I finished my doctorate program in the summer of 2020 and have been in and out of the academic job market since 2019. In that time I have been through a lot and have learned many things about the process that I wish to share.
Not qualified? Apply anyways
In any given year one program in the field will graduate more freshly minted PhD students than there are tenure track jobs in the field. This means that you cannot go out of your way to exclude yourself from the running by not even applying for the job. If you meet half of the requirements then apply. If you don’t meet several of the ‘required’ qualifications then go ahead and apply as well. Since 2019 I have applied to and interviewed for dozens of tenure track jobs. In this time I have found that the many of the jobs go to people who do not meet the basic requirements set forth in the job listings. More often than not the hiring decision comes down to a multitude of factors with department politics, how the candidate ‘fits’ into the current faculty and program, current and pending grant support (deans love potential money), hiring initiatives, and much more. I have seen several candidates get hired whose work does not align with the job listings. If they did not apply then they would not have gotten the job. Heck, I have been passed on when I was the most qualified finalist, and I have been offered jobs where I was underqualified. Do not take yourself out of the running by thinking it would be a waste of time to apply because you are not qualified.
Since I entered the academic job market in 2019 I have learned and now expect zero transparency about anything. This is unfortunate as each field in academia is rather small and word gets around. You are more likely to hear that you didn’t get the job because someone else posts an announcement on Twitter stating that they got the job than you are from the people you spent 16+ hours interviewing with. I still have open applications from years ago that I know were filled, but the institutions never felt the need to let the other candidates know.
Related to this notion is the dubious method in which candidates are selected and hired. Every institution is different, but for the most part some kind of committee is formed. This committee is responsible for identifying candidates that they wish to hire that could meet the position requirements. An initial phone or teleconference interview is set up and then the list of candidates is further narrowed to the few that will be making a campus visit as a finalist. As a finalist, candidates can expect to spend anywhere from 1-3 full 8-12 hour days of constant interviews. At this point things get extremely murky. Some institutions will have the search committee select their candidate and that is the person who is hired. Others will ask the committee to form a ranked list that the dean will review and that ranking is potentially respected. There are also cases where institutions ask the committee to provide a list of all finalists who met the requirements. This leads to a case where a dean (who was largely removed from the entire hiring process and maybe spent 30-60 minutes talking to you) is seemingly making an arbitrary decision (this comes back to how less qualified people get hired all the time). Sometimes the dean will even pick someone who was not selected by the committee at all. Aren’t you glad you spent like 60 hours applying for, prepping, and interviewing for this position? Making matters worse is that there will never be an ounce of transparency around these decisions and you will never get a word of feedback about how you did.
Growing list of application materials
We have a surplus of highly qualified candidates and a glaring lack of jobs. Every year we are pushing some of the world’s best and brightest out of the institution and losing their invaluable insight. When there are job openings, candidates are being asked to prepare an ever growing list of materials. In the most egregious case I was asked to prepare and submit a curriculum vitae, a cover letter, a portfolio, a statement of equity and diversity, a statement of research interests, a statement of teaching interests, a teaching philosophy statement, and short essays to three prompts. I did not receive an interview. I did however spend hours of my life applying for a job that I never received any word from. Not even a rejection email. A CV and a cover letter is more than enough. Full stop. Yet, you will be asked to prepare more and more and bend over backwards to make yourself stand out in an overcrowded job market. Making things even worse is that the majority of applications are almost entirely rejected on a surface level review. Some search committees will read through every applicant’s materials, but this is rare.
Making yourself standout is therefore of the utmost importance. While you do not need to speak to every single qualification outlined in the job listing, it will be important that you are able to stand out from the 80-200 other highly qualified candidates trying to get the same job. An approach that I have found to be useful is to leave no room for doubt in your materials. Again, I want to emphasize that most committees are rapidly reviewing a surplus of materials. So one way of making yourself stand out is to use the exact language from their job listings and to incorporate it into your cover letter. Then underline it. Emphasize what is going to be important to that position and department. If it is a R1 don’t spend half your cover letter talking about your teaching background. the majority of my cover letter is focused on telling a research and productivity story. I dedicate 0 space to teaching and just a few lines to service work.
Related to the growing list of application materials, I have written a cover letter that I am able to use for just about any job listing with maybe 5-10 minutes of editing. Whenever I apply for a job I update a couple of areas and replace the language from one institution’s job ad to the other. Given the growing list of application materials you will need to find a way to streamline the entire process.
You most likely will not get the job you want. You most likely will not get the job you deserve or the one you are most qualified for. However, academia is a small space and you cannot hold grudges. Your friends, your collaborators, and your colleagues will get a job that you interviewed for and wanted. It feels terrible to find out you didn’t get the job you wanted when your friend posts a celebratory announcement on social media. However, you most likely will continue to see them around your professional networks and will continue having to work with them. It might suck. You might feel bad. That is okay. But at the end of the day academic spaces are way too small and the nature of the hiring practices makes it not worth your energy to dwell.