How to apply for academic jobs in 2020

“You need to lower your expectations,” the director of a graduate program says. “You might not get a tenure track job right away. Be prepared to settle for a VAP or a postdoc.”

It’s the spring of 2020. We are in the midst of a pandemic. And there are still senior faculty giving advice like it’s 2005.

Look, I don’t want to tell you how to apply for academic jobs. It makes me feel like a liar, because applying for academic jobs requires faith in a system that I deeply distrust. It makes me feel inadequate, because my strategies very obviously did not work for me. And honestly? I’m not sure if there will be an academic job market this year.

But I spent three years applying for academic jobs and if I learned anything, it’s that the process of applying for faculty positions is kept secret on purpose. It’s intended to keep you out. And that’s certainly not a game I’m interested in playing.

So in the name of equity and of transparency, and with the caveat that I think we should dismantle everything, I present: my guide to the academic job market in the humanities. It’s not perfect, and everything is changing all the time, but it’s a pretty solid summary of what I did and what I learned. I’ll be updating this as I get feedback, thanks!

Note that this guide comes from my experience applying primarily for positions in literature, digital humanities, and information studies, so it may not apply evenly across all fields. It is specific to applying for jobs in the United States. While all the errors are mine, it couldn’t have been written without feedback from Jim McGrath and Mimi Winick.

This is intended to help provide clarity to students or new PhDs in the humanities just starting to pursue a career on the tenure track.

And yes, I know, the TOC is broken. I’m working on it!


Some Jobs You Might See (A glossary)
The Academic Job Market Timeline
Preparing for the Job Market
Academic Jobs FAQ
What if I haven’t done any of the stuff you suggested?
Where are academic jobs listed?
How do I keep track of applications?
How do I submit an application?
How do I request a letter of recommendation?
What materials are required for a job application?
How do I prepare for a first-stage interview?
How do I pay for an interview?
How do I give a job talk?
Is this contingent job a good job?
I don’t think I want an academic job anymore????

Cartoon drawing of a dog in a top hat saying “this is fine” while surrounded by plants. A remake of one surrounded by flames.
Cartoon drawing of a dog in a top hat saying “this is fine” while surrounded by plants. A remake of one surrounded by flames.

Some Jobs You Might See

Adjunct: A faculty member paid by-the-course, often without benefits, or an office, or research or service funding, or expectation of renewal. It is very hard to transition from an adjunct to lecturer or tt position.

Assistant Professor: A faculty member employed on the tenure track. Usually faculty members are promoted from assistant at the time that they receive tenure.

Associate Professor: A faculty member employed on the tenure track, usually with tenure.

Contingent Position: A position, like a lectureship or postdoc, on a term-limited contract which may or may not be renewed.

Lecturer: (in the US) a faculty member paid by the academic year, usually with a fixed salary and benefits and a renewable contract, generally focused on teaching rather than research or service (though some can carry a heavy service load). These are relatively stable and often very rewarding! But they are generally lower paid and less prestigious than tt. It is hard to transition from a lecturer to tt.

NTT: non tenure-track, often a lecturer.

Postdoc: a person in a term-limited position, often on soft (grant) money, generally hired soon after earning their PhD and intended to help them transition into more permanent employment. Sometimes these positions are research-oriented and very prestigious. Other times they’re just another way to get cheap labor.

Precarious Position: A short-term position, like an adjunct job, which has little or no guarantee of renewal.

TT: A tenure-track job, usually a combination of teaching, research, and service, with the expectation of continuous employment for up to seven years.

Term-Limited Position: A contract position which ends after a certain specified amount of time, like one academic year.

VAP: Visiting Assistant Professor, usually a one-year position to cover the time of someone on sabbatical or test out a new position. These are generally prestigious as far as contingent positions go.

