One of the most difficult stages of graduate school comes near the end, when the massive effort required to complete a dissertation collides with the existential crisis of finding a job, preferably one that justifies the last eight or so years of your life. In any field, there are more qualified candidates than jobs, and grad students have to compete against people with more experience and a longer list of publications. It’s a crummy situation that can cause a lot of angst, and doubt, and anger, and a host of other emotions, mostly bad ones. For Mormons on the academic job market, it’s important to focus on what’s most important and to ignore the voices that won’t help you. One voice that must be ignored is the one that says BYU will hire you.
The problem, briefly stated, is that a Mormon graduate student is much more likely to be hired by BYU than by any other single institution, but much less likely to be hired by BYU than by the national market as a whole. That is, you might have a 1-in-10 or 1-in-5 shot at a job opening in your discipline at BYU, compared to a 1-in-100 or 1-in-300 shot at, say, New Mexico State. It seems tempting to put your chips on the higher-percentage option and do whatever you can to make BYU like you. But that would be a mistake: you aren’t applying to only 2 schools, but to 20 or 40 or 80, and your chances of getting a job in the market as a whole are probably closer to 1 in 2–the sure bet is to make yourself attractive to lots of different employers, not just to BYU. And what you might think makes you attractive to BYU might not improve your chances with other schools. It might not even improve your chances with BYU.
For example: a year before I finished my dissertation, the BYU German department offered me the chance to teach two courses over the summer. Unfortunatley, it didn’t make sense for me financially, as there were no conveniently located grandparents to stay with or to park my family with. More importantly, that was the summer I needed to lock myself in my office and finish my dissertation. Having a completed dissertation is the single most important factor in finding an academic job. The BYU professors to whom I explained my situation all told me as much. (So, if your dissertation isn’t done yet, lock yourself in your office and get to work!) But still, there was a voice that said wait, no, you should go get to know the program at BYU, let the faculty there see who you are, this could be the start of something beautiful, if you donâ€™t take the offer it will look like youâ€™re snubbing them, after all, itâ€™s just a summer… Two years later, I interviewed with BYU for a position somewhat outside my specialty. The professors who interviewed me were, like most search committees, smart and friendly people who were looking for a particular type of colleague. I have now met or know of four other people who were better qualified for the position than I am, one of whom BYU hired. There was nothing sinister about the process, and nothing (I think) deficient about me. Someone else was a better fit. That’s how most academic job searches work out. Having taught for a summer at BYU wouldn’t have changed that.
Don’t tell yourself that the only place you can imagine yourself working is BYU, or any variation on that theme. You do not want to sell your services in a self-imposed monopsony. Your graduate program is not in the business of supplying faculty only to BYU. Where else do students in your program find jobs? Maybe you feel like your dissertation is narrowly focused on a Mormon topic. I’ll tell you a secret: everybody’s dissertation is narrowly focused, but a job at the University of Medieval Arabic Thucydides Reception is not an option. The job market forces everybody to figure out how their narrow field of research can fit the broad institutional needs of a lot of different places.
Apart from a completed dissertation and teaching experience, the other thing that makes a difference–maybe a big difference–for recent or expectant graduates on the job market is publications. It’s a good idea to get something else on your CV once you have a complete dissertation. But what if the topic is a bit edgy for BYU? you might ask yourself. Wouldn’t it be better to wait and see how things are going to work out? First of all, get over yourself. Second, get over yourself, and I mean it this time; BYU probably has a course devoted to teaching undergrads all about your edgy topic. Third, BYU departments want the same thing in new hires that everyone else wants: effective teachers and productive scholars. The more attractive a candidate you are for the market in general, the more attractive you will be for BYU. (The hiring process at BYU also seems by all accounts to be longer and more complicated than elsewhere, and to operate on its own calendar. It’s hard to keep your head in the game if you’re focused on the particular process of one institution. )
If BYU really is where you want to teach more than anywhere else, it makes sense to keep in touch with your old professors, and to apply for any openings there. BYU will want to know about your standing in the church, of course, but they won’t read your articles and try to puzzle out your testimony from the footnotes. Instead, they’ll call up your bishop and ask him. So keep a temple recommend, and keep your bishop (and any other relevant people) informed of your intentions. But until BYU calls, if it ever does, you’ve got important things to be doing. Like finding a job.
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It’s been over a year since I was last involved with the academic job market, and I still have over six months until I have to deal with it again. But I find it much on my mind these days, and I have a few more posts coming up about it. Those of you not involved or interested in academia may not find much to hold your attention, but you’re welcome to read and question and comment. (If you dislike the whole edifice of higher education and those who aspire to careers in it, please save your comments for another time.)
The 2006-2007 academic job market is still ongoing in many disciplines. The 2007-2008 market starts up in mid-summer or early fall. For Mormon grad students about to go on the market–and there are more than a few of you (see table 32 in this PDF, or see here just for history–now is the time to finish your dissertation, or pad your CV with an extra couple lines. More than that, itâ€™s time to put on your game face. Do you have a Plan B in case your academic career plans don’t work out? Good. Now, bury it in the bottom of a drawer for the next 18 months. It will still be there if you need it. Right now, you need to focus on pushing the ball over the goal line. Listen to the voices that will help you get there. Ignore the voices that won’t.