Navigating the Academic Job Market: N of 1
The most grueling part of getting my PhD was not writing the hundreds of pages that turned into my dissertation (that was a close second). The most arduous experience was actually applying for academic jobs right at the end of my time in graduate school. I think it is more or less common knowledge nowadays but when I started graduate studies back in 2016, I had no idea that the chances of getting a job in academia are so very slim. I entered graduate school fully expecting that it would be hard work. But I also assumed that hard work would be rewarded by very good job prospects. In some sense, this is true. The unemployment rate for doctoral degree holders in the United States was less than one percent last time I checked (March 2023)! The catch is that most PhDs do not end up as professors. The ratio between the number of candidates and the number of available jobs in academia makes it quite difficult for many PhDs who want a professorship to get one.
According to the American Political Science Association’s (APSA) data, only about a fifth of all political science PhDs seeking employment during the 2021-2022 cycle managed to secure a tenure-track (i.e. potentially permanent) position in academia. Another fifth got a post-doctoral position which means that these candidates’ path to academia remains open, but all will depend on a successful job application in the future. Given that APSA’s data is almost certainly incomplete, the real figures are likely lower. One consolation to social science PhDs is that the chances of an academic career in the natural sciences are even slimmer.
My own statistics roughly confirm these trends. I spent two years on the academic job market. During my first cycle (2021/2022), I applied to 75 jobs. Most of these were in the United States but I also applied to work in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Singapore, Japan, and the United Kingdom. Ten of my applications were for post-doctoral positions. I was invited to do three interviews (two were over zoom, one was a flyout to campus). In December 2021, I received and accepted a post-doc offer, which meant that I stopped applying for most jobs and instead focused on finishing my dissertation. Had I continued, I suspect the total number of applications would have risen over 100. During my second cycle (2022/2023), I applied to a total of 61 academic jobs, 11 of which were post-docs. These applications produced three flyouts and four zoom interviews. I stopped in early February. Ultimately, I ended up with one post-doc opportunity and two job offers. While I am extremely grateful for securing a tenure-track position after two years on the market, the numbers above indicate how unpredictable and distressing the job market experience can be. I am pretty sure I will never forget the emotional whirlwinds of those two years.
The one thing that occasionally helped me was reading other people’s stories because they made it clear to me that nearly everyone struggles. So here is my story. My hope is that someone, somewhere will learn something from it. If nothing else, know that those you now look up to as successful examples were once in your shoes. The difference between success and failure on the academic job market is awfully small. Too small for the average academic—a person who likes to plan, enjoys the detail-oriented nature of academic work, and believes that there must be an objective explanation behind nearly every outcome of interest. My goal here is not to provide a comprehensive guide to the job market. There are plenty of those all over the internet. I will simply describe how I navigated the process. Keep in mind that this is just my experience. What I did will not work for everyone and my own conclusions here might just be an effort to look for patterns where there are none. To keep this lengthy post manageable, I will only be able to focus on certain aspects of my experience. Describing those nearly two years of my life in detail would be enough for an anxiety-ridden book that I would not want to write and no one would want to read.
I started preparing my application materials at some point in early March 2021. The job market in political science roughly follows the academic calendar. First jobs start appearing in the middle of the summer with some of the first deadlines in late July and mid-August. The market then heats up in September and continues to be busy until the end of the fall semester. There are still tenure-track job opportunities in the spring but after about February, the proportion of post-doc and visiting assistant professor deadlines rapidly increases.
Given this cycle, I thought that preparing my application materials in March would allow me to revise them in time for the first deadlines. I think this was a good decision. The typical application package will include a cover letter, a CV, a research statement, a teaching statement, teaching evaluations, a writing sample, three letters of recommendation, and sometimes a diversity statement. Most of these documents are a few pages in length, the writing sample is typically a full research paper. I found it helpful to look at other people’s materials to understand the style in which these documents are written. I then circulated rough drafts to my dissertation committee and mentors. All provided useful feedback. It goes without saying that these documents have to be perfect before they are sent out. A few typos in the cover letter can send a bad signal even before search committees read through the rest of the application packet.
Many job candidates obsess over whether application materials should be tailored to specific jobs. Given the number of jobs I applied for, I found this impossible to do. That said, I did adjust my materials for positions where I sensed a particularly good fit. This could be as simple as expressing excitement about a class that the new faculty member would have to teach. I also had two versions of my teaching statements and cover letters—one version for research-oriented universities and one for more teaching-focused institutions.