The Academic Job Market Timeline

  • Full-year academic jobs generally start appearing a year before they are scheduled to begin. So a tt position set to start in August 2021 could appear as early as July 2020. TT job postings tend to peak in October, and can extend until the Christmas holidays, with a few stragglers appearing in the spring.
  • The first step to applying for academic jobs is to develop your job materials. (See below). This generally includes your cover letter, CV, research statement, teaching portfolio, writing sample, diversity statement, and dissertation abstract. While you may feel like these are private documents, you will see the benefits if you ask others for feedback, including peers and the faculty who will be writing you letters.
  • I started drafting my job materials in August of my first year on the market, ignoring any jobs that were posted sooner. I didn’t apply for any jobs that appeared before October 1.
  • Around August, I also reached out to 3–5 faculty members who can write recommendations. (Some people recommend you do this earlier!) I asked them to write a general letter which I uploaded to Interfolio, and to agree to write personalized letters as needed. I provided them with info about myself and the jobs I was applying for (see below for details).
  • For those who care about feelings, I found that the summer before I started applying was stressful, but these first few months were actually very exciting. I realized that I was good at my job! I have a lot to offer. So do you.
  • Let’s say it takes six weeks after the deadline for the search committee to read through the applications and make decisions. During this time, they may ask you for extra materials. After they have read all the applications, they will get together and select ~10-20 candidates who they want to interview. This is called a first-stage interview and it is generally held via a video call. First-stage interviews usually take about 30 minutes.
  • First stage interviews for tt jobs are generally held in October — February. If you get some, this is a time that can be exciting. But it’s also when despair or doubt may start to creep in.
  • After your first stage interview, faculty will reconvene and decide who they want to invite to a campus visit. They usually invite 2–4 people. They may also have backup people in mind if those don’t pan out. A campus visit is a 1–2 day process that involves meeting with faculty, students, and administrators (and sometimes staff), and giving an hour-long job talk and often a teaching demonstration. You will be interviewed by the search committee. You may also undergo recruitment techniques, like being taken out to a fancy dinner, or on a tour of the campus and surrounding town. You may be given the opportunity to have a real estate tour.
  • Campus visits are generally held January — April. This is the darkest and most depressing period, whether you have campus visits or not. I recommend ice cream, as my wonderful mentor (and academic superstar) RK did before me.
  • After the campus visit, the committee reconvenes to make a decision. There is then the opportunity to negotiate, which you absolutely should do. Sometimes the first candidate rejects the offer, so you might get an offer further down the line.
  • If applicants who didn’t receive the position are going to be notified, this usually happens after the job has been accepted. This could be 6–8 months after you applied. Or never. I’m still waiting to hear from a job I had a campus visit for three years ago.
  • Term-limited positions, like postdocs and VAPs, generally start appearing in December and can appear as late as July. They follow a similar timeline to tt positions, although not all require a campus visit.
  • Adjunct positions are often word-of-mouth, and may not appear until a month or two before the start date.

Preparing for the job market

I’m writing this in May, months before the 2020–21 job market will begin in the United States. Personally, my first year on the job market, I just panicked between the months of May & August. But when I shared this with Jim McGrath, he said that there are actually some things you can do in advance.

  1. Start building a support network. Which of your friends will be the people you text every day just to remind yourself you are a person in the world? Which recent grads will you turn to for advice as you go through the process? Which faculty members, besides your dissertation director, can you ask for help and support? Especially if your dissertation director is more senior, you might want to find a younger scholar outside of your committee who you can talk to frankly about the process.
  2. Start talking with the people who you’d like to provide letters of recommendation. While I personally didn’t do this until August, friends have recommended starting this conversation as early as May. That way you can ask them for feedback on your job materials!
  3. Start talking to people who have been on the job market recently. My rule of thumb: if they were last on the market more than five years ago, their information is out of date. With the profession changing so rapidly, you need people, like alumni of your grad program, who can tell you what it’s like to apply for jobs now.
  4. Start thinking about your dreams. I know the academic market feels like a beggars-can’t-be-choosers situation, but you’re allowed to want things. So consider: Which institutions are doing exciting work in your field? What kinds of places do you want to live in? What kinds of institutions do you want to work for? What do you think would make a department a good fit? Would you consider a long distance relationship? Would you move your children for a temporary job? If you’re interested in working at somewhere very different from where you got your graduate education, like a community college, a liberal arts college, or a regional comprehensive, consider conducting informational interviews with faculty members. Here’s a link to a guided meditation on setting your professional mission statement.
  5. Start thinking about your dealbreakers. What kinds of places would you be unwilling to move to? Are you willing to move for a one or two year contract? Are there departments that are known for bad labor practices or work environments? How much teaching do you want to do? Is there a salary or contract length that you consider too low? Do you need a work visa? Even with a difficult market, you are allowed to have limits and to take care of yourself. You are also allowed to not apply to every job that comes your way. These questions can help you reduce the burden of your application process.

