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Collaboration on the Academic Job Market

Tips for organizing an effective job market support group.

February 6, 2018
 
 

Neelofer Qadir is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Follow her on Twitter @_neelofer and check out her website.

When I say job market, you most likely feel a pang of dread somewhere deep in your body. Maybe you want to look away because you don’t want to acknowledge the train wreck in your future, or maybe it’s because you’re deep in the process yourself and don’t want to read/hear another word about it. Is there a way to move past such feelings and tackle the job market from a place of confidence, or at the very least, not be fully bound up in despair? I think it is possible to thrive, not survive. Or, at the very least we can make credible attempts, however momentary they feel.

This academic year, three of my colleagues and I joined forces to create a job market support group to mitigate the isolation that accompanies being a late-stage graduate student or recent PhD. Lauren Silber, Ashley Nadeau, Liz Fox, and I sat down for a conversation on what worked about our group and why, which I now present to you.

Our group had a good mix of first timers and job market veterans, and we each work in different sub-fields in literary studies and interdisciplinary humanities, like women’s studies. So far, between the four of us, we have had 12 interviews and two campuses visits, from R1s to teaching institutions, for tenure track positions and postdoctoral fellowships.

Here are our suggestions for what worked well and why.

1. Start early. Our group met for the first time in July, well in advance of the Modern Language Association’s job information list’s September arrival, to begin workshopping our documents. The summer/early fall bi-weekly sessions allowed us to work on our documents independently and workshop them during the final hour of our meetings. When the application deadlines picked up steam, we were all in “tailoring” mode rather than “drafting.”

2. Your group shouldn’t be too big or too small. Having four people was important because it allowed us to schedule regular face-to-face sessions without having to manage too many schedules. Yet we were large enough so the labor of giving feedback and emotional support on the process did not fall heavily on one person as it might if there were just two.

3. Find the tools that work for your group. We deployed a range of digital and analog tools to make our group function effectively. These included Google Docs, Slack, Skype/Google Hangouts, and face-to-face co-working sessions. We especially appreciated Slack’s utility for our group because it allowed us to check in on job market related conversations on our own terms and time. We agreed this was crucial in helping manage the stress of applications and making a choice about when one felt prepared to give feedback, to learn about a colleague landing an interview, or to share news of a rejection. Using email or text message didn’t give us that “choice” in the same way.

4. What you give is what you get. Lauren noted that one critical aspect of our group is the reciprocity. Time and energy are in low supply when one is applying for jobs, and it can be much easier to turn inward and isolate oneself. We found that doing the opposite – interaction, not isolation – kept us more engaged and made our materials stronger since we were receiving feedback from people in several different subfields. That diverse feedback helped each of us anticipate how certain ideas and claims would come across, which allowed us to make rhetorical choices that more clearly represented our research, teaching, and service work.

5. Figuring out the group’s purpose and dynamics. Liz recognized how meaningful it was for each of us to be able to hold emotional space for one another. Similarly, I found it invaluable to have “go to” people to discuss job market highs/lows with that were not my immediate family, closest friends, and mentors. Because we had committed to being these people for each other, our other relationships did not have to bear the burden of every conversation turning into a conversation about the academic job market. Ultimately, this gave each of us a specific space for most of our venting and preserved other relationships for solace and comfort. By coming into this collaboration as colleagues, we were able to figure out a fresh group dynamic without worrying about ruining, or weighing down, pre-existing friendships.

6. Change the frame. While we relied on a variety ofs job market advice sources, including The Professor Is In, we found that working together shifted how we interacted with our materials. It was less a self-help checklist model and more about making choices. In an environment designed to make you feel like you don’t have any choices, occupying this empowered space is paramount. Ashley found that by looking at others’ materials, she became a stronger writer as she recognized the rhetorical choices each of us were making. Lauren adds that seeing the different styles based on sub-fields and legibility of projects made her feel agential on the job market.

7. Recognizing the big picture. Each of us entered the job market with experience in alt-ac environments, so applying for a professorship is not the sole career trajectory that any of us have in mind. Having conversations around this helped us zoom out from the task at hand and ask questions about what skills we have, which kinds of professional contributions we want to make, and what qualities we desire in our work environments. Processing this openly and honestly allowed each of us to make decisions about which jobs we applied to, how to frame our social and political identities in materials and interviews, and what adequate compensation for a job looks like (based on cost of living, familial and social networks, institutional support).

8. Collaboration makes you a stronger candidate. One aspect that everyone in the group spoke highly of were the mock interviews we did for each other. As those requests began coming in for each of us, we reached out to our department’s job officer who set up interviews, but prior to those, we did practice ones with each other. Not only do we have a bank of questions filtered by type of institution/position, we have serious practice performing as a search committee member. Each mock interview meant individual research on the institution interviewing, writing up questions, deliberating with colleagues about which questions to ask and in what order, and debriefing afterwards about what worked and what didn’t.

9. Celebrate the wins! When all four of us found out we had interviews, we celebrated. In fact, at the very beginning of the semester, we committed to treating ourselves to a fancy dinner and hot tubs in December and we set the date back in September. We didn’t know then whether we would have something specific to celebrate or if we would all be miserable by that point. Agreeing to honor our labor no matter the job market outcome recognized the labor to come and everyone’s contribution in lifting up their colleagues through a difficult time.

Have you been applying for academic jobs this year? What’s kept you afloat? What could you do differently if you’ll be applying in a future cycle? Share with us in the comments or on Twitter, @GradHacker.

[Image by Flickr user nick farnhill and used under Creative Commons licensing.]

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