I used a number of websites to locate job postings. Most of the jobs I applied for were posted on APSA eJobs, a website that APSA members can access for free. I also checked academicjobsonline.org, careers.insidehighered.com, and jobs.chronicle.com. Some jobs outside the United States are posted on APSA eJobs, others are on timeshighereducation.com and jobs.ac.uk/categories/faculty-jobs (the latter two websites mainly advertise jobs in Europe and the UK). To keep track of all my applications, I had an Excel spreadsheet with job descriptions, application requirements, and deadlines. I also saved all job descriptions as separate Word documents because once a deadline passes, the online description may disappear. When you receive a call from the search committee about a job you applied for, it might be useful to have another look at the detailed description.
I submitted most of my applications through Interfolio. This is a mostly free service that allows candidates to upload and submit their application materials online. Recommendation writers can upload their letters, too, which means that candidates can then forward recommendations without asking their writers each time they need to send a letter somewhere. That said, a great many institutions still do not use Interfolio. I spent countless hours inputting my information into university-specific application portals, knowing that the chances of getting that particular job were—you would have guessed it—very slim. But that is the nature of the process. Between roughly September and November of each cycle, I spent about half of my working hours preparing and submitting job applications. Add to that dissertation work, teaching, and whatever other responsibilities you have take care of. Busy times.
Once an application is submitted, you may not hear about it for several months. Based on my conversations with members of past search committees, the market is truly global these days and a single job can attract hundreds of application packets. This means the search committee has to go through the initial batch of applications, select a long list of candidates (maybe twenty), possibly interview them, and then agree on a shortlist of three or four candidates who are invited to campus for a full interview. Even the most efficient search committees cannot complete this task in less than a month. I decided to spend this waiting period by practicing my job talk – a research presentation that is perhaps the most important part of campus visits.
My job talk was based on core research from my dissertation. This meant that preparing the job market research paper did not take very long. I put it together in July before the start of my first job cycle. This can take a lot longer if you do not have a relatively polished piece of research already. What took a surprisingly longer period of time was preparing the job talk itself. I needed to develop and then repeatedly revise roughly 50 slides, practice my delivery of the 35-minute talk, and prepare for answering any questions that the audience composed of potential future colleagues might have. Starting in mid-August, I got into a habit of practicing my talk once a day Monday through Friday. Given that my first and only job talk during that first cycle was in early December, I could have probably started later. That said, practicing my job talk became a daily ritual, the one source of certainty at a time when everything else seemed uncertain.
During my first fall on the market, I had two interviews and one flyout. In late September 2021, I received an email from a search committee for a job whose deadline was at the end of August. Two search committee members wanted to meet in person, enquiring about whether I would be attending the annual meeting of APSA in early October. Luckily, I had planned on attending, and so I quickly agreed. The interview itself took place in a small café in Seattle and lasted about 30 minutes. It was obvious that I was one of several candidates the two committee members had talked to that afternoon. While they were on their third or fifth cup of coffee, the last thing I needed was more jitteriness-inducing caffeine. But all went well, I thought, the interview felt like a casual conversation. The interviewers just wanted to get to know me. They asked a few questions about what classes I would be interested in teaching, what research I am currently working on, etc. It did not feel like they had a prespecified list of questions they needed to go through. However, I soon learned that this first experience was not a great guide for future interviews.
Most first-round interviews these days take place over zoom. My understanding is that once a search committee agrees on the top dozen or so candidates, zoom interviews are scheduled to aid selection of those applicants who are then invited to campus. This means that zoom interviews are very short, sometimes as short as 15 minutes. The first time I did one such interview (roughly three weeks after my feel-good conversation in Seattle), I thought I would just follow the advice that many candidates are casually given by their most ardent well-wishers: “just be yourself, you are a sociable person, things will turn out just fine.” While intuitive and undoubtedly well-intentioned, I think this piece of advice is seriously misguided.
First of all, I am not sure what it even means to be myself in an awkward, 15-minute zoom call with several people I have never met. Have you ever tried maintaining eye contact on a zoom call? Exactly, impossible. It reminds me of “zoom socials” during COVID, aka “grab a drink and sit in front of a computer screen.” Anyway, I digress. The reason why “just being yourself” is poor advice is that nothing about a 15-minute zoom encounter resembles the kind of human interaction that most of us can expect to enjoy. More importantly, even though the most common questions that candidates get asked may sound like an invitation to small talk, they are nothing of the sort. For example, the prompt to “tell us about your research plans” is actually an invitation to lay out a convincing research agenda that will propel a successful candidate to tenure. Those are the kinds of answers you want to prepare in advance.
