Assessing Our Market Value
There’s a lot of ambiguity bound up in the phrase “academic job market.” In a PhD program of five+ years, you might receive advice along the way (some structured, some scattered) about how best to navigate your way toward eventual employment. “By year four, present your work at a major conference,” you might be told; or, “By year five, publish an article in a peer-reviewed journal.” Diligently following these steps, you fight off the ever-creeping pessimism and anxiety about the future and remind yourself of Duke’s decidedly-better-than-average tenure-track career outcomes. But what happens after you’ve checked all of these boxes – taught your classes and presented your papers and published your article? What is being on the academic job market actually like? How much (or how little) do all those checked boxes actually matter?
Graduate students in the English department sought to reduce some of the mystery surrounding that year (or more) of our lives at an event on April 6th called “Fresh Off the Market.” Four recent graduates from the English department returned to campus to speak about the process of looking for their first jobs in academia, as well as what their transitions into these tenure-track positions has been like. While the speakers ultimately found positions at a range of institutions – from Winston-Salem State to Duquesne to Virginia Commonwealth University – certain comments ran through all of their experiences. Here are a few that stuck with me the most:
Market yourself in as many ways as you can. More likely than not, a hiring committee only has the green light to look for one tenure-track line at a time, although the department might very well be in need of people in multiple fields. If you can show that you’re qualified to teach in more than your primary area of research, you have a better chance of standing out as a candidate.
Relatedly, be more than just your research and know how to spin the Duke brand. Hiring committees will have certain assumptions regarding Duke graduates’ strengths and weaknesses, as well as the sort of position we’re looking to hold onto (rather than use as a stepping stone to the next best thing). While you might be someone who truly feels that teaching is the most appealing part of the job, all of the panelists who had applied to teaching-focused schools felt they had to work harder to prove this to hiring committees. Whether it’s with the Certificate in College Teaching or Preparing Future Faculty programs, a digital project, or an internship with Franklin Humanities Institute, all of the speakers suggested having items on your CV that show a broad range of interests outside your research project.
Be likeable. This seems incredibly obvious, but “likeability” was one of the most important factors (if not the most important) during campus visits for several of the panelists. As anyone who’s sat through numerous job talks for their own department can attest, bringing multiple job candidates to campus is an exhausting process, and hiring committees can get bored. If you’re someone who projects warmth, who can make them laugh, who seems like someone they’d like to run into in the hallway for the next forty years, they’ll remember you.
Have a Plan B. This is not the sort of encouraging bullet-point of advice anyone wants to hear, but this was perhaps the thing I was most relieved they said out loud. Being enthusiastic about a backup plan can do a lot for your mental health and confidence. Confidence factors into how attractive a job candidate you are (one panelist mentioned she’d had significantly more success in her second year on the market, when she’d already gone through the process once and could speak about her project with more ease), and so even if you don’t end up needing your backup plan, it might actually help you get a job in academia. But having a Plan B can also be empowering because working in academia ought not to be the end-all, be-all of our self-worth. Our lives are more than our research and our students, and a tenure-track position should not automatically obscure the importance of the people and the places we love. It’s an obvious statement, but one that isn’t said often enough.
After the event, a friend of mine mentioned that she almost hadn’t attended, because she’d worried that hearing these testimonies would set off anxieties that she’s so far managed to avoid internalizing. In the end, though, she said she was really glad she’d come – the academic job market was (obviously) not any better by the time we headed out to dinner, but having some clarity around the cause of our collective stress gave it the semblance of something we can manage.
Ph.D. candidate, English
Rachel Gevlin is a doctoral candidate in the English Department. She works on depictions of adultery and constructions of masculinity in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British novel.