The Professor is In: Hacking the Academic Job Market

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We are joined by acclaimed tenured Professor, author and mentor extraordinaire, Karen Kelsky who founded and is President of the “Professor Is In”. She is delving into how to hack into the elusive academic job market.


Check out her award winning book here.


The conditions of the market:

  • The academic market is imploding – things are bad NOW, especially in State systems due to a funding crisis.
  • Southern Illinois college has recently fired over 100 people in the last few months and some Universities only have enough money to sustain themselves for several months.
  • Both Economic and Political causes: business/corporate logic has taken over administration and boards of trustees to cost-cutting and downsizing
  • Permanent people are the most expensive commodity and are being replaced by adjunct and contingent professors who are hired without benefits, and critically – without job security.
  • Adjunctivation: about 75% of professors in Academic institutions are now non-tenure track faculty with no job security.

You need to ask yourself: How much did you pay for your education and experience? How long can you be a postdoc? When do you get your RETURN ON INVESTMENT?? Check out Karens’ PhD Debt study here. Many people accrue debts of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Your PI/advisors are unlikely to be helping you with getting a return on your academic/career investment.

How to think like a Search Committee:

  • Shrinking departments mean more service and teaching lumped on the existing tenure track faculty.
  • Each job opening likely gets hundreds of applications.
  • The search committee wants to reject you: they need to get 500 applicants down to a pool of 25.
  • If you don’t grab and hold them in the first 20 seconds, you’re toast.

So, how not to get rejected:

During postdoc & grad school:

  • Publish in refereed journals
  • Get grants – preferably national
  • Be active in high prestige conferences (NETWORKING! – Try organizing a panel discussion at a conference to help start some connections).
  • Cultivate well-known recommendations (these count a lot!).
  • Practise brief summaries of your research! This needs to be second nature and is hard to do!
  • Make your application material flawless. These are easy to write badly and hard to write well.

You need to cultivate and plan your tenure track journey during GRAD SCHOOL.

Note: Any articles published prior to your tenure-track job will not count towards tenure, so plan accordingly!

Qualities of a successful candidates:

  • Intensive productivity (publications!),
  • Total professionalization
    • Acting like you are on the same level as fellow FACULTY and has left the grad school/postdoc mindset behind.
    • Best way to test this is to practice with mock interviews & job talks.
    • Appropriate dress & grooming
    • Steady, level eye contact and firm handshake
    • Professional and fully adult speech patterns – especially if you have picked up “millennial-speak” from undergrad teaching! You want to sound like a professor.
    • Statement of your contribution to the field (this is harder then it seems! Practice it!).
  • Autonomy and self-respect,
    • What are YOU doing for your discipline – linked to statement of your contribution to the field.
  • Effective self-promotion (conferences! networking!),
  • Affable collegiality
    • Comes in at the campus visit: you are already qualified for the job, they are seeing if they can stand you as some tenure track jobs last longer then most US marriages…

Social Media Presence

  • Candidates ARE googled
  • Control the content: have a website/vitae profile/ page with research summary, papers, publications & syllabi.
  • Use a professional photo (not at the beach!)
  • Set your Facebook setting for privacy however,
  • Twitter is very active and engaged space for academics (check out Karen at @professorisin) .

Avoid the temptation of the cheap

  • Don’t accept invitations without careful, critical evaluation.
  • i.e. “Don’t Get Your Career at Costco”.
    • Edited collections: rarely get off the ground and take a very long time to get into production and/or review. Can take 5-7 years to get to press!

Your 5-Year Plan for Tenure

  • On the job market, you are being evaluated for tenurability!!
  • You are often tempted to look backwards at what you have done.
  • You need to look forward to what you’ll achieve in 5-year probationary period.
  • The job committee is looking for what you will do in the future.

Actually give yourself deadlines, it is difficult but very clarifying:

An academic “vision board”

Your Materials:

  • Everyone’s first draft is crap!
  • If your job materials are not working for you – correct them, fast!
  • The Ethos of Effective Job Market Documents:
    • Cover letter should be concise: 2 pages max.
    • Teaching statements: 1 page
    • Research statements 2-4 pages (STEM is on the 4 page side).
    • CVs don’t have a page limit, so don’t exclude important details
    • Confident and focused exclusively on achievements, not gaps.
    • Based on facts, not emotions.
    • Focused on finished work not things that are in the works.
    • Academics are skeptics: academics are not “emotional”, they expect and respond to reliable evidence and careful argumentation.
  • Common Pitfalls for Job Seekers:
    • The narcissism trap
      • Obsessed with your own process: “I have always been fascinated by xxxx, and lead me to xxxx …” vs. “my research was xxx, using yyy and I concluded aaa”
    • Telling, not showing
      • Good writing always shows rather then tells.
      • Very vague statements that can be said by anyone.
      • Need to provide data
    • Hyper-emotionalism
      • Use of a lot of verbs.
      • Bottom line: facts: not emotions!
    • Excessive humility and pandering
      • An Adjective vortex!
      • Over-fluffing your work
      • The more you self-abnegate and pander, the less respect you gain. Make them want you.
    • The Perils of Obstinacy
      • If you have sent out 30-50 applications and not been shortlisted, there is something wrong with your materials and profile.
      • You need to continually correct

How Long To Try??

  • No hard & fast rule!
  • This is a financial calculation regarding income, debt, dependents.
  • Three years is not uncommon – if you can afford it.
  • After that, move on!!!

The Non-Academic Job Search:

  1. Think in terms of skills, not identity.- You have the necessary skills, you need to learn what these are and how to advertise yourself! You have a lot of unique skills!
  2. Nurture relationships with non-academic mentors in your field.
  3. Find internships or volunteer opportunities
  4. Conduct informational interviews
  5. Set aside time for additional training
  6. Make your work relevant (what real-life questions does it speak to?).

In conclusion: DON’T BE YOURSELF! Be disciplined in your thinking and writing. Jettison yourself – don’t worry, your personality will still shine through!

Cultivate your professional persona!

For more details, check out Karen’s book!