Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Some Scattered and Limited Advice for Going On the Academic Job Market from Someone Who Is Emphatically Not an Expert

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The following is adapted from a short reflective piece I wrote last spring for graduate students in the Literature Program at Duke, based on my experience going on the job market as an ABD. I’ve had to remove some of the more personal details—such as my hit rate, specific details of my interviews, and so forth—but otherwise I’ve tried to retain the usefulness of the piece as best I could.

To be honest I feel some amount of trepidation posting this at all, simply because I feel as though the mere existence of the “job market advice” genre legitimates the fantasy that the academic job market is a meritocracy, which it emphatically is not. There are no magic bullets; in the final analysis there is nothing you can do to game the system. Even the advice here won’t apply to all schools—much of it doesn’t square with my experience of being hired at Marquette, for instance, to take but one particular case very close to my heart.

Still, there are some practical things you can do to help your candidacy, and with the Job Information List coming out this Friday it seems like a worthwhile time to write this all down. If you’re going on the market this year, good luck, and may whatever God you believe in have mercy on your soul.

Gerry Canavan (searched 2011-2012 while ABD)
Primary teaching field: Twentieth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture
Primary research field: Twentieth-Century Science Fiction (mostly U.S. and British)

I was one of the first people to go on the job market with the benefit of the new Lit department job site and sample materials, which I found to be extremely useful. I also took some of the advice in this thread I posted on AskMetaFilter:

including setting up a fairly crude professional webpage ( with links to my C.V., syllabi and articles and an account on, and optimistically getting my cross-country flight to MLA during the summer when tickets were still at their cheapest.

I’ve tried to include some general thoughts about my experience of going on the job market, while attempting to focus on the stuff that I had to learn or improvise along the way.

Know in advance that the process is extremely time-consuming, with each individual step along the way almost completely unrewarding in itself. I went in with the mindset that because it was my first time on the market, and because I was still ABD, I was going to be “selective” and only apply to jobs I really wanted. In practice, however, this didn’t happen: I applied to more or less every tenure-track job I seemed remotely qualified for that wasn’t a 4/4, and every postdoc it seemed like I had any chance to get. I think this is how you have to do it.

I kept two Excel spreadsheets, one detailing job openings and the other postdoc openings, and used the strikethrough feature whenever I finished one. Sadly, crossing something off your list is essentially the only positive reinforcement you receive for almost all of the process. Dossier requests don’t come until mid-November, and are becoming rarer; with digital submission, I found most schools are just asking for everything up front. Generally MLA interviews aren’t scheduled until early-to-mid December, and some come really last minute; rejections don’t arrive for months, if ever. (Some schools will send you a delivery confirmation, and nearly every job will send you an optional Equal Opportunity survey to fill out, which I always did—but from many places that’s the only communication you actually get back.)

As we all know, the line between a “successful” search and an “unsuccessful” search can be pretty razor-thin. It’s worth it to put the time in going all-out in your applications to maximize your chances of getting something in the end.

That said, most of the really painful work is up-front. Once you have your generic job letter written, it’s really not that hard to customize for each individual posting. The process has a rhythm: (1) change the date (2) change the address (3) change the salutation (4) change the first paragraph (5) change the last paragraph (6) change the one place in the middle where I say “I am eager to bring courses in this subject to UNIVERSITYNAME” (7) add something specific about the posting or about the campus if applicable. By the end I could do four applications in an afternoon, even taking my tendencies towards neurotic over-proofreading into account.

What took longest, after the initial setup, was tweaking my generic materials to suit the sometimes esoteric requests of individual postings. This is especially, infuriatingly true of postdocs.

The timeline on the Lit website is pretty accurate—you should begin gathering your materials in August (or sooner) so you can hit the ground running with the very early institutional postdocs that are due at the end of September: Princeton, Dartmouth, Columbia, Michigan, Chicago. These are well-paying, low-load, high-prestige jobs with very generous timelines (contracts as long as four or five years), which means several years of guaranteed income and health insurance before you have to start panicking again; they’re definitely worth the hassle of having to do everything early.

Be prepared to significantly revise your interest letter at least three or four times before it feels “ready.” Share it with your advisor and your department’s Job Czar early; workshop it with other grad students.

