grad skool rulz #25 – the job market

Previous grad skool rulz.

Get the entire book – Grad Skool Rulz: Everything You Need to Know about Academia from Admissions to Tenure – for only $2. You can read it on personal computers, Nooks, Kindles, iPads, and smart phones.

This post was originally written for graduate students in sociology. The advice applies to other fields, with suitable modifications. E.g., many fields have short interviews at annual conventions during the winter break. Sociology’s job market happens in the fall, so there are no Christmas time interviews.

Initial Remarks: The job search process is harrowing for academics. Unlike other professionals, such as doctors or lawyers, there is little guarantee that a person completing their terminal degree will land a job teaching and doing research in their area. At a top medical school, the question is if you will get the residency of your choice. At a top graduate program, it’s often doubtful that someone will be offered a job at all. Despite this difficult situation, I believe that you can prepare yourself and greatly improve the chance that you will get an academic job. What follows are my opinions on junior level academic job searches, with an emphasis on sociology.

Question 1: Should I go on the job market?

Answer: You get 1 point for each “yes” to the following questions. The more points you score, the better prepared you will be for the job market. As usual, adjust for your field. For example, in short clock fields, where you leave after 4 years, you probably won’t have the chance to publish much.

  • Have I finished my dissertation proposal?
  • Have I completed the data collection for my dissertation?
  • Have I completed at least one polished chapter of my dissertation?
  • Do I have more than one chapter of my dissertation completed?
  • If I get a job, can I complete the dissertation by the summer before I have to start?
  • Do I have a published article in a reputable refereed journal?
  • Do I have multiple articles?
  • Are any of those articles in the top journals?
  • Do I have a book contract? (this often counts for two points)
  • Do I have the support of my committee? (counts for multiple points)
  • Do I have teaching experience? (counts for more if you want a liberal arts position)

Of course, you should always consult with your committee so that everybody is aware of your progress and you are get feedback on your writing. If you have published an article, make sure your committee knows about it. If you have decent drafts of some dissertation chapters, make sure your committee sees them.

I also note that few people can answer “yes” to the all of the questions. But you need to have *something* going for you.

Question 2: When should I think about the job market?

Answer: In sociology, the job market starts in September. So start thinking and planning the spring or summer before the market. As you will see, there is a bit of paper work, so it behooves you to plan this ahead of time. Many fields have job markets that take off during the winter, so you have to start planning everything in the fall.

Question 3: How does the job market work? Once again, written for sociology. Adjust for your own field.

Answer: It goes something like this…

  1. In the spring, summer and fall, department chairs and deans will make decisions about hiring. If they decide they need people, they will advertise in the ASA job bulletin and other forums. Some departments will “scout” at the ASA meetings.
  2. Applications are due in the fall. Many are now due in late August, September and October.
  3. Your application has to have a cover letter, a CV, writing samples and 3 letters of recommendation. Work on these during the summer, so it’s ready to go in the fall. There are books that give great advice on cover letters and the rest of the paperwork. Ask your committee for help as well.
  4. The search committee first weeds applications based on very broad criteria by about 50%. This is based on school reputation, research areas and other easy to observe factors. Then applications are weeded by what the department really needs or wants. This produces a “long short list” of 15-20 names. The “short list” is created after close scrutiny and reading. Then people argue over who to invite for a face to face interview. This happens in Fall and early winter
  5. The candidates are flown out to the campus. Usually, 2-3 candidates per position. You have to give a research talk and meet people so they can see what you are like. It’s very personal at this stage. The visit includes a “job talk” – which is a 30-45 minute presentation of your research in a public forum.
  6. After everybody interviews, the department makes a final choice. Sometimes they don’t get the first choice and will go after second/third choices. This process can take many months. Some departments will choose not to hire people.

Question 4: How do I write a cover letter?

Answer: It’s pretty standard. Your letter is addressed to the search committee or department chair, as listed in the advertisement. The first paragraph explains who you are and what job your are applying for. “My name is Fabio Rojas. I am a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago and I am applying for an assistant professor position at Indiana University as listed in the ASA bulletin.”

