Managing the Academic Job Market: How Not to Lose Your Mind

August 31, 2012
By | 19 Comments

It is job season again, y’all! Let the obsessive scanning of job postings begin. In recent years, I have watched my cohort and colleagues struggle with the highs and lows of this wholly bizarre process. You send materials to dozens of departments, which may send you the dreaded “thanks but no thanks” letter 6+ months later. We’ve screamed, cried, raged, drank, and started again. Some were the lucky ones and others picked themselves up and kept trying. The reality is competitive (note comparisons to Game of Thrones). (Full disclosure: I spent two years on the market and just started a tenure-track position. I am fully aware my case does not represent the severe blowback from the recession most applicants’ experience.)

There are a multitude of resources available for CV formats, interview tips, and fashion advice. Saving strategy sessions for those more qualified, I am concerned with your sanity. The academic job market takes an immense emotional, mental, economic, and physical toll on everyone. Many times, especially as an ABD, you feel powerless. You have the right to guard your emotional well-being. There are ways to manage the isolating and often unspoken struggles being on “the market.” Here are seven (not exclusive) ideas to start the conversation.

1) Find a support system:
Talk to your partner, friends, family, therapist, etc. Communicate with your advisers and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Spend time with people who care about you. Create a support group in your cohort and complain about the market over happy hour or coffee dates. I had a weekly date with a close friend from my program. We drank cava and encouraged each other to keep going. Make friends with people outside of your department at conferences and check in frequently. These are the people who understand the rollercoaster you are riding. Don’t be embarrassed to reveal your insecurities. We have all been in your position and want to see you succeed.

Family and friends outside of academia will not get it. Best scenario: they are super encouraging but still confused. Worst scenario: they don’t understand why you can’t get a job and are living on student loans. My amazingly supportive husband and I practiced canned answers for family functions. He graciously fielded “Why can’t you get a job in Texas?” “Can’t you just apply anywhere?” In turn, I reassured people (and myself) I am okay and it will take time.

2) Don’t worry about anyone else:
Brazilians have a wonderful expression that loosely translates to “Every monkey on their own branch.” The job market is an individualized process. Focus on your materials, progress, and worries inside your head (then tell them to shut up). My lovely friend Kristen Warner always said: “Run your own race.” If this is a marathon, concentrate on your pace and ignore others. Trust me, you don’t want to go down that road. Don’t get caught up in who is applying where or landed interviews. If you start comparing yourself to others, you will go crazy. Also, ignore anyone who is braggadocious about their application process (and be sensitive when blasting your success everywhere). To quote my dear friend Racquel Gates: “In the long run, collegiality is better for your soul than competitiveness.”

3) Step away from the AcaWiki!:
This is a toxic space. Trust me, this is for you own good.

4) Don’t take it personally:
I know. This is so much easier said then done. If you don’t move forward, this is not about you nor a reflection of your scholarly potential. Instead, know the quirks of a search committee are driving this train. Don’t try to read their minds. Every department has a different idiosyncratic dynamic. They are looking for a particular research, teaching, and personality “fit.” Be careful hanging all of your self-esteem on whether or not Southern College requests more materials. Many of you have spent money and at least a decade in school to obtain the PhD. This is a hard one. As Conan O’Brien reminds us: “No specific job or career defines me and it should not define you.” Remember you are multi-dimensional person and be careful defining your worth solely through academia.

5) Find your release:
Leave your office and do something you enjoy. This will be different for everyone. For many in my cohort, yoga and running helped us relax and get grounded. Living in Austin, I went to live shows. Music became a therapeutic release resulting in my own ATX-themed playlists (see: here, here, and here). Not only did this take my mind off the uncertainty, it helped me stay present and enjoy my current city (and worry about where you will be next year). For you, it might be baking, gaming, shopping, playing with your kiddo, cleaning, etc.

6) Give yourself a break:
This is a universally stressful process. You may be tired or emotional all of the time. You may cry at inappropriate moments (raises hand). You may be grumpy with your roommate or partner. You may sit around and watch multiple seasons of Misfits or Vampire Diaries (raises hand again). This is a normal side effect of the market and that is okay. You don’t have to be strong all of the time or pretend you are not struggling. Own your emotions and be kind to yourself.

