Should You Go on the Market This Year?

by David Chioni Moore

Here's the big non-news for this hiring season: The academic job market, especially for tenure-track positions in the humanities and some other fields, will once again be tough. All the usual reasons apply: heavy use of part-time instructors, strong production of Ph.D.'s, and more. Consequently, many first-time job-seekers realize they might not get the job they want their first time out.

It's a strange phrase -- "the first time out" -- something you'd have a tough time explaining to friends in medicine or business or law. But the academic market is fuzzier, and generally takes much longer to succeed in than the law or business markets. Budding Ph.D.'s often go out two times or more to land the jobs they want. That's why each summer and fall, thousands of people around the country who've nearly completed their Ph.D.'s face these questions: "Should I go out this year? Or wait one more? If I'll only really get a job my second time, shouldn't my first time out be 'early'?"

Having been through this myself not long ago, I offer some hard-won advice. First, I'll lay out five reasons to go on the job market this year. Then, I'll lay out five reasons to wait one more.

Much of the question -- "this year or wait?" -- is personal, so I'll start by noting factors I can't discuss. Some people enjoy their graduate-student lives a lot and are in no hurry to leave. Many others can't wait to go. Spouse or partner factors prompt some candidates to move along, but cause an equal number to want to stay. Other factors include economic obligations, an intellectual sense of readiness or incompletion, parallel nondissertation projects, and more. Since all these things are personal, I'll focus on the "professional" aspects of the question.

People usually think about the academic market for the first time while working on their dissertations. Of course, if you haven't started writing, you certainly shouldn't go. And if you've already defended, then by all means go on the market!

But let's imagine you're halfway along. It's September, you've got a few chapters under your belt, and you might have defended by next summer. Now you've got to ask whether to go or wait. Of course, the basic idea is to have your dissertation done before arriving anywhere the next September.

But it's tough to forecast dates of dissertation completion, even for a project under way. We all know of dissertation writers under heavy pressure -- even slow humanists -- who have completed half the brick in six short months! And we also know people who spend four years writing less. So I can't offer any rule that says, "If you have 100 pages by September 1, you should go onto the market."

So: Your dissertation is under way and might be done by next July. To go, or not to go -- that is the question.

Five Reasons to Go on the Job Market This Year

Reason One: You Learn About the Market by Being on the Market. The first reason to go out "early" -- perhaps only on a test basis or after just the best positions -- is that it teaches you how the market works. Every market has massive unwritten "procedures." Candidates in all fields have to learn and scan the various job lists to see what's there, draft template letters and customize them, prepare the C.V. just so, hone writing samples, juggle requests and deadlines, and much more.

A full-scale job search takes a lot of bureaucracy -- for some it's nearly full-time work for several months -- and although your department can offer guidelines, there's no substitute for first-hand experience. This is why people invariably report much greater efficiency and success the second time around.

Reason Two: You See What Hiring Departments Want. Especially if it's your first year on the market, you'll get a sense of what hiring departments are looking for. Every discipline from anthropology to women's studies has its own ways of carving up the field. And rapid academic developments alter these dynamics every year, especially in hiring. The way you classify yourself might be different from what the hiring departments want.

In fact, your interests will appeal to different sorts of institutions, and it's almost certain that whoever hires you will have you teach courses well beyond your narrow preparation. Of course, you could always simply read the job lists but stop short of applying. But there's no substitute for actually having to present yourself as a candidate based on the job market's often quirky terms.

Reason Three: You Get Practice Interviewing. Even if it's a bit early, you'll learn how conference and even campus interviewing goes. On the conference front, it can be unsettling to be jammed inside a large hotel or convention center wearing clothes you rarely wear, in the company of hundreds or thousands of your peers, to say nothing of the actual experience of being asked tough questions by a group of people you've never met. The campus visit is another experience altogether, with its own protocols and rhythms. You can always simulate conference and interview experiences with independent convention visits or mock interviews -- but firsthand knowledge is tough to beat.

Reason Four: You Learn A Lot About Yourself. Although you might not succeed, your first experience on the market can teach you a great deal about your own professional self. My own first (unsuccessful!) job run taught me several things. In my first year I did much better with research universities than with teaching colleges, although I'd considered myself a "balanced" person. This experience made me realize that my graduate-school environment had skewed my sense of what institutions want.

I also learned from the responses to my writing samples: "Sample X" yielded many interview requests, but "Sample Y" fell flat. Here the job market "spoke" in a way I couldn't have known about on my own. My next lesson came in conference interviews. Like many Ph.D. students, I had spent several years after my B.A. working in a job far from my current academic field.

Though I now teach literature, I'd first worked five years in corporate finance -- and this seriously distracted interview committees. My second time out I did a much better job of handling this aspect of my background. Of course, everybody's background gives them different "presentation" issues. Colleagues of mine have been dancers, preachers, and advertising agents before getting their Ph.D.'s in forestry, geology, or Russian. The important thing is that it's tough to know how you'll be perceived until you dive right in.

