Home > Academic Job Market > The Media Studies Job Market, 8: The Upgrade Search

The Media Studies Job Market, 8: The Upgrade Search

September 17th, 2010 | Jonathan Gray

Till now, most of my comments have been offered with an ABD or very recent Ph.D. in mind, but this post’s for those who’ve got a job already but are looking for another one. I planned to do it, and so am posting it, but in retrospect, it feels like I’m saying things you probably already know? So maybe this is still for the ABD who is thinking ahead to the next search? Please ignore as you see fit! After the fold …

The good thing about looking for a job when you already have one is that you don’t have to apply for everything, like you did as an ABD – you apply simply for those that are better than where you are right now (“better” not necessarily in terms of quality of the university, of course, but perhaps you have other reasons for wanting to move). The hard thing is that you may not want your current job to know that you’re looking, if you’re on a tenure-track job (if you’re not tenure-track, you probably do want them knowing, so that they don’t just take you for granted).

I was lucky with the latter part, since I had entirely good and acceptable (to my current departments) reasons to be looking: in Berkeley, I was a lecturer with no chance of getting put on tenure-track, so they knew what that meant; while in Fordham, my wife was finishing her Ph.D., so we both needed to be on the market to make living together possible. As such, I was able to be reasonably open about searching. For others, though, you may need to be very careful about who you talk to about your search, and who you ask to be your referees (or who you agree to be a reference for, if you’re senior – I know a few people who struggle with the ethics of writing for grad students yet feeling they should be honest that they’re applying too, yet worrying that this news might get out when it needs to be secret). Also, even if your department is seemingly cool with it, realize that unless they really want you gone, they’re likely resigned to seeing you go, but not enthused about the process, so show some tact and don’t talk up the minutiae of the search.

For reference letters, meanwhile, it’s generally understood that you can hardly ask your current dept chair to write you a letter, so don’t worry too much if your slate of referees doesn’t include a current colleague or boss. If you advance to the final round, you might be asked to provide one, but not having one before that should be fine. Besides, it’s assumed that you will have impressed someone other than your dissertation committee once you’re no longer in grad school, so you’ll need to include references from others anyways.

That said, it could certainly help for the committee to see a letter from a current colleague, and hence to know that you’re a good colleague. Why? As an addendum to my Think Like a Search Committee post, know that search committees are often especially paranoid and suspicious about people with seemingly good jobs applying. They might wonder if you’re not a good colleague, and are moving because nobody wants to keep you. Or if you’ve just had a bad third year review. Or if you’re expecting not to get tenure and need to jump ship. Or if you’re simply using the committee and their department to get a nice juicy offer that you can get your current university to match or beat. Everyone knows (or thinks they know) the story with ABDs: they just need a job. But the story isn’t so clear for non-ABD hires.

As a result, part of your job is to allay the committee’s fears. A letter from a current colleague can do wonders here, showing (you hope) that you’re just fine as a colleague and that there’s no dark story behind your move. Being very clear in your cover letter is also really important. Of course, if the school you’re applying to is much better (either in rank or normative ideas of geography), the committee will likely be less concerned, but they’ll still need signs that this isn’t just another stop on the way for you.

A lot of the more senior level hiring happens outside of committees, I’d say. By that, I mean that it’s understood that most ABDs will be unknown to the committee. But the further away from the Ph.D. you get, the higher the expectation that you’re doing work to make you known. So you do your best work to get hired at conferences, both in presenting well and in being a human networking machine, in publishing, and in any other venue that connects you to others. Profile is capital, so you need to start earning and generating that capital. This is all the more important if you’re competing against ABDs who have done the same amount as you, and/or who have the same profile – obviously, a committee will have little reason to hire someone who took more years to reach the same spot than someone younger took. Looking at a stack of applications can be bewildering, but you want a committee to be excited to see and recognize your application as a nice oasis in a sea of unknowns.

Profile has another nice thing going for it, in that it changes the dynamics between you and the committee. Rather than being just another random applicant, you may be treated a little nicer. Some programs actually invite several people to apply. You can probably ask more direct questions. Indeed, you probably should ask some questions. If you know the point of contact for the search, ask them specifics if you want.

But when do you apply, is a question I know some junior assistant profs have? Or, rather, when is it too soon to apply, and might you risk appearing like damaged goods to apply too early? My first answer here is above – just be able to explain why you’re applying. But the other way to approach this question is to ask what you need to leave where you are now. A book contract is very likely at the top of that list. A slew of impressive and impressively placed journal articles might suffice, and they certainly wouldn’t hurt, but you need to stand out over and above the ABDs, and nothing does that like a book contract, or better yet a book in hand.

I originally thought I had more to say on this topic, but it seems I don’t. So I’ll end it there. My next two were going to be on the interview and the negotiations process, but I might add a short one first on phone interviews as their own beast. I’ll aim to get that one out quickly; the others will come later, since they’re less pressing.

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  1. September 18th, 2010 at 14:05 | #1

    A few thoughts from having both been an upgrader and on multiple search committees that hired upgraders:

    - It’s never too early to go back on the market. The reality is that a job you really want will not wait for you, so if you see a posting that speaks to your particular goals, go for it. Just make the case in your application. Personally, I treat applicants who have been in their first TT job for a year or two the same as I would somebody in a visiting or postdoc position – they’ve got more teaching experience and degree in hand over ABDs, but probably have not advanced much on a major publication yet.

    - Your first job may not be your last job. In fact, in today’s market, it probably won’t be. That leads to awkwardness if you’re applying elsewhere while you’re busy teaching in your current job, especially if you’re not being overt about it. That’s simply the way it is, and you should know that probably there are other people in your department applying elsewhere too. So just compartmentalize and accept it.

    - The key task for upgraders harkens back to an earlier post in this thread: use your cover letter to tell your story. Clearly explain why moving from A to B makes sense for your career arc, why your CV is at the point that it is, and why you really want this new job. One committee I was on hired somebody who was up for tenure at another seemingly more prestigious institution – we were skeptical that he’d want to move to Vermont, but he made his case in his letter, then even more in the interview. (He accepted our offer & is now a happy colleague.)

    - Don’t badmouth your current job – flatter the place you’re applying instead, and emphasize how you’d fit better there. Most committees, especially at good institutions, will understand why you’d want to upgrade to their wonderful department, but if you come across as a griper, some readers will be skeptical about your attitude as a colleague.

    - The most awkward issue committees is whether somebody is applying just as leverage (to raise salary, or secure a spousal position), or because they really want to move on. Obviously, if you’re just trying to leverage, you can’t be honest, but if you’re not sure whether a position would be an upgrade, you can use the interview to feel them out as well. Applying for a job is not a commitment to accept an offer. But know that if you do refuse an offer due to a counter-offer from your current job or second thoughts on the new one, word will get around. You don’t want the reputation of being a perpetual leverage-seeking candidate or indecisive applicant.

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