Workshop Summary: Hacking the Academic Job Market

By Katie Harling-Lee

This post and a companion post on the Non-Academic Job Market are summaries of two talks I gave at the University of Durham in the UK, generously compiled by Katie Harling-Lee, who attended. For anyone curious about my in-person talks, this is how I spend the one hour (followed by 30 minutes of Q and A). Thank you, Katie, for taking the time to provide these.

Katie Harling-Lee is a PhD student in the Department of English Studies at Durham University, UK, funded by The Wolfson Foundation. Her primary research is in musico-literary studies, exploring the thematic use of music in the contemporary novel with a particular focus on the use of Western classical music in conflict situations. In the early stages of her PhD studies, she is preparing herself for the academic career market, but also co-runs the blog Object [], endeavors to find time for ‘fun reading’ alongside her research, and tweets on the academic and nonacademic world as @KatieOsha. Find her at her personal website:, and also here: and here:


In just an hour and a half, Dr Karen Kelsky presented a room full of budding PhD students with enough advice to warrant over 2,000 words worth of notes. This post is the boiled down version, highlighting the points that I wish all PhD students could be taught during their studies. 

To Begin

The most thought-altering point of Karen’s talk: turn your PhD into a job. Yes, academic study can be a passion, but it is also job preparation, packed full with training opportunities. This idea is often frowned upon in the ivory tower of academia, but like it not, universities are in crisis — and there is no time like the present for starting your job preparations, both for academic and nonacademic routes. This post focusses on Karen’s tips for hacking the academic job market, but you can see next week’s post for a summary of her tips on preparing for a non-academic career. 

How to use grad school (PhD study) as a means to get a job 

First and foremost, remember that the best dissertation is a finished dissertation. Write your dissertation with an eye to the publications that it will become, and strategize these publications, because dates of publication have an effect on the tenure track/REF requirements. PhD study is also the perfect time for getting as much useful experience as possible, and you will be able to take advantage of numerous opportunities which will aid your CV. Alongside publications, these include conference papers and organizing a panel for a national conference, teaching undergraduates, applying for grants, and organizing academic events. To keep on top of the vast amount of opportunities available to you, you should seriously consider making a 5-Year Plan – I’ve started building my own after hearing Karen’s talk. In brief, this plan will mark out the next five or so years of your life, noting important deadlines for things such as conference papers, grants, exams, PhD defense (viva), abstract proposals, and journal publications. Your commitment to planning and execution can overcome all other hurdles, so when you’ve finished reading this summary post on hacking the academic job market, read Karen’s posts on the 5-Year Plan here [] and here []. 

The Application

The academic job market is brutal: there are jobs which may get from 200 to 1000 applications. When that happens, the overworked academics on the hiring committee have to work as fast as possible to shift through application after application, rejecting as many as possible. In Karen’s words: “If you don’t grab hold of them in the first minute or so, you’re toast”. To do this, you have to get out of your own head. An academic job application (and in fact every job application) is not about you or what you love. It’s about whether you will make the search committee’s life easier in concrete ways if they hire you by demonstrating that you are the best person to fill the role, so they need to be able to understand this in a minute’s reading. Below are summaries of tips on how to do this by building a successful record and CV and performing well in interviews. 

The Application: Your Record    

Ultimately, your record needs evidence of your success with peer review, because peer-reviewed output proves that you are a ‘pre-vetted’ candidate by other members of the research community. This means that you need to have:

  • Peer-reviewed publications in major refereed journals 
  • A list of grants received, preferably national rather than campus 
  • A history of high-prestige conference presentations or panel chairing

    You will also need a well-known recommender (known as a referee in the UK), potentially someone from another university, and you will need to show that you can teach — but don’t use teaching awards as a cover for a lack of articles or conferences. And remember, records of your professional and personal life are now easily accessible via the internet, so you need to manage your image online and on social media. You will be googled, so google yourself on incognito mode to see what a stranger will see and remember to check your privacy settings on Facebook. Social media isn’t always a bad thing though, and you should consider curating a Twitter account. As Karen says, “Twitter is like the watercooler of academia”. It is an active, engaged space, providing great opportunities for making contacts and finding collaborators around the globe, so make sure to use it, and present yourself as an academic peer in your field. It is also a very good idea to have a website or page, for example, which includes your research interests, publications, and conference papers, which you can then link to on your Twitter profile. 