For research intensive schools, the next two or three paragraphs explain your research and publications in terms that people in your discipline can understand. A little self promotion is ok. Mention publications in fancy journals, or that you won dissertation of the year award. Don’t mention people who endorse you (“My adviser is highly regarded XX.”) The next to last paragraph should mention teaching, For teaching schools, it’s the reverse. The big chunk of the letter is about teaching experience. Research accomplishments are second. Overall, cover letters are about 2 pages, sometimes 3.

Question 5: How do I prepare my self for an interview?

  • Be prepared. If you are prepared, then you will be relaxed and you will give a better impression.
  • People will ask you predictable questions. “What will you teach?” “What will you do after your dissertation?” Prepare some answers. These are obvious questions.
  • Learn about the dept. you will visit. Read the web site, look at some papers published by faculty. I’m always fascinated by what other people are working on.
  • Be nice. Even if you have an intellectual disagreement with someone’s research, be open and generous when you meet them.
  • Humor and demeanor: Be “vanilla” – don’t swear or be sarcastic. Your friends may find you funny, but somebody who doesn’t know you might find your jokes raw and wicked humor off-putting.
  • Never badmouth anybody. If someone asks you a question about a professor you hate, like: “I heard Professor X is awful.” Simply say, “Professor X has always been kind and generous towards me.” Or if you can’t say that without hysterically laughing, say, “Professor X’s research is really admirable.”
  • Be honest. It’s better to emphasize your good points rather than mislead. If you hate math, don’t say you can teach regression. If you think post-modernism is for the birds, don’t say you’ll teach cultural sociology. Just move the conversation towards your strong points.
  • Appearance: You don’t need an Armani suit to succeed but wear nice clothes. Have them dry cleaned. Make sure they fit. Guys should wear jacket and tie. Ladies should wear blouses. In our modern age, the ladies can wear slacks. Have your hair and nails cut, brush your teeth, etc. Simple things go a long way. Trust me.
  • Other etiquette. Use common sense – be nice toward people, don’t get drunk during social events, take a real interest in others.

Question 6: See the next grad skool rulz (#26).

Question 7: Bad situations. Sometimes interviews have awkward moments. For example, in the real world, some people will make sexual advances towards others or engage in some form of harassment. If the behavior is mild, it’s probably best to ignore them. Life has bad moments you have to endure. If it’s more serious, then you should definitely say something like, “I don’t think that’s appropriate.” If the behavior is really off the wall, feel free to contact the department chair or to consult with someone you trust. It’s often the case that boorish behavior is part of a larger pattern, and others will know how to handle it, or at least make things tolerable until the end of the interview. The key is to get help and not let things get out of control.

Question 8: Success. After the interview, the department will decide who will get a job offer. This is out of your control – once you’ve completed the interview, it depends on budgets, personalities and other factors. In some departments, the chair makes final decisions and in others, committees make the decision. In most cases, the offer has to be approved by the dean or some other academic manager. The department chair usually does the work of contacting job candidates and formally offering the job. An offer consists of:

  • A position (assistant professor, associate prof, etc)
  • Salary
  • Equipment (computer, transcriptions devices, etc)
  • Eesearch assistance (money or assistants)
  • Other goodies (summer support, course releases, research funds, etc.)

Get this in writing! You can negotiate a lot of stuff and ask for more, but you might not always get it. Ask your committee and other job seekers what the market will bear. Get everything in writing. You usually have a few weeks to a month for negotiations. When you are done negotiating, sign the contract and mail it back. Now finish your dissertation!

Question 9: Failure. Sometimes you fail to get a job – and this is a real possibility in the academic market place. Unlike the other professions, there are relatively few academic employers and excellence in research does not always translate into success. There are two possibilities you must consider:

  • You have done everything right but suffered bad luck. This is quite common. The average academic job seeker only has two or three interviews and gets a single offer. This single opportunity could be thwarted by events beyond your control. An unexpected budget cut could mean your job was eliminated at the last minute. Maybe there is an unexpected conflict over the hire. There are a million other reasons you don’t get an offer – and you will never know why!
  • You are screwing up. This is also a real possibility. Ask yourself how you might have given a bad impression or otherwise made a mistake. Here are some common errors: (a) poorly prepared/delivered job talk; (b) you are no where near completing your dissertation and everybody knows it; (c) you are rude towards people when you visit and they are insulted – this is quite common; (d) your research is hard to sell; (e) you are “packaged” incorrectly – for ex, your committee thinks you are God’s gift to quantitative research but you barely understand regression; (f) you flubbed basic questions such as what you will teach and what your future research will be like. Fortunately, most job search mistakes can be fixed and you will improve your odds the next time around.

