How to apply for academic jobs in 2021

Hannah Alpert-Abrams
20 min readAug 11, 2021

Last year, back when living in a pandemic was a new and terrifying reality, I wrote a piece about the process of applying for academic (faculty) jobs in the United States. I had just made the painful decision to leave the academic job market for a different kind of career.

A year later, my city is in the midst of a fourth COVID wave, the job market in the humanities is worse than ever, and I no longer feel heartbroken about leaving academia. The pandemic has given a lot of us time to reflect on what is important to us. I miss some aspects of academia, but I couldn’t be more grateful to have a job which is not trying to kill me, my loved ones, or my neighbors.

Still. My personal journey doesn’t change the fact that it’s August of 2021 and in the coming academic year, a whole new cohort of brilliant scholars will be finishing their degrees and seeking employment in a profession for which they are extremely well qualified.

As I wrote last year, the process of applying for faculty positions is kept secret on purpose. It’s intended to keep you out.

I can’t change the state of the job market. The purpose of this guide is to help ease some of the stress of being on the market by bringing transparency to the unspoken rules behind academic jobs.

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, Mimi Winick, Nora Benedict, Heather Froehlich, Amanda Henrichs, and everyone who responded to a call for feedback on Twitter.

While most of this guide is the same as last year, there are a few changes, including: shifting timelines for the academic job search, the move to zoom everything, an expanded glossary, and additional information about teaching demonstrations.

In addition to this guide, check out the Academic Job Market Support Network, a repository for sample job materials and resources for humanists seeking work in and around the academy.

As always, you can let me know what you think by email or twitter.


Academic Jobs 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?
How do I prepare for a teaching demo or class takeover? [NEW 2021]
What’s a Zoom campus visit like? [NEW 2021]
This is hard and I feel bad? [NEW 2021]
Is this contingent or precarious 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.
was going to change this image for 2021 but honestly, it still applies.

Academic Jobs Glossary

Long-term employment

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.

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.

TT: A tenure-track job, usually a combination of teaching, research, and service, with the expectation of continuous employment for up to seven years followed by either conversion to secure employment or being asked to leave.

Short-term or temporary employment

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 a lecturer or tt position.

Alt-ac: a very controversial term which I personally still like which refers to jobs that work within the academic ecosystem but aren’t faculty positions. These could be within a university (like an institute director, a career advisor, a librarian) or nearby (like at a university press or funding agency). Some people don’t like the term because it treats these positions as secondary to faculty positions. Others dislike it because for those who transition from academia, it often requires learning new skills, accepting entry-level positions, and abandoning research.

Contingent Position: For the purposes of this piece, I use contingent to describe a job, like a lectureship or postdoc, on a term-limited contract which may or may not be renewed. I distinguish between contingent positions, which are typically full-time, come with benefits, and last for at least one full academic year, from precarious positions.

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: For the purposes of this piece, I use the term precarious to describe a short-term, often part-time position, like an adjunct job or four-month contract, which has little or no guarantee of renewal.

Staff Position: Universities often distinguish between faculty and staff, mostly to keep faculty from feeling like labor. Staff positions typically don’t come with faculty perks like self-governance, 9-month contracts, or autonomy over your time and work obligations. On the other hand, they may come with their own perks, like a team of colleagues who treat you with respect and care about your work, the ability to move if you’re unhappy, and weekends off.

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.

Institution Types

Community College: Typically a two-year college that offers associates degrees. These are generally publicly funded, tend to have low tuition, and serve a diverse range of students of all ages.

HBCU: Historically Black Colleges and Universities, a federal designation for institutions established to serve African American students and faculty. There are a little over 100 HBCUs in the United States. They can range from small private liberal arts colleges to public community colleges.

HSI: Hispanic Serving Institutions, a federal designation for literally any university where at least 25% of the undergraduates identify as hispanic. Learn more.

Regional Comprehensives: Publicly funded universities that accept a majority of applicants and typically focus on undergraduate education and (sometimes) master’s degrees.

R1: A Carnegie Classification that refers to highly selective institutions that offer advanced graduate degrees and prioritize research. They can be public or private. Learn more.

SLAC: Small Liberal Arts College, typically a four-year college with a focus on undergraduate education in the liberal arts and a small number of students. Most SLACs are private, but there are public SLACs as well.

TCU: Tribal Colleges and Universities, a federal designation for institutions created and chartered by tribal governments, serving primarily (though not exclusively) tribal communities. There are 32 TCUs in the United States. Learn more.

The US 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 2022 could appear as early as July 2021. TT job postings tend to peak in October, and can extend until the Christmas holidays, with a few stragglers appearing in the spring. New for 2021: friends tell me that this timeline is collapsing, and jobs can appear all the time now, especially late into 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, dissertation abstract, and writing sample. 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.
  • It makes sense to start drafting materials in late spring or summer before you go on the market, so you can start submitting applications in September. Way back in 2017 I was able to start preparing in August, but it’s a different world now and you might want to start earlier.
  • At least a month before you plan to apply for your first job, reach out to 3–5 faculty members who can write recommendations. I did this in August, but people smarter than me recommend starting the conversation much earlier, like May. 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). You can also ask your letter writers for feedback on your job materials.
  • 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.
  • In my experience, first stage interviews for tt jobs are generally held in October — February, though they can go all the way through June. If you get an interview, 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 or class takeover. 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. New for 2021: Campus visits can happen on zoom now! This is a nightmare which I hope never to experience.
  • Campus visits are generally held January — April. This is the darkest and most depressing period, whether you have campus visits or not. I recommend stocking up on 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. I never got this far, so I don’t have much insight into negotiations.
  • 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 still haven’t heard from a job I did a campus visit for five 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

If I’m being honest, I didn’t prepare much for my first year on the job market. I just lived in a perpetual state of panic until it was too late to prepare. 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 an earlier-stage 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? 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? (Aside from all of them)(jk). 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? Are you willing to work for an institution that reopened during the pandemic? 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.
  • PhilJobs: For Philosophy jobs.
  • 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”.
  • [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 from you. 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 still one of the only reliable resources for information about developing job materials. Some departments share sample materials, and you can often ask a colleague or recent hires in your department if they’d be will to show you theirs.

