The Academic Job Search

Applying for an academic position is a labor-intensive and lengthy process. The department will support you at every step, but you are the first and final arbiter of your materials and goals.

To go on the job market, you should have:

  • at least two polished chapters and be able to defend by spring (next August at the very latest).
  • a draft of the introduction and/or a strong conception of the overall structure and argument of your dissertation.
  • at least one peer-reviewed article published or forthcoming in a respected journal in your field.
  • participated in conferences and/or professional meetings that are key to your field
  • your director’s and committee’s support.

To go on the job market this fall, you will need to prepare:

  1. Your job materials (all documents, except the writing sample, should be single-spaced):
  2. CVs of various lengths (e.g., 1-5 pages). Include a 2-3 sentence dissertation description & a list of references.
  3. 1-, 2-, 3-page dissertation abstracts (highlight the argument & methodology; outline the structure; place the work in conversation with your field). Research statements are similar but put all of your research, not just the dissertation, into a narrative.
  4. 2-page job letter templates for research- and teaching-intensive institutions that can be further tailored to fit individual positions. This is the most important document you will submit; make sure it is perfect. Use departmental letterhead.
  5. dossier of 4-6 letters of recommendation, at least one of which should address your teaching based on an in-class observation. These letters should be updated every year.
  6. 20-25 page writing sample (can be longer if it’s a published article). This should be the best, most polished example of your academic writing, and it should be able to stand on its own even if it is drawn from a larger work. Samples may be: an abbreviated chapter of your dissertation; an article based on your dissertation; an article unrelated to your dissertation but still within your field.
  7. 1-, 2-page teaching statements/philosophies (not all schools will ask for this).
  8. teaching portfolio (not all schools will ask for this). Portfolios may include: sample syllabi (of courses previously taught, of the major surveys within your field, and of 1-2 “dream” courses); sample assignments; course evaluations.
  9. 1-2-page research statements / proposals (not all schools will ask for this; more common in postdoctoral applications).
  10. For SOME schools, a diversity statement which should reflect upon your experiences of diversity and how you propose to support the students and the school’s endeavors in this area, or a statement of faith (religious institutions).

Your director must approve drafts of all of these materials before placement review (placement directors are unable to review writing samples). Be ready for multiple rounds of revision.

Consider the type(s) of schools and positions for which you will submit applications. Do you want to work in a teaching-intensive or a research-intensive institution? Community college, SLAC, or R-1 university? Do you have regional restrictions? Under what circumstances would you refuse an academic position or prefer a non-academic or alt-ac position? It’s important to be as flexible as possible if your goal is to secure a position as a tenure-track assistant professor, but your answers to the above questions will inform the shape of your job materials. Along the same lines, the more you research the schools you apply to, the more targeted your materials can be.

Interpreting the Job Listing | Applications | Writing Samples

Teaching Materials | First-Round Interviews | On-Campus Visits | Job Offers | Spring Round 


Interpreting the Job Listing

The MLA job list comes out in September. You can access it online (placement directors will distribute the departmental password). New jobs are posted weekly. Also check the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, and even at specific institutions that interest you. 

Apply widely while remaining within your area of specialization. Although ads often request highly specialized candidates, hiring committees may be more open than they sound. If you have a dissertation chapter or a published paper in the area advertised, or have taught on the subject, you may be qualified enough to be competitive.

Scholars from any period can apply for generalist jobs. Because the emphasis in these jobs is on undergraduate teaching, the applicant must demonstrate a wide range of knowledge. UNC is recognized for producing graduates with breadth, so students are encouraged to apply for such jobs.


The Job Letter and General Application

The components of an application are the job letter, recommendations, dissertation abstract, curriculum vita, teaching portfolio, and writing sample. There are innumerable sources offering advice about the application and the search process.

Committees use the job letter to eliminate candidates, so it should be a microcosm of your application as a whole, highlighting your dissertation, teaching experience, and achievements. For advice on how to craft this important document, see Ten Rules for Writing a Job Letter. Study the letters in Sample Job Materials, and note the Evolution of a Job Letter sequence, which traces the development of a successful letter over several years.

Interfolio is now the standard dossier delivery service. You will most likely need to set up an account. There is unfortunately a charge of several dollars per release of dossier, though not for uploading.