Academic Jobs FAQ

What if I haven’t done any of the stuff you suggested?

That’s okay. One thing to keep in mind is that the things that make you a competitive candidate on the market are things you have already accomplished. You have spent years developing your research, teaching, public speaking, and collaborative projects. You are fully positioned to be an amazing professor.

A second thing to keep in mind is that academia benefits from your belief that if you just worked harder or did more things right, you would get a job. This increases the productivity of low-wage workers like graduate students, which benefits academic institutions.

But the academic job market is not merit-based, and nothing you do will change that. So allow yourself to be brilliant, and hard-working, and also imperfect, and also dedicated to things outside of your job. It is both sad and freeing to know that there is little you can do to improve your chances on the market.

Where are US academic jobs listed?

  • MLA Jobs List: for literature jobs. You have to pay a fee to get listed here, so they’re usually only high-profile positions.
  • Higher Ed Jobs: Lots of jobs here. You can set up an alert that emails you weekly with new postings in your area.
  • H-Net Jobs. ht Nora Benedict. ❤
  • PhilJobs: For Philosophy jobs. ht Nora Benedict. ❤
  • Academic Jobs Wiki: This is updated by volunteers. It causes a lot of people anxiety because it gets updated more quickly than official sources. You can find out you didn’t get a job here long before announcements are made. When using this resource, make sure you’re looking at a current posting of a job, and not a posting from last year (or before).
  • Academic List Serves: Make sure you’re on the list serves for the disciplines that interest you, as jobs are often circulated there. ht Jim McGrath.
  • Twitter: You can set up keywords in tweetdeck to help you keep track of job postings online, like ‘“digital humanities job” and “public history job”. ht Jim McGrath.
  • [where else do you all find jobs? Let me know]

How do I keep track of applications?

I mean, it’s up to you. But here’s the spreadsheet template that I used. It’s color-coded.

How do I submit an application?

  • Through Interfolio: Create an account with Interfolio to upload, store, and request recommendation letters and other documents. Lots of universities have formal relationships with interfolio. There will be a link on the job announcement that you can use to apply. You can attach documents from your interfolio account or upload new materials.
  • Through Academic Jobs Online: Some jobs require you apply through AJO. This is an annoying interface.
  • Through the university website.
  • By email, when the jobs are particularly shady.

How do I request letters of recommendation?

  • Well before you request LORs for a specific job, you should identify and contact your writers. You’ll want at least one who specializes in each area you’re applying in (especially if you are interdisciplinary), and at least one who can speak specifically to your qualifications as a teacher. They don’t all need to be on your committee. If you have an outside reader from a different university who will have read parts of your dissertation, definitely ask them.
  • At least a month before your first deadline (or maybe longer!), ask your faculty if they will serve as writers. Ask them what they need. They usually want materials (like a sample cover letter, cv, etc.), highlights from your career (stuff you want them to mention in the letter), and info on the kinds of jobs you’re applying for. Tell them if you want them to focus on your teaching, or to write for a specific discipline (like English lit, or DH). Note that if you have a writer from a different country, like the UK, you may need to educate them on LOR norms. (UK letters, in particular, are short and neutral, while US letters should be lengthy and glowing.)
  • If you are using Interfolio, it’s sometimes good to request a ‘general letter’ from each writer. That way if your profs don’t submit materials on time, or if you find a last-minute job you want to apply for, you can just drop a letter in. Interfolio has an option that lets you request a general letter from your writers.
  • In general, most application interfaces either allow you to request a letter in advance or auto-request when you submit materials. In some cases, the application may just ask for names/contact for faculty that they can get in touch with if you progress in your candidacy.