Overall, the academic job search is a dragged out, often arbitrary process. The bright side is that you can still prepare and fix your mistakes if things don’t work out. You do have a great deal of control over what happens to you.


Written by fabiorojas

July 12, 2010 at 4:48 am

12 Responses

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  1. This series is really helpful as someone about to enter academia.

    However, I want to point out that going to law school is no longer the sure thing it once was – law school grads are entering the market without jobs at unprecedented rates, and, as with academia, lots of people in the field believe this is a permanent contraction.

    As someone who’s going back to school after 10 years in a non-academic field, I find over and over again that those inside academia overestimate the prospects of careers in other fields: I so often hear things like “I’d be making so much more money if I had done something else” or “my life would be so much easier if I went to law school.”

    But, from what I’ve seen, academia is like many, many other professional fields: the top 10% (ie, those that go to the absolute best schools, work hard, persist in the face of challenges, have good luck) do very well financially and status-wise. 50-70% (depending on the field) do decently well – get decent jobs, make decent pay, but nothing earth-shattering. The other 20-40% muddle along with limited success, and they’re either happy with that or they find another career.



    July 12, 2010 at 4:50 pm

  2. Sarah: Thanks for writing. I definitely agree that many academics have fantasies about the easy life in law or medicine. These fantasies are highly misguided.

    But I would like to disagree with a basic point in your post – that the academic career track has the same (or worse) risks as law or other professions. I think this is mistaken. Consider the following:

    – only 50% of entering PhD students finish the degree even at elite graduate programs, while 90% of law students finish at top programs. Among those finishing the PhD, only about half get tenure track jobs. I don’t know any professional program with such poor job outcomes. I think you’d have to go to very low ranked or unaccredited law schools to get such paltry outcomes.

    – Compensation. Even if you do graduate and begin an academic career, you make way, way less than people with equivalent skills. The soc assistant jobs these days pay from $55-$80k, after 6-7 years in grad school. Recent survey data shows that the average full prof in sociology makes about $80k or so. In other words, being at the top of the academic field (in most disciplines) puts you at the bottom of the income distribution of many professional fields.

    On the other hand, academia has way superior working conditions. We set our own hours, we work in cushy universities and choose our own research. It’s great work if you can get it. But that shows the trade off. Academia can be highly desirable, but the market is very, very bad. Much worse than most other professions, even in this crummy market.



    July 12, 2010 at 6:03 pm

  3. One of my advisers talked to me about the interview. I took extensive notes (I’m an ethnographer). Here they are, unedited. As with all advice: there’s no perfect advice. So take from it what you will. Great post Fabio.

    1.) Manage your appearance
    • Don’t try too hard by wearing fancy clothes, wear something you’re comfortable in. Your comfort level shows, and is important to people.
    • But also have a clear level of professionalism in what you’re wearing.
    • This is a delicate balance

    2.) Talking to people (general)
    • Pretty much everyone you talk to will ask the same questions
    • There is the temptation to answer differently (either because you’re sick of answering in the same way, or because you want to come across as well rounded)
    • This is a bad idea
    • You want to give everyone the same set of answers. So if you have three things to say about your future projects, don’t tell one to each person you talk to. Tell all three to every person. People will talk with one another after your interview, and you want to come across as a consistent, coherent person. Widely different answers to questions will also make people feel that you have something to hide.
    • People will ask what your future projects are. Have answers. They shouldn’t just be, “I’m turning my dissertation into a book”. Presumably your dissertation data is richer than your dissertation. So what are you going to do with that data? Any more papers coming out of it? Etc.
    • People will also ask about what you want to teach. Respond directly to the call. But also look at what they presently teach in the department and see where you could fit in. This isn’t about say, “You have this huge hole in X that I could fill”, but more of, “I’d be interested in teaching X, and I feel this would fit nicely within what you’re doing/add too it”. This means making connections between the new stuff that you’d do and what already exists. That way you’re not insulting their curriculum, but you are telling folks where you fit with their department in a way that isn’t redundant. Also, be specific. Not just, “I want to teach a theory seminar,” but, “I’d love to teach a seminar on THIS TOPIC reading THESE PEOPLE”.

