So You’re on the Job Market, Part I: Preparation

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This year marked my third year on the political science/academic job market. In May of 2013 I was offered a post-doc at the University of Alabama, and this year I was fortunate enough to land a tenure track job at Kansas State University, where I’ll be starting in the fall of 2014. Needless to say, I’m incredibly thankful for the opportunity, and I’m thrilled to finally be off the market.

It goes without saying, but it’s rough out there for newly minted PhDs and advanced graduate students. Given my somewhat lengthy time on the market, I’ve had a lot of time to think about the process as a whole, and my experiences in particular. And so, this post marks the first in a series of posts dedicated to chronicling some of those thoughts and experiences. With any luck, they’ll prove useful to graduate students out there who are preparing to go on the market, who are perhaps already on the market, and maybe even for faculty who are in need of assistance in prepping their own students for their first stab at getting a job.

There are some points to make before beginning, though. Obviously the content of these posts reflects my own particular set of experiences, opinions, and biases. Accordingly, I realize not everyone will agree with what I say, or will perhaps have a different take. For example, my experience and what I’ll write about is largely oriented towards finding a job at a research university, and is perhaps less applicable to those of you who are interested in teaching jobs. Much of what I’ll say is also an amalgamation of advice and suggestions that I was given over the past three years. Ultimately I’d encourage readers to use what I say here as a starting point, rather than treat it as gospel (not that I think quite so highly of my own advice), and use it as the basis for further discussion with advisors, other graduate students, faculty, etc. Again, I’m not sure I’m the best equipped person to speak to the particular issues and needs of folks whose interests and work differ substantially from my own—teaching and qualitative scholars, for example. I suspect there are many differences when it comes to market expectations in these cases. Still, I like to think this will all prove useful. It’s struck me over the past several years that when we pass a particular hurdle—whether it be professional or personal—we often forget all too quickly the anxieties, fears, and depression that preceded it. I know I certainly felt all of these sensations at various times (often simultaneously), and hopefully discussing these things out loud will be helpful for at least some of those who follow—regardless of interests or approach.

For this first post I’ll focus primarily on some basic issues of preparation and organization. I’ll try to focus on some basic administrative issues before delving into some of the heavier emotional and psychological stuff. I think it makes sense to tackle some of the more basic aspects of preparation that you can really control, and then delve into some of the things that are a bit more difficult to grapple with.

So if I could sum the message of this post up, I would say it’s this: Be efficient. As you may or may not know, the job market can be incredibly time consuming. Seriously, many grad students may not know this. I was fortunate enough to be in a graduate program at a great department with faculty who were really attentive to issues of professionalization. Furthermore, I was in this program at a time when I was surrounded by other graduate students who were staggered in terms of cohort year, spent a lot of time in the office, spent a lot of time talking to one another about research, teaching, etc., and who also spent a lot of time socializing outside of work. Consequently, I had the benefit of seeing several of our more senior graduate students go through the process of applying for jobs well before it was my turn to do so. Still, this might not be the case for everyone.

So, start early. If you’re expecting to go on the market in the fall of 2014, now-ish (that’s June, but May would be good too) would be a good time to start preparing. For any given application you will have to send out some combination of the following:

  • Cover letter
  • CV
  • Research statement
  • Teaching statement/philosophy
  • 1-3 writing samples
  • Graduate transcripts (and sometimes undergraduate, and sometimes they have to be official)
  • Sample syllabi
  • Reference list
  • Letters of reference

Again, this stuff takes a surprising amount of time to assemble, and it’s important that you get it right. Frankly, you have no business looking for jobs until you have all of these materials assembled. In all likelihood you’ll be in an applicant pool containing anywhere from 100 to 300 other people who are all after the same job. In larger pools, maybe 50 people just don’t make the cut because their applications are totally wackadoodle (technical term), but that still leaves you with 150-200 reasonable contenders. When you get down to the short list, you may be competing against advanced assistant professors, post-docs, and some other graduate students. The point is competition is stiff, and you need to make sure that your materials are polished.

