University of Nottingham in the UK (the job I ultimately got; I am very very very excited; it is ideal for me in so many ways!)
  • a visiting position at a US R1 (I turned this invitation down)

This is a bewildering cross-section of schools, and every interview was very different. Here’s what they were like.

Interviewing during COVID

(Or, I tried to keep this somewhat formulaic, but it became more and more emotional as I kept writing. I let it be. This part is important.)

My first interview, at the end of September, was for a postdoc. It was at 7 a.m. my time, and it was in German. I had not done a job interview in over six years. I was terrified.

This being my first academic job interview, I wasn’t sure what was “normal” (I would soon learn there is no normal, at least not during COVID), but how the interview proceeded was nothing like what I’d been told to prep for in my department’s many job market meetings. I had to give a short presentation in English about myself and my research—in essence, a verbal CV—and then do a 45–minute Q&A in German with the hiring committee. This was the first round, so I’m not sure what the second round would’ve involved; I didn’t advance. In any event, I had to prepare a bunch of materials that I would never use again for any other interview, as well as try to anticipate questions and think about answers in my non-native language. A native German-speaking professor in my department offered to practice with me twice, which was extremely kind and generous.

I think I’m a pretty good judge of my own performance, and I didn’t perform spectacularly. I also don’t think, in retrospect, that the position was a particularly good fit for what I wanted to do as an academic and how I wanted my life to be structured. I didn’t anticipate moving on at the end of the interview (and I was correct about that), and I also wasn’t heartbroken about it.

My reaction to my second interview, at the Canadian research university, was very different. This was a full-on campus visit, complete with one-on-one meetings, a panel interview, and a job talk in the style I’d been taught to expect. I sat on Zoom with faculty members and graduate students for seven hours, going well into the evening my time (because time zones). On the plus side, I could eat meals I wanted to eat without having to schmooze, and I always knew where the bathroom was. At the same time, I have a really hard time reading nonverbal cues over Zoom, and I struggled with moderating my energy and responding normally to questions (rather than overly enthusiastically, or without waiting too long because I couldn’t tell when the other person was done speaking).

I felt tired but very positive about the interview afterwards; I don’t think I could’ve done any better. And so I was crushed when I learned I wouldn’t be offered the position. This was early January. I wouldn’t hear from any schools for another two months.

During those two months, I wasn’t writing my dissertation. I was having a lot of trouble getting out of bed. Every ounce of what little energy I had went to applying for more jobs, because I had to have an income source for the next year no matter how exhausted I was. My best friend moved to another country, which was an important career move for them but meant I lost my primary source of human interaction during a time when quarantine was still in full force. My beloved therapist stopped practicing, and the person they recommended as a replacement wasn’t a good fit, and then they also stopped practicing. Oh, and a bunch of white supremacists stormed the Capitol. I was teaching, but not well. Thank goodness I had that, though, as an anchor to the rest of the world, and to a task that I normally think I’m good at. I am being deliberately vague about what I was like during this period because I know from experience that putting certain mental illness-related things out in public leads to counterproductive and sometimes harmful reactions from people who think they are helping. If I interacted with you during this period, I worked very hard to mask how I was actually doing. I’m sorry for that dishonesty. (And, if you get what I’m hinting at and are worried you might experience something similar during your time on the market, please reach out if you want to. This is a judgment-free zone. I get it.)

ANYWAY. In early March, I heard back from a liberal arts school. I can’t convey to you how thrilling this was. Not only was it a job interview, but it was at exactly the sort of institution where I wanted to work. My first-round interview went well, and I was invited back for a full campus visit. It was once again virtual, and we split it over three days because at a liberal arts school, part of the visit is meeting administrators, and their schedules are more difficult to finagle. I gave a short job talk—about half the length of what I’d been taught to prep—and met with the whole department, undergraduates, faculty in other departments (this was fantastic), a couple of deans, and the president of the college. I loved this experience. I loved the people I met. I loved talking openly and passionately about teaching and community and collective care, about how neutrality isn’t a thing and recruitment without retention is worthless. I was so excited to possibly get this position.

