To Market, To Market: The Job Fairy Helps You Land Your Next Job

November 4, 2012, 10:26 am

Clap your hands if you believe in associate professors! Photo credit.

Is going on the job market as a tenured person a loser’s game?

Today’s crie du coeur  is from hist1969, an associate professor who is itchin’, as I was a couple years back, to put on the travelin’ shoes. I edited the question slightly to give more space for a response.

What do you know about the experiences of historians who returned to the market as tenured associate professors? I have looked around, but it seems that in my field people who are moving to other universities have been personally invited to apply. I have received some invitations to apply for positions in the last two years. However, the searches were canceled, or I ultimately felt that such invitations were only intended to “furnish” the searches. By now, I think it’s useless to apply for these positions, unless I receive a very personal call. Am I right? Or should tenured associate professors apply to interesting jobs on a “blind” basis?  I see other historian colleagues in a similar situation. A colleague in one particular field sees searches where the same senior candidate is always at the top of the list. I know that universities are usually ‘forced’ to advertise open positions, but in some cases, it appears to me that too many departments already have one particular person in mind. It seems that the tenured associate professor who sends an application for these jobs is set up to be disappointed.

There is no one way to go on the job market, hist1969, although I would say that — barring winning a major book prize — waiting for the phone to ring is not the ticket. On the other hand, my phone did ring one day. Being invited into a search for a job I didn‘t get was what planted the seed of ambition, and playing that scenario out was worth every minute I spent on the process. Even though I was not successful, I thought I handled the interviews well: preparing for them, and talking to a bunch of really interesting people, created an opportunity to evaluate where I was in life and where I wanted to go. As it turned out, the job I was ultimately offered, and that I accepted, a year later, is at an institution that did not solicit my application.

However, as hist1969 implies, being on the job market over the long term can also be a disheartening experience, even if you already have the security of tenure somewhere else.

Going on the job market should also come with the following warning: putting in that first application is like pulling a band-aid off. It’s never going to stick in the same way again. Barring your dean intervening with a lot of perks to take you off the market, imagining yourself working elsewhere is what you must do to write a good job letter. Once you have done that you have become moveable in your own mind.

But I would also say that the best time to go on the market is when you don’t feel as though you must. You aren’t incurably angry or disappointed with your institution, and you don’t feel trapped and lonely where you are.  If this is the case, however, going on the market, as I suggest below, should also be combined with other strategies that distract you from your unhappiness and cultivate strengths that make you more marketable.

Here are a few direct responses to issues that you raise in your question:

Once you get tenure or publish your first book (whichever comes first) you will start receiving invitations to apply for jobs. This is not because searches necessarily need more candidates, or even more diverse pools, but because you have a proven track record of excellence. Although I too believed for a while that I was being invited into political history searches to bump up affirmative action numbers, once I began to run searches myself I realized that a) it’s too much trouble to spend a half hour on the phone with someone you aren’t really interested in; b) it’s even too much trouble to write a letter to someone you aren’t really interested in; and c) it’s really annoying to recruit, interview and make an offer to someone who is using you to stay where they are at a higher rank and salary.

Is a canceled search proof that it was not not serious in the first place? My Goddess! Have you been reading the newspaper, hist1969?  We have been in a recession of epic proportions, which federal and state governments have tried to address by increasing military spending and cutting education budgets.  Three years ago every search in the country was canceled! and things haven’t gotten so much better since.

There are two main reasons a search might be canceled.  One is that the department doesn’t see any candidates they really like and would rather re-run the search than hire someone who isn’t a good fit or who the department cannot endorse whole-heartedly. Hiring someone with tenure is a tedious and difficult business, and once you’ve got ‘em, you’ve got ‘em.  There’s no going back.  (Ideally, departments feel that way about the tenure-track hires too, but that’s another post.)

The other, and most common, reason a department cancels a search is that their funding has been cut or hasn’t come through.  Advertising an unfunded search has always been a common practice at public unis, where the academic search schedule and the public budget process do not coincide, but until the last few years it rarely made an impact on the hire. Now it does. Public colleges and universities have endured double-digit budget cuts since the recession began, and if you can avoid firing the people who already work there by not filling vacant lines, that’s what you do.

Do departments generally have someone already in mind when they advertise a senior job? Perhaps, but my last department would have been unable to achieve that kind of consensus about a candidate prior to interviewing several people, much less without interviewing someone at all.  OK, so it was just a small college, but if we couldn’t do it, can you imagine those conversations at, say, Harvard, or the University of Chicago? A good search chair will start calling around to see who is moveable, but in general open searches are exactly what they appear to be.  Open.

