Advice for the Job Season: How to Think About Applying for a Job, Part 1

Heather Cox Richardson

The academic job market is in full swing. That’s the good news.

And as usual, there are way too few jobs. That’s the bad.

At this point, I’ve spent significant time on both sides of the hiring equation, and have a few suggestions for navigating the job search.

First of all, you almost certainly will not get your dream job. But please, please hear this: THIS IS NOT BECAUSE YOU ARE NOT A GOOD CANDIDATE!!! It is because there are too few jobs. The C.V.s that come in for a search these days are frighteningly impressive. Yours is one of them. When committees have to choose whom to interview, I promise you they do not look at your materials and say: “Gee, why did this loser apply?!” They say: “And yet another terrific scholar. Fortunately for us, his work doesn’t quite fit what we’re looking for.” And they put your application aside.

While this is incredibly depressing when you’re going through it—and many schools contribute to the darkness by ignoring you, announcing the interview schedule before informing you you’re not on it, and so on—there is one important light to remember. YOU DO NOT WANT A JOB THAT IS NOT A GOOD FIT FOR YOU. I know, I know, you want any job right now. But actually, you really don’t. Unlike many professions, it’s very hard for academics to change institutions. Try moving your family across the country for a job only to tell your partner six months later you hate your department and are going back on the job market to apply for a job on the other side of the country. Not a good idea. If a search committee doesn’t jump at the chance to interview you, you don’t want to interview them, either. The fit would have been a bad one.

Often, by the way, you won’t be able to tell whether or not your work is a good fit with a department. A scholar of the Taiping would seem, for example, to be a good candidate for an advertised job in nineteenth-century Asia. But that same (hypothetical) ad will not have mentioned that the department has a European scholar who is fiercely protective of his favorite course on world revolutions that highlights the Taiping. So even if you look at the description and think the fit should have been perfect, remember that there could have been a wide range of internal reasons you were not.

So if you’re almost certainly not going to get the job you want, or maybe any job, what’s the point in applying? You should consider jobs outside of the academy (more on that later), but you will have a better relationship with the academic job market if you reorient how you think about it.

If you can, try not to see applying for a position just as a job application. It is advertising. You are letting people who are in a position to appreciate the importance of your work know who you are and what you do. Until now, you have interacted primarily with just a handful of scholars, and most of them are at your own university. It’s the right time for you to take your scholarship to the world, and there is no better way to get an audience for it than to hand your materials to specialists around the country who are on search committees. They may not be able even to interview you because you do not fit the job at hand, but they may still be impressed with your materials. They might well remember you when someone asks for a recommendation for a conference panelist, or tell their editors that you have written an interesting manuscript and should be on their radar screens.

The only way to navigate such a bleak job market is to recognize that historians are a large community of scholars—to which you already belong—and that we are eager to hear what you’re bringing to the table.