Takin’ Care of Business–The Job Market

This month, I’d like to discuss maneuvering the job market. Why in July? Because this is when you need to start your apps.

I was surprised the only previous PhD + epsilon post I could find on being on the market (note: not reading apps, or attending the JMM, etc.) was this.

While the article offers (much needed) sympathy, since I’ve literally killed a cactus my post obviously will be different. Those on the market (including graduate students) also need advice. That’s the intent of this post and I hope those who have “survived” add as they see fit in the comments. But I’d like to remain as universal as possible. I’m not, say, going to describe a female’s experience in the male-heavy math world. To mimic Dorothy Parker in wit and crassness: my goal is to hit a broad audience, not an audience of broads. I want to focus on what regardless of gender or relationship status or number of times entering the market you can do right now.

To address the elephant in the room: being on the job market is brutal. It’s time-consuming and nerve-wrecking; you’d better have a good network of family and friends—you’ll need them. You will lose jobs to more qualified candidates, which will make you feel self-conscious and depressed. You will lose jobs to less qualified candidates, which will make you feel furious and depressed. That there is an aspect of “luck” to this entire thing actually makes it ridiculously unfair. There will be (if my rejection letters have any truth to them) up to 1000 applicants for a SINGLE JOB. It will make you doubt that there is a STEM deficit in this country (the Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms “the [STEM] academic sector is generally oversupplied”).

It is very easy while on the market to become completely self-absorbed and obsessed with the search. So my first bit of advice is to remember that it takes a village to get you a job.

Consider the hiring committee. I have not yet had the pleasure (note the sarcasm) of being on a hiring committee. But I do have some experience on the other side of the table; for three years I ran an REU with Jeremy Rouse of Wake Forest. Each year we received between 200-300 applications for 8 slots. We set Valentine’s Day as our deadline (long story). The NSF REUs had agreed to a common reply date when the first-round picks had to commit officially to a program. That gave us roughly 3 weeks to read the applications, discuss the candidates, interview via Skype our top 15, and make offers. We learned to split initial readings by last name. Among other things, this allowed us to start reading completed apps before the official close should we by some miracle have a little bit of free time. This meant we could have discussions about who to interview earlier, we had more time for interviews, and we could get an offer out to our top candidates sooner.

I strongly suspect hiring committees, especially if swamped by 1000 applications, could behave similarly. It’s certainly plausible. The parallel of the common date of course is the JMM (though between the quarter system and the weather in January and travel budget cuts, a lot of places are now conducting pre-JMM interviews online).

So even though the application may not be due until December 15, and even though it is still completely possible to succeed turning in the app the day it’s due, you’re better off submitting early. Be realistic that the people reading your app will “knock a few out” while waiting at a laundromat, or as a break from grading. A final advantage to getting it done early: it’s off your to-do list, and you can go back to research, teaching, and networking.

Hopefully I’m starting to convince you that those reading your app are human. Still, maybe you aren’t convinced you need to start your search in late summer. So next, consider this: a basic complete job app includes

  • a C.V. (1+ pages)
  • a teaching statement (2-3 pages)
  • a research statement (5-6 pages, not counting references)
  • a cover letter (1-2 pages)
  • 3-4 letters of recommendation, at least 1 covering teaching (estimate 1-4 pages each)
  • a list of publications and/or list of courses taught
  • a diversity statement (1-2 pages—this is relatively new. Many jobs still don’t require this.)
  • transcripts (usually just graduate, sometimes undergraduate too)
  • extra forms for THAT ONE JOB (increasingly common. Usually in a non mathjobs portal. Possibly used—again, just guessing—to decrease work committee members have. Not jumping through this hoop makes your application incomplete, which means they technically don’t have to read it.)

This is a lot of (nontrivial) writing—don’t procrastinate! Also, let’s take a moment to discuss the letter writers. They’re people too. You should consider asking them for a letter in late July/early August, by which time you should be able to provide them with drafts of YOUR documents to help them in writing theirs. Get on their radars before their semesters start and their committee work increases and their lives get hectic. Help them help you. Give them as much time and information as you can. If they’ve written for you before, you may even want to send a document highlighting specifically what you’ve accomplished since they last had to write.

And save yourself some trauma and drama: solicit more letters than you need. Someone might be too busy. Someone could be late in uploading forcing an incomplete application. They’re human! But assuming they all upload, you then have the flexibility to mix-and-match, sending letters where they may have more “pull.”

This is an 11 page final for a class of 300 students. Hiring committees have more reading material than that.

There are plenty of people to help with writing the documents, so I won’t reinvent that wheel. I’ll just end with a piece of advice I was given that still-ever-yet speaks to the humanity of this situation: your goal in writing any document is to make readers want to go past the first paragraph. Look at the list above. A single candidate is producing 12-24 pages of reading material, maybe more. And again, there are hundreds of these apps for the committee to read. They will do their best to be thorough because ideally they’re picking someone they’re going to be working with until retirement. But trust me: reading application after application is monotonous. You see the same phrases, the same sycophantic language, the same “current” politically-correct verbiage. Even the letters of rec become disappointingly predictable. It quickly becomes a blur. If you don’t catch their attention early-on, you may never catch it.

To maybe end on a lighter note, let me now quote ZZ Top:

Clean shirt, new shoes// And I don’t know where I am goin’ to

This is something I don’t hear academians ever discuss…probably because we’re not known for our senses of style.

Personal photo, JMM Employment Center of 2014

Start in late July, when the seasons are changing and there are back-to-school deals, and get interview clothes. Trust me, I hate this part, but it’s necessary. And don’t be afraid to spend good money on good clothes. Put it this way: if you fail to get an academic job, then you will definitely need those outfits (and you’ll likely be paid more than if you stayed in academia, so you can afford them). Try consignment stores in wealthy areas. Try things on at a mall just to determine your size, and then buy online with deeper discounts. Use the labels to pick clothes that are realistic for you. For instance, I hate ironing with a passion and get nervous using the ones in hotels, so I’ll pay $15 more for a wrinkle-free shirt. Giving up coffee shops (not coffee!) for a while to balance the budget is totally worth that extra piece of mind.

What I wore the day I took that JMM employment center photo. Who looks more comfortable?

Whatever you do, get clothes that are comfortable. That’ll make you less anxious, and you’ll exude more confidence which in turn will make you seem more in control. And practice walking in your shoes! Break them in—even if that means taking out the garbage in them the week before. Last, practice your strut. I’m not even joking: take a look at these models. Notice that they’re all moving in a straight line; they may also emphatically cross their legs and pop their practically-nonexistent hips out, but they’re literally putting one foot in front of the other and looking straight ahead. They are not walking like they just got off a horse; they’re not staring at their feet. Their posture is on point. They look powerful and in control. And they’re pulling this off in outfits that probably AREN’T comfortable—so just imagine what you can do if you actually like your clothes.

At this point, the post seems long enough–thank you for reading this far. Hopefully this proves helpful to those on the market. It truly was meant to be. The market is scary and borderline traumatizing and there’s absolutely no point in minimizing that. Just remember we’re all human—especially those reading your apps or writing your letters. Last, please comment below if you want more articles like this, or have advice yourself to give!

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