Yet another lesson I learned from interview committees is that I hadn't thought enough about the classroom. This is common for dissertation-writing Ph.D.'s, especially since most of them are at research-oriented institutions. What's more, many Ph.D. candidates teach only the "basic" courses -- first-year French, freshman composition, lecture sections, labs, and more. The classic result is that your experience trains you for either basic courses or a "dream course" that eerily resembles your dissertation's bibliography -- but not much in between. If things don't work out this year, take the time next winter to draft a dozen sample syllabi on many topics, and reflect on your philosophy of teaching.

A last lesson I learned from my first run on the market -- again courtesy of some lively conference interviews -- was that I hadn't thought much past the dissertation, or about my longer career as a productive teacher-scholar. The lessons I've mentioned here are classic. I offer them not because they're "key," but to make it clear that it's tough to really learn these lessons without going on the market and learning them firsthand. Your own run, even if unsuccessful, will teach you other lessons. Just make sure to reflect carefully on them when the season is done.

Reason Five: You Might Succeed. The best, and the only real reason for a first run on the academic market is that you might succeed and get the job you want. This is, of course, the entire point! So go now, because you're good. Go now, because you're ready. Go now, because individual jobs, which might match uncannily with your characteristics, are evanescent. Seize the moment, and go for what you want.

Five Reasons to Wait Another Year

by David Chioni Moore

Reason One: The Market Eats Enormous Chunks of Time. All candidates report that the academic job market can quickly take over your life. First, in the fall, you've got to read an enormous number of job listings, whether on paper or online, most of them not targeted for you. You've got to contemplate these positions, prepare and proof letters, hone and send out writing samples, make plenty of trips to the post office, and more. And that's just the initial phase, since later, ideally, you turn to conference interviews and possibly campus visits.

All of this eats up time you could spend on teaching, reading, writing, finishing your dissertation, or even -- gasp -- nonacademic life. Even a "limited" run takes time, since sending out that 21st letter doesn't take much extra effort. Thus chasing "only" 10 positions might take as much time as pursuing 44. Overall, the academic market is a major task.

Reason Two: The Market Costs You Money. The cash expense can be hard to justify, especially if the market sees that you're "early." This includes postage for letters, photocopying and postage for writing samples, telephone expense, and dossier-handling fees at many colleges. If you have conference interviews, you typically foot the conference bill yourself. And you might want to upgrade your interviewing wardrobe, though if you do you'll obviously have those clothes in future years. All in all, it can mean substantial costs.

Reason Three: The Market Taxes Your Emotions. Another argument for holding off one year is the cost, not in time or money but in emotion, since pursuit of academic jobs can tax your soul. You get your hopes up, fantasize about that special job, put energy into your C.V., wait nervously for phone calls, second-guess your letters and interview responses, and, finally, get plenty of rejections. In most fields these days, even the best candidates hear No from 90 percent of applications. In fact, it's likely that at no other time in your life will you be so negatively judged. Colleges get four chances to say No (after initial letters, writing samples, conference interviews, and campus visits), and only one for Yes.

October is anxious, November is busy, December is in limbo -- to say nothing of, perhaps, January, February, or even March for campus visits and hiring decisions. This can mean half a year. And the further you get with any given job, the higher the emotional stakes will go. Being aware of that can lessen the expense, but can't eliminate it.

Reason Four: You Might Not Be Ready. You might authentically be too early. Your teaching background, publications, overall maturity, or dissertation might still be short of what hiring committees want. Sometimes such prematureness is evident in the initial application letter, or perhaps in an insufficiently marinated thesis chapter. But the later in the game that your unreadiness becomes apparent, the greater the waste of time for everyone concerned, yourself included, and the poorer a reflection on your training program. Thus a merely "experimental" search can be a terrible idea.

Reason Five: You Might (Whoops!) Succeed. The final reason to wait another year is unreadiness's worst-case event: the risk that you might succeed and get the job, when your dissertation will be quite unfinished by the following fall. Starting a job still undefended can be very problematic -- initial salary and rank may be lower, and it's awfully tough to complete a dissertation in a new job's first year. Many uncompleted dissertation writers have successfully begun a full-time job, but the risks can be substantial.

"Should I go out to the market now" is, finally, a question only you can answer for yourself. It depends on your probability of success, emotional stakes, specific field, degree of preparation and accomplishment, and other factors. For me, a carefully analyzed unsuccessful first run yielded great improvements in the second. Most importantly, it resulted in several excellent job opportunities, including the position I hold now. For others, I know a seemingly "early" run achieved success. And yet that is not universally the case.

Of course, this whole discussion has been predicated on the rotten fact that several years' attempts may be necessary for even the best candidates to get a solid job. But since that is, for now, a fact of life, the pros and cons may be useful to candidates (and their advisers) asking tough job-market questions in the coming months.

David Chioni Moore is an assistant professor of international studies and English at Macalester College.