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5 Big-Picture Mistakes New Ph.D.s Make on the Job Market

Written by: Karen Kelsky
Published on: May 21, 2019

Question: What are some mistakes that new Ph.D.s — especially those in the saturated humanities fields — make when looking for an academic job?

There are many ways to answer that question. In fact, my entire career as an academic job coach is, in a sense, an answer to that question. If you have followed my blog or read my book, you know at least some of the professional blunders — like publishing chapters in an edited volume rather than articles in a peer-reviewed journal, or drafting a cover letter filled with starry-eyed dithyrambs about how you’ve always wanted to be a professor rather than evidence demonstrating your research and pedagogical aptitude.

But I am going to take this answer in a slightly different direction and talk about big-picture mistakes. Many of them boil down to false assumptions that a candidate’s advisers have neglected to correct.

Mistake No. 1: You assume you’ll be offered a tenure-track job because your doctorate is from a top program.

The overproduction of Ph.D.s (particularly in the humanities) is a mathematical fact that stems from steady rates of graduate-school admissions pitted against declining availability of tenure-track lines. Now, I am not saying job candidates should just give up — just that it’s not a given that you will end up in a tenure-track position, and that it’s reasonable and healthy to accept that.

Why? Because a reality-based approach can both motivate you to perfect your application materials and buffer you against the existential crisis that befalls many people when, after their third or fourth go on the job market, they realize that it simply might not happen for them. If you don’t assume that you will get a tenure-track job, you can reflect on how long you are willing to invest in looking for one, and what you want to do as an alternative. There are many wonderful alt-ac paths available to folks with Ph.D.s, but as with most things, those paths are easier to embark on as part of a thought-out plan rather than a reactive scramble.

Mistake No. 2: You believe an “interesting” and/or finished dissertation will lead directly to a tenure-track job.

OK, so one of the actual qualifiers for many tenure-track jobs is a finished dissertation, but that’s all it is in and of itself — a qualifier.

As for the role of “interesting,” first, it’s in the eye of the beholder (or the echo chamber of your dissertation committee — a group of people who will obviously find your topic interesting as, most likely, it mirrors their own intellectual work in one way or another). Second, interesting is not the same thing as a “hot topic” in the field (which by itself won’t get you a job, either, but might help).

In short, don’t fetishize (in the Marxist sense of the word) your completed dissertation, or its topic. It’s not a magical object that will land you a job. What will get you a position at a research-oriented university is a focused competitive record of sole- or first-authored, peer-reviewed publications; presentations at major conferences; and prestigious grants. Your very interesting dissertation won’t lead directly to a job at a teaching-oriented institution, either. What will: ample teaching experience, and a convincing pedagogical vision as evidenced by a crisp teaching statement and reality-based syllabi (just because no one before you thought of teaching Wittgenstein to undergrads through mime does not mean it’s a good idea).

Mistake No. 3: You believe that adjuncting is a way to get your foot in the door.

Adjuncting enables a lot of wishful thinking in academe. All too often Ph.D.s nurture lingering hopes that a non-tenure-track job is the equivalent of a foot in the door — a door that leads to the promised land of tenure-track appointments. That is not the case. But that reality is obscured both by candidates’ wishful thinking and by some departments’ informal policy of giving courtesy interviews to their adjuncts who apply for tenure-track openings.

I am not saying that there is no such thing as a foot in the door or that people can’t migrate from one employment tier to another. Sometimes institutions do convert visiting assistant professorships and lecturerships into tenure-track lines. Sometimes people in those full-time, non-tenure-track positions are hired as inside candidates following a search tailor-made for them (although that reality is not as common as people might wish or hope). And sometimes labor-union activism by adjuncts does result in contingent labor becoming slightly less contingent. It’s just that all of those things are the exception rather than the rule. In most cases, an adjunct job does not lead to a tenure-track position in the same department, and it’s delusional to believe it will.

Mistake No. 4: You misunderstand the differences between various types, calibers, and functions of institutions.

That mistake that can affect a candidate’s application strategies, expectations, negotiations. Within the ecology of academe, different institutions — major research universities, elite liberal-arts colleges, regional state universities, community colleges — each have their own niche and their own function.

I’ve had clients who — after they were offered a tenure-track position at the satellite campus of an underfunded state university with a 4-4 teaching load — then sought my help trying to negotiate a reduced course load. They misunderstood the mission and function of that sort of campus, which meant they couldn’t negotiate a lower course load in a reasonable way without alienating their future colleagues.

They also couldn’t manage their expectations about what the work there will be like. “But how am I supposed to do research with that course load?” The answer: You aren’t — or at least not the kind of research you would be expected to do at a university with a 2-2 load. Two related points:

  • Do not assume you will be able to publish your way out of a teaching-intensive job. It’s not impossible, but it might be very difficult.
  • Do not assume you will be offered more than one tenure-track job in your life.

The same goes for clients who write to me and say they want to teach at an elite liberal-arts college but would be “willing” to take a job at a community college “if nothing else pans out.” A community college job is not better or worse. It is its own thing, and unless you really understand that — and can show a demonstrable commitment to the value and mission of that particular type of institution — a community college is not going to be “willing” to hire you.

Mistake No. 5: You didn’t consider your teaching options outside of U.S. colleges and universities.

The caveat here: Mobility is a privilege. Some job candidates simply can’t consider working overseas — for family, health, financial, or other reasons. But if you are willing to “go where the job is,” don’t overlook the fact that the halls of academia stretch far beyond U.S. borders. There is a learning curve to figure out how different academic systems work, but if you are open to the international market, you will expand your pool of potential jobs. And in this saturated market, that is a definite plus.

Karen Kelsky is founder and president of The Professor Is In , which offers advice and consulting services on the academic job search and on all aspects of the academic and post-academic career. She is a former tenured professor at two universities. Browse an archive of Kelsky’s previous advice columns here .