Reflections on the Academic Job Search

job-searcvhWe are very happy to have William S. Cossen writing for The Way of Improvement Leads Home this weekend from the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association. William defended his dissertation, “The Protestant Image in the Catholic Mind: Interreligious Encounters in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era,” in October and graduated with a PhD in history from Penn State University in December. (Congratulations!). He is a faculty member of The Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology in Lawrenceville, Georgia.  Below you will find some of his reflections on Day 1 of the AHA.–JF

Greetings from sunny Denver!

Well, a little wishful thinking can’t hurt.

After a smooth flight from Atlanta and a scenic train ride from Denver International Airport to the city, I made it safely to AHA 2017.  I’ll be presenting on Saturday at the American Catholic Historical Association’s conference as part of a panel titled “Catholicism and Americanism in the 19th Century: New Perspectives on an Old Debate.”  It will be nice to have so much time before delivering my own paper to enjoy the rest of the conference.

Following a quick, efficient check-in process (thank you, AHA!), I made my way to my first panel of the conference, “Deciphering the Academic Job Search,” which was sponsored by the AHA’s Professional Division.  With the market seemingly getting tighter every year, I was eager to hear opinions on the process from a recent candidate, a search committee member, and an academic dean.

The recurring themes I picked up in all three presentations were the necessity of flexibility and the need for candidates to be able to compellingly present their research – specifically providing a clear answer to the “so what?” question, a skill which is also useful in academic publishing and grant writing – to those outside their fields.

The first presenter, Ava Purkiss of the University of Michigan, provided helpful advice for how candidates can make themselves stand out in the initial stages of the job search process.  One tip was for candidates to shop their job materials around widely before applying, not only among their advisors and committee members but also among other professors and graduate students.  A second tip was for candidates to seek out search committees’ evaluation and scoring criteria for job applications.  This might not be easy to find, but Dr. Purkiss mentioned an example of one university posting this information online publicly.  A final piece of advice, which is especially useful in an era of online applications, was to print out all components of the application before submitting them to search committees to find and fix any glaring errors.

The second presenter, Paul Deslandes of the University of Vermont, counseled prospective job candidates to be self-reflective.  He urged job seekers to answer an important question: What do you really want out of academia?  He noted importantly that if one does not see themselves enjoying teaching, then academia is probably not a good fit.  Dr. Deslandes emphasized one of the panel’s key themes, which was that job seekers need to learn how to communicate their research to departments in their entirety, or as he put it, “Speak the language of other people.”  Regarding job opportunities, he encouraged those on the job market to “be expansive.”

The final presenter, Catherine Epstein of Amherst College, offered practical advice for the all-important cover letter: the letter must make clear “why your work is interesting.”  While Dr. Epstein noted that candidates are not expected to write a brand new cover letter for each job, the letters need to be tailored to specific schools.  Responding directly to the job requirements found in a job advertisement demonstrates true interest in the position and shows search committees that a candidate has actually attempted to learn about the institution to which they are applying.

The question-and-answer session following the presentations reflected some of the larger anxieties of the current history job market, but I think that panel chair Philippa Levine’s reminder that this is very much an impersonal process is an important point for job seekers to take to heart, as difficult as that may be, if they are disappointed by the outcome of their search for employment in academia.  One essential fact is that the number of job seekers far outstrips the number of available tenure-track positions.  However, these sorts of panels do a good service for the profession by partially demystifying what is for many an often confusing, frequently disappointing process.

I’m excited for Friday’s full schedule of sessions – and, of course, also for the book exhibit.  As with other conferences of this size, I have upwards of ten panels which I would like to see simultaneously.  This is ultimately not a bad problem to have.  More to come!