This is the second in a series of reflections on going through the academic job market during COVID. Part 1, which covers the basics of what this process was like, is here. Part 3, which covers differences between research- and teaching-focused institutions, is here.
Look, I know we’re all eager to leave the pandemic behind. But the fact remains that we’re still in it, and that means the academic job market this coming year will look something like last year’s. Given that many institutions tried new things out of necessity or innovation, it’s worth taking a moment to interrogate what worked, what didn’t, and what we need to keep doing even after it becomes safe to return to a pre-pandemic status quo.
As always: these are my experiences; preferences vary; so will your mileage.
Five Things to Keep
1. Shorter job applications
Because of budgetary concerns and timing clusterfuckery (technical term) on this past year’s market, a number of institutions asked for just a cover letter and a CV for the first round of an application, so as to expedite the selection process. This is a marked difference from the typical cover letter/CV/research statement/teaching statement/evidence of teaching effectiveness/reference letters/diversity statement/writing samples/random HR stuff required for many applications. I interviewed at one school that had a last-minute replacement search come up, and they only asked to see applicants’ CVs before deciding whom to interview.
To be clear, many schools still asked for the full application packet rigmarole. But some didn’t, including several R1s that typically brand themselves as ultra-competitive and elite. And they still were, even with less paperwork. So, let’s keep doing this! Clearly we don’t need all of those pages to make decisions. Meanwhile, tailoring all of those materials for every single job—at the peak of the market for me, two or three per day, while I was also trying to do the rest of my current job—takes both a lot of time and a lot of mental energy. Constant self-promotion requires a considerable amount of fortitude and hubris that has been socialized out of women, nonbinary people, and POC, so massive application packets become inequitable in a host of ways. You don’t want to read all of that stuff anyway. Ask for less. Be kind.
2. Interviews without dinners
A campus visit for an academic job in the United States usually involves taking your meals with faculty in the department, which means even the basic act of eating becomes an evaluative exercise. This becomes especially complicated when alcohol is involved, even if you, the candidate, aren’t drinking. Even setting all of that aside, having to go to dinner and be on your game after an entire day of being on your game is exhausting. Add having to manage any dietary restrictions or food allergies…yeah. Why did we ever make people do this?
Five minutes after logging off of my virtual campus visits, I was in pajamas and on the phone ordering a pizza. (Eating a whole pizza is a very important part of my decompression process.) Being able to do this shouldn’t feel like a luxury. Give job candidates $20, call them a Lyft back to their hotel, and let them order a pizza in peace. It’s cheaper for you, less demanding for the hiring committee, and more importantly is kind.
3. Interviews that don’t require reimbursement
Imagine having gotten an elusive job interview and stressing constantly as you prep for what might be your only chance at an academic job. Now imagine having to shell out hundreds of dollars you don’t have in order to even get to that interview. Sound ridiculous? That’s because it is. But that’s what some schools ask of job candidates in a typical year.
I missed being able to travel and see new places as part of the job market. I didn’t miss having to wait months for my flight to be reimbursed and shuffle money around in the meantime. (Or maybe longer: my flight to one campus visit when I was a prospective grad student wasn’t reimbursed for over a year.) It is beyond inequitable to require candidates that you are inviting to your campus to pay their own way to get there. Reimbursement isn’t okay; it still means paying upfront. Let’s never make job candidates go through it again. If this is an institution-wide policy and not something you as a search committee chair can control, consider making your campus visits virtual. That’s not ideal, but it’s kinder. Which brings me to…
4. Accessible job interviews
I am able-bodied and can travel without worrying about whether I’ll have to navigate stairs when I get to where I’m going or stomach food that gives me a flare. I think constantly about the main seminar room in my department, which is on the fourth floor of a building with no elevator, and no one in a position of power seems to think this is a problem. To my knowledge, we’ve never had a physically disabled individual interview for a job here (or, for that matter, visit as a prospective grad student). I wonder why.
We’ve all learned this year how to have virtual conversations. We know how to access and navigate this technology. That means we could do this every year if we wanted to. I want us to want to. Disabled individuals need to have virtual job interviews as an option. This doesn’t mean getting rid of in-person visits: for some people, disabilities make virtual interactions harder than in-person ones. But it does mean incorporating flexibility, asking job candidates what works best for them, and not judging or shaming them for their needs or choices.
Things to get rid of
1. No more job market cycles that last over a year.
(Or, if you are an institution that’s already posted a job that begins in September 2022, I will claw your eyes out.)
A typical academic job market cycle, I’m told, peaks around November/December, with job listings starting to appear in earnest in August/September. Due to COVID-related budget concerns and last-minute approvals for hires, this past year’s cycle saw tenure-track R1 positions still appearing in May. A tenured faculty member who shall not be named (honestly, I don’t remember who it was) posted something in December about “pulling your files out one last time” to apply for a TT job, and I just laughed. My busiest time was February/March, and I was on the market until early June. I had started writing my application materials the previous June, in 2020. If I had decided to go on the market for a second year, I would’ve gotten no break, because schools are already posting positions for the next cycle. If you’ve never job-hunted for an extended period of time, it is a horror show of having your self-worth stripped away and also your money, because guess what, ultimately you need that and if you don’t get a job you won’t have any! I don’t use “horror show” lightly.