To be minimally prepared for a job search, you need:

* generic interest letter template
* current C.V.
* two-to-three-page dissertation abstract
* at least one writing sample, preferably a tear sheet from a published article, or if not that an article “under consideration” somewhere—I had three different ones I targeted for different sorts of jobs
* at least one completed, very polished chapter you feel confident about sending out immediately if it is requested
* a statement of teaching philosophy
* your teaching evals, including the statistical analysis your college provides if available
* a “research agenda” specifying your plans to revise your dissertation into a book and describing your initial plans for a second project
* at least two to three sample syllabi—I actually wound up with many more than this. Include courses taught, courses you’d like to teach, intro/survey courses in your field, special topics courses for juniors and seminars, and grad courses
* transcripts from undergrad and from all grad schools
* recommendation letters, including (definitely) someone familiar with your teaching and (possibly) one or two letters from people not on your committee / outside your university
* an endorsement from your DGS that you will finish by the spring (if ABD)

Not every school will ask for every document, but you’ll likely be asked for each these documents at least once.

If you’re ABD, you also need an advisor who you are existentially certain is willing to say you will finish your dissertation within the year.

You should contact your recommenders as soon as you’re sure you’re really going to go on the market and follow up with them by mid-September at the very latest. What you want to do is open up an Interfolio account and solicit two generic letters from your recommenders, one for TT jobs and one for postdocs. (I actually created two separate Interfolio accounts so neither I nor they would mix the letters up; this might have been overkill, but at least the plan worked.)

I applied to jobs in lit, film, and American Studies and used basically the same letters for all jobs. Generally speaking I don’t think you need specific rec letters tailored to different disciplines, must less tailored to specific job postings or postdocs. Attempting to do this in any systematic way would drive your letter writers completely crazy, and probably you too.

Interfolio will be your best friend; using Interfolio you can even upload letters into university-specific online applications or at other sites like Academic Jobs Online. See FAQ here:

I had seven letters in my dossier: one letter from each member of my committee and then two people from other universities who are relatively well-known in their fields and know my work. (If you know someone like this, it’d be a very good idea to have a letter from them.) Opinions differ, I think, but I was advised by one of my chairs to send all seven recommendation letters every time regardless of how many letters the search committee actually asked for. This is what I almost always did.

The process is significantly more expensive than you might anticipate. All told it will probably cost a person between $1000 and $2000 to go on the market for the first time. I spent several hundred dollars in postage and Interfolio dossier send-outs (minimum $6 a pop, commonly $12 or more), including some last-minute FedExing when I didn’t have my act together in time. Some postdocs even have application fees. I had to buy some interview clothes, including new suits, ties, and shirts, as years of being a grad student had left me with nothing acceptably nice; these wound up being a birthday present from my father. My year, MLA was in Seattle, which meant a costly cross-continental flight, and four nights in a hotel at my own expense; luckily, my dad came through again with airline miles to help me out with the flight, and I shared a hotel room with a friend in Seattle. Plan ahead for the expenses where you can.

Tailoring your letters to the job/campus seems to help, but don’t go overboard. For the UT Austin postdoc, just for instance, I added a few lines about how doing a postdoc in Austin would allow me to access the new David Foster Wallace archive in the Henry Ransom Center. For the Marquette 21C job I ultimately accepted I added a line about how I tend to teach “very contemporary literature that speaks in a direct way to my students’ life experiences,” language that not only happened to be true but which I wound up liking enough to keep in most of the letters I sent afterwards.

Networking really helps. I would recommend you decide now to be as cynical as possible about this and exploit every advantage you have. With a market as brutal as ours every little bit helps.

I saw the same thing happening over and over again: people were getting interviews and visits at places where their advisors and recommenders had connections. Again, the iron rule: the academic job market is emphatically not a meritocracy. 

Keep your advisors, your department’s Job Czar, and other profs in the department up to date on your job search, both where you’re applying and where you’re getting dossier request, interviews, and visits. You never know who might have an unexpected connection someplace that helps grease the wheel.

On being “interdisciplinary.” It was obvious from my and others’ experience that some schools know what sort of program Duke Literature is; that other schools believed it was a traditional comparative literature program; and that still other schools thought “Literature” is what Duke calls its English department. While this brand confusion could be read as a potential disadvantage, it also presents an opportunity for us to present ourselves and our academic history in whatever light is most favorable.