Your CV is probably the first thing people will read, and it’s really your first means of impressing the search committee. Structure is key here. I sent my CV around to several faculty members and other grad students to get this feedback on layout and content. Basically, look at other political scientists’ CVs to see how they’ve laid them out. There can be variation in terms of style and presentation, but I’d say that the three things you generally want front and center are your education section, a brief section describing research and teaching interests, and at least the beginning of your publications list. If you don’t have publications, put working papers here. Assuming you’re applying for a research position, you want to convey that you’re productive. I’d also suggest clearly laying out sections for publications, work under review, and working papers. It’s not just about what you have published now, but what you’re going to publish. If a department is going to hire you it will be for the expectation of future activities that will lead to tenure, not just what you’ve done to date. So don’t separate these sections—lay your pipeline out in order of how close things are to completed published pieces. Lastly, some people have a dissertation abstract on the front page. Personally, I say ditch it. That’s valuable real estate on that front page, and I suspect some of this other material will have a greater impact. If you have a really sexy dissertation topic, though, you might want to include this. Again, talk to other people and weigh the relative benefits.

Your cover letter is probably next, and it needs to identify who you are professionally—what are your general research interests, more specific research interests, a brief overview of your dissertation, a brief overview of your publications and/or working papers, and a section on your teaching interests and experience. How you balance these sections will vary depending on what kind of job you’re applying for (teaching or research). In either case, you don’t want typos or awkward sentences to be one of the first things that committee members associate with you. All of this also needs to be done in the course of 2, maybe 3, pages. Again, send this around to colleagues to get feedback. Write it. Delete it. Write it again. Then proofread. Wash, rinse, repeat. Keep working and reworking it until it’s clear and concise. You’ll probably want to revisit the letter throughout the year as well, as new publications, awards, etc., may need to be worked into updated versions.

One more thing that I would suggest is that you should not be rewriting your letter and customizing it to any great extent for every job you apply for. Last year I sent out 100+ applications, and customizing each letter would take an enormous amount of time. If there’s something specific about the position title or department that needs to be customized, that’s fine, but I would urge you not to edit every letter to include the name of the school to which you’re applying. Given how many applications you’ll likely be sending out that presents a lot of room for error. My guess is that the harm done by a committee reading the wrong school or department name is greater than the benefit of having the appearance of a customized letter.

I won’t go through each item and describe how it should look. The point is that you’re a professional, and all of this needs to look professional. Furthermore, you can only work for so long on something without getting a second set of eyes on it, so having people around who can provide you with feedback is key. But in general, you want to give yourself plenty of time to write, rewrite, and solicit feedback. You will also need to speak with your advisors about reference letters, and you’ll need to give them enough time to actually write the letters. Accordingly, it’s not just your own calendar that you have to worry about.

Now for some specific organizational tips. Most of the applications that I sent out were electronic. I kept my cover letter, CV, etc., in a Dropbox folder. Personally, I’ve had better luck with Dropbox than with Google Drive (the latter had some serious issues with syncing—particularly for tex files), but whatever your preference is, it’s nice to have backup copies saved automatically. It’s also nice to be able to access your materials from wherever should you have the need.

Having electronic copies of your documents is essential, but each year I had at least 15–20 applications that required hard copies. I found that a basic expanding file binder was a great help here. You have a pocket for each individual item—CV, cover letter, writing samples, etc. I kept a master hard copy of each document in its own section, and when I needed to apply to a job (or jobs) I could just take the binder to the copy room or Kinkos and crank out what I needed.

Moving on. Let’s assume your basic prep is done. Once you’ve got the basic materials assembled, then comes finding the jobs. This can also take a surprising amount of time. I relied almost exclusively on the American Political Science Association’s eJobs listings. For those who aren’t familiar, go to the APSA website, log in to your account, and look for the link that says “View current job listings and upload your CV” (please note that you 1) need to be an APSA member, and 2) need to have registered a user account to access these job listings). I only ever selected the subfield tab—international relations, and sometimes the “other” category. Most job postings will give you at least 3–4 weeks before applications, but sometimes APSA postings are slow to update, and you might lose a day or two.

