Coping with the Academic Job Market

The current academic job market, to state the matter as elegantly as possible, sucks. This has been its chronic condition ever since I emerged from graduate school in the 1970s. Now, of course, employment possibilities for faculty in higher education are further constrained by the dismal prospects affecting the rest of the economy. In truth, employment in general resembles the situation that occurred during the Great Depression, with little hope for significant recovery any time soon.

Percent Job Losses in Post-WWII Recessions

Percent Job Losses in Post-WWII Recessions

How many academics, perhaps with terminal degree in hand, are affected by this situation? How many are unemployed? How many are underemployed in part-time or contingent positions? How many have been forced to seek employment outside academia? How many have succeeded in their quest for employment of any kind? No one knows.

Shamefully, most graduate programs collect no data, and those that do generally keep it to themselves. But we do know that the number of tenure-track positions relative to qualified applicants continues its decline of the last 30 years, and that this trend continues unabated. And so long as state and federal governments, along with students and families, continue their belt-tightening as a result of the lack of jobs, the budget picture for colleges and universities offers no relief.

Control What You Can

As bad as the academic job market is in light of current economic realities, much of the published advice to job seekers paints a far too rosy picture. Those who seek a tenure-track faculty position should face the fact that the odds are against them; only a small percentage of applicants will actually be hired into such positions. The rejected will be forced into post-docs, part-time jobs, contingent positions, or employment outside academia. Nevertheless, we’re in the midst of the hiring season, and final decisions have yet to be made. In this situation, the operating principle should be “control what you can.” And that boils down in the first instance to the letter of application.

My own experience on both sides of the hiring process provokes two key recommendations: (1) research every institution before applying, and (2) write the best letter you can to show how each institution will benefit specifically by hiring you. I’ll leave to others advice on how to handle interviews, but your research should help with the interview as well.

Research Each Institution

Every college is unique, and search committees focus on whether a candidate will fit in with their institution’s or program’s culture. This focus is quite beyond any interest in a candidate’s scholarly achievements in the relevant discipline and is often paramount. Therefore, as an applicant, you must thoroughly research every college to which you apply. The questions are nearly endless.

  • What type of students do they attract?
  • Do they expect you to teach online courses? What sort of support do they offer for that?
  • What are the subspecialties represented among the faculty, and how do your areas of expertise overlap with or duplicate those of existing faculty?
  • Does the college or program have an active program of student learning assessment? If so, what do they do with the results?
  • How financially stable is the college? And how strongly does the college support the department/program to which you are applying?
  • Is the college’s strategic plan publicly available, or will they share it with you?
  • What is the typical teaching load, and how active will the college or program expect you to be with regard to published scholarship?

Write a Letter Tailored to Each Institution

Once you’ve got a clear, detailed understanding of what each college is all about and how your program fits into the grand scheme of things, you should write a letter that addresses each point of the job description in the context of what you have learned. You must study the job description with the eyes of a Talmudic scholar. These descriptions are usually written by a committee and approved by a dean, and they might, therefore, reflect some tension about what the position’s priorities should be. Your letter must negotiate these stated or implied priorities with care.

In addition, do not be afraid to ask questions about features of the college that turned up in your research. Once, during a search for a librarian, I was working my way through a series of one-on-one interviews with each candidate. The process was rather ho-hum until one candidate surprised me with the question, “Accrediting agencies generally recommend that a library’s budget be about 5-6% of the institution’s total budget, but yours is only about 2%. Why? And what are you doing to increase the library’s budget?” This candidate had done his research, and his question hit his target! I wanted to hire him on the spot (we lost him to a competitor school). Rude challenges should be avoided, of course, but most committees and deans will be flattered if you’ve done enough poking around to ask searching questions.

One last point about the letter is so obvious that no one should have to mention it: the letter must be grammatically correct, as perfect as possible. I have read too many letters that contained egregious errors that caused me to wonder whether the author should be permitted to teach any college class. Some contained boilerplate paragraphs that offered a detail or two that did not fit our college at all. And some even got the name of the college wrong! Not good!

Many books and articles can help with academic job searching. Read them and heed them. But don’t neglect the obvious: (1) be realistic about your chances; (2) do your research; (3) write a really strong, individually tailored letter.

Then wait.

And never, never grow old.


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