Start Now (Seriously, like today.)
Like all of my friends in academia, most of the dragons that I slay are document-based: critical essays, stories, student work, letters of recommendation, etc. Procrastination is a pernicious little monster, but he's good company and he always finds stuff for us to do other than work (like go to happy hour or watch a marathon of Real Housewives of Wherever on Bravo. Those ladies are vicious. But I digress.) When it came to the job search, though, I really wish that I had locked him up and allotted even more time to work on my materials and to recognize the process as a process—a long one.
One of the best decisions I ever made was to participate in a semester-long job workshop offered by my department at the University of Southern Mississippi, and this was invaluable when it came to producing the materials for my dossier. I didn't realize how incredibly important the academic job letter was until I was neck-deep in it. It's very, very difficult to create a sense of yourself—as a writer, a teacher, an academic, a person—in two pages, and the teaching philosophy isn't any easier. These documents, which my professors who have themselves been on search committees emphasized, must be perfect. It's a buyer's market in academia, after all, and schools have a lot of options. I went through many, many drafts of my job letter and teaching philosophy and CV, all of which were scrutinized by no fewer than six professors, as well as several friends who had been on the market in years past. It's your life on a few pieces of (very fancy) paper, and the stakes are so, so high. No pressure.
All That Other Stuff
Another thing: while the job letter and the teaching philosophy allow you to really focus on your achievements and sell yourself and talk about why you would be a great asset to a department, your CV tells the whole story of what you've been up to in graduate school. Everything that you do in grad school matters, and the best advice that I can give to people who are just starting grad school and think that they'll be pursuing an academic job is to be very proactive and to pursue opportunities.
Publishing—creative, academic, journalistic—matters. I didn't think that committees would care that I worked as a food and travel writer while getting my MFA, but they did because it was something that made me different from other candidates. It's even more important to publish academic and creative work. The reality of the job market today is that most of us, unless your field is incredibly specialized, will be looking for generalist jobs. The school that hired me was specifically looking for someone who could teach composition, creative writing, professional writing, and literature, and I appealed to them because I had taught all of those classes.
As a grad student, my top priority for much of grad school was my course work; everything else—publishing, conference panels and presentations, departmental and university service, teaching, etc.—fell into a catch-all category of all that other stuff. As it turned out, all that other stuff was really important to the people who interviewed me. One of the committees that interviewed me wanted to know all about the TOPS creative writing summer camp classes and the community creative writing workshop that I taught while at FAU. That conversation led to another about how it would be really great to do something like that at their school, which in turn made them think about what I could offer their program.
Know Where to Look
Another vital aspect of finding an academic job that I misunderstood was knowing where to look. The MLA job list opens in early fall, and for a long time I was under the impression that it was the only place to look for an academic job. My mistake. While the MLA list shows many of the best jobs, there are certainly other sources to consider. Personally, though I did join and apply for jobs using the MLA list, I had better luck with higheredjobs.com and the Chronicle of Higher Education job list. Also, it's important to know that all hope is not lost if you don't get invited to the MLA conference. Many schools are no longer doing interviews at MLA and are instead opting for phone and Skype interviews, and I know several people who are just now going on interviews and getting hired for the fall semester.
Another thing that surprised me was the sheer volume of applications that it is standard to send out. This is time-consuming and expensive and a lot more involved than I thought it would be. My job letter and teaching philosophy needed to be customized to appeal to each school I applied to, most of which also wanted my CV and confidential letters of recommendation, which had to be sent from the Interfolio website ($6 a pop, and that's not counting the ones that had to be overnighted because I fell that far behind). This is another area where time became a real issue, because while being “on the market” is like a job in itself, I already had my normal schedule of teaching and studying for Ph.D. comprehensive exams and finishing my dissertation to deal it.
I ended up applying to about 30 jobs between October 2011 and January 2012. While that may seem like a lot (it still does to me), that number is actually on the low end among the people I know. The standard seems to be about 50 or 60 applications, though I know several people who have applied to over 100 jobs.
This profession maintains a certain fondness for the well-crafted, carefully-worded rejection letter, and this naturally extends to letters sent out by search committees. I know this because I received many of them. Most people do. Most of the letters say something along the lines of “We received an overwhelming number of impressive applications and yours was not among them...” Okay, they don't actually say that, but the first few times, that's what it feels like. Don't take it personally; they don't.
So how exactly does the job-search committee decide who to interview? Having recently been through the process and subjected to all of its curiosities, I can confidently answer that question: the truth is, I don't know. Whether there's some sort of academic algorithm or alchemy (or alcohol) at work, I have no idea. What I can tell you is this: when you get an interview, it's because something in your application caught somebody's eye; whether it was a mutual alma mater or acquaintance or shared research interest or special recognition, it's hard to say, but they saw something in that faceless sea of black-and-white paper and for that, you should be glad.
Once you've gotten the interview, you've entered a whole different minefield, one that was made navigable for me only with the help of extensive preparation. My advice: seek professional help. If professors offer to help you, by all means take them up on it. I got a lot of advice, encouragement, and practice from a few of my very generous professors, and that made all the difference in the world. I did a mock interview with them and a practice job talk and they posed questions for me to answer and then gave me feedback on my performances. They talked to me about what I should (and shouldn't) say and what to wear and what to prepare for, and it was knowing what to expect that helped me to do well in the interview.
Academic Darwinism; or, The Campus Visit
Campus visits are exhausting. It's a long day where you meet lots of people, including but not limited to faculty and students, and you have to be “on” the entire time, so make sure you bring personality to spare. By the time I got back on the plane after my first interview, I felt like there was nothing left. Though there are many other things at play, I think that one of the deciding factors of who gets the job is who survives the day with the least amount of wear and tear. Or who survives, period. I don't know where they hide the bodies of the other candidates, but I suspect that problem falls under the purview of junior faculty. I'll find out soon enough.
Courtney Watson has an M.F.A. in fiction from Florida Atlantic University and a Ph.D. in English with a focus on Modernism and Southern Literature from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. She is an Assistant Professor of English at Jefferson College of Health Sciences in Roanoke, VA, and her writing has appeared in The Inquisitive Eater, Black Lantern, The Key West Citizen, and more.