After receiving the initial application, schools have two options. Either they can schedule an interview with you, usually via Skype or at the MLA convention, or they can request further information before making the decision to interview. Roughly 40% of the schools ask for additional materials from about fifty of their strongest applicants. Additional materials may include any of the following: the dossier of references, a sample of your written work, a portfolio of your teaching materials (syllabi, course assignments etc.), or transcripts.


The Writing Sample

If asked for a writing sample, you should send the piece of writing you think best represents your scholarly interests and talents. The sample may be an excerpt from your dissertation, an article based on your dissertation, or an article unrelated to your dissertation. It should be the best example of your critical writing, and should be able to stand on its own as a complete argument, even if it is part of a larger work. Most schools would like to see a section of your dissertation, so send an excerpt even if you choose another work as your writing sample. Something in the 20 page range is ideal.  If you have a publication that is already in print, send a Xerox or offprint of that piece. While a cover letter may be too elaborate, a paragraph situating the writing sample in the longer work is called for in most cases. Consult your committee about which selection would be best to submit. Your director, your committee, and should review this sample.

Note: The talk at a campus visit cannot be drawn from the same material as the writing sample.

Teaching Portfolios (see sample materials)

Teaching portfolios include the teaching philosophy, course syllabi and materials, and, in some cases, student evaluations or sample work. A short (i.e. less than one single‑spaced page) cover letter explaining the materials may also be sent.

Later in the process (i.e. if you get an interview or an on‑campus visit) some schools might want to see a collection of all the materials you used in (at least) one particular class‑‑handouts, grading rubrics, exams, paper topics etc. The portfolio should provide insight into the way you organized and taught the class. If you list an area of interest in teaching, be prepared to discuss possible texts or even be asked for a full syllabus.

Some schools ask for student evaluations. If so, it may be wise to call the university and ask them to exactly what they are looking for. Do they want photocopies of student evaluations? Are digests acceptable? How are you to select them?

You should have a letter in your placement file that discusses your abilities as a teacher. If there is no professor who can write such a letter, ask your dissertation adviser to observe your teaching and then to include a paragraph (at least) on your teaching in his or her letter.


The First-Round Interview

In the standard procedure, after the dossier/writing sample request phase, schools narrow down the field to 10‑12 candidates, whom they interview by Skype or at the annual MLA convention. Interview requests may come anywhere from the end of October to the end of December. Sometimes, applicants are asked for an interview without having been asked for extra materials, though this is rare.

Skype interviews will typically last 30 minutes. You should find a quiet place with a suitably professional background (advisors and placement directors are often happy to let you use their office). Test your connection ahead of time with a friend. You should prepare for the same types of questions as the MLA interview.

The typical MLA interview lasts 30-45 minutes, is held in a hotel room or the common interview space, and involves 2-5 members of the department asking you questions about your dissertation and your teaching experience. There are lots of atypical interviews, however; while in some interviews you will face a committee of ten, in others there may only be one interviewer. The MLA also provides an interviewing area, so not all interviews are in hotel rooms.

See our department's pamphlet (login required), as well as Adam Hooks' practicum, for advice about the MLA interview. Much of this advice is also pertinent to Skype interviews.

See "interview tips" and "sample interview questions" for preparation resources. Mock interviews will take place during exam week of the fall semester. All prospective job applicants are encouraged to undergo the mock interview process.


The Campus Visit

Almost all (99%) schools now ask 1-3 of the people they interview at MLA to come to campus for two days to meet everyone in the department, make some kind of presentation to faculty and students, and meet various deans. This involves lots of meals, meetings, and a formal research presentation and/or teaching demonstration. Although you pay all your expenses to go to the MLA convention, the school that invites you should pay all the expenses for the on‑campus visit.

While on campus, you may have a chance to ask questions about teaching loads (number of classes, types of classes, and numbers of students in the classes), tenure expectations (how many people get tenure, what do you need to do to be a strong candidate for tenure), leave policies (do they have a sabbatical, is there supplementary support if you get an outside fellowship), research and technical support (how is the library's off‑campus loan dept; do you get a computer; what are computing facilities and support like; is their money available for xeroxing, travelling to collections, and travelling to conferences), teaching conditions (what are the students like), and benefits (health insurance, retirement/pension funding, child care, etc.). Etiquette, however, requires that even if you have this kind of talk with the chair that you not ask about salary; the chair may bring salary up, but if he or she does not, you should not. Salary negotiations begin only after an offer is made. That is also the time to negotiate any other conditions of employment. You may not, however, get the opporunity to discuss such details during your on‑campus visit. Some schools prefer to leave all that stuff until after an actual offer is made. This can get a little tricky. You will of course be asked repeatedly during your campus visit if you have any questions for them. But that doesn't necessarily mean questions about health insurance.