Keeping track of job postings can be a chore. If you’re not an Evernote user, you should be. I found Evernote and its accompanying web clipper to be a HUGE help in recording new job listings, and sorting out jobs that I’ve already applied to. Once you’ve downloaded the program, set up two folders—one for active job ads and a second for jobs you’ve already applied to (you’ll also need to install the web clipper for whichever web browser you use). Once, Evernote is set up, you can click on a job posting in APSA and use the web clipper to save the job to your “active job ads” folder. You can also tag each clipped job ad with other relevant information. For example, I routinely added tags for the due date and whether or not the application was an electronic submission or a hard copy. Having easy access to jobs that you’ve already applied to is also key, as you may need to send out additional materials, like updated CVs, after you’ve submitted your initial application. Other folks may have their own preferred methods, but I thought Evernote made the process incredibly easy.

In addition to your cover letter, CV, etc., you may also need to look into opening an Interfolio account to handle your reference letters. For those who don’t know, Interfolio is an online system for managing reference letters (among other things). You can create an account and then email links requesting letter writers upload their reference letters to Interfolio. The letters are stored there, and you can’t see their content (assuming this option has been selected). Then, whenever you apply to a job you can simply go into Interfolio and send your reference letters to the email address provided by the job ad. I’m not going to lie, I have mixed feelings about Interfolio. In some ways it makes life easier, but it can quickly get pretty expensive. It’s about $6 per bundle, but with the way some online application platforms work it can cost up to $8–$10 per application. Depending on how many applications you send out you can expect to be spending upwards of $400–$600 in a given year. Some faculty advisors may also not want to use Interfolio, so you should be sure to check with them before proceeding.

Beyond organizing your portfolio, I would also suggest that you have a website up and running by the time you’re getting ready to send out job applications. This probably isn’t going to be a determining factor, but I think it does serve a useful purpose, and it also sends a signal (if done well) to prospective employers. Basically, you want a clean and neatly organized site that can provide prospective employers, and anyone else who’s interested, with information about who you are and what kind of work you do. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, but having a page dedicated to discussing your research, perhaps listing publications and/or working papers, and also a page containing an up to date CV is a must. Depending on how search committees store application materials, it can be easier to just hop on the internet and go straight to a website, rather than trying to dig through a file folder. There are a wide range of options for setting up your academic website, so ask other people what they use/like and why.

Once all of your administrative and organizational work is done, you should start working on your job talk. This was a point that our advisors really emphasized. As with other aspects of the application process, this will take a lot of time. The general expectation seems to be a 30-40 minute talk. This can be an adjustment if you’re only familiar with giving conference presentations. Constructing the talk takes time, but then you need to give yourself plenty of opportunities to run through the talk out loud—both alone and in front of an audience. Let’s assume you want to practice a 40 minute talk 10 times. That’s upwards of 6 hours that you’re going to spend preparing by just talking. This isn’t even that extreme, in my opinion. I mean let’s not forget the numbers that you’re working against in terms of how many people are applying to any given job. Just getting the invite for a talk doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods yet, and you don’t want to fumble at the one-yard line by giving a crappy (or maybe just subpar) talk. As with other aspects of the preparation process, you’re not just working with your own timetable when it comes to practice talks—you need other graduate students and faculty members to show up, so keep that in mind.

I’ll end this initial post by again emphasizing the general point that you need to be thinking about these things now, not later. Give yourself time to step away from the process for a bit, and then come back to it fresh. Also be sure to keep people in the loop throughout the process. We require feedback for our “regular” work, and the job market is no different. I also want to emphasize once more that other people may have their own tips or tricks for handling the added administrative burdens that being on the market imposes, so be sure to ask around. And if anyone has any such tips, tricks, or other relevant thoughts, please feel free to share in the comments section.

About Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2013. His research focuses on the political and economic determinants of foreign economic and security policy, security issues, and state repression.