My advice is not to be overly scripted or robotic but always, always very prepared. I felt my best when I was so prepared that I could actually veer off script when I wanted to. This is how I felt during my one and only campus visit during the 2021/2022 job cycle. It was in early December and I visited a university that I really liked because it would have been a great place to work and I felt that I was in sync with the values of the institution. Having practiced my job talk so many times, I really felt that answers I would normally have to think extremely hard about just rolled off my tongue. Despite a pleasant visit, I did not get the job. A few days later, I gratefully accepted a post-doc offer. I survived my first cycle on the job market. But I knew I would be going through this whole process again in less than a year’s time.
The second time around, I at least had all my application materials ready to go. I only adjusted my institutional affiliation and a few details about newly published research. Come September 2022, I again had to devote valuable time during my post-doc to job applications. One thing became immediately obvious—having a PhD in hand significantly increases one’s chances of getting an interview. APSA’s data confirms this. For me it meant more zoom interviews during which I got to practice my answers to now thoroughly expected queries. Like any anxiety-inducing experience, these things become easier the more times one goes through them.
Another thing I learned during my second year on the job market is just how long it can take for some institutions to process the hundreds of applications they are getting. I still occasionally receive a rejection email from jobs for which I applied some nine months ago. Timing ultimately mattered a great deal for how the 2022/2023 job cycle turned out for me. I was invited to do three campus visits, each of which consisted of a job talk, meetings with individual faculty members, and a meeting with someone from university administration.
The first campus visit was at a research university in early November. I felt things went reasonably well and I was told that I would be notified in a few weeks’ time. When I did not hear back for a while, I concluded that the job went to someone else. After I finally sent an email to find out, my intuition was confirmed. My second campus visit was at the end of November, this time at a small liberal arts college. The highlight of this visit was that I got to teach a demonstration class in front of real students as well as the search committee. Given that my visit was just a few days before the end of the semester, I assumed that I must have been the last candidate to visit. I expected to be notified relatively quickly. I did hear back a few weeks later but the message was that other candidates would be interviewed in January. This surprised me because I expected the search committee to wrap everything up by the end of the fall semester.
However, the unexpected delay worked in my favor because I was invited to do another campus visit in late January. More campus visits, more chances to get a job I figured. Days after finishing the January flyout, everything seemed to happen at once. In less than a week, I received offers from both institutions. I was given a few days to think things over. I liked both schools very much and so I had to think very hard about my answer. As I was thinking, a post-doc offer from a German university arrived in my inbox. After weighing the pros and cons of each offer and talking to my family, I made my final decision. But what startled me then and petrifies me still is that things could have turned out very differently had the timing of the offers been different. I should also add that ever since that eventful week in early February, I have not received any good news from the dozens of other jobs I had already applied for. I would not be able to pursue them as I had already accepted an offer of course but I still wonder why that one week in early February was so special. As I noted above, the difference between success and failure on the academic job market seems awfully small.
What are my main takeaways from my two-year experience on the academic job market in political science? I would highlight a few. First and foremost, one has to invest in maintaining mental resilience because the combination of incessant pressure to succeed and inherent uncertainty cannot just be shrugged off. Just like athletes get a massage after their workout, people who want to work in academia have to find a way to keep their minds resilient and regenerated. For me that means daily meditation and exercise. I cannot imagine anyone making it through the job market without some kind of mental health routine. For me this was the absolute foundation.
Second, much of what determines success on the job market happens during earlier stages in graduate school. People’s opinions on this differ but my own experience and intuition lead me to believe that having several published articles by the time one applies for an academic job can make a substantial difference. Gone are the days when candidates could just focus on their dissertation and hope that search committees spot the talent. Again, I am sure this works for some people but I would not bet on it. Having a few published articles should also help with securing prestigious post-doctoral positions that are becoming increasingly common as intermediate steps between graduate school and tenure-track jobs.
Finally, candidates should not assume that every university is just like their graduate institution. Most competitive job candidates receive their PhDs at top-ranked research universities. These are quite specific and often differ substantially from the schools where applicants hope to get a job. Many liberal arts colleges, for instance, put a lot more emphasis on high-quality teaching than research universities. What may count as an effective self-marketing strategy in a research-heavy environment can backfire at a teaching school. I always tried to get advice from multiple mentors, not just faculty members at my graduate institution.