Graphic of stormtrooper holding dieKelly Hanson is a PhD candidate in English at Indiana University, Bloomington who survived #MLA14. You can find her on Twitter at @krh121910.

If you’ve been following academics on Twitter of late, you may have noticed an outpouring of feelings this month surrounding the annual MLA Convention, the conference for academics in the modern languages. There is even an entire Twitter feed dedicated to venting such feelings. Over the past month, these digital debates have ranged from the adjunctification of academic labor to the future of the humanities. Many of the conversations centered on what were often viewed as unfair hiring practices employed by universities, especially some of the larger research universities; how MLA (or perhaps other large academic conventions) often works as a metonym for the uneven and sometimes hostile terrain that is the academic job market; and how conferences might better serve us sans job interviews. The Professor Is In usefully summarized one strand of these debates (though she used a very problematic analogy for which she has been roundly and smartly criticized and has since apologized).

A thread that unites all of this digital detritus is a consistent complaint about the mystification of job market practices, both by tenured faculty and graduate students going onto the market. The largest complaints levied by potential job candidates seemed to be against the mystifying hiring processes of various departments in an academic market that has been so decimated by slashed budgets and global market forces it seems like little more than a role of the dice.

Clearly, we here at Gradhacker can’t solve all the problems of the academic job market (though we can offer adviceand commiseration). But for all of us today-from grad students who aren’t on the market this year, or for those who may have just emerged from the application process-I want to suggest some concrete ways to productively demystify the job market. And you can start in your own backyard.

The centerpiece of my advice is simple: use what you have. In other words: treat your department like a library, and think about the job searches going on in your departmentas learning models (and/or use other departments in your broader fields of sciences, social sciences, technology, or the humanities, especially if you do interdisciplinary work). In many disciplines, spring is the semester for campus visits and job interviews. In what follows, I’d like to suggest some concrete ways you can make the most of your department’s hiring process as a learning opportunity and, to borrow a term from actress Laverne Cox, a “possibility model” for your own job search (future or present, alt-ac or TT).

During the Search:

=> Get Involved

Contact your department’s director of graduate studies or the chair of the search committee to learn how you might become involved. In our department, one or two graduate students work with the search committee to help organize meetings between candidates and graduate students, facilitate graduate student involvement in the search, and present graduate student feedback to the search committee and faculty. I can say from experience: this is an excellent learning opportunity. Some schools may even involve graduate students at all stages, including reading applications, conducting interviews, and the final deliberation.

=> Go to the Job Talks

If you don’t have time to be involved with the search itself, or this opportunity isn’t available to you, get involved by going to the job talks of all the candidates and making a point to meet them if you can. Go to the talks. Do I repeat myself? I repeat myself: Go to the talks. Go to the talks. Go to the talks. Attending job talks in your field is the single best way to help you develop best practices for your own job market experience. And by field, I mean your departmental field, not simply your narrow research specialization. “But I don’t have time for job talks!” Yes you do. “But I’m a first year!” Go anyway. “I’ll just go next year.” You can’t possibly guarantee your department will be hiring next year. Go to the talks.

=> Talk to Your Peers and Colleagues

Discuss your impression of job candidates with other graduate students (politely and not in public). What most interested you about a candidate’s work? What about their performance? Did they seem interested in being a member of the department? What would you have done differently and why?

=> If you get an opportunity to meet your department’s candidates:

  • dress appropriately (business casual or something appropriate for teaching).
  • ask the candidate about their work (it helps if you have read an article or book chapter beforehand).
  • ask a follow up question to their job talk or teaching presentation
  • ask them about their advice for graduate students regarding the job market
  • ask their thoughts on job market strategies, both academic, and alt-ac.
  • be prepared to discuss your own work, succinctly and in detail
  • do not ask personal or family questions.

After the Search:

=> Talk to Your Advisor

If your advisor was present at job talks, use this opportunity to discuss modeling (or not modeling) yourself after different candidates. What strategies played well for the candidate? What did the faculty or search committee value in the candidate they chose, and how did that connect with the candidate’s visit? How can you yourself prepare for future interviews based on this information? Has this job search changed your advisor’s advice to you about the job market at all?

=> Draw on Digital Resources

There is a lot of information out there on the job market. After you’ve watched your department’s job search, you can better contextualize and evaluate the swaths of advice. I use software like Evernote to clip job market related advice that seems relevant, so I can come back to it later when I am preparing for application season. Posts on The Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed might be useful, but look also at posts that give you nitty-gritty details (like those breaking down the cost of attending a job interview at MLA) and manage your time and finances accordingly.

Getting involved in your department’s search committee won’t solve everything, but it can go a long way for helping you understand the sometimes mysterious ways in which the job market works. Combined with digital accounts, these job searches provide invaluable resources for helping you turn the odds in your favor during this annual Hunger Games spectacle.

What about you? What tips or tricks have you picked up from watching your (anonymous) department’s search committees at work, or talking to their job candidates? What job market insights have you gleaned?

[Image by Flickr user JD Hancock used under creative commons licensing.]


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