    3.) Talking with the Dean
    • The point of the interview with the dean is a validity check, to make sure the department is making a good decision, and not bringing in someone who would be “a problem.”
    • With that in mind, be friendly but rather sober with the dean. Don’t make weird jokes, etc. In other words, don’t give them any reason to believe that you might be anything more than a professional colleague, a normal, smart, human being.
    • Ask questions that suggest you know what it means to be a faculty member (that you’re no longer a graduate student).
    • Ask how the department is seen in the college overall. Is it respected? Does it get a good proportion of funding? Is it growing or shrinking? Is it valued?
    • If it’s a state school, ask about the relationship between the state and the university. As if the legislature values having a research institution. Don’t make any suggestions that the administration is a problem, but instead that the legislature can be a headache.
    • Ask if there are internal research funds available for junior faculty. How you can apply for them, how they help support beginning stages of research (that would then allow you go and get a grant of your own).
    • Keep in mind that as you’re negotiating with the department about salary/benefits, the dean is heavily involved. So impressing the dean with your professionalism (and your knowledge about how the game works) will help convince the dean that the school may in fact have to pay you more than what they’ve had to pay others before.

    4.) Talking with Grad Students
    • How do you feel about the program?
    • How could it be better for you?
    • What works well?
    • The idea is to give students a sense that you actually care about the quality of graduate education.
    • Also, the key to this meeting is getting more information about the department than faculty are likely to tell you. Faculty will hide certain parts/politics that they feel are undesirable to reveal. The grad students are less savvy about this and have less invested in hiding the dirty laundry of the department. So asking them about the program, the department, how they feel about it will reveal the kinds of things you really want to know about the inner workings of the place.
    • But don’t ask negative questions. Ask them in a positive way. The negative stuff will come out.
    • Ask grad students if they collaborate with faculty.

    5.) Meeting with the department chair
    • You will have often two meetings with the chair. One as your first interview, one as an exit interview. Both are important, and they have different purposes. In the first you should get a framing of what the department is like. The reason for this is it will give you an official presentation of the department that you can then ask other faculty about (a bit of a validity check). In the exit interview you will more likely talk about offer aspects, etc.
    • You should ask the chair of the department is collegial, if it is expanding, if there is an ethic of collaboration, etc. You should not ask about conflict. But if you get a sense of conflict, you could ask if it is recovering from conflicts.
    • You should then also ask other faculty about this (but not so many as to seem obsessed). You can phrase your questions relative to the chair. So you might say, “The chair said X, do you find that to be the case?”
    • Don’t ask questions that would create suspicions of things going on in your life. So, it isn’t bad to ask about health insurance. But only ask about it once, with the chair, in the final meeting. That way people won’t think you’re hiding some health issue.
    • In the final meeting, you will likely talk about your time line, etc. Tell them you have a medium time line. That you’re not going to wait around, but that you don’t need an offer RIGHT NOW. You might mention that you’re on the short list at a couple other places. Don’t name the places. If they ask, it’s bad on their part. Tell them you’d rather not jinx it!
    • In the first meeting, ask about the process of getting tenure. Ask if there is a mentoring program, like at Wisconsin. Ask what the review process is like. Ask what the time schedule is like. Places have different models. Which one they have is important. Is it every year (getting more important)? Is it three years and five years (in which case you need your book accepted by a publisher by the third year)? In this context you can also ask about a junior sabbatical (usually third year, one semester off).
    • Ask about financial support for junior faculty research (as you do with the dean).
    • Ask about how people bring in money, and how much.