10 Replies to “So You’re on the Job Market, Part I: Preparation”

  1. Generally speaking, this is good advice. The few counters I’d offer are mostly minor:

    1) Don’t wait until May/June to start preparing your file; if you are going on the market in the fall start in January. You’ll need to request letters from faculty and if you do that in the summer you may well miss some of the early deadlines.

    2) Ignore this advice entirely: “…you should not be rewriting your letter and customizing it to any great extent for every job you apply for.” From my long experience on SLAC search committees, this is actually mandatory. Most of my colleagues read the cover letter first for each file, and often reject candidates based on that alone; the ones who don’t even bother to write in our institution’s name, much less specifically address the details of the job ad and our department, are among the first ones tossed. Your cover letter must be customized to the position and should specifically address the job ad, your qualifications, and explain why you want our job. We are looking to cut the pool and generic cover letters are among the first to go.

    3) The article is from an R1 perspective. Anyone looking at teaching schools (SLAC, CC, some comprehensives) needs to prepare a teaching demonstration and practice it in front of real people. That is almost always the determining factor in our hires, and lots of people with excellent files and strong research credentials get tossed due to poor teaching demonstrations. Know the teaching culture of each place you interview and adjust accordingly; on our campus, for example, the 60 minute lecture died out about 20 years ago. Candidates who come in an simply talk at our students are dropped immediately.

    Overall this column offers good advice. Just keep in mind it’s from an R1 perspective, so some of that advice will not serve you well if you are applying to teaching schools. Good luck!

    • Thanks for the feedback Frederick. I’ve known a couple of people who had to give teaching demonstrations, but that totally slipped my mind. It’s a particularly good point to raise as you’re potentially having to prepare two presentations rather than one (do any departments just sub a teaching demonstration for the “traditional” talk?). And it sounds like it’s more involved than just prepping a presentation and talking at people for a half hour, then doing some Q&A.

      • One thought I have – all schools are teaching schools. At the end of the day, you’ll have to serve a course load and your ability to do that well without much babysitting is essential. Highlight your teaching experience and your passion for teaching, collaborating with students on applied projects, engaging them in research as much as possible, and participating in applied community outreach programs. If you have had actual experiences like that offer examples. It’s a paragraph that is well worth including. We all go on a binge bragging about our research agendas and that’s commendable, but all the committee has to do is flip to the back of our CVs. I am realizing now after an awesome first year in a tenure track position post 3-years on the market (very similar to Michael, but it much more unimpressive school and program), exactly how important my teaching experience was for my selection and for what I now realize the program needed from me. I couldn’t have guessed half of it during the interview that got me the job.

        • Thanks for the feedback, Nick. Congrats on the job as well. This all sounds like good advice, and it helps to illustrate the importance of knowing what kinds of departments you’re applying to. There are probably a lot of departments that emphasize more of a mixture between research and teaching, and making a greater effort to tie those two areas together makes sense. I came from a program where graduate students in particular collaborated a lot with faculty, and that was something that I asked about when I was interviewing.

  2. I have had to give sample lessons and also talk with faculty about my research and then there were the “informal” talks over lunch or while on tour. People should also be prepared for the interviews with Deans and other university officials. Another piece of advice – don’t interview while pregnant. I was 7 months pregnant and went on some “mini-interviews” at APSA. My baby would have been born long before the jobs would have started and I know that wasn’t the reason I didn’t get any of those jobs but one never knows. My last piece of advice, don’t overlook non-traditional jobs. Sometimes visiting or in-residence jobs can and do lead to full-time tenure jobs. Keep your options open!

    • Thanks for posting, Beth. I was planning on discussing some of these things that candidates experience on an actual job talk in a later post (e.g., meeting with deans, lunches, etc.), but it does make sense to highlight some of these things up front. I also planned to discuss expectations regarding what sorts of positions candidates should be looking at more fully in a subsequent post—especially since this pertains to my own experience. But you also point to some important issues that I can’t speak to personally. Specifically, there may be issues or pressures that come along with a candidate’s sex, gender, race, religion, etc., that can affect each individual’s experience on the market. Again, this is why it’s so important for students who are going on the market to speak to a range of other people who have been there before.

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