The Academic Job Search: Approaching the Application Process

Written by
Emily Tobey

Mar 14, 2023

Mar 14, 2023 • by Emily Tobey

Are you a graduate student in the final year of your PhD program aspiring to academic work? Beginning the process of looking for postgraduate employment on the academic job market can be overwhelming. It’s easy to get lost in all the details of this considerable undertaking, especially if (as is almost inevitable) you are also in the thick of coursework, research, and dissertation writing.

Where, When, and How to Begin?

One could argue that the best time to begin your job search is the day you begin graduate school. This shouldn’t send you into a panic. Quite the opposite. If you start gathering information about the process early, you can do it calmly, instead of when you are up against deadlines and loads of pressure. The path from starting your PhD to job search can essentially be divided into two parts: using your time at school to become an excellent candidate for academic jobs and actually applying for those jobs. Of course, your graduate school training prepares you for a wide range of positions, so consider exploring careers outside of academic teaching (and take a look at some of our blog posts from those who’ve pursued those options). Whether or not you end up in an academic position, exploring other options is a valuable learning experience. For the purpose of this article, however, the focus will be on the academic application process.

Part One: From Student to Job Candidate

Find out what the typical job search timeline is at your school. Work with your adviser and departmental faculty members to thoroughly understand the application processes applicable to your particular field. And more immediately, what opportunities are there to gain valuable experience while you are in school? Remember, graduate schools are training grounds for careers. As Karen Kelsky, the founder and president of The Professor Is In, says, “Turn your PhD into a job. Yes, academic study can be a passion, but it is also job preparation, packed full with training opportunities.”

The MLA’s advice to graduate students includes looking into the following:

  • Does the department expect or encourage students to begin sending papers for conferences and publication before they complete their degree?
  • Are travel funds available for graduate students to present papers at conferences or to be interviewed at conventions?
  • Does the department or institution sponsor any colloquiums in which graduate students can present papers? Do graduate students help organize these events?
  • Does the department offer a course, seminar, or workshop on professional development and the job search process?
  • What career placement services are available to graduate students? Do the department and career placement center help you pursue teaching positions at different kinds of institutions?

Departments and institutions should make available and support different kinds of opportunities for practicing the skills necessary for future success. If it’s not immediately clear where to find these opportunities, ask!

Part Two: Applying for Jobs

For practical purposes, though, you won’t take tangible steps toward applying for jobs until your third or fourth year in graduate school. And you won’t actually send out applications until the summer or fall before you want to start a job. But, before you begin your search in earnest, consider making a checklist of what you’ll need to do both before you apply and while you are applying for jobs. The MLA has compiled a sample checklist for job seekers in the Career Resources section of the MLA website, which may be helpful in managing the steps from laying the groundwork of the job search through interviews and job offers.

In the spring or summer before you plan to enter the job market, you will have made sufficient progress in your coursework and dissertation and will have begun to consider your career after graduate school. In many cases, universities begin their searches for new faculty members a year before the position begins, and you should allow one year to see the job search process through, from sending out applications, to interviewing, and finally, to negotiating terms. You can begin to research the academic job market by consulting the MLA Job List, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and the ADE Bulletin or ADFL Bulletin. Also, note that community colleges regularly list their openings in regional or local newspapers. As the MLA asserts in its advice on career preparation for graduate students, “In a period of limited opportunities, casting a wide net to consider working at a variety of institutions can increase your chances of securing a position. For example, two-year colleges represent an increasingly viable employment option for both MAs and PhDs.” If you are considering applying for jobs at community colleges, it’s important to know what these schools are looking for. Tara Coleman, an associate professor at LaGuardia Community College, explains how to show you are prepared for and eager to teach at these institutions.

Preparing Materials for Your Applications

Although there will be nuances among different institutions regarding what their application expectations are, the MLA guidelines for preparing applications to academic positions recommend that the “candidate should prepare a letter of application (cover letter) and a dossier, which typically includes a curriculum vitae, teaching portfolio, and transcript(s).”

The Cover Letter

You will need to tailor your cover letter to each position for which you are applying. Although there is no one template to follow, there are basic guidelines that will help you do what a good cover letter is meant to do: demonstrate the fit between your background and experience and the position you are seeking. For a more detailed look at cover letters, check out this recorded webinar from the MLA’s Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Profession.

The Curriculum Vitae

A curriculum vitae, or CV, is the academic version of a résumé. It details your academic achievements and educational background. There are many online resources for how to create your CV. Here is one source from the University of Washington with good tips and sample CVs. Seek out and follow this kind of advice to be certain your CV looks and sounds professional. And always ask advisers or professors to proofread it for you!

The Teaching Portfolio

Not all hiring committees request a teaching portfolio, but many will ask for evidence of effective teaching if not directly request portfolios. Even when a portfolio is not requested, preparing one can greatly enhance your performance in interviews.

Letters of Recommendation

At some point in the application process, you will be expected to supply letters of recommendation. Be prepared. Writing letters of recommendation is a routine task for professors and advisers. Writing them, however, requires a lot of effort and time. Give your recommenders plenty of notice to ensure that they can give your request their full attention and prepare strong letters that present you in the best light. The MLA Guidelines on Letters of Recommendation offer advice for both graduate students seeking recommendations and for faculty members who are asked to write them.

Depending on the individual application, and likely if you get past the initial screening of candidates, you might also be asked for a research statement, a teaching philosophy statement, a writing sample, a dissertation abstract, and a diversity statement. Your adviser can guide you in preparing these materials when needed.

Finally, “if you are invited to be interviewed, be prepared to talk not solely about your research; be prepared to translate that research into teaching strategies and lesson plans sensitive to the needs of as wide a range of students as possible. Be aware that when you are asked about your research, you need to make your reply lucid and interesting to nonspecialists.” These tips for navigating academic interviews may be useful.

The current academic job market may seem impenetrable, and entering it is undoubtedly stressful. Being well informed and well prepared can help make a challenging job market a lot more manageable!