    6.) Other meetings (you can mention some of this stuff with the chair, as well)
    • Ask about collaboration among faculty
    • Ask about collaboration with grad students
    • Ask about grad students in general. Keep in mind that everyone complains about their graduate students. So don’t take this as a sign that the grad students are bad. Instead, as about recent dissertations and the best grad students they’ve had over the last few years. In other words, make them tell you about the good ones. If they can’t, that’s not a good sign. But if they can, see what kind of work they’re doing.
    • Don’t press too hard on any sore spots. Just note them. You can ask about them later (when negotiated offers, etc.)
    • Think of a question that is relatively innocuous but a good indicator of quality of life issues that are important to you. So I might ask about orchestras coming through, if there is a good jazz club in town; if there is a decent farmers market, etc. This way you don’t have to ask quality of life questions that might make the people you’re talking to uncomfortable (“Is this town a fun place to live” is not a good question), but you can get information that gives a key indicator of the place. Keep in mind that your main focus is your work. They’re hiring you to work, not to have a fun time in the town.
    • Do give a sense that you’re excited about certain aspects of the place; that you are likely to go there. You may be asked this directly. Laugh the question off a bit. Tell the, “I wouldn’t have come for an interview here if I weren’t very serious and interest about it!” This kind of answer also gives the indication that you can CHOOSE where you want to interview, that you’re desirable. Keep in mind that part of their job is also to recruit you.
    • Do your own kind of validity checks, to make sure that what folks are telling you is really the case. Time with grad students is particularly good for this.

    Final weird (but interesting) comment: when picking food to eat, pick stuff that is easy to eat where you don’t have to worry about it being messy. Something that you can eat that won’t spill on you, that you can eat without paying attention, that won’t get stuck in your teeth, etc. So a salad is better than some kind of potentially messy sandwich.



    July 13, 2010 at 5:00 am

  4. In Sociology does research/work with social services organisations count when in the academic job market?


    slight aside

    July 13, 2010 at 3:37 pm

  5. slight aside: Most academic jobs are about teaching & research. So the general rule is “no – research/service work does not count.” The exception are jobs where faculty are expected to work in the community or if they are expected to helps students with internships and the like.



    July 13, 2010 at 4:51 pm

  6. Shamus: Those are great additions, thanks!



    July 13, 2010 at 5:03 pm

  7. Fabio: thanks for the response re: the academic job market. Those certainly are sobering stats.

    I wonder: what do those soc PhDs that don’t get academic jobs do? There’s an interesting document from the BLS that shows that, on the whole, sociologists have pretty good job prospects (maybe not as good as lawyers, but who wants to be a lawyer?) if you’re talking about the whole range of options outside of academia. I thought it was especially interesting that sociologists working for social advocacy groups averaged a salary of $90,000/year. I work in that field, and that’s a high salary. Unfortunately, the BLS doesn’t give data for PhDs vs MA or BA holders outside of academia.

    The report is here:

    The BLS also has a wage report for Sociology professors – it appears sociology profs make about 2/3 what lawyers make on average.



    July 13, 2010 at 5:08 pm

  8. Thanks for the information, Sarah. I think people will benefit from reading these reports.

    You asked about soc PhD off the academic track. As faculty, I can give you my observations: survey research/marketing, govt’ work/policy, some consulting, some teaching. Not as good as law or the MBA/econ track, but not bad at all. In fact, among letters and science degrees, the soc PhD is one of the better ones for people who go for non-academic careers. Definitely better than nearly all the humanities and not too shabby when compared with some of the sciences, where non-academic PhDs work as low paid lab grunts.



    July 13, 2010 at 5:14 pm

  9. This is an amazing resource and very detailed. Knowing what to expect is always comforting, not to mention how much it improves your chances of success. Thanks for putting all this together.


    Mike Dougherty

    July 13, 2010 at 6:37 pm

  10. This is a great series, thank you.

    You mention that there are good books with advice on cover letters and other application;I wondered if you might recommend one or two titles that seem especially helpful


    Lori Smith

    July 13, 2010 at 10:23 pm

  11. Org Theory,

    What things look good for post-docs?

    P.G. Spaulding


    P.G. Spaulding

    July 14, 2010 at 2:06 am

  12. […] clarify the record. If you read the Grad Skool Rulz #25, I recommended that students count their job market “points.” I wrote the following […]


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