Monday, April 16, 2012

Job Market Discussion

The History of Science brown bag for April 13th was an informal discussion on the job market, led by Alex Rudnick and Vicki Fama. We covered a lot of ground, but conversation focused primarily on the cover letter, teaching philosophy, the on-campus interview, and the value of post-docs. We mainly discussed issues that are pressing for students on or about to go on the market, but we hope to have future conversations about what one can do as a “younger” graduate student to prepare for the job search (Begin by reading this "The Professor Is In" post on the subject). Below is Meridith and Anna's summary of the sound advice doled out by our faculty:

Vicki started by noting that there is a lot of cynicism in the online dialogue about the job market. Certainly it's a tough market, but Mike Shank reminded us that it's been tight for historians of science for the last thirty years. So, what makes a strong application package? Mike was adamant (and other professors seemed to agree) that the cover letter is not only the first part of the application read, but can be a key means of weeding candidates out. It needs to be concise (no more than 2 pages), it should be addressed to the chair of the search committee, and it needs to be specific to the position that you're applying for. Tom Broman stressed the importance of being able to succinctly convey what your dissertation is about and show how your project can translate into future teaching and research. Judy Houck clarified that it's OK to have templates for cover letters; in fact, if you're applying to dozens of jobs (she applied to 100/year), you need to do this. For example, she created templates for positions in history of medicine, cultural history, and gender and women's studies. However, each letter should be tailored to the department in question, and should indicate how you fit the specific job, without being too defensive.

Anna Zeide asked about the types of positions one should apply to: is it wise to focus mainly on tenure-track (TT) jobs? Or is seeking transitional positions, like post-docs, a good strategy in some cases? Judy Houck said that it's typical for graduate students in the history of science and medicine to get post-docs before starting the TT search. She also pointed out that many of the alumni from our department who secured TT jobs right out of the program completed dissertations that were strongly relevant to fields beyond the history of science. One trend is that those who have done non-U.S. history have been more successful because of the far smaller pool of applicants. Mike Shank and Dayle DeLancey both felt post-docs are invaluable and are often the best strategy for everyone. Of course, there are different kinds of post-docs, but in general they can provide the opportunity for you to cut your teeth on teaching and work on publications. From the perspective of hiring committees, candidates with post-docs have been vetted by two institutions.

There seemed to be a fair amount of consensus that teaching philosophies are a fairly generic aspect of the package. They are normally not as tailored to a specific job as the cover letter, but it's good to mention courses offered in the department that you're prepared to teach. Judy Houck mentioned that when you're asked “How would you teach X,” people are often wondering what major works you would use in the class room, as opposed to your overall teaching style. The document itself should be broadly construed enough to demonstrate that you're flexible in your approach to teaching. Sue Lederer cautioned that one should not come off as someone who is SO committed to a certain kind of teaching philosophy that you appear unwilling to learn from future experience. She also said not to send the teaching philosophy unless an application explicitly asks for it. Andrew Stuhl pointed out that he aims to be a teacher first and foremost, so the teaching philosophy takes on greater importance as an element of the application package for students like him. He recommended the campus Writing Center's workshops on the teaching philosophy, and other elements of the application. As Anna Zeide nicely put it, it's an opportunity to express your voice and can be a “window into you.”

Finally, we discussed the on-campus interview. It's important to remember that the entire campus visit is an interview; dinners and causal conversations are just as crucial as talks or formal meetings. After all, the faculty is trying to decide whether or not you're someone that would make a good lifelong colleague. Generally one can expect to give a sample talk to the search committee and/or guest lecture an undergraduate course. You should treat these as chances to demonstrate your teaching abilities, not just discuss your research. Mike stressed that these are proxies for showing what kind of teacher you are: can you effectively teach the committee what your dissertation was about? Can you engage an audience? Judy noted that the interview process can be fun, as the focus is on you and your work, and that you're building connections with future colleagues, whether you end up in the position or not. However, you should also be prepared to ask questions of the faculty and make sure that you also show a sincere interest in your potential future work environment. Don't be too self-centered.

Micaela Sullivan-Fowler provided a piece of advice on the overall package: presentation matters. One should be make the effort to use high-quality paper, professional font, and pay attention to every detail.

Some final tips/ideas:
  • What to do now:
    • Read widely about the state of our profession: The Chronicle of Higher Education (available in the library or in the Medical History department, The Professor Is In, and other blogs.
    • Do your best to make wide connections, even outside your university, but make sure any reference letters you have are written by people who really know your work, and can offer specifics.
    • Teaching classes can help your research. It gives you a sense of where your work fits into a larger picture, and helps you transition your dissertation into a book.
    • Have a website. Update it!
  • Cover Letter:
    • Search committees are looking at large stacks of applications, and are hoping to weed some out. You have to make the initial cut, so make your cover letter opening as strong as possible. Avoid vagueness.
    • In your cover letter, describe how you will complement the current department, with specific reference to faculty.
    • Send your cover letter draft around to faculty and colleagues for proofreading/editing before sending out the official version. Mike Shank says he's happy to read!
  • Job Interviews
    • Job interviews aren't all intellectual; the committee also wants to get to know you and to see whether they want to have you as a colleague for the foreseeable future.
    • At a campus visit, be able to answer questions like, "What do you like to do in your spare time?" Your answer to this indicates whether your lifestyle would be a good fit for the city/town in which the university is located.
    • Search committee doesn't typically offer feedback; as it isn't politic to do so.
  • Fundamentally, the most important part of getting a job is what kind of scholar you are and how you package that. It's about the work (and some luck. and time.)
Other topics of interest that we didn't get to, that might be worth coming back to in future discussions or brownbags: when we should be publishing; how to talk to book editors; what kinds of job opportunities are out there beyond the R1 and small liberal arts colleges (re: the AHA conversations on "Plan B"); the possibility of setting up mock interviews in our department, like the History department does.


  1. Thanks, Meridith and Anna -- great job summarizing a very rich conversation!

    On the subject of asking for feedback after not getting a job you interviewed for, The Professor Is In has slightly different advice, although she is cautious about when to do so:

  2. Thanks for the summary--this is great!

  3. Thank you so much for this! I was disappointed to have to miss this discussion. I second Andrew about the Writing Center workshops (I've been meaning to post on the ones I've been to, but just got too darn busy to do a good job!). I'd also remind everyone about The Academic Job Search Handbook. I really hope this is an ongoing discussion in the department. It's very easy (speaking form experience!) to put off thinking about getting a job until you are right on top of it. I wish I had known a lot of this a lot earlier.

  4. Just came across this excellent resource for grad students, which addresses the question of what one can do to prepare for an academic career earlier on in one's grad student trajectory. It's written by Dr. Brian Ogilvie, whom many of you might know of from his work The Science of Describing (which was based on his dissertation at U of Chicago under Lorraine Daston). A good read for all history grad students!