Thursday, November 13, 2014

ASLH Panel Report: Ask Me Anything (about the Job Market)

[Many, many thanks to Jeff Perry, PhD Candidate and Bilsland Fellow in Purdue University’s Department of History, for this report on the “Ask Me Anything: The Job Market” panel at the recently concluded annual meeting of the American Society for Legal History.]

Last Friday afternoon a decent-sized contingent of law and history graduate students, recent Ph.Ds/JDs, and other job-seekers gathered for advice on succeeding in the always competitive academic job market.  The informal panel featured professors with a variety of job experiences.  Professors Sarah Barringer Gordon and Hendrik Hartog provided valuable insight to both sides of the job-hunt, while Assistant Professor Tom McSweeney, and Visiting Assistant Professor Clara Altman brought their recent job-hunting experiences to the table.  The panelists, along with comments and questions from the audience, touched on a variety of issues during the hour-long session.  In the end, those in attendance not only acquired some guidance for their job-hunting ventures, but a greater awareness that their trek is not a solitary one.

A common theme among the panelists' opening remarks was their insistence that job candidates be themselves throughout the application process.  Sarah Gordon claimed that, rather than padding their teaching fields with a variety of classes, candidates must interrogate themselves in order to determine what they really want to teach.  You may just find yourself assigned the course you proposed, so make sure you are both qualified and truly willing to devote time to the topic. Hendrik Hartog encouraged job-seekers to find "sound bites" highlighting their research and teaching credentials in order to better sell themselves.   Tom McSweeney noted, too, that one should always be aware of their audience.  What kind of job are you applying for?  Most likely you will be talking or writing to a group of non-specialists, so simplification in job talks and cover letters is a must.  All agreed that the job talk is extremely important.  Not only should the talk be something that can sustain interest, it can be constructed and delivered in such a way so as to draw out particular responses and questions.  Do not summarize your dissertation. Think of it instead as a demonstration of your teaching ability.

Clara Altman discussed the benefits and drawbacks of being a Visiting Assistant Professor, and addressed the difficulties legal historians face on the history market.  Although most of us seek tenure-track appointments, Altman reminded the audience that a VAP assignment can allow you to develop a larger teaching portfolio and secure a book contract before facing the pressures of the tenure clock.  VAP positions are not for everyone. Any number of personal and professional particularities shapes one's suitability for a temporary position. Moreover, the experience largely depends on the institution, as VAPs' departmental responsibilities, teaching loads, salaries, and medical benefits vary across the board.  Altman also noted some common difficulties for legal historians seeking appointments in history departments.  Especially for JDs, it can be hard to convince the search committee that their institution in fact needs a legal historian, that the field has a much broader scope than the technicalities of law, and that one's research can interest undergraduates.  The only real answer for these obstacles is to sell yourself.  If you research slave law in the Old South, for instance, assure the committee that you can teach a broader course on African Americans and slavery in early America.   

The panel also fielded questions over the importance of publications (critical, especially peer-reviewed for history departments), transcripts (depends on the job and search committee), teaching experience (get more of it), and the importance of having a plan B.  Whether you fall back on a job at a law firm, secure a post-doc, or wait tables, it is important to identify what you need to make progress on the first book.  A law-firm gig is not going to provide much time for research and writing-and neither would waiting tables-so you must be willing to make adjustments.  Moreover, Hartog encouraged us to think about ways to pursue a scholarly career outside of the traditional tenure-track route.  All agreed that adjunct positions should be avoided when possible.

And although Hartog began on an unfortunately realistic sour note, claiming that the market is at best chaotic but "mostly terrible," he and the other panelists concluded that things-especially in the history field-may be turning for the better.   They also stressed that job-hunting is a process, one that often entails more than one year on the market.  Gordon reassured anxious law students that most law schools, like history departments, will not punish you for previous forays into the market.  Get yourself out there and test the waters.  Hartog also offered that an on-campus interview, no matter the outcome, should be viewed as a victory.  A search committee read your work, and chose you out of however many stacks of relevant candidates.  The final appointment is often politics all the way down. Good luck.