The biggest thing I want to change about the job market is to make it shorter, because it is an exhausting experience and only gets more exhausting the longer it drags on. The structure of 99% of academia—permanent jobs start in the fall and no other time, and there are not enough such jobs for all the candidates no matter when you post them—means that there is no benefit to having a never-ending job market like in other industries. I applied to jobs with deadlines in August 2020 that will start in September 2021, and I applied to jobs with deadlines in May 2021 that will start in September 2021. There is no rhyme or reason to this. All it does is turn job market candidates into balls of stress for a year by making them essentially work two full-time jobs at once, because applying for jobs is a job. Dissertation? I don’t know her.
I also don’t know what a shorter job market looks like, practically speaking. I’m sure there is university-level bureaucratic nonsense that makes it difficult to create such a system. And, of course, I’m sure it’s nice to know in December where you’re going to be next September, for the very few people whose market year goes that way. What I do know is that this level of stress and exhaustion, especially on top of all the other things we demand of late-stage grad students, is not sustainable. I can envision a system where no jobs appear until the winter/spring, so you spend the fall/winter finishing your dissertation and defending and then the market starts, while you still have income at least until the summer. Cue all of the people coming out of the woodwork to tell me why that would be terrible and/or impossible; I’d love to hear other ideas here. Anything besides the current system, because the current system is neither good nor the least bad option. /rant
2. No more virtual visits spread over multiple days.
I did several virtual campus visits that lasted two or three days. Inevitably, these were not two or three full days, but rather a few hours here and a few hours there as we tried to juggle schedules. I thought at first that this system would be easier than being “on” consistently for even one full day.
For me, at least, that wasn’t the case. It was hard to slip in and out of job interview mode for several days. It was hard to balance interviews with other obligations—since I wasn’t technically out of town, I still had teaching to do and meetings to attend. And it was discordant to exist in a state of “I am being interviewed” for three days during which I also didn’t leave my home.
Maybe others have different views on this, but, since it’s possible to create one full-day experience for candidates when that experience happens in person, it should also be possible to do so online. If schedules can be finagled in person, they can also be finagled online. At the very least, candidates’ home departments should be aware if interviews will last multiple days and be prepared to cover candidates’ teaching, cancel their other obligations, and so on. (This goes for search committee members as well—y’all work hard and don’t need to be running off to teach the minute you log off of a Zoom interview.)
3. No more interviews with no lead time.
In my experience, some institutions seemed to think that, because I didn’t have to make travel arrangements, I could be available for an interview with a moment’s notice (as in, “can you interview on Monday?” when it’s currently Thursday). This was technically true. It was also a huge ask that meant I had to prep career-deciding talks on the weekend. No more.
If you would usually give a candidate two or three weeks from invitation to interview, give them that in virtual time too. I know there were time crunches this past year; there will also be time crunches going forward. That doesn’t mean we can’t be kind. If you have to interview someone on short notice due to factors outside of your control, ask less of them. Maybe they can give a teaching demo on their area of expertise rather than some topic you assign them. Maybe they can give a job talk of whatever length they want in case they already have a 40–minute version prepped, because making that 20 minutes in effect requires writing a new talk. (Cough.) Yes, here be monsters of inequity, and I clearly haven’t thought this through all the way. Bottom line: give more lead time whenever you can and adjust expectations when you can’t.
4. No more Microsoft Teams.
(She says, as she prepares to go to work for an institution that uses Teams exclusively. SAVE ME.)
I know, I know: different academic systems use different platforms, and learning those different platforms is just part of interacting with those systems if you’re really committed, say, to moving to the UK. And also, I hate Teams. I hadn’t used it for months, so it took three hours to update. It took another hour for me to get screen sharing to work. (I did all of this with a very patient friend the day before my interview, instead of at 6 a.m. before my interview with people in a different country started, thank GOODNESS.) Its interface is glitchy and counterintuitive. (Why are everyone’s squares different sizes for no apparent reason???) It also requires a lot more bandwidth than Zoom, such that I did a job interview using my phone hotspot just to make sure there was no delay and people on the other end of the call could understand me. Why are Microsoft products so clunky? (She says, as she types this in Microsoft Word.)
In conclusion, down with Teams. Zoom is complicit in censorship of university events and also has bad security protocols, so down with them too, I guess. All software is bad and our conversations about equity and access should also include conversations about whose products we’re okay with promoting—not to say there are any right answers here, but I’d like to see these issues more thoughtfully considered, or even considered at all. Thanks for listening to my entirely personal and mostly unnecessary rant about Teams.