7) Keep a routine and then let it go:
A friend told me he only worked on job materials one day a week. After starting this routine, I found myself able to relax and focus on finishing my dissertation, conference papers, etc. Checking your email 30 times a day will not make a committee’s email magically appear (goodness knows, I tried). My parents have a motto (thanks, Teddy Roosevelt): “Do what you can, with what you have, wherever you are.” Know what you can control on your end and then let it go. You will be a happier person for it.

A huge thanks to Racquel Gates, Hollis Griffin, Kevin Sanson, and Kristen Warner for their sharing their experiences with me for this post.


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19 Responses to “ Managing the Academic Job Market: How Not to Lose Your Mind ”

  1. Kelli Marshall on August 31, 2012 at 10:11 AM

    Some excellent advice and nicely written, Courtney, especially the bits about “finding a release” and “giving yourself a break.”

    But I won’t lie to you, CBD (to borrow Kristen’s endearing nickname for a sec): it’s hard for me to take words of wisdom from someone (I’m guessing?) who’s over a decade younger than I and who “suffered through” the humanities job market for only 2 years. This will be my 7th year on the market.

    I never thought I’d still be applying for “real jobs” at age (almost) 38. So “not taking rejection personally” and “ignoring the pace” at which others are running are virtually impossible for folks like me, especially when we’ve been told we may be too old for a tenure-track position (“Perhaps that ship has sailed,” one department chair notified me earlier this year) and when we’re competing with graduates who’ve little teaching experience and few publications but have top media/film schools on their CVs. Moreover, things get much more complicated when your spouse, like mine, is in higher ed too.

    Several years ago I read a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education that listed “5 years” as the average amount of time a humanities candidate can expect to be on the job market. But now, with the state of the economy and the abundance of PhDs out there, I’m guessing that number has increased, which means, sadly, I’m probably right on track.

    Please know that I don’t mean any this to sound unkind or that I’m knocking your post in any way (there is some solid advice in there!). This is just my reality — and the reality of many humanities PhDs out there. I hope that makes sense and doesn’t come across in the way it certainly could.

    • Cynthia B. Meyers on September 1, 2012 at 2:40 PM

      Academia is full of people on their second (or third) careers; it is one of the few fields that does not demand that entry level positions be filled by workers in their 20s. Your age should not be a barrier and I am surprised that someone ever told you that it could be. I landed my first tenure-track job at age 44; a good friend of mine landed her first at age 53.

      Could the comment you received (about a ship having sailed) have been a reference to the preference of many hiring committees for fresh PhDs rather than stale ones?

      Perhaps we should have a serious conversation about that!

      Sending best wishes for a successful search this year.

      • Kelli Marshall on September 1, 2012 at 5:18 PM

        You’re right, Cynthia. In fact, my dissertation advisor fell into that category (this was her second career, hired when she was over 40, etc.). So I know it happens. 🙂

        And, yes, I do think the (unfortunate) “ship has sailed” comment was referring to the preference of committees to hire someone fresh out of a program, not my biological clock or anything like that (!). After all, with the (ridiculous) amount of time committees spend on an academic search, they are making an investment they hope will pay off for 25+ years or so. Someone’s who’s pushing 50 (or even 40 perhaps?) is less attractive for an Assistant Professor position, I’m guessing…

        Thanks for the well wishes!

        • Jonathan Gray on September 1, 2012 at 11:46 PM

          I dunno about that. I’ve seen plenty of schools hire older recently, even at the Asst. Prof. level. If the dept is old itself, chances are that committee members aren’t thinking 20 years down the line, just about the next 5 to 10 till they retire (besides, I think that most programs now know that the chances of good faculty being poached in a twenty year timeframe is so high that you can’t make decisions based on that), and there’s also a chance that youth will seem naive and inexperienced to them. As I think of assistant prof hires I know in recent years, I think youth hasn’t had much of a leg up on age … except when the age isn’t accompanied by a sense of accomplishment (ie: 45 with life experiences and/or great publication record is okay; 45 without much on the CV is a kiss of death).

          • Courtney Brannon Donoghue on September 2, 2012 at 1:46 PM

            Kelli, I am sorry to hear someone told you that. How insensitive and inaccurate. The whole idea of “ship sailing” seems reductive. The age factor is tricky. I have had a number of friends in their late-30s to mid-40s obtain visiting, postdocs, and TT jobs. I agree with Jonathan because my age never felt like a leg up. There were times when a search committee or two were quite hostile to my age (my younger appearance making it worse). This led to questions about my ability to relate to students looking for a real job or my lack of practical experience (i.e. outside of education system). I imagine these perceptions vary by department and depend greatly on department culture and ages of the faculty. Cynthia is right that a serious conversation is needed.

