"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


let the madness begin

Today is a day I've been anticipating/dreading for quite some time now: the unofficial kick-off of my field's academic job market. I fly to Boston for our big professional conference, at which there will be much schmoozing, some interviewing, and lots of nonsense presented in the form of academic discourse.

Since most Texas in Africa readers are lucky enough not to work in this field, and since this thing we call The Market is about to take over my life, I figured I should probably explain a little about what you'll be reading about for the next three to nine months. (If you keep reading, that is, which I completely wouldn't blame you if you stopped...)

Here's the main thing to remember: academia does not work like the real world. We use an archaic, unfair, semi-rigged system to place people. It's ridiculous and inefficient, but that's the way it works and there's no point in fighting it.

What do I mean by this? Take, for example, the well-meaning question I get asked almost every day by friends and family: "Where are you thinking about going?"

That's a great question, and one that would be valid if I were, say, a lawyer or a doctor or in business or doing any other job. But in academics, you have almost no say whatsoever over where you go, especially for a first job.

That's right. It's basically a roll of the dice. You apply for every job for which you might qualify (in my case, probably 40-50 jobs), cross your fingers, and hope to be chosen as one of three of the 300 applications they'll receive for one spot to be brought in for a campus interview. If you get the campus interview, you have two days to prove yourself (or to make yourself look like a complete idiot). That's an exercise in torture that involves meeting all of the faculty, the dean, giving a job talk (which is basically a summary of your dissertation), and possibly teaching a class.

(Being as I'm in a top tier program, I've seen plenty of job talks in the last six years. And let me tell you, when they go wrong, it is not pretty.)

If you somehow manage to impress the department where you've interviewed, or if they're so divided over the other two candidates that they pick you as a compromise candidate, you get an offer. You usually have about two weeks to make a decision, which is often a challenge when you don't know whether you'll have any other offers. Should you take the job in less-than-perfects-ville for a mediocre salary, or hold out to see if something better comes along? Problem is, it's a super-competitive market, and you might not get another offer. But what if you do?

Now, of course, you don't have to apply for every job. Some of my colleagues refuse to apply for anything that isn't on the east coast. Some are constrained by their spouse's employment needs, or a desire to be in a place with culture, or a feeling that they deserve to be placed somewhere better.

These are the people who usually don't get jobs until March. And then they land a one-year visitng position in rural Minnesota.

Then there's the whole problem of academic hierarchy. I'm of the opinion that most top-tier PhD programs in any given field are pretty much the same, but, again, that's not how it works. I am lucky enough to be enrolled in a top 25 program in my field. But that doesn't mean I can get a job just anywhere. In fact, I can't get a job at any institution whose graduate program in my field ranked higher than is my program. There's no good reason for this; it's just the way it is.

(One thing that can help or hurt in the hierarchy is who writes your references. If you have a big, famous scholar writing a letter on your behalf (and that letter is positive), that ups your stock a little. Guess where most of the famous scholars teach?)

What this means practically is that, in the fall, most of the jobs in the field are offered to the same 6 people who go to Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, and Yale (the top ranked programs in our field). They make their decisions, and the rejected institutions then move into a second round of offering jobs.

Our job market lasts for more than 6 months. The job listings come out in July and August, applications are due in September and October, interviews happen October - April, in some cases. In general there are three rounds. What that means is that I could have a job by Thanksgiving, or Easter, or not at all.

I try not to think about the latter option.

Applying for an academic job means submitting massive amounts of paperwork, all of which have to be customized for the institution to which you're applying. An application packet generally includes a cover letter, a cv (which is a really long resume), a statement of teaching philosophy,
"evidence of teaching effectiveness" (which means something different at each place), three reference letters, and transcripts. It can also require a statement of research agenda and sample course syllabi.

Mailing all that ain't cheap.

The good news is, my ambitions are very limited. I've been a graduate student at two tier one research universities (the holy grail of academia), and if there's one thing I'm sure of, it's that a career at one of those is not for me. I want to know my students' names, and am therefore aiming for a job at a place that values good teaching as much as skilled research. By not focusing on the super-competitive jobs at the top, my odds will be marginally better. I would also be very, very happy to take a job in the south, which helps as well in a crowd that's mostly interested in the New York metropolitan area. But again, it's not up to me.

As you can see, The Market is a fairly nerve-wracking process. You have to come off as competent, but not arrogant, and as a person who will be successful, yet still pleasant to be around. This weekend, I'll spend three days locked in a hotel with several thousand political scientists, beginning that process. Aren't you jealous?


Blogger Michael said...

Good luck! I'll be in your position soon. Luckily, I still have a year or two before I get too caught up in all that mess. Have fun at APSA . . . hehehehe

Wednesday, August 27, 2008 6:45:00 AM

Blogger UPennBen said...

Ugh, makes me think I should practice a job talk sometime. Or write enough of my diss to know what I'd say. Or give a lecture for once in my life. Or find a job making documentaries rather than teaching. Did you ever give any consideration to going into the non-academic world?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008 8:02:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Ben, every day.

Michael, aren't "fun" and "APSA" mutually exclusive? :)

Wednesday, August 27, 2008 9:28:00 AM

Blogger Jess said...

how did it go???? also, i really like your summary of this. when i'm on the job market i think i will cut and paste it to explain it to people not in academia.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008 8:08:00 PM


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