Advice about the academic job market
So you want to be a faculty member? That’s great! But from the outset, know that’s not the only way to have a rewarding career in higher education. We are trained to work with students, to assess problems and find solutions, and overall, to leave the classroom and/or campus better than we found it. But if you want to try for a tenure-track position, I hope to impart some knowledge of things I learned along the way.
In many ways, this page is a continuation of some resources I’ve already been involved in creating. I’d like to highlight this ASHE Graduate Students Network blog that I wrote with Kevin McClure, Matt Johnson, and Dave Nguyen on navigating the job market.
First, you should know that being a competitive applicant for a tenure-track job is not something you can just wake up and be. As a mostly part-time Ed.D. student who worked full-time, I knew that I really couldn’t compete with the full-time doctoral students who worked alongside their faculty members on research projects if I didn’t hustle. I voiced my desire to want to engage in research with faculty members in my program who had a good track record of supporting doctoral students and including them in research projects. I was not getting paid for that labor, but I had a mentor (Gloria Crisp) who used grant monies to pay for travel to various conferences where we presented our work. That was extremely helpful for me, and it resulted in a number of national conference presentations as well as 2 publications on my CV—all important to building up my CV for the job market.
Next, I want to be honest: Yes, the job search can be terrible. In any given year, there’s no way to know how the market will be—if there will be a lot of jobs or no jobs, for instance. I remember that the years I was on the market (yes, I said years—more on that in a sec), there were a lot of jobs that either preferred quantitative expertise or expertise in certain focus areas (e.g., like finance, higher ed law, or student affairs). For the most part, the advice would be to apply to the job if it’s desirable to you even if you don’t totally fit the preferred criteria. The truth is, you never know if the pool will have folks with those qualifications, so you might be more competitive than you think.
If you are geographically bound, it will limit your chances of landing a tenure-track job. Again, there’s no way to know how many jobs will be available in any given year, and depending on how you limit yourself geographically, you may limit your job prospects even further. That said, there are important and completely reasons why someone may choose a specific region to stay in. As someone who left her home state for a tenure-track, I can absolutely understand the desire to stay close to home.
Related to the above point, know that there is a tradition of higher education institutions not hiring their own doctoral graduates. I’ve encountered a few senior scholars who have said this is an antiquated practice, but there are folks who believe that hiring their graduate students is bad hiring practice. So be aware that even if a position becomes available at your institution the year you’re on the market, you may be at a disadvantage in the hiring pool. It does happen (I have colleagues who graduated from their program and started on the tenure-track soon after there), but it can be very rare.
And in the spirit of full disclosure, I applied to my alma mater--I got a phone interview but did not move forward in the process. However, they did ultimately hire a classmate of mine. All in all, I'm not bitter about this. Moving away from home was scary, but it has also pushed me in positive ways more so than I anticipated. I gained FANTASTIC colleagues and had exposure to a whole new institutional type.
It may take you multiple years on the job market to land a tenure-track job. This is not a statement about you or your value. I was on the job market for about 3 jobs cycles—the first year was limited to a handful of schools (maybe 2-3?); the second year was mostly restricted to jobs in Texas; the third year was a national job search where I applied to jobs in Massachusetts, Alabama, Iowa, Texas, and so many other places. Something that helped my years on the job market is that I always employed full-time and wasn’t necessarily applying for every job out of desperation. When I graduated, I didn’t have to worry about my funding running out since I pursued my degree as a part-time student.
There are two pieces of advice I got related to the job market that I think are so important: First, you are more marketable when you have your degree in hand. Gloria Crisp told me this in 2015 when I was preparing for that second year on the job market. I found this to be true. I had more nibbles in the form of phone interviews.
Second, you need to keep up your productivity post-graduation, even if you’re not in a faculty role. This was something Miriam Martinez told me when she told me that she adjuncted for about 5 years before she got her job at the University of Texas at San Antonio (she was a Full Professor in Literacy Education when she told me this). She said that she made sure she was publishing and presenting while she was on the market those years so she could show her pipeline of work. The job that I remained in for about 16 months post-graduation enabled me to write and collaborate on research projects. Even just making sure that you’re working on manuscripts from your dissertation is important if you don’t have access/time to fresh projects.
Try not to get attached to the idea of one particular job or institution. I tell the story often of the one campus visit I had in the 2015-2016 job cycle and how I sincerely felt it was MY job. Then I didn’t get it, and I was devastated. I understand that you can get excited about a job and think, “That would be a great place to work!” But know that it is very common for jobs to get a lot of applications. I found out after the fact that the job I applied for at Iowa State and ultimately got attracted over 100 applications for 2 positions. To my knowledge, that is not uncommon. No matter how much the availability of a job feels like destiny, know that the odds are not in your favor.
Understand that there are a lot of incredibly qualified, deserving folks who don’t end up on the tenure-track—and that doesn’t mean they don’t end up doing great things. There was an op-ed by Andrew Martinez for Diverse Issues in Higher Education from May 2020 that I want to highlight as a required reading for anyone who is feeling down about the job market. We are led to believe that landing a tenure-track job is the most important thing. It’s not. Please read Andrew's wisdom here: https://diverseeducation.com/article/178479/
I want to own my privilege here. I know I speak as a person in a tenure-track position who loves her job and feels like I won the lottery. But I also want to say that I recognize that I could have done other things if I hadn’t gotten my job at Iowa State. Over the course of applying for faculty jobs, I was also applying for non-faculty jobs and saw a lot of potential to be successful in capacities off the tenure-track. As I remember hearing James Anthony in the Emerging Scholars program hosted by AERA’s Division J in 2014, there are many higher education spaces that need talented, capable people. Please know that you can still do wonderful things off the tenure-track.
Overall, I really want to let everyone know that the job market is not a friendly place. It can steal your joy. It can make you feel unqualified or unworthy. Resist these feelings with every fiber of your being. You ARE enough. You ARE worthy. You WILL end up where you're supposed to be. Some folx get tenure-track jobs and others don't. I don't have an explanation for why that happens, but know it does. It does not make you a failure if you don't end up on the tenure-track.
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