            • Kelli Marshall on September 2, 2012 at 2:40 PM

              Hostile??? Sorry to hear that. Applying and interviewing for jobs = stressful enough without that kind of foolishness!

  2. Tim Yenter on August 31, 2012 at 10:20 AM


    Thanks for this. One thing I would like to add: It is very hard to explain to people not familiar with academia how difficult it is to find a job. My wife’s coworkers would ask, “Can’t he just get a job at [great school down the road]?” As I struggled for an analogy that would make some sense, the closest I could think of was professional sports.

    You prepare yourself to be “drafted” by one of a limited number of places, and you might not have any choices about where you end up. For most of us, it is about what the team/university is looking for, not about where we’d like to go. Very few of us will be in the position to have a choice of places. Most of us will end up on practice squads (bouncing from team to team without stable, long-term employment) for a few years before we get our break and make the team. Some will get drafted, but then there’s no choice about where to go: that’s the only one to take you. A few will survive long enough to become “free agents” with some options to teach/research where we’d like, but that often doesn’t come until a few years in.

    It’s not a perfect analogy, but I find more folks are familiar with professional sports than the American university model, so it can help in explaining to people why we won’t end up at Great School Nearby.

    • Courtney Brannon Donoghue on September 2, 2012 at 1:51 PM

      Thanks for this analogy, Tim. Really love the draft comparison and plan to use it in the future. I too struggled with the right way to tell family, friends, or anybody who asked. I can’t even tell you the amount of time I spent explaining why my department wouldn’t just hire me after I finished my PhD there. Luckily, most of it comes from genuine curiosity about the university system.

    • Jason Mittell on September 2, 2012 at 3:20 PM


      I’ve used the sports draft analogy too, but with two essential caveats: unlike professional sports, universities & colleges are often in small towns in less-than-desirable (at least on first appearance) places to live, rather than major metropolitan areas. And no matter where you’re “drafted,” odds are you’ll have to move somewhere to get a starting wage that puts you in the lower-middle-class, with limited room for growth (unlike the guaranteed or potential millions for athletes). Yes, you might be able to move up the ladder to the “big leagues,” but even then, there are no endorsement contracts or signing bonuses awarded to superstars.

      The analogy I’ve used to talk about the academic job market is a poker tournament: you’re competing with other players of relatively equal skill, but even if you play the game perfectly, odds are that you’ll lose due to circumstances beyond your control. It’s really hard to win if you’re not very good, but it takes more than skill to come out on top.

  3. Courtney Brannon Donoghue on August 31, 2012 at 10:52 AM

    Thanks for sharing your insights on the market, Kelli. I agree it is important for everyone’s voices and experiences to be heard. As I mentioned at the beginning of my post: my short time on the market as well as my position from a R1 grad program to TT position is no way universal and becoming rare. I fully acknowledge this privilege and do not think my personalized experience should be a measuring stick for job market “suffering.” This advice is not meant as all-encompassing, prescriptive, or preachy. My intent is to start a conversation about how awful the emotional impact of the market can be for everyone and share some these experiences. Hopefully this can start a productive dialogue about how others manage these stresses. Because group therapy is good for the soul.

    • Kelli Marshall on August 31, 2012 at 12:44 PM

      “I fully acknowledge this privilege and do not think my personalized experience should be a measuring stick for job market ‘suffering.’ This advice is not meant as all-encompassing, prescriptive, or preachy.”

      — Yes! I know you acknowledge the privilege, and I know the advice is not meant that way, and I really do appreciate that. This is one reason I hesitated three times before I posted my comment. As I mentioned to you on Twitter, I wrote the response, deleted it, pasted it back, deleted it, and then finally re-pasted and sent it. While I wanted to share my experience(s), I didn’t want to diminish your post/advice.

      “My intent is to start a conversation about how awful the emotional impact of the market can be for everyone and share some these experiences.”