To take my own situation: my work in graduate school was unfocused interdisciplinary. My dissertation spanned the entire twentieth century rather than focusing on a particular period or decade, with just enough in the 1800s to justify applying for 19C+20C jobs too. I wound up using material from both Britain and the U.S., as well as writers from Canada and Haiti. I use literature, film, television, comics, and theory simultaneously and somewhat interchangeably, organized around genre rather than medium or period.

With this background, or despite it, I ultimately seemed to be most competitive in English departments. The American Studies jobs I applied for seemed to have very little interest in me, despite my personal feeling that I was a reasonably good candidate for these jobs; it seems as though American Studies departments show a very strong preference for people with American Studies degrees, with History a second choice and English/Lit a somewhat distant third. I think I could have been more competitive for film and media jobs if I’d organized my work somewhat differently earlier in grad school, but in the end I just decided not to apply to most film jobs; I felt my work didn’t speak sufficiently well to film history and theory for a film department.

I applied to mostly 20C and 21C American literature jobs and had all my success there (specifically, in postwar jobs; the job I eventually took here at Marquette was a posting in contemporary American lit, of which there were a few precious listings but not very many). Because of the sorts of texts I focus on, I really wasn’t an especially good candidate for full-20C or 19C+20C jobs, but I applied for these anyway on the grounds that maybe lightning would strike. It didn’t, really.

On being “elite.” People from Duke Lit definitely have trouble getting attention at “non-elite” schools and “teaching schools,” who assume (perhaps with some justification) either that we won’t actually come, or that we’ll be looking to move on as soon as we get there. Generally speaking, these schools paid no attention to me, and I’m not sure what I really could have done differently to get more attention from them than I did.

On being “political.” The politics of my work, and of the department generally, didn’t seem to be a strike against me, despite my fears about this before the process started—though of course it’s impossible to ever know why you got an interview and why you didn’t. In any event this is more or less already baked into the cake; don’t try to hide who you are.

To this day I have no sense of whether this blog and my Twitter profile helped me or hurt me, much less at what specific institutions they did or didn’t.

Really—and please know I hate this language as much as you do—much of your preparation for the job market is about how to sell yourself. You do need to take some time to read the letters from previous applicants in your department and figure out how to position yourself with respect to your chosen disciplinary field. Who is getting jobs? At what sorts of schools are they getting them? What are they doing right that you can steal? Where do people seem to be going wrong?

If you’re applying in English, at a minimum you need to be able to make the case that your project speaks to the concerns of a fairly traditional English curriculum, as nearly all the jobs that are available are in departments that are much more traditional and canon-focused than the work grad students are typically doing in their dissertations (especially at a place like Duke Lit).

You also need to show you bring something new to the table—secondary and even tertiary desirable specialties beyond what the job ad nominally requires. (If you have any remotely plausible case to claim your work is “digital humanities,” do so.)

You also need to show you can teach in your field generally, not just in your chosen subfield. It was very common, even with postwar or contemporary jobs, that I’d be expected to teach introductory and survey classes in 20C American Literature, some extending as far back as the Civil War; be ready to show you can do this. If you haven’t taught much yet, prep good syllabuses.

It was my sense that the “generalism” of Duke Lit, which in previous cycles had been something of a black mark against our candidacies, had transformed in the post-2008-crash environment into something of an advantage. This was true not just of my own experience but across Lit, and indeed across all the people I know who got lucky last year. Not to put too fine a point on it, but many departments and chairs are now viewing each tenure line as potentially their last. Much more so than in the past, departments are looking for people who can solve multiple problems for them at once. (Again, if you have any remotely plausible case to claim your work is “digital humanities,” do so.)

Don’t assume you know where you will be competitive. There are so many different factors at work in these things that you can’t possibly predict in advance which departments will be interested in you and which won’t. You just have to apply everywhere.

What was a waste of time: One thing I definitely wasted my time on was looking for jobs at the Chronicle of Higher Education, HERC, and other sites like that. Everything you need is on the MLA Job Information List and the Wiki.

What was worth doing: I’m very glad I did all the workshops available in the department: letter-writing/CV workshop, mock interview, mock job talk. Definitely do these.