You should also check out the Academic Job Market Support Network, a repository of sample job materials for all kinds of academic and alt-ac jobs, plus resources on applying to jobs in and beyond the tenure track.

[update on writing samples: I just learned that when selecting a writing sample, you should prioritized peer reviewed, published articles, which are allowed to exceed the page limit. Dissertation chapters should be cut for length.]

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 one 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….”).

update December 2021: on advice of twitter, I recommend sending a brief email after your first-stage interview. In the email, you can thank the search committee for the opportunity to interview, reiterate your interest in the job, and offer to share additional materials if appropriate. Here’s the twitter take.

How do I pay for campus visits?

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!

Now that they’re on zoom, of course, it’s a whole different story.

How should I prepare for a campus visit?

More detailed advice comes later, but I want to highlight something Heather Froehlich wrote:

“We don’t bring people to campus in hopes that they fail. if we bring you it is because we believe you are a viable candidate and we want to see how you will contribute. The best thing to do here is be yourself and decide for yourself if this is a place you want to be.”

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.

How do I give a teaching demonstration or class takeover?

Some jobs, especially at liberal arts colleges, will ask you to do a teaching demonstration and/or a class takeover. I never did this, so I’m leaning on twitter colleagues for info here.

A teaching demonstration is a 30–75 minute demonstration for the search committee and volunteer faculty and students in which you demonstrate your skills as a teacher. For this task, Emily McGinn advises focusing on demonstrating the techniques and values that inform your work as an instructor. As Kimberley Takahata suggests, you can draw on your teaching statement in planning your class, demonstrating how you put your philosophy into action.

In a class takeover, you will be asked to serve as a guest instructor in a current class and demonstrate your skills in teaching a predetermined topic. Apparently this could be up to two hours long?! In any case, Emily McGinn advises focusing on building rapport with the students.

Everyone advises practicing a lot as you prepare for these classes, and avoiding lectures.

What’s a Zoom campus visit like?

The answer to this question comes from Amanda Henrichs:

I was a candidate for one, and attended another. While in-person visits seemed to have a typical structure, taking 2–3 days, with intense meetings, social/recruitment events, research and teaching talks, etc., the Zoom campus visit will likely vary by institution and search committee.

The first one was in May 2020, for an Assistant Director of Generic Institute, and attempted to replicate the on-campus structure. I was scheduled for between 4–6 hours of meetings each day, with breaks of between 15 minutes and 2 hours between meetings. I was on EST, and the interviewers were on PST, so my day started at noon and ended between 6 and 8. I spoke with faculty, staff, administrators, etc. There was no social or informal aspect, so I didn’t have to eat in front of strangers. This structure was VERY hard, at least partly because it was early in the pandemic.

The campus visit I attended was very different, and took place in April 2021. My English department was hiring a lecturer. This event had three kinds of meetings: the candidates meeting with the search committee, the candidates giving a research talk, and the candidates meeting more informally with anyone who wanted to meet them. This last kind was slightly more social, but still very much an interview where anyone could ask anything of the candidates. Research talks happened on different days than the informal meetings; so say Candidate A gave their talk on Wednesday evening, they would have their informal meeting on Thursday morning. Candidate B would then give their talk Thursday afternoon, and have the informal meeting Friday morning. Meetings with the search committee happened throughout. This structure seemed more humane from my perspective, but I’m not sure of the candidates’ experiences.

This is hard and I feel bad?

Here are some words of wisdom from Jack Lynch:

“In running some searches I was stunned by the quality of the applications: easy half of the candidates would have been perfect for the job, and most of the rest would be great at an institution with slightly different needs. There were almost no duds.

Those who didn’t get the offer did nothing wrong, and were no worse than the one who did. Virtually no decision came down to, “If only he had placed one more journal article….”

The reason some get jobs is because they happen to meet a very specific set of needs that they can’t possibly understand going in. The reason others don’t get jobs is because the higher ed job market is a grimly dysfunctional system.

Be yourself. If you get an interview, a campus visit, or an offer, celebrate. If you don’t, it’s not because you’re missing anything, it’s just because there aren’t nearly enough jobs.”

^^^ In a lot of ways, I agree with Jack. But I’ll add this: knowing all of the above didn’t help me to feel better when it was my future at stake, and it might not help you. The sickness of spirit that comes from fighting for — and being rejected from — a field that is broken but that you nevertheless believe in is real and difficult. The pandemic only exacerbates the level of sacrifice and risk early career academics are being asked to take in order to pursue a career.

The Visionary Futures Collective holds monthly tarot readings for scholars of all kinds who have questions about their individual or collective futures. Join the newsletter to find out about the next reading.

Is this contingent or precarious 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.