      — This, I understand as well, which is why I ultimately decided to paste and send. Few posts (on this site anyway) are devoted to those who’ve been on the job market for a long time, so I thought I’d shed a little bit of light on that matter. Perhaps I’ll write my own post soon… 🙂

  4. Sean Duncan on August 31, 2012 at 12:07 PM

    Okay, I’ll bite — how does this help forward the conversation, Kelli? It’s unfortunate that you have had such difficulty on the market, but your comment comes off as snipey and unnecessarily “what about me?” Courtney’s post is great, interesting advice for people hitting the market, and I’m not sure what your comment adds to this discussion.

  5. Jonathan Gray on August 31, 2012 at 3:23 PM

    Thanks for this, Courtney. Some great, generous, helpful, thoughtful advice.

    My lone addition would be to be sensible about changing what you’re doing. If you sense your letter is crap, or that you need more publications about X, or that you should be doing a better job at selling Y, talk to people. And, more to the point, talk to people who have been on several search committees. One of the reasons I agree with your warning to stay off the AcaWiki is that the vortex of bad advice there can get horrendous — lots of people who don’t know how searches are handled guessing about how they are, many guessing badly, and people presumably changing how they and others do things as a result. I don’t want to say “just keep doing what you’re doing,” since some people might be doing it all wrong, and might really, really need some constructive criticism. But I’ve seen too many people determine in January that because they haven’t heard anything back yet, they need to rewrite the letter, start saying that they study A when in fact they study B, model their materials off a peer who was recently hired just because s/he was recently hired, and so forth. When you think you need to change something, talk to someone who’ll give you a straight answer.

  6. Erin on August 31, 2012 at 5:02 PM

    Wonderful post, Courtney! Thanks so much!

    I really cannot nod hard enough at the advice to seek help when you need it–whether that’s going for drinks, kvetching over Gmail chat, making a panicked phone call, or sending an email to ask for advice. All of those things helped me get through it, too.

    And know that everyone who came before you went through it, too–even those who were lucky enough to get great jobs really quickly had moments where they were sobbing in a heap on the floor wondering if it would happen. Everyone has been there, so everyone can empathize. And no one gets a job in a vacuum–everyone has to ask for help, and thus are willing to pay it forward.

    Find a community. Accept that there will be dark moments. Maintain hope that there will be bright moments, and rejoice in them. Ask for help. Be kind to yourself.

  7. Karen Greeney28 on August 31, 2012 at 5:07 PM

    I actually love Kelli’s post–and Courtney’s advice. There’s no magical formula, and luck/timing plays a role for many people who land well. Being conscious of the many people who never find that “dream” TT job keeps everyone grounded, practical, and realistic. Expanding our sense of what is an achievement in terms of the types of job we envision (and for which our programs prepare us) would also help a lot of people who feel defeated. Alt-Ac is also a vibrant and expanding area, and I’m relieved they’ve found a way to forge new paths.

    Courtney, you didn’t mention the piece of advice that you gave me that helped a lot during my last year of the degree–finish the degree. I could write a lot about the dearth of great postdocs/visiting positions, but it helped motivate me to know that being done could be an asset on the market.

  8. R. Colin Tait on September 1, 2012 at 8:19 AM

    Hi Courtney,

    Just wanted to send a little note to thank you for posting this. I really appreciate your advice to be kind to yourself, no matter what the circumstances – perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind as we wade (or dive) into perilous waters of the job hunt.

  9. Marnie Binfied on September 1, 2012 at 9:24 AM

    Thanks, Courtney!

    It’s hard for me to say this and folks might not want to hear it, but I hit a point where I had to re-evaluate. I have a partner with a great (non-academic) gig in Austin and little kids and just could not uproot the whole thing for a low paying job where ever they would take me. My grace period on the loans was over and I had to get a J.O.B.
    I like my job and, although I still sometimes mess with my own head about not living up to my potential and all the what ifs and what could have beens, switching paths has worked for me. And helped me not go crazy!

    • Courtney Brannon Donoghue on September 2, 2012 at 2:07 PM

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Marnie. We could write an entire other post on the challenges of balancing the academic market with your partner’s and/or kid’s needs. Having a partner with a solid job (and future advancement possibilities) outside of academia makes for a different experience. Rethinking where you can apply or live is central (a rural or even small town university setting would not have worked for my husband’s profession). Not to mention asking that partner to give up a good job to follow you takes a huge leap of faith for each of you. Thanks for reminding us things are more complicated than a black and white view of the market as apply and go where to gig takes you.

  10. Josh S. on September 3, 2012 at 2:55 PM

    Thanks for this useful advice.