    Bearing all this in mind, these are the qualities of a successful record which you should achieve when building your own:

  • Intense productivity — look forwards by mentioning your planned articles
  • Professionalization — be a faculty peer, not a student
  • Autonomy and self-respect — claim your authority in the field 
  • Effective self-promotion/entrepreneurialism — make yourself known at conferences and online (use Twitter!)
  • Affable collegiality — show that you know how to talk about things other than your dissertation

The Application: Your CV

Yes, you need a full CV. But don’t let the fear of trying to fill your CV make you say yes to every opportunity. “Avoid the temptation of the cheap”, as Karen says. Critically evaluate how each and every opportunity will fare on your CV, because your time is valuable, and not every opportunity is the best opportunity. This includes considering the ranking of journals, academic presses, and conferences — the more established, the more prestige, the more CV power. 

    When writing your CV and cover letter, be concise, be confident, and above all, focus on facts not feelings. So many of us (myself included) fall into the trap of using emotional words like excited/eager/enthusiastic/thrilled/passionate to describe ourselves and our achievements, but this is, in Karen’s words, “bragging without substance”. For example: 

Don’t write

‘I have always been fascinated… and that led me to… and then I realized… That inspired me…This important and under-studied area…. remarkable new impact…’

Do write: 

‘My work is the first to examine …. Using methods x and y. An examination of z in this manner has yielded the insight that, in contrast to previous studies,…’

Remember: focus on facts, not feelings. Academics are critical readers and, just like when you write an essay, they want argumentation and evidence, not an emotional narrative. 

Your Interview

Like in all of the above, be concise, be organised, be well-rehearsed. When you’re being interviewed, “don’t be yourself”; don’t be insecure, defensive, paranoid, self-involved, or communicatively challenged, qualities we all share in some way. You need to act like a faculty peer, not a grad student, and you operate like a faculty peer by demonstrating your contribution to the discipline. So be ready to talk about what you’re working on now, and what you will be working on in the near future. Claim authority in your field and have a strong but brief statement of your academic contribution. Display a disciplined research programme, a calm confidence in your own contribution to research, a clear and specific trajectory of publications, an innovative approach, and above all, that you meet the needs of the hiring committee. To do this, you have to prepare, and preparing for likely interview questions is the first step. Karen gave these examples:

  • Tell us about your dissertation, and its contribution to the field
  • Tell us about your five-year publishing plan – what’s on the back burner?
  • How would you teach our intro/methods course?
  • Briefly describe two courses you would develop for us
  • How would you mentor grad students?
  • How do you deal with diversity in your work/teaching? 
  • How do you see your work fitting into the work we do here at the department? (i.e. why do you want to work here?)

And lastly:

  • Do you have any questions for us?

This last question is a very serious part of the interview: do not say “No”. Calibrate your prepared questions in line with how the department sees itself. For example, if you are interviewing at a tiny teaching college in the US with no money for anything else, do not focus on asking about funded research leave. You must have questions, and they must be fitting to the institution – so use your well-honed research skills to find out what they focus on at that institution. 

Final Points

An academic career in the twenty-first century may seem daunting, and there’s no denying that it will require a huge amount of work and planning. But remember that this is your career. Academia fosters a dependency on the approval of others, which often leads to negative evaluations of yourself. Despite this, you can reclaim your autonomy, whether you stay in the academy or not. If you are considering leaving, read next week’s post for a summary of Karen’s tips on preparing for a non-academic career — because it is 100% okay to do something else. 

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Workshop Summary: Hacking the Academic Job Market — 3 Comments

  1. Two questions about “the cheap” and what might look like CV padding:

    1) Is it just generally bad to present the same paper more than once? (For context, I’m in Philosophy, and at some conferences you just don’t get good feedback, or maybe hardly any feedback, so it’s nice to present the same, or a slightly modified, paper elsewhere in hopes of getting better comments, criticism, etc.)

    2) If at this point I, in fact, have presented a paper at a lot of conferences looking for better feedback (I’m in Philosophy), should I perhaps delete some of the less-prestigious ones (or summarize as something like” “Blah Blah paper at Blah blah conference.” (Also presented at X, Y, and Z.)


    • it’s very common to present the same paper at multiple invited talks, but not so much at yes, I’d delete the less prestigious ones.

  2. Pingback: Workshop Summary: Preparing for a Non-Academic Career | The Professor Is In

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