What materials are required for a job application?

Depending on the job, you’ll need: A cover letter, a CV, a research statement, a teaching philosophy, evidence of teaching effectiveness, a writing sample, a dissertation abstract, a diversity statement, one or more sample syllabi, and up to five letters of recommendation (normally three or fewer).

Job materials are written for a very specific and unusual audience, so you will benefit from getting lots of feedback as you write yours. As Mimi Winick reminded me, in addition to your advisor, consider asking at least one additional faculty member and one early career colleague (like a recent grad) to read your materials and provide feedback.

If you have a good relationship with your cohort, you might invite a group of peers to work on materials with you. Even if you’re applying to some of the same jobs, this helps create a sense of collegiality rather than competitiveness, and can have lots of long-term benefits. You could also consider sharing your materials with someone more junior than you. It helps them learn!

The Professor is In is a really useful resource for learning about job materials. Check out her book and blog posts.

You should also check out the Academic Job Market Support Network, a repository of sample job materials for all kinds of academic jobs.

How do I prepare for a first-stage interview?

When you’re invited to a first-stage interview, you should get a list of everyone on the search committee. Learn a little about them and their work.

Here’s a worksheet from Dr. Kelly McDonough designed to help you prepare for a first-stage interview by thinking about the university you’re interviewing with and how your own research fits within the department.

Practice answering a few basic questions with someone else, and if possible, get your department to set up a mock interview for you. (Mine would not, so I crashed the mock interviews of someone else’s department.)

I know doing a mock interview feels silly. Do it anyway. Answer questions like: Tell us about your research, How would you teach about [x], What class are you excited to teach at our institution, etc. If you’re doing a video call, practice with someone on a video platform. If it’s on the phone, practice on the phone.

Remember that the key to a good answer is to move smoothly between a general idea (“I use active learning in the classroom”) and a specific example (“In my modernism class last semester, I had students….”).

How do I pay for interviews?

So glad you asked! If you have a campus visit, the university should buy the plane ticket for you and book your hotel. They should also reimburse your taxis and food. Sadly, none of this is guaranteed. Other expenses related to the job market include: membership to job listing databases, wardrobe improvements, and participation in annual conferences. See if you can get your institution to cover some of this!

How do I give a job talk?

The key to a job talk is practice. Your department should set up a mock job talk for you. Mine refused to do so, but fortunately a mentor went behind the department’s back and set one up anyway. Lol!

Here are the rules my advisor, the brilliant Matt Cohen, gave to me:

  • Speak for no more than 39 minutes.
  • Prepare slides and text/notes. Ask your faculty what’s expected of you as far as reading or memorizing goes. It’s very discipline-specific. In my field, you are obligated to read.
  • Open by thanking everyone by name, including the search committee and whoever booked your travel and any grad students you’ve gotten to know.
  • Thank your audience for coming.
  • Begin with an emblematic vignette from your dissertation. Introduce the problems and terminology related to your research in an exciting and fast-paced way.
  • Provide a seven minute description of your dissertation as a spiritual quest.
  • Go more in depth on one section of the dissertation that exhibits a core problematic or element of a larger problematic, as well as your methods.
  • Conclude by revisiting the main problems of the dissertation. Try to conclude in a way that will invite the kinds of questions you want to answer.

Is this contingent job a good job?

I don’t think I want an academic job any more????

Lol, yah, me either.

Check out the alt-ac support network, a database of post-phds doing all kinds of interesting work.

digital | humanist