The Job Talk
Almost every on‑campus visit involves some sort of presentation. Pay careful attention to what you are asked to do. Some schools want a formal, scholarly presentation, such as reading a paper that comes out of your dissertation. Usually, that involves giving a forty minute lecture and fielding twenty minutes of questions afterwards. Many schools, however, will ask for much less formal presentations, and may want you to focus more on your teaching than on your scholarship. Some schools might ask you to teach a class‑‑either in lieu of the job talk or in addition to it. For tips on teaching a class as part of the campus visit, see Dr. Flaxman's notes.

On‑Campus Interviews
While on campus, you will almost certainly meet at least one dean and you will also probably have a fairly formal interview with the chair of the department and (perhaps) with a search committee or other small group of faculty. Discussions may involve the direction of the department/university; particularly with the dean, it may also include other initiatives at the institution that you might support, from recruiting to digital humanities to club advising. Do your research about the institution ahead of time and be prepared to engage.

A Word on Partners/Family
You may be asked about your spouse/partner during the on‑campus visit. If your spouse is not an academic, simply tell the interviewer that there are no personal obstacles to your taking the job. What you want to convey is that you think such information is irrelevant and would appreciate it if the conversation moved back to professional matters. If, however, your spouse is an academic‑‑and especially an academic in English‑‑the matter is trickier. The issue shouldn't come up in an interview, but if it does, the best policy is to tell the truth‑‑but again in such a way as to indicate that you find the question irrelevant to the matter at hand. You are not in a position to bargain for a job for your spouse; after all, you are there trying to get a job for yourself. But it is best that the college and your prospective department know that you have a spouse who is ready, able, and willing to work. Schools know this is an issue for an increasing number of candidates, and will usually at least have suggestions about possibilities for your spouse in the area even if there is nothing for him or her at the school where you are interviewing. In short, people can't help if they don't even know your spouse exists‑‑and they will not be pleased if the existence of an academic spouse is revealed very late in the process.

On the other hand, you may get through the on‑campus visit without the topic ever coming up. In that case, it's best for you not to raise the issue either. You may or may not be able to get some fixed-term accommodation for a partner. If the school offers to help out, great; but if the school does not offer, there is really nothing you can do.


The Job Offer

Some schools are now operating their searches earlier and may make offers even before MLA. The recommended minimum turnaround time for a response to a job offer is two weeks, but most schools now press for a decision much faster.

The job offer is usually made by phone, either by the chair of the department or a dean. You are not expected to say yes or no over the phone, but you should make it clear that you are very pleased to be their choice. A day or two after the phone call, you will receive a letter formally offering you the job and listing the terms of employment. Your formal contractual response to the letter should also be in writing. Sometimes you will be asked to sign a copy of the letter and it will be considered the contract between you and the school.

If you have questions about anything in the letter and want to negotiate any of its conditions (salary or anything else), that can be done by phone or email. Your phone call or email should be to the person who called you with the job offer, even if that person is not the one who signed the official job letter. Usually, this is the chair. We highly advise discussing the offer with your advisor and the placement director and, unless you are very confident in your communication skills, having them look over any negotiation emails for tone. Negotiations must not sound like demands and should always be prefaced and followed by your repeated enthusiasm for the job and the institution.


Spring Round/Other searches

Once the MLA convention is over, schools that (for any number of reasons) need to hire someone who will start in the following fall but were unable to begin the hiring process in time to interview people at the convention look for candidates in a variety of ways. Most often they advertise (in the Chronicle or in the spring MLA job lists) and then cut to the chase immediately, inviting 2 or 3 applicants directly to campus. But other screening procedures‑‑including telephone interviews‑‑are also employed. Spring job hunting involves keeping your ear to the ground and getting letters, vitae, and other requested materials out promptly. Here, more than in the fall, being in the right place at the right time can make all the difference since hiring schools are working under time pressures that don't affect fall searches.

If you find yourself in a particular geographic area and looking for work, a blanket mailing to all the area's colleges will very often land you some adjunct work. Almost all colleges now hire some lecturers and they rarely bother to advertise these positions, depending instead on blind applications that come in the mail. Early April is the optimal time to send out such letters since many schools hire for lecturer positions right at the end of the spring semester. April to June is the season for such openings.