Around the time of my virtual campus visit, I also got an invitation to interview at a community college. I was very excited about this, as the department seemed activism-oriented, and I had tailored my application accordingly, being very frank about my work in social justice in a way I’d been warned not to be in other applications. And it had worked! They wanted this, the most authentic version of me. Or so I assumed. My first indication that they might not came during the interview, when I had to give a teaching demonstration (no job talk). They’d said I was to treat the hiring committee like students, and I could do activities with them as I might in a classroom. Given that it was a community college and not an R1, I assumed good teaching mattered, so I chose not to give a lecture. That was the wrong choice. At the risk of sounding unprofessional, I won’t share how the rest of the interview went, but suffice it to say that my read of the department, and the choices I’d made in presenting myself in my application, did not translate into my conversation with them at all. I knew when I logged off of Zoom that I wouldn’t take the position even if it were offered to me. (It was not.)

That meant a lot hinged on the liberal arts job. It was the end of March, and the market was slowing down. I also needed to shift my focus toward finishing my dissertation—and, possibly, toward non-academic markets, which would be a considerable pivot. I hoped and I hoped and I hoped.

I didn’t get the liberal arts job. I didn’t get it, in the words of the search committee chair, because my secondary teaching interests were too similar to what other faculty already offered. (I bear them no ill will; this logic makes sense within the context of small liberal arts departments where teaching is the bread and butter, no matter how much I hated this explanation at the time.) I remember telling my friend, the one who moved away, “That’s it, then.” It felt like the end of the academic market. I was sure it was. There was a brief glimpse of hope at the beginning of April—a last minute tenure-track search opened up at a US R1, and I got a first-round interview—but that didn’t pan out, and I found myself spiraling in what felt like a narrower and narrower time crunch that demanded energy from me I didn’t have, that required pivoting away from a career path I wanted and trying to make peace with that when I couldn’t talk to another human being without breaking down, that presented so many problems I had to solve or not have income or a place to live. A mentor of mine who lives in another state visited Madison in May, and they spent only a few minutes with me before stating, plainly, “You are in crisis.” They were right. I was chugging along, but I had to make myself a future with scraps, and with less and less capacity each day as time kept moving and nothing panned out.

Two things finally did change: things started opening up, which meant I could see other humans in person again, and I got another interview at the end of May. By this point, I had done so many interviews that I wasn’t nervous. I also wasn’t stressed. I did the requisite amount of prep work (I had to give a teaching demo and essentially a verbal version of my CV, which meant I gave the job talk I’d spent weeks writing back in the fall exactly once across all of my interviews) and nothing more. The interview was spread out over two days, and I felt my performance was average. After the past year, it wasn’t going to be better than average. It was a miracle, I thought, that I had performed at all.

And I got it. The email came on a Sunday morning. The subject line was something bureaucratic and uninformative, but it didn’t take much time to realize it was a positive email. Something good. I can’t write this part without sounding cheesy, so I’m not going to try.

But I can’t encapsulate how much everything changed after that. I can’t adequately describe how my energy came flowing back. How do you put down on paper the feeling of a year of piling rocks between your shoulder blades only to have them all dissolve in an instant? How do you accustom your body to standing up straight again? I texted my mentor, the same one who’d told me I was in crisis, and they called immediately. I heard their voice and I started sobbing. Everything came out of me at once. The dam-bursting simile is overused but accurate. I felt catharsis. I still had to finish my dissertation, not to mention plan an international move during a pandemic, but I’d done it. I felt, in the purest sense, free.

Where I am now

I’m better; thank you for asking! I finished my dissertation. I’m slowly catching up on the social interaction I forewent during the market because foisting my mental state on others felt like an imposition I couldn’t request. I drove to Milwaukee for my biometrics appointment earlier this week, and I ordered a lot of bubble wrap. I’m back to lifting heavy weights five times a week, and my brain loves the break from thinking. I’ll see my parents and brother later this week for the first time since 2019. I’m making a friend a wedding cake.

I have a list of lessons and takeaways from my experience, both in terms of how we can make virtual job interviews better, and how we can better prep grads for what the market is like now vs. what it was 10 or even 5 years ago. I also have some tools I used to keep the market manageable that I think are worth sharing. I’ll save those for a couple of future posts. Writing this ended up being a continuation of the catharsis I discussed above, and I’m tired; I wasn’t sure when I started how much I was going to share or how honest I was going to be. So if this is less helpful to your own experience than you thought it might be, sorry not sorry! I also don’t know how to end it. Regardless, I’ll see you back here tomorrow for a rundown on what we should save from the COVID job market for future years and what we should jettison. (Spoiler: it’s pretty much everything.)

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