J.L.Lemke On-line Office

How to Get a Job

It doesn't matter much whether you are looking for a first academic job or a new one, the process is much the same.

Rule 1. Finish your PhD or know exactly when you will be finished.

You can get hired before you complete, but if you start working before you complete, you may have real trouble finishing. Do not work full-time in academia before you have completed your degree. You will be exploited and dumped. Working part-time you will just be exploited, but you will still have a future.

Rule 2. Letters of Recommendation count.

Find well-known people in addition to your mentor, or people who know specific senior individuals in the department to which you are applying, to write letters for you.

Rule 3. Know where your research is headed next.

The most common and important question you will be asked in an interview is where your research program is headed. You do not have to stick with your answer, but you have to have a good one. It should connect to your dissertation but go beyond it in some interesting way. Doesn't hurt if you mention an interest in work by senior people in the department or those whom they respect; refer only to theories or approaches, not to individuals (unless they have theories named after them).

Rule 4. Advertise your teaching range.

In theory you get hired as a potentially productive researcher, but in practice they need you to teach courses. Let them know you can teach a wide range of courses; or research what their needs likely are and mention those areas you have some competence or experience in. Your part-time teaching background is a plus here.

Rule 5. Do your homework.

Before an interview find out as much as you can about the department, its key researchers and programs, its strengths and weaknesses, its reputation in personnel matters. Be prepared to sound relevant to what they are doing, and to ask some penetrating, but not embarrassing questions of your own.


Some Common Concerns about Affirmative Action

[My own commitment to and policy concerns for affirmative action, diversity, and social justice in the academy are described in an essay that should be read as background for the comments below. The comments were originally written in response to questions addressed to me as part of a longer discussion. I apologize if, outside that context, they may in places seem overstated or insensitive to the pain some readers feel over the underlying issues of social injustice. I plan a complete revision of this section in the near future, but some people have asked me to leave this version intact meanwhile.]

The whims of conservative politicians aside, nearly all major U.S. universities and many minor ones are serious about hiring women and scholars of hispanic or non-European descent and/or cultural heritage. In some cases this is simply university policy and there are mechanisms to ensure due consideration of candidates from traditionally under-represented segments of the population. In some cases the faculty seriously believe that ethnic, racial, gender, and cultural diversity is an intellectual asset to the department (a lot fewer believe this than say they believe it, unfortunately).

This means that there is sometimes an unintended but real "reverse discrimination" against male scholars of mainly European descent. It is not a serious social problem compared to racism or ethnic and gender discrimination, but it can be a serious personal concern for an individual.

If you fall into this unfortunate category, count your other blessings (i.e. having been free from the major forms of social discrimination) and look to see if you can at least claim working-class origins or perhaps, if you are inclined to raise the issue, a minority sexual identity or orientation. These are also important sources of diversity, even if they are not protected categories, despite class and sexuality discrimination also being major social problems. If you are genuinely a member of the dominant social caste, perhaps your general social skills and their value in the academic market will still commend you to some committees. The value of your work is not irrelevant, but for a first job you really don't have much work to show, and the value of what you have done remains uncertain.

Appointments committees are under pressure to come up each year with at least one or two appointments that increase faculty diversity. Those who don't qualify under these criteria are well advised to either apply to departments which are hiring at least three candidates that year (across all specialties), or to be able to demonstrate relatively unique and needed skills (outstanding computer technology skills are good these days, so is mastery of advanced quantitative analysis techniques), areas of teaching competence, or areas of research. Obviously many candidates from protected groups also have these qualifications; search committees have the difficult task of balancing an admirable desire for diversity with a sense of fairness to all candidates. Final decisions usually hinge on imponderables, very subjective guesses about personality and future contributions that are highly specific to individuals, after weighing priorities for particular skills and the value of increasing faculty diversity.

Console yourself if you think you are a "victim of reverse discrimination" with the knowledge that few people were ever hired for their first academic job on the basis of research merit anyway. Entry-level hiring was always a matter of guesswork, and in the past there was plenty of bias in favor of what was euphemistically called "the right sort" of people, probably your sort, many of whom did not turn out so well in the long run.

I don't consider myself qualified to give complementary advice to members of protected groups. Despite affirmative action and good intentions, women in many fields, and people of non-European descent in most fields still face many forms of bias in the academic world. Find mentors who have experience in succeeding in an academic career despite these obstacles, and seek good advice from them.

Finally, as with
journal publication, so also with jobs: there is a prestige hierarchy. Most new Ph.D.'s can get a job somewhere in higher education. Unlike with journal submissions, you can also safely apply for (but not accept!) more than one position. If need be, take a first job in a less prestigious university or college and look for opportunities to move to somewhere you'd rather be after publishing more of your work.

NOTE. Some time ago I revised a nearly five-year-old version of this page by adding several sentences to clarify the differences between my own beliefs and those I see as the prevailing ones that job candidates should be aware of. The practices of affirmative action vary widely from university to university and committee to committee (regardless of what the law or official policy may say). The term itself covers so wide a range of policies and beliefs as to be more often misleading than informative. For the record, I personally believe very strongly in the value of diversity of social, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds (including diversity of class, gender, sexuality, and what is very unscientifically called "race") in a university faculty, provided that a particular individual can effectively translate their experience and background into forms that have value to colleagues and students (e.g. academic perspectives, challenges to the status quo, mentorship, etc.). This is an ideal that belongs to a perfect "community of merit". Real academic communities are more complicated places, and real personnel decisions are often painfully more difficult than any principle might suggest.

Note also that the terms we use to refer to social groups and categories are constantly trying to keep one step ahead of their use as part of the discourses of prejudice we seek to criticize. Year by year each group may have a term it finds least offensive or most accurate. This is not a scholarly essay. I use shorthand that I hope is comprehensible, and the term "non-European" to cover a wide range of categories (by "race", ethnicity, language, etc.) that have a constructed political reality, no foundational givenness (not "natural kinds"), and doubtful value for critical analysis, in my own opinion. Elsewhere on this site you can find some notes toward my more scholarly discussions of what I call issues of "caste": i.e. the complex system of interlocking social categories in modern European and particularly U.S. culture and the much less neat reality it radically over-simplifies, and of the larger issues of diversity and social justice in relation to affirmative action in the academy.