My mock interview actually went somewhat terribly, I felt: I knew what I wanted to say, but hadn’t prepped very effectively, and got bogged down in details and my own anxieties about my hireability. In the 30 minute debrief after my mock interview I learned a lot about what I was doing wrong, all the way down to what they were really asking when they asked question X or Y.

I initially approached my mock interview as if it were a second comprehensive exam, which is definitely how it feels, especially when the members of your exam committee are staring at you across the table—but that’s completely the wrong attitude. An interview is nothing like an exam and is much more like a weird, multiple-person first date. In other words, they’re not probing your expertise so much as your demeanor and your competence as an educator, scholar, and potential colleague. I think I needed to do one badly to see how to actually do it correctly, and bombing at home was a lot better than bombing at MLA when it actually mattered.

The mock job talk was also quite helpful, though I felt a lot more confident in that mode than in the interview. (If your experience is like mine, your friends and professors will actually be much harder on you than the department you’re visiting will; my mock job talk was much more intense than the real thing, and the questions significantly tougher.) It’s very illuminating to see what sorts of questions your talk prompts; there was a lot of overlap between the mock questions and the actual questions I received, which meant I already had some good talking points for the Q&A at the real thing.

Academic Jobs Wiki. Opinions differ here, but I found it absolutely indispensible. Just don’t let it drive you crazy. 

Know that you will be unhappy most of the time you’re on the market, but try not to be. I was stressed out continuously from August to February—first just trying to get the apps out, then while waiting for replies, then while prepping for the MLA interview, then while prepping for my campus visits, then for two weeks of waiting after the campus visits while they interviewed the other candidate. It obviously didn’t help that I had reached the end of my funding, that I had made the decision not to apply for any dissertation completion fellowships so as not to split my energy, and that the baby was due in April.

Almost all of this stress was completely wasted emotional energy. It’s incredibly difficult, but try to remember you can’t actually control any aspect of this very arbitrary process, and that nothing that happens reflects either on the quality of your work or on you personally.

Lean on each other. A very nice thing about our department is that generally speaking we’re not all competing for all the same jobs. That’s not true everywhere—but even if it’s not, try to live as if it were. I got a lot of help on my apps from other students in the department, and tried to reciprocate / pay it forward as best I could. Be excellent to each other, if only because the hiring committees won’t.

Really, good luck!

2 Responses

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  1. I think you may know this since we’ve connected on twitter and since I also blogged for GradHacker briefly, but perhaps to benefit other readers: I, too, went on the job market last year. I was ABD and knew without a doubt I would defend in May (which I did). I was coming from a ranked program (top-20ish) at a large state university, but I chose to apply for “teaching positions,” including VAPs. For the most part, my experience on the market mirrors your own, Gerry, and the advice I’d give to ABDers in English and similar would be pretty much the same. I especially agree with your comment about the “iron rule” of this whole game: “the academic job market is emphatically not a meritocracy.” A big YES right there.

    Here’s where our experiences diverge: I didn’t find the MLA job list to be that helpful for my field(s) (I’m very interdisciplinary, too) and institutional preferences. I was surprised by this when all was said and done. I ended up using Inside Higher Ed and Higher Ed Jobs more frequently in my search. And I stayed away from the Wiki for reasons I wrote about here:

    Another big difference: I hardly spent any money on postage for applications. My department mailed applications for me (up to a certain amount — a very, very generous number). I sent out one or two applications by expedited mail due to time constraints. Didn’t your department subsidize postage fees? I’m very thankful that mine did!


    September 16, 2012 at 12:36 pm

    • If my department was subsidizing postage, I never heard about it! Most of that expense, though, was the Interfolio sendouts at $6 to $12 a pop (and that’s if I was on time, always a dicey proposition).

      As for the MLA list, it’s interesting that our experiences were so divergent. I wonder if I missed out on a lot of jobs! More likely, though, I think this was probably a consequence of my being “selective”; I really didn’t search much for smaller-school and regional jobs, and I accepted the gig here before looking too hard at VAPs and fixed term jobs.

      From the Wiki, though, it really seemed to me like I was getting pretty much everything just from MLA.

      Thanks for the additions!


      September 16, 2012 at 12:53 pm

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