Case in point: when I was on the market, I recall confiding in a friend about a great job I had just applied for. “Well you know they really want a scholar of color,” s/he said (my color would generally be described as white.) I thought, well, then, that’s a department I would want to work in, and maybe they would settle for a white dyke who is one-hundred and ten percent behind diversity hiring.  As it turned out, I was a finalist — and they hired another white dyke who is one-hundred and ten percent behind diversity hiring.

So there you go.  Here’s my advice for your job search, and you can take it for what it’s worth.

Applying for jobs, and interviewing, is a lot of hard work.  You have to know that you will not be doing other things instead, like getting a lot of writing done or being the perfect teacher.  But why wouldn’t it be work?  Maybe you were lucky enough to get snapped up quickly after grad school, but the majority of young scholars I know probably file thirty or forty job and post-doc applications over the course of several years before they land an tenure-track job.

Save your energy by being selective in your applications. As a full professor, I only applied for jobs that I was really interested in, and a plausible candidate for, which may account for the fact that I was a finalist for every one.  That said, the best advice I ever had was from the late, great Peggy Pascoe, who told me never to cross a reasonable job — or a reasonable location — off the list until the process had played out. Give people the chance to recruit you, she urged, and give yourself the opportunity to imagine yourself in that place, even if it is a place you have never considered.

The good news is: most associate professors and full professors aren’t very moveable, and the candidate pool isn’t as large as you think. Other than tenure, probably one of the chief impediments to a more fluid job market is selling houses, the career of a spouse or partner, aging parents and taking children away from their friends. If don’t have these restrictions, or your family is down with your desire to boogie, start telling your colleagues elsewhere that you are highly moveable and not just trying to get a competing offer.  You can also get them to help you…..

Advertise yourself.  Something your friends can do, right now, is get you invited to give talks about your next project. It’s a short-term commitment, as is making yourself available as a visitor for a semester or a year.  The associate level is also a fairly fruitful time to apply for residential fellowships.  A lot of folks (are you looking at me? are you looking at me???) can get stuck at that second book, and the residential fellowship can ease you over the hump, get you out of Dodge for a short time, and get you into a whole new network of people who can become admirers.

Present at conferences, even if  this expense is out of pocket.  This is called investing in yourself.  It advertises your research and your sunny personality. It creates opportunities to brainstorm with people about your professional options and to drop hairpins about where you see yourself heading career-wise. I credit some of my success on the market to a fairly broad network of colleagues, male and female, who were open to conversations about my next steps when I was contemplating my future.  These are also the people who, in addition to giving concrete advice, will be the ones who are asked who might be available, and your name will be at the top of the list.

But pay attention to what I am going to say next: do not b!tch about the job you have. Do not act aggrieved or desperate, even if you are. Do not talk about professional or personal conflicts. If someone hints sympathetically that you work in the department from Hell? Do not take the bait. Nobody wants to hire someone who seems to be having a breakdown, or who might turn around and trash a new department, or who might be clueless that s/he — not a cadre of monster colleagues — is the “department problem.”  In this vein:

You need one trusted colleague at your home institution to write for you and say how terribly sorry they will be to lose you. People are going to find out you are on the market anyway, and there has to be a person who is willing to vouch for you and provide a plausible, non-toxic explanation for why you want to move on.

Consider acquiring some serious administrative skills while you are waiting for your future to unfold. Departments are having a tough time making an argument for a senior line in these days of lean budgets, and one way to be successful is to hire a chair or a dean who is tenurable.  Two out of the three jobs I applied and was interviewed for had a short-term administrative commitment attached to them.

The caveat here is that people will want to know that you have the chops, and that you aren’t just going to coast your way through the administrative work to get to the faculty part. You need a vision, you need to demonstrate that you have experience with problem-solving and jump starting projects, and increasingly, you should have budget experience.

So don’t just stand there and click your Ruby Slippers waiting for the perfect job: poke around your uni and see if there is something in the provost’s office for a couple years. Chair an interdisciplinary program. Get involved in digital projects and education initiatives that take you off campus. Talk to your dean about being invited to campus leadership workshops run by AAUP, civic engagement conferences run by AAC & U, and other post-Ph.D. training that diversifies your skill set (and maybe even your interests.)  The time lost on your scholarship will be made up by the extra credentials you have acquired and a deeper sense of